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The Ferocious Life of Barbara Yaley

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My friend Barbara Yaley died yesterday morning. The news was delivered by a close mutual friend and it came as a shock from which I’m still reeling. Three weeks ago Barbara was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. She started chemo treatments immediately and never left the hospital. I didn’t even know she was sick.

Many longtime CounterPunch readers may have encountered Barbara from her time together with Alexander Cockburn, in the late 1990s and the early Bush era, as the two of them migrated up and down the California coast from Barbara’s place on Milvia in Berkeley and Rancho Cockburn in Petrolia on the Lost Coast. Those were high times for CounterPunch, as well as Alex. Much of our vicious biography of Al Gore (Al Gore: a User’s Manual) was written on the telephone in Barbara’s house, with her African parrot Ernie spewing hilarious profanities in the background.

Barbara teamed up with Cockburn, but she never operated in his shadow. Barbara Yaley was a titan in her own right. She earned a degree from Berkeley in criminology and followed that up with a PhD in the History of Consciousness from UC Santa Cruz, where she was in the same cohort with Black Panther Huey Newton. She wrote her dissertation was on the History of California Prisons.  Barbara used her academic training to fight ferociously for the oppressed. She specialized in hopeless cases: death penalty cases, cases involving racist cops, the drug war, long-term solitary confinement. After our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alex and I spent much time together organizing in Richmond, California against the street slaughter from gang violence sparked by the drug war. Barbara, whose years of footwork as a private investigator took across those mean streets, served as our Vergil, guiding us through that fraught terrain.

Barbara was brilliant, strikingly beautiful and very, very funny. She could stand toe-to-toe with Alex on just about everything and often edited his prose, making it sharper. She loved rock music and reggae and hippies and outsider art.

I got a call one night from Alex with a grudging requests.

“Can you score a couple of tickets for the Springsteen show in Portland?”

I started snickering. Alex was no fan of the Boss and had made a point of savagely deprecating his music for years.

“For Barbara and who else?” I said.

“Well, uhm, me.” Fake coughing. “And grab a couple of tickets for you and Kimberly, as well.”

This was the tour for Springsteen’s post-911 album “The Rising” and during the show Barbara lured Alex from his seat and had him dancing in the aisle to “Badlands.” Later, Alex said he was grooving to the tones of Clarence’s sax, but we all knew it was Barbara’s irresistible appeal.

Barbara was a Californian through and through and she loved the state for (not in spite of)  its glorious contradictions. When the director Tim Robbins invited Alex and I to record a commentary for the DVD of his film Bob Roberts at the sprawling Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley Hills, Barbara asked to tag along. Alex told her that it would likely be a pretty boring affair. Barbara countered: “Oh, Alexander, I have no desire to listen to you and Jeffrey drone on and on, again. Heard all that before. But I’ve waited my entire life to go swimming in that sublime pool, where Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth once made out.” When Alex and I emerged from our recording session three hours later, Barbara was sunning in a lounge chair by the pool, shades on, gin and tonic in hand, looking very much like Ava Gardner.

Barbara deplored anything that was corporate, pre-processed and conformist. I recall getting a tongue-lashing from her one night while we were stalled in a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge, running late for a gig at City Lights Bookstore in Chinatown. I slid a Commodores CD into the player to pass the time. “Jeffrey, I’m appalled at you! Turn that off and put on some hip hop or blues,” she demanded. “I can’t stand Soul Dreck!” Barbara rummaged through my CDs, grabbed one and handed it to me. “Try this.” It was Peter Tosh’s “Wanted: Dread & Alive.” Cockburn mumbled from the backseat. “Stoner.”

She adored birds and dogs and, unlike many hardcore leftists, she loved children—hers, ours, Alex’s daughter, Daisy, and pretty much any kid off the streets.

Barbara Yaley was one of the most liberated and liberating people I’ve ever encountered. Her vivaciousness and unrestrained joy for life was infectious, as was her optimism for a better future even in the grimmest circumstances. To be able to change the world you have to actually believe that it’s possible to make things better. And that’s the way Barbara lived, head on into the future, no looking back.

I miss her already and will for a long, long time to come.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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