Sweet Revenge at Terminal Island
(Remarks made May 15th upon receiving a 2005 Upton Sinclair Award from the South Bay chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union–the date commemorates the arrest of Upton Sinclair on Liberty Hill in San Pedro, California as he read the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.)
For a muckraker, nothing works quite as well as his or her’s own nose. If it smells bad, there is bound to be substantial malfeasance afoot. Upton Sinclair was a senior muckraker who made all us juniors look like we were sniffing sweet daisies. "The Jungle" stank about as bad any scandal could ever stink. And you know what? It’s still stinking.
A couple of winters ago I got stuck out on the frozen tundra up there in the northwestern corner of Iowa, teaching corn-fed farm kids about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Since Subcomandante Marcos instructs us to be a Zapatista wherever we happen to be, I took the opportunity to poke my nose into the local meat packing plant.
In the past decade, Cargill and Tyson have bought up most of the mom and pop packers in the region, busted the unions, and bought in the Mexicans. No pork chop or chicken wing gets packed anywhere in the USA today if it isn’t packed by Mexicans. They are the latest low folks on the immigration totem pole and just like the Micks and the Bohunks, the Polacks and the Krauts and the Squareheads and the Dagos, they too get to lose their limbs at the minimum wage.
I tell you, this shit stinks.
I’m tickled crimson to be receiving a 2005 Uppie from the good barristers at the ACLU but I’m even more overjoyed to be receiving it here atop Liberty Hill in San Pedro California where I was incarcerated by the United States Government between August 1964 and May 1965, the first U.S. resister to be sent to prison for refusing service in a military that was about to drop a billion tons of Napalm on our Vietnamese sisters and brothers.
Actually, I had first ripped up my draft card some years previous when Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the marines into Lebanon to protect a fascist Christian Falange regime, went south to Mexico, grew me a garden, built me a home and a family. But by 1963, we were hearing the strains of "We Shall Overcome" seeping through the static on our short wave and Dr. King was preaching his dream to a nation that was uddenly listening, After the Klan blew up four little girls in a Birmingham church, it was time to go home and resist.
I arrived in San Francisco in January 1964, picked up a picket sign, and marched around everywhere. We wanted our Freedom Now! Hundreds of us got arrested every weekend at the Sheraton Palace Hotel or up on Auto Row demanding that our black comrades be employed as chambermaids and Cadillac salespeoples. I Aint A-scared of Your Jails Cause I Want My Freedom. Now!
The FBI computers must have been powered by molasses back then and it was a wonder that Hoover ever got his guy. But when Special Agent Ralph J. Fink (that’s right — Fink!) showed up on Mullen Avenue near the top of Bernal Hill, I knew the jig was up. Cool, you guys can drive me to work, I told the brown shoes — I had caught on with some penny ante subcontractor janitoring down at the Federal Building. One of my jobs was to wipe off the FBI transoms every night.
Me and this little Muslim cat James were systematically sabotaging the citadel, taking down the official portraits of LBJ that hung above every desk, scrawling "Viva Fidel!" in red crayon on the back, and hanging them back up. By the time I got busted, I think we had removed every one of those annoying black and yellow nuclear shelter signs from the premises.
I wasn’t a pacifist. I always figured I’d pick up the gun to defend our own but not to kill or be killed in a capitalist war. So I copped to no contest. One of Vince Hallinan’s boys was my lawyer.
My sentencing was set for late July and I put on a big show for the judge. I read him a declaration in my bad Purepecha, the language of my neighbors back home in the mountains of Michoacan, one they had written up themselves saying the Vietnamotas were not their enemies. I drove old William Sweigert batty by caterwauling verse after verse of Bob Dylan’s "Masters of War." I read him Bertolt Brecht’s poem "To Posterity" — "Ah what an 1age it is/ when to write a poem about a tree/ is a kind of crime/ because it is a silence/against injustice–
I did everything but tap dance for Hizzoner and in the end, he stifled a yawn and sent me off to Terminal Island right here in San Pedro for two years, 18 months suspended provided I found work in "the national interest". I immediately applied to Julian Bond at the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta for a job.
So the marshals snapped on the cuffs and they chained me up to a string of prisoners they were moving south. Whenever we got out of the car to piss along I-5, I rattled my chains energetically to the great consternation of my fellow convicts. I just wanted everyone to know that I was a prisoner of LBJ’s bloody war.
The big gate at Terminal Island slammed shut behind me late on the afternoon of August 3rd 1964. 24 hours later, Lyndon Baines Johnson faked a phony attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin and began bombing mainland Vietnam. Although LBJ had to go to Congress to rubberstamp the Big Lie, the Gulf of Tonkin was where the war began. I was already locked up in TI. the only place to be, the first Hell-No-We-Won’t-Goer on the record books.
Unlike its forebodingly grim name, Terminal Island turned out to be a median security joint for low-grade federal prisoners. I shared space with the mobster Mickey Cohn and a few minor Hollywood celebrities. I looked at my time there as a challenge to my organizing capabilities and soon formed the Convicts Committee Against U.S. Intervention (Anywhere.)
Some of my comrades were Maurice Ogden, a poet and film-maker incarcerated on perjury charges because he had signed a loyalty oath swearing that he was not now nor had even been a member of the Communist Party (he hadn’t either — Ogden was a Trot), Ben D., a middle-class black drug-runner who posited that his had been a political crime (it was too), and Blackie Campbell, doing his third bid for counterfeiting. Blackie had fought in the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Canadian McKinzie-Papineaux Brigade and was a repository of stories of popular struggle.
Blackie also showed me how to print leaflets on a bed of gelatin he had smuggled out of the kitchen and the leaflets were my waterloo. "I shed my blood for my country" the warden yelled at me. "Well, I’m in your fucking jail for mine" I shouted back, and the guards hammer locked me off to the Hole, the jail within the jail.
Isolation was hard time. They kept the lights on day and night and I began to lose track of where I was. I suppose I stayed half-way sane by repeating that mantra of Uncle Ho’s: "being chained up/is a luxury/ for which to compete/ the chained at least/have a place to sleep."
They took me back to The Hole after the Free Speech Movement exploded up at Berkeley that fall. Said I was a pal of Mario Savio’s and had to be watched.
The day I hit TI, my parole officer, a bullet-headed skunk named Victor Urban saw that I had a civil rights jacket and assigned me to the shoeshine stand in the guards’ headquarters. Now this job was traditionally a prime smuggling conduit and true to racist profiling, it had always been occupied by a black man. In sending me up there, Victor Urban was setting me up to get shanked. So I went to the guy whose job I had been assigned, an old Central Avenue skag dealer named Bernard who had run on the streets with the great tenor player Dexter Gordon and jazz fixed it up between us.
Well, wouldn’t you know it but my first customer up there was that bullet-headed skunkVictor Urban and I really fucked up his shoes. But pretty soon I was snapping and grinning and jeffing, putting a really high shine on them Florshiems. Captain Harry, a black guard who rumor had it was a hangman during the war in Germany, even tipped me a buck for my clowning.
I ran my time to ten months at TI. A lot of bad stuff happened. A sadistic dentist ripped out most of my teeth and broke my jaw. Folks ask me, my own mother in fact, why I’m toothless. Well, that’s why.
So my time got short and then it was done. I rolled up my bed, tied on my free shoes, and pocketed the Greyhound voucher north to San Fran. The bullet head walked me out to the prison gate. He didn’t want to ever see me back at Terminal Island again. "Ross" he barked, "you know you never learned how to be a prisoner."
Put that on my tombstone, comrades! "He never learned how to be a prisoner!" Wow! Although we go to jail with depressing frequency in the class war, none of us are ever going to learn how to be prisoners.
Finally, I want to take one more minute to dedicate my Uppie to an old "companero de lucha" who just passed on to the big picket line in the sky. Efren Capiz was a campesino leader from Michoacan, a Purepecha Indian who spent decades fighting for his peoples’ land. Capiz was neck-deep in a billion battles. I could sit here all night and tell you about them but maybe I’ll write a book instead. Down the years, Capiz got to be known for his peculiar war cry: "Zapata Vive y La Lucha Sigue! — "Zapata Lives and the Struggle Goes on!" Only Capiz would keep repeating the "sigue" part until they had to peel him away from the microphone: "Zapata Vive y La Lucha Sigue — y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue y Sigue."
Efren Capiz was absolutely right. The struggle is never done.
Once again, my gratitude to the ACLU for this honor and their hospitality but most of all, for bringing me here to San Pedro to tell my tale tonight in the shadow of Terminal Island. It tastes like sweet revenge.
John Ross is on the road to Istanbul for the World Tribunal on Iraq War Crimes in late June, with touchdowns in the UK, Ireland. Scotland, Spain, Catalunia and Amsterdam tracking resistance to the corporate globalization of the planet and Zapatista imprints in the old world. Contributions to offset the travail of travel can be sent in the author’s name to 3258 23rd Street, Apartment 3, San Francisco Ca. 94110.