Archive for the 'People' Category

Peter Camejo – A Remembrance

[This is the presentation by Gus Horowitz at the memorial meeting for Peter Camejo, Berkeley, CA  11/23/2008
Readers, please bear in mind that there were many speakers, so the time constraint was pretty strict]

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I’ll begin with a story from 50 years ago, when Peter and I were freshmen and college roommates at MIT.

The occasion was a physics exam, a tough exam, with one question that stood out for its difficulty. Afterwards a group of us gathered around to discuss the proper, textbook solution to the problem, using the various tools provided by calculus. Peter, it turned out, had completely bypassed the standard approach and solved the problem by a simple appeal to symmetry. His solution was obvious and intellectually elegant.

Although I have long since forgotten the problem, I have always remembered Peter’s ingenious way of solving it.

I knew from that moment that Peter was a creative thinker, a talent that served him well over the years.

The first part of Peter’s political life took place in the Socialist Workers Party, and spanned a period of about 20 years, from a little before 1960 to a little after 1980.

During that time Peter’s creativity was evident. He was always trying to find imaginative ways to respond to new events, creative ways to promote our ideas and advance the cause of social justice.

Sometimes, because we were a very small organization, you could almost feel Peter straining against the bonds of our limited size, because we were just too small to carry out this or that really great new idea of his.

Peter actively engaged in, and was a leader in most of the important activities of the time.

He defended the Cuban Revolution and Malcolm X, and he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma. He became a major figure in the youth and anti-Vietnam-War struggles centered in Boston and Berkeley.

He engaged in various Latino struggles, which came to the fore in the 1970s, the fore-runners of the immigrant rights battles of today.

He was also a champion of civil liberties, and helped launched our major legal challenge to the government’s COINTELPRO program of spying and dirty tricks against the left.

Peter was an internationalist. He traveled the world and engaged actively with like-minded revolutionaries in the Fourth International.

Peter was a master at popularizing our ideas. The pamphlet from his SWP years, “How to Make a Revolution in the United States” is a wonderful example. Agree with him or not, the reader can see how skilled Peter was at arguing effectively for his ideas.

Peter ran for President in 1976 on the SWP ticket. Many people described it as the best socialist campaign since Debs.

Peter was a magnetic speaker and could inspire people like no one else. He captured the imagination of young people eager for fundamental social change, and he convinced many to join the fight.

Someone said of him, quite aptly, that he was the “darling of the SWP rank and file.”

Peter liked to help others.

Carol Lipman Reed tells of the time when she was national secretary of the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam and had to speak up in the debates at the SMC conference in 1970. This was a daunting task, since there were 3,500 people present, and loud, vigorous arguments were flying all over the place.

Peter Camejo was sitting next to her.  As the arguments swirled, she relates, “Peter was whispering into my ear, telling me what he would say in response to various points of view.

“When I got up, I still heard the whispering  from Peter, the way he formulated his ideas.  So, I verbalized Peter’s whispers, and I received thunderous response from the participants.

“I knew then, just for a few moments, what it was like to be Peter Camejo.  I looked over, and saw him, with that Peter Camejo smile.  He was very, very pleased.”

Peter had a strong playful streak. He was always up for poker, or the latest brain-teaser puzzle, or bowling, or the game of GO.

Christine Hildebrand tells of the time in Boston, in 1970, when at the end of a long summer day of busy work, Peter said, “Hey, why don’t we all go skinny dipping in the lake.” So, a mixed group took him up on the idea.

Now, of course, this had the potential to be embarrassing. That only became fully clear when the bright police spotlights shone down upon them, and it hit home that Peter, at the time, was our candidate for United States Senator.

But Peter was an escape artist as well, and came through the predicament unscathed.

Now, everyone here has probably heard Peter speak, and you know how good he was at it. But perhaps you have wondered how Peter would do speaking in front of a really big crowd, a crowd of say, 100,000.

So, I’ll conclude by reading a brief description of Peter’s speech at the big anti-war demonstration in Boston in October, 1969.

The organizers of the demonstration initially did not want Peter to speak. They were afraid of what he might say. So they put him last, in the hope that the crowd would have started to disperse. This account was written afterwards by Ken Hurwitz, who was from the sponsoring group that did not want Peter to speak.

“Still a step or two away from the microphone, [Camejo] started his speech. He didn’t want a single person to leave the Common before he had a chance to work his spell. The words came in a high pitched, staccato cadence, and his whole body vibrated to the rhythm…

“I expected   [these are still the words of Ken Hurwitz]  the next shot of the crowd to show [only] five thousand people sitting in front of the platform and ninety-five thousand people heading for the … subway station.

“But that wasn’t so.  People were listening and responding.  Certainly the majority wasn’t agreeing entirely with the revolutionary stance, but they were listening…

It didn’t matter whether we were socialist revolutionaries or not. He made us hate the war perhaps more than we ever thought possible. It was a scourge, a plague – there could be no ‘timetable’ for ending it. It had to be ended now.

“Camejo spoke with such easy power, it was demagogic and frightening.  This was a day of peace, but he made me see just how close the peace in the antiwar movement always is to something far more charged and militant…

“Camejo ended his speech at the peak, and the crowd applauded until their hands were weary.”

That was Peter Camejo, back in the day.

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Harry Ring – A Remembrance

I had the privilege of working with Harry Ring for several years in the latter part of the 1960s, during the height of the anti-Vietnam-war period.

 

The first of the really big national demonstrations was called for April 15, 1967, to be held inNew York CityandSan Francisco. This meant that the local area antiwar group, the New York Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, would become a key part of the national effort, and that we in the SWP needed extra help, both on the national and local levels.

 

Fred Halstead was our main person on the spot. But it was sometimes difficult and awkward for Fred to play a dual role – as both a full-time antiwar movement staff person and also as the SWP representative to the coalition meetings.

 

In that first persona Fred had to be solicitous to everyone. He had to take care not to be seen as tendentious, even though there were often sharp disagreements within the coalition over what to do. Fred was so towering physically, with fists like grizzly bear paws. He would stand over you and shout when he got excited. If you didn’t know how gentle he really was, Fred could be intimidating. We didn’t want Fred to be seen as too hard in a political fight. It would detract from his effectiveness in the coalition. We wanted Fred to be fully accepted as a movement person and someone else to play the second role exclusively, someone who would always be seen as speaking on behalf of the SWP.

That’s where Harry came in. Most of the rest of us in the SWP’s antiwar leadership were only in our early or mid-twenties, a little too young to be fully effective in dealing with the mostly middle-aged coalition leaders from other groups. Harry, who was about fifty, could convey the gravitas we needed.

 

I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about Harry at first, before I really knew him.

Would he be too mild mannered, I wondered? How would he carry it off at the next big antiwar planning meeting, all our adversaries present, some with sharp claws, just waiting to pounce? Harry Ring, after all, spoke quietly, and he was short, bald, bespectacled and roly-poly round. He seemed the very opposite of Fred Halstead in physical appearance and demeanor.

 

But then Harry Ring got up to speak. A booming voice filled the room. No doubt about what Harry Ring stood for. No doubt at all.

 

From that moment on, Harry was indispensable. When Harry spoke against some proposal, when Harry with his booming voice stood up to fight, the others all knew that the SWP could be counted to fight too. And when Harry went along with a proposal, when Harry with his booming voice spoke in favor, the others all knew that the “hard line” SWPers would also go along.  I think that Fred Halstead, especially, appreciated Harry’s role in the antiwar coalitions, not the least because it let Fred off the hook to some extent, let Fred play to his great strength as a general movement leader. Harry and Fred complemented each other perfectly.

 

Harry wasn’t really hard-nosed, even though he may have seemed so to some people in the antiwar coalition. In fact, over time Harry developed personal rapport with some of the others, in particular a friendship with Abner Grunauer, the representative of SANE (Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy), which was generally considered one of the most politically conservative groups in the antiwar coalition. Harry and Abner would spend time outside the meetings, getting together for a drink and conversation. (It didn’t hurt that Abner also tended to move leftward over time.)

 

As far as I knew, Harry had not previously been called upon for much public speaking or outward oriented mass movement activities. He had been a newspaperman primarily, had been for years, since the early 1950s. And he still was a newspaperman throughout the 1960s and afterwards. I got a chance to work with Harry on the Militant side of things as well. He was a real pro.

 

Harry would spend hours hunched over a proofreading desk or the layout table or looking over a photo with a magnifying glass, straining to see with his poor eyesight. Yet he loved it. Harry Ring had printer’s ink in his blood.

 

In the 1960s, though, Harry would find a way to slip away from his writing desk of an evening, put on his street fighting clothes, tune up his booming voice and march into the next antiwar event.

 

Years later, after I had left the SWP, I landed a job for a company with offices in the old Daily News building, a place where Harry, in a different life, might have once worked. It is a landmark building, with a huge rotating globe in the lobby, and was made famous by Superman, who also worked for a newspaper there at one time. Superman, we all know, would leave his desk and change into his street fighting clothes whenever the occasion called. Walking through that building one day, I couldn’t help thinking of Harry Ring changing into his antiwar deportment. Harry did not look much like Superman, not even like ClarkKent. But he had a political punch of steel.

– April, 2007

Peter Camejo – College Days

[I wrote this in March, 2007 not long after I learned that Peter Camejo had been stricken with cancer. I sent it to him and he told me that he liked it and wanted to include it as an appendix to his autobiography, which was later published as North Star: A Memoir.]

I first met Peter Camejo around a poker table in September 1958, during freshman orientation week at MIT. His playing style, like his personality, was mercurial. Mine was more pedestrian, more by the book. Poker, some say, is about life. Yet we were both, I think, good poker players.

Although we met each other frequently during the first couple of months of school, it was only while playing poker. I knew nothing of Peter’s socialist ideas and activities. That changed in the second semester.

Peter and two other students were the lucky residents of a very large dormitory suite, a quadruple with only three inhabitants. I knew the other two students as well, one from playing pool and the other from the kosher kitchen. Poker, pool and keeping kosher – the three vices I brought with me from high school – were personified right there in that dorm room.

The pool player soon dropped out of school. The other two, fearing that the school authorities would deluge them with strangers, took preemptive action by inviting me in to fill the third slot and limit the suite’s population to only three.

Thus began months of discussion and argument – about socialism and capitalism, about God and atheism, about ethics, morality, sex and the meaning of life. I am happy to report that we resolved all of these issues, at least for a time.

Peter was a year and a half older than I, and much more worldly wise. So he had a big influence on me, and not merely in the realm of ideas. We went out on double dates, and he also introduced me to my first non-kosher hamburger.

Joining many of these dorm room discussions was Barry Sheppard, a senior, who worked with Peter to try to get some socialist activities going in those still-conservative times, the last years of the 1950s. The three of us were to become political comrades for the next twenty years as members and leaders in the Socialist Workers Party.

Peter’s political biographers sometimes mention his perfect 800 score on the mathematics SATs, the college entrance exams. That wasn’t very impressive to me. Many students at MIT had high scores. It may have puffed up our egos as high school hot shots. At MIT, however, we were just faces in the crowd. There were certainly a few really brilliant minds among the students, but not very many.

Neither Peter nor I was particularly studious or exceptional academically. But there was something about his way of thinking that I remember. The occasion was a physics exam, a tough exam, with one question that stood out for its difficulty. Afterwards we were all discussing the proper, textbook solution to the problem, using the various tools provided by calculus. Peter, it turned out, had completely bypassed the standard approach and solved the problem by a simple appeal to symmetry. His solution was obvious and intellectually elegant. Although I have long since forgotten the problem, I have always remembered Peter’s ingenious way of solving it. Peter is a creative thinker, a talent that served him well over the years.

When we were together later on Peter and I sometimes reverted to our old dorm room personas. On a couple of occasions in Europe, at meetings of the International Executive Committee or World Congress of the Fourth International, we were assigned to the same lodgings. So, when the meetings adjourned for the evening, Peter and I would while away the time competing in mathematical and logical puzzles, as we used to do in the old school days.

Peter and I became good friends that first year in college, and although we drifted apart as time went by, we still remain friends.

– Gus Horowitz 03/20/2007