Dee Knight: The Life of an Activist

A Political Memoir & Manifesto: Navigating Decades of Storms. By Dee Knight. Chicago/Toronto/Buffalo: Guernica World Editions. 193pp, $17.95.

In a field that seems sometimes to be crowded with “Movement Memoirs,” here is a saga unique in its opposition to empire and specifically our own.

Call it the faith of an ex-Seminarian who received a different Call. Enrolling in a Jesuit Seminary at Los Gatos, Califonia (strangely enough, the secret locale of aged Italian anarchist survivors of the group that had staged the bombings on Wall Street way back in the 1910s) as a presumed future priest,  our young protagonist experienced one revelation after another.

He headed in 1966 for the University of San Francisco, a conservative Jesuit institution. Switching to San Francisco State College after a summer fighting fires in Oregon, he landed in a college notoriously full of radicals. (It so happens that I joined the undergrad throng for a summer and Fall just three years earlier, and on my first day, heard an eloquent African American coed say from the stage in an amplified voice heard across campus, “We are not taking this shit anymore!”  Someplace, SF State.)  It only took him little time to leave behind the Goldwater enthusiasm of high school days for radical opposition to the War and the System. This is the framing for life in struggle.

In some ways, Knight followed a popular trajectory of the times. Leaving the tumultuous Democratic Party convention of Chicago in 1968, he got a ride North…a long way North to Toronto. Unlike many who chose to stay silent, he became an activist in the Union of American Exiles and a co-editor of The American Expatriate in Canada and made a key acquaitance: Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, the great historians of empire, exiled by choice from the US. Knight was set to become a thinking radical. And a highly skilled one who made the transition from demontrator to organizer and editor in only a few years. Opportunity, as well as personal determination, turned rebellion into a lifelong vision for many, each unique to itself.

By 1974, the charges against him for refusing the Draft were dismissed on a technicality and enabled to travel back and forth, he worked in a series of coalitions connected with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). For him as for many others, the 1976 Democratic Party convention was pivotal— but for a special reason. VVAW, like GI organizing at large, was the center of organized blue-collar resistance to the War but also a bridge to another, broader Left that hardly seemed to emerge before being swept away. With Ron Kovic as the voice of the vets, calling for total amnesty with full benefits rather than benefits only for those who chose to stay rather than fleeing, the vision of the National Council for Universal Unconditional Amnesty hit home, but not hard enough in a Democratic Party slouching rightward. For that moment, Kovic rocked the convention. and likely prompted Carter, in office a year later, to offer at least partial amnesty.

Back to our hero: by 1977, he had joined the Workers World Party, a curious choice deserving a large footnote. A small organization whose combination of hyper activity on peace and race, and also a certain super-stridence (or nuttiness) of tone,  the WWP filled in some large gaps in the receding Left of the 1970s-90s. When a demonstration on practically any given subject was announced, not only in Greater New York but far behind, the WWP was swiftly on the case. As Knight says, actually becoming a member of this highly disciplined group was no easy thing. Unlike other “cadre” groups of the Trotskyist, Maoist or other type, ideas were not much discussed except to assure total agreement. Not only did the WWP actively oppose every US foreign intervention, it also militancy promoted the rights of women, of prisoners, and of gays and lesbians. Indeed, the imprimatur on this book belongs to Medea Benjamin, the indefatigable peacenik. She has always been able to count on people like Knight to put in the work while others wearied and returned to private life.

Knight joined one antiwar or antiracist coalition after another, spent years in Nicaragua and with thousands of other foreign volunteers, helping to rebuild villages and working with the Sandinista press. In 1991, he began a consultancy with the UN Development Program, as an editor and computer specialist. Later, he took an MA at NYU in public administration, and finally became a teacher in South Bronx schools launching him into a decade of activity of mobilizing students, staff and teachers alike in defense of a public school system robbed by the advance of ever-more heartless capitalism.

His later years in small Marxist group activity involved New York mobilizations, from the Bloomberg years to Occupy. In the middle 2010s, with the momentum behind Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the Democrats in 2016, Knight did the previously unthinkable: he joined the socialist mainstream aka Democratic Socialists of America. A few years in, he became an enthusiast of AOC among others: a remarkable development, no less remarkable because former members of almost every Left organization also joined (in the case of so many of us, rejoined).

This is all very interesting as the reader looks between the lines, guessing at the contradictions experienced in the shifts of life, work and strategy. The “Manifesto” part, an appeal to DSAers themselves to pay heed to anti-imperialism, is the last convincing part of the book. More self-revelations would have made the book stronger, because those who are his arguments need no convincing and those who do not will not likely be convinced. Still, the polemics of this interesting work can easily be put aside. Here is a life, judge it as you see fit.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.