Mitchel Cohen Takes on Global and Local Goliaths: Profile of a Lifelong Multi-Movement Organizer

“Growing up in Brooklyn, I was called a Commie-Jew-faggot-bastard. There were battles between the Jewish kids and the black kids on one side and the Italian kids on the other side.”

–  Mitchel Cohen, February 9, 2019

If there are leaders who stand out in a disciplined crowd or an unruly mob, there also those who are led, sometimes in a sheep-like way, until they bolt for The Dark Side, whether it’s outright Fascist or Trump Republican. Sad to say, the American Left is littered with radicals who became anti-communists, Cold Warriors, armchair liberals and cynical Yuppies, though strikers, sit-in protesters and street fighting men and women also remain true to youthful ideals.

There are also individuals – “citizens” French revolutionaries would say—who fall somewhere between charismatic leaders and those who follow them. They aren’t flamboyant figures like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, but they’re not anonymous, either. No movement can do without their labor, energy, doggedness and loyalty.

Mitchel Cohen’s real life experiences lend themselves to a film about a “rank-and-file” fighter for social and economic justice, though Cohen himself would not encourage a documentary that would depict his active participation in five decades of protesting.

He’s currently the coordinator for the “No Spray Coalition” in New York City that aims to keep corporate manufactured poison away from people and people away from poison. Not long ago, he sued the authorities in New York to stop the “indiscriminate spraying of toxic pesticides.”

Before that, he organized a campaign to ban from public schools, milk from cows injected with genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone. He has also taken part in the crusade to free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, both of them serving life terms. For years, Cohen been a mainstay at WBAI, the listener-sponsored radio station.

Ask anyone who has been in radical politics in New York since 1970 or so if they’ve heard of Mitchel Cohen and chances are they’ll say, “Yes.” He’s been around and he’s left his mark on several movements.

Appreciative of the power of the media, he’s also wary of the media, and, while he hasn’t made a habit of hiding from TV cameras, he hasn’t gone out of his way to be on the evening news, either. Ever since he was an anti-war teenager, he has had opportunities to become a darling of the media, but he has steered clear of that role.

Now 70-years-old, and with books like The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup (Skyhorse; $24.99), to his name, along with pamphlets, such as What is Direct Action?—plus several volumes of poetry—he lives in an apartment building in Bensonhurst, the multi-ethnic, working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he grew up in a Jewish family that was often outnumbered by Catholics, many of whom didn’t like Jews.

“I was called a Commie-Jew-faggot-bastard,” he says. “There were battles between the Jewish and the black kids on one side and the Italian kids on the other side.”

From a window in the apartment which he shares with his ninety-three-year-old mother, and with a nephew who comes and goes, Mitchel can see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Coney Island and the waters of New York Bay. He’s not planning to move any time soon.

I met him in the late 1960s at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he was an undergraduate and I was a professor who offered a raucous class for credit with the help of teaching assistants recruited from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Mitchel was the most vocal of the group and appeared to be the happiest. He received a B.A. from Stony Brook around the same time I was fired, and, while he has no other academic credentials, he has been a life-long student of social and political movements, along with science and technology. Occasionally, he pops up at talks I give, says hello, and disappears in the night.

If my raucous class with the SDS teaching assistants had a name and a number, it would have been something like “Protest 101,” though after all these years I don’t remember much about it, except that we met in a amphitheater and that I stood in front of the crowd and talked about the anti-war movement, the Panthers, feminism, Yippies and Weathermen.

“That was a great class,” Mitchel said recently. “Everyone and their mother passed through it.” Indeed, 900 students enrolled. I know the exact number because that semester I received a formal letter from the chair of the English Department scolding me for admitting so many undergraduates and for giving hundreds of As. The letter also said that the university would never again allow more 40 in any class I taught. That was okay with me. Reading and grading 900 final projects was a chore, though I was amazed by the creativity.

While I did most of my protesting in Manhattan, I occasionally joined with Mitchel and the members of “the Red Balloon,” the organization that he helped to found at Stony Brook, and that was an offshoot of the campus chapter of SDS. The national office had imploded; the Stony Brook SDS chapter, like many others, floundered until the Red Balloon came into existence.

Mitchel has fond memories of those days. He’s still in touch with former comrades-in-arms. Occasionally, he’ll send an email with news about Stony Brook, and about friends and enemies, too, who have died. Then, too, he sees college friends at rallies and demonstrations. “Many of them are still active,” he says and adds that when he was a student, “it meant a lot to see one of my professors in the street, protesting.” That was one of many reasons the Stony Brook administration wanted to be rid of me. I used the classroom as a springboard to the movement.

These days, Mitchel also encounters demonstrators a generation or two younger than he who look up to him with reverence, though he doesn’t encourage it.

At last count, he’s been arrested more than 50 times; on one occasion the government took away his passport and didn’t allow him to travel outside the U.S. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried not to get arrested, but to get away with it,” he said. “Getting arrested takes a toll.”

Whenever there’s a political or a social crisis, Mitchel will send out an email inviting friends to write letters, dispatch emails to elected officials and tweet. He’s leaned to use, though not to love the latest technology. For Mitchel, there’s always a crisis; he’s always on what might be call “crisis alert.” This winter it has been the turmoil in Venezuela and the terrible, inhumane conditions at Metropolitan Detention Center, the federal prison in Brooklyn, where men behind bars shivered in the cold for weeks, and no one did anything until word got out.

Recently, via email, Mitchel forwarded an open letter to the American people from Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s beleaguered president. Days earlier, he urged friends to write Warden Herman Quay at the detention center in Brooklyn and to telephone the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. and to demand that prisoners receive heat and not have to endure freezing temperatures.

He signs his emails “Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens/Green Party.” In fact, in 2001 he ran for Mayor of New York City as a Green Party candidate. He has served as the editor of Green Polix, the national newspaper, and also as the editor of the New York State Green Party paper.

At times, he seems like a David who takes on the Goliaths of the world. Still, he’s rarely if ever a lone David. Take for example, the book, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup, which he edited and that was published in January 2019 with a Foreword by Vandana Shiva, the environmental activist, in which she denounces “The Poison Cartel” that has included IG Farben, Dow, Dupont, Bayer and Monsanto.

Mitchel might have written the entire book. He chose instead to invite fourteen authors to contribute essays, some long, others short, some brilliant, like “It’s Not That Anyone Wants to Kill Butterflies” by Cathryn Swan who writes eloquently about the “toxic arsenal” of chemicals produced on assembly lines and that provide “an efficient killing machine.” Mitchel contributed the preface to The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup. He also wrote five chapters, including one titled “Genetics Engineering, Pesticides and Resistance in the New Colonialism” in which he writes that Monsanto has aimed for the “colonization of life itself.”

In his new book, Mitchel hails the irreverent food writer and world traveler, Anthony Bourdain. who called Kissinger a “treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag.” Mitchel doesn’t throw around many adjectives, but he describes President Jimmy Carter as a “shill” for Monsanto, and he lambasts the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton for using taxpayer money to promote GMO seeds globally. Outraged at the collaboration between corporations like Monsanto and politicians like Carter and Clinton, Mitchel and the other contributors to The Fight are not starry-eyed dreamers who promise instant solutions to age-old problems.

“Time and again, synthetic chemicals have been banned or withdrawn, only to be replaced by others equally harmful, and sometimes worse,” Jonathan Latham writes in the essay, “Unsafe at any Dose?” In “Poisoning the Big Apple,” which is about toxic chemicals in New York City, Mitchel observes that “New movements are beaten back, only to reemerge.” In “Big Science and the Curious Notion of ‘Progress,’” which appears near the end of the book, he offers a useful quotation from Karl Marx who observed in the 1840s, “Mankind sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve.”

If progress is illusory, and more harmful chemicals replace less harmful varieties, what keeps Mitchel going? “I can’t imagine not being in a movement together with beautiful, funny, creative people,” he told me. “It happens in the streets and in classrooms, too. I recently was at the People’s Forum in New York, among young radicals who reminded me of the Red Balloon. I didn’t ask questions, which is what I usually do. I sat back, listened and learned a lot.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.