Another One Moves On: Roz Payne, Presente!

The first time I met Roz Payne she was gathering signatures to get on the ballot to be a constable in the Vermont town of Richmond where she lived. Although I have never liked cops and the legal system they represent, her reasons convinced me to sign her petition. As we stood conversing on Church Street in Burlington, I realized that her campaign leaned much more towards Hunter s Thompson’s Freak Power campaign for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado than anything conventional. The campaign wasn’t anything that bold, but I signed anyhow. Soon, the conversation turned to Roz’s role in keeping the US government from stealing the free land known as Earth People’s Park up near Vermont’s border with Canada.

For those unfamiliar with Earth People’s Park, let me give you some history. Back in 1970, the traveling community known as the Hog Farm had made a little money from their various endeavors, primary among them being their participation as emcees, security, free clinic and all-around good guys at rock festivals. Together with other freaks and friends, they came up with the idea of buying some land that nobody would own, but anybody who wanted to live communally and peacefully could do so. Money was raised through concerts and donations; land was found and a down payment made. As it turned out, in the USA, nobody cannot own land. The authorities need someone on the title. Ultimately, Wavy Gravy was one of those someones.

Now, for those who don’t know how freaking cold it can get in Vermont, think of your body in a bathtub of ice and subtract fifty degrees Fahrenheit. This is why there were often people living in Earth People’s Park in summer and fall, but never in winter. (When I lived in Berkeley, I often met folks who summered in Earth People’s Park and wintered in the Bay Area.) After all, life was quite rustic in the woods—running water was a creek and toilets were pits one dug. Locals were nervous at first but adjusted. The feds never did. After a biker gang took over the land and began manufacturing meth, the DEA and other cop types raided. Then they took the land. That’s when legal people stepped in. Thanks to the efforts of many folks, with Roz running point and Wavy pulling strings, an agreement was reached so that the land will never be developed.

That’s just one story from Roz’s life. She was a member of Students for a Democratic Society and a co-founder of the Newsreel Collective—a group which filmed movement protests, actions and other endeavors, then edited the film into twenty or thirty-minute newsreels distributed throughout the US and even overseas. Indeed, I saw a few such films at coffeehouses or university events in Frankfurt, Germany in the early 1970s. As I got to know her over the years, I never tired of our conversations. It was while I was going through her boxes of underground papers, photographs and leaflets that were her archives that she told me of her friendship with Weather Underground leaders and Yippies. I was already looking for photos I would use in my book on the Weather Underground and now I was working with someone whose knowledge could flesh out some context I was lacking. She knew and worked with many organizers, rabble-rousers and working-class heroes over the years. Pictures of many of them hung on her walls or were scattered throughout boxes of stuff. I think her favorite picture was of her mother being arrested for her labor organizing activities in the 1930s.

Roz and I stayed in touch over the years, sometimes helping each other with various projects. I would her email her about various speakers and protests in the area and she used her connections to provide friends with contacts for articles and books they were writing. She helped expose government crimes against the Black Panthers; her work even helped at least one get out of prison. Her archives provided materials for exhibits and films. Bob Niemi, a friend who teaches and writes about film noted her contribution to the documentary film through her work with Newsreel and afterwards. One of the last times we spent more than a couple minutes talking, we were involved in challenging an attempt by the city of Burlington, VT to limit non-shoppers from hanging out in its main shopping district.

Roz passed on this past week. Her stories and spirit fill the memories of those whose lives intertwined with hers.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.