Biographies of a Revolutionary Moment

Events in the United States over the past four years have brought leftist politics back into the popular conversation. When I say Left, I am not talking about Joe Biden and the centrist Democrats because, after all, no matter how much the extreme right wants US residents to think those Democrats are socialist or communist, the facts plainly do not support that characterization. However, the various manifestations in the nation’s streets against systemic racism, police brutality and against fascism do lean in that direction. Indeed, some are organized by organizations who are not shy about their commitment to Marxism, even if they disagree in its interpretation.

Given this apparent reconsideration of Marxism and its meaning to life in today’s world, the publication of books like The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and the Revolution are not only useful, but important. Both Coates and Conway are former Black Panthers whose lives intertwined while simultaneously taking quite different directions. Conway ended up in a Maryland prison for decades after being convicted under very questionable circumstances of killing a Baltimore policeman. Coates, on the other hand, founded the publishing company Black Classic Press—an endeavor which continues to thrive, publishing classic and contemporary texts by Black writers. Conway was finally released from prison in 2014 after almost forty years inside. During his incarceration, Coates was Conway’s friend and support, working on Conway’s legal issues, helping him stay in touch with family, and visiting regularly. Upon Conway’s release, Coates provided him with a place to live. The two men remain friends and comrades, working and socializing together.

Susie Day, whose sharp satire appears often in various LBGQT and leftist journals, put this book together. She first met Conway in a visit to Jessup Correctional Institute in Maryland. Struck by his mostly upbeat attitude and his certainty that he would eventually be released despite his indeterminant sentence, she continued the relationship after he finally was released. This book is the result of conversations she recorded between Conway and Coates, mostly at the offices of the Black Classics Press. They are flawlessly transcribed, bringing out the two men’s humor, love of life, understanding of history—both personal and in terms of their political and cultural heritage, and their concerns for the future. Day divides the text into chapters, providing a brief introduction to each that summarizes the men’s individual and political situation. The book begins with each man remembering how they met, their roles in the Panthers, what it meant to be in the Black Panther Party and ends with a discussion of what it means to be a revolutionary at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century. In between, the reader meets both men’s families (who include the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates), and their friends and comrades living and dead. There are also discussions of Conway’s life behind bars and Coates’ frustration at his inability to change that situation for so long. The politics of Black Lives Matter and other current movements are analyzed by the men and contrasted to the politics of their youth. Inside this particular discussion issues of class in the Black community are considered, as is the question of leadership. The result is a convivial and engaging conversation that is both oral history and political discussion. Contextualized and compact, The Brother You Choose is a useful addition to the literature arising from the social movements challenging systemic racism in the United States.

Susan M. Reverby’s biography of Dr. Alan Berkman examines the life of another US revolutionary with political roots in the period known as the Sixties. Titled Co-Conspirator for Justice: The Revolutionary Life of Dr. Alan Berkman, this text tells the story of a Jewish-American man whose growing anger at the injustice that permeates the reality of the US nation compels him to take up arms against it. Reverby, who went to the same high school as Berkman, begins her narrative in their hometown of Middletown, New York. Describing Berkman as a classic All-American boy active in high school sports, after-school clubs and a usually straight-A student, his story was a not-to-unusual tale of the successful Jewish teen who made his parents proud. When he decided to go to Cornell University for pre-med, his trajectory up the ladder of success seemed certain. But, like so many others of his generation, his conscience would prevail in the generational struggle between the myth of the United States and the reality they were discovering.

Although Berkman stuck primarily to his studies and hospital work as he made his way through college and medical school, his political awareness was moving towards an analysis well beyond 1960s liberalism. He never joined any of the leftist student organizations of the period, but he paid attention to the world reported in the news. In addition, his medical work in New York City provided almost daily proof of the injustice that defines US capitalist society. According to Reverby, the September 1971 uprising and massacre of prisoners in Attica State Prison was the event that propelled Berkman from a radical to a revolutionary. He began what would be a lifelong relationship with Barbara Zeller, another doctor around his age who had similar political views. The two began working in community clinics. Berkman also began volunteering at the Black Panther run health clinic in the Bronx. In 1973, when the American Indian Movement led an armed takeover of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Berkman and Zeller snuck past FBI, US Marshalls and other armed police to provide medical care to those inside. Soon afterwards, the two moved to Boston, Berkman joined the Weather Underground’s aboveground support group, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), and tried to join the anti-colonial revolution in Mozambique. However, before he could get through all the requirements necessary to join that revolution, the fascist dictatorship in Portugal was overthrown and the new government in Lisbon liberated all of its colonies, including Mozambique.

By the late 1970s, the radical left in the United States was not only smaller than it had been a mere ten years earlier, it was also divided. Sectarianism defined its very nature. Marxist-Leninist groups debated texts by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and even Trotsky, looking for points to disagree on and discarding attempts at solidarity. Although organizing of those outside these groups continued, protests were smaller than they had been in years. As would be evidenced by the Reagan electoral landslide in 1980, the nation’s politics were shifting to the right. The Weather Underground was no more, with some of its members surfacing to face the courts. The Weather members who disagreed with the decision to disband formed the May 19 Communist Organization along with other radicals not in Weather but also supportive of May 19th’s politics of support for the Black Liberation Army (BLA)—an offshoot of one wing of the Black Panther Party. Their early actions included bank robberies and the successful escapes of BLA member Assata Shakur from a New Jersey prison and Puerto Rican revolutionary William Morales from the prison section of Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. Berkman was alleged to be involved in the planning of the latter escape.

On October 20, 1981 an attempted robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in Nyack, NY by the BLA and some members of May 19th went horribly wrong. When all was said and done, three law enforcement personnel and one revolutionary were dead, several were wounded, and the May 19th Communist Organization was in a shambles. The state brought heavy charges against all those arrested. Berkman went underground. Over the course of the 1980s, various small cadre he associated with formed temporary groups that set off bombs in targets representing police, the military and various corporate elements of the US war machine. After a series of mistakes by those underground, all but one were captured by a federal dragnet that had been closing in. When the trials were over, Berkman faced several years in jail. Others in the group faced even more. He would have faced similar sentences, but after he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, a decision by his comrades to help him out allowed him to receive a lesser sentence.

The battle with cancer would be part of the what defined the rest of Berkman’s life. His experiences with prison medical care, which was often incompetent and uncaring, would inform his medical work after he was released. It would also broaden his compassion and understanding when he joined the campaign to gain access to HIV-AIDS drugs for the poor and disenfranchised around the world. Berkman died in 2009. This biography is a fitting tribute to his legacy.

Somewhat synchronistically in relation to this essay, one of the members of the May 19th Communist Organization was Laura Whitehorn. It was through Whitehorn that Susie Day first met Eddie Conway. The stories of these and others involved in the revolutionary struggle in the United States are instructive and inspiring. Although I am not a person who looks for heroes, I do look for inspiration from my fellow humans. Eddie Conway, Paul Coates, Alan Berkman, and the organizations they were part of certainly inspired me in the past. These texts not only remind me of what they did, they also remind me of what lessons their lives have for the future. Both books are captivating in content and style; the lives described therein are innately human and politically thoughtful.

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.