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A very good friend and an inspiration to thousands of activists, radicals, revolutionaries and thinkers, died today. He was a teacher and a student, in life, in the classroom and in the streets. He was anathema to those who disagreed with him and had very little tolerance for bigotry and injustice or the people who perpetrate such sores on the flesh of humanity. He was an encyclopedia of history, thought, and living off the land. I am not alone when I say that he was a brother. My heart goes out to those who were closest to him. My mind wonders how the radical community in Vermont and anywhere else he touched down will fill the huge hole he has left in our collective histories.
Will’s hero was John Brown. Like Brown, Will’s hair was long and his beard was often unkempt. Also like Brown, Will believed in the propaganda of the deed. An example that comes quickly to my mind occurred soon after Bill Clinton and his band of killers launched the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Will, other activists, and I spent many hours tabling in front of the University of Vermont (UVM) library distributing literature against the bombing and arguing with so-called leftists who supported that “humanitarian” assault. It wasn’t long before we decided that something of a more agitative matter needed to be done. We were joined in our opinion by Dave Dellinger, folksinger Jim Page (who happened to be on tour in Vermont), activists Orin Langelle and Anne Peterman, Jay Moore and many others. Given that all of Vermont’s Congressional delegation supported the killing, we decided to stage protests at each of their offices and stage a sit-in at the last one on our tour. That office happened to be the office of Bernie Sanders. After making it clear to the folks working in Bernie’s office that we fully intended to stay until they threw us out, Will fumbled with his wife’s cell phone (something new to us older folks back then) and called the local media. They showed up soon afterwards and recorded our thoughts and the arrests that followed the office’s closing. There were those on the Left who didn’t understand why we chose Bernie’s office, but the reasons became even clearer when Bernie told Will and fellow radical Jay Moore that they should just leave the room if they didn’t agree with what Bernie was saying during a town meeting on the war. Our job wasn’t to support Bernie no matter what; it was to point out the imperialist nature of the war and the hypocrisy of the humanitarian warmongers. Our propaganda of the deed
I only met Will around ten years ago when I moved to Vermont. I had heard of him before, however. His name came up in conversations on the West Coast whenever there were student protests at the University of Vermont. Usually it was a former student of Will’s who knew of him. Will’s students are like the followers of Jerry Garcia. You can find them in every part of the planet and in almost every profession, although I doubt that you will find too many in the war industry or the military (Will would probably feel that he failed those folks if he knew). It wasn’t just the subject matter of Will’s courses that inspired his students; it was his presentation, the non-judgmental seminars that discussed those ideas, and it was Will himself. He didn’t demand respect, he commanded it. What I mean by that is that Will didn’t want respect just because he was the teacher, he hoped to gain your respect because he helped you teach yourself. He was the remaining radical philosopher in a philosophy department that had been purged in 1970 after Michael Parenti, Will, and a few others began to do more than just teach philosophical ideas. They put those ideas to use, challenging the war in Vietnam, the racism of the US, and the very nature of the university. Although Will wasn’t purged, he rarely got a raise or a sabbatical until a friendlier chair took over the department in the late 1990s.
A few years ago, the faculty at UVM began a successful drive to unionize. Will was an essential part of that campaign, just as he had been in every union campaign at the university since his hiring. Only four or five years before, he and I were celebrating the victory in a staff union drive at UVM that heralded in the second union in the university’s history. Will’s presence, organizing ability and fervor, and his encyclopedic historical knowledge were instrumental in the success of this campaign-a campaign that provided a voice to the most exploited segment of UVM’s workforce.
Will is going to be sorely missed in Vermont. However, when I go about my daily life, working, writing, speaking, organizing, enjoying a beer or something sweeter, I’m going to do so with Will’s spirit in my soul. I’ll have a smile on my face, a chuckle in my walk, and a revolutionary’s love in my heart.
Will Miller, live like him!
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org