Hilton Obenzinger

40 Years

First, a few rules. In most instances I will not be mentioning names. You may even know who I’m talking about – but I believe that it’s up to them to talk about their own view of their experiences, particularly when it comes to being involved in radical politics. Also, in some cases I’m only going to speak in generalities and not specifics.

I’ve written about my experience at Columbia in my book Busy Dying, and I do use people’s real names there, for the most part, because I asked them or because the situations are fairly benign or it’s a public situation. Even so, I did change some peoples’ names in that book. Someone’s job could be at stake if their boss found out they did something strange, like sleep for a week in Kirk’s office.

OK, enough of that.

After graduating, I ended up teaching elementary school on the Yurok Indian reservation along the Klamath river in northern California. This was after nearly getting killed in the Yukon – but that’s in my book. It was a two-teacher school at the end of a 25-mile dead-end road with a generator for electricity and a radio phone, the only communication in the area. I was very naïve and soon realized that the cyclone fence around the building and the flagpole in the front meant that we were running the fort, a colonial outpost. But it was far more complicated, the school was also the community center, and I learned of life on the reservation with all of its contradictions. It remains the hardest job I’ve ever had, and, after 1968, it was one of the most important experiences of my life.

After teaching for that one year 69-70 (on a non-renewable credential), I continued to live near the reservation, chopping wood for the winter, trying to write and enjoying being far away from the horrors of the world. Then a fugitive showed up one day at my door . . .

After that year in the country, I moved to San Francisco to join with other Columbia friends – most of whom were veterans of Low – to live communally and to put together a literary magazine. I was involved in the poetry scene in SF and Bolinas, and I joined in weird and happy antics, such as with the The Cockettes in the Castro District and others. I worked at a pre-school for a year, but soon we decided to get to the roots of writing, so to speak, and after we went to community college to learn how to operate printing presses, we bought a printing press and opened up a movement print shop in the Mission District, FITS Printing. We eventually joined with other groups – People’s Press, El Tecolote newspaper, International Indian Treaty Council, Union of Democratic Filipinos, Northern California Alliance, and others – to form the San Francisco Printing Cooperative. For much of the 70s, leaflets and books and newspapers and posters came pouring out of the place, and I became deeply involved in the anti-war movement, San Francisco politics and the numerous movements for which we printed. I went to Cuba on the Vencermos Brigade – my high point was operating a jackhammer, and I’ve never been as physically strong since. As a middle-class poet-kid who was completely inept in mechanical things, learning to operate a printing press or mastering a jackhammer were powerful experiences. It was probably like the way the early Zionists exulted that ghetto Jews would work on the land and would no longer be luftmenschen. I wrote and printed a small book of poems with the help of the FITS collective called The Day of the Exquisite Poet is Kaput, and that’s pretty much how I felt.

I was particularly involved in the Native American Solidarity Committee, working with people from AIM. There was a lot of enthusiasm for supporting native rights, although I felt uncomfortable with the romantic notions many white people brought with them. I knew what life on the reservation was like with all of its ordinariness, sorrows, and ironies, life in a real community, unlike the fantasies many people had of what Indians are like. We managed to win some victories, such as freeing some prisoners from frameups and getting California to have laws for the protection of burial sites. I was also involved in the International Hotel anti-eviction movement, especially after I met my wife who was in KDP (Union of Democratic Filipinos) when we were both on the coordinating committee of the July 4th Coalition for a People’s Bicentennial in 1976, and she was one of the core leaders of the I-Hotel struggle, important to the Filipino community and to the housing movement in SF.

I also kept in contact with fugitives: There was no question that, no matter any political differences, no one should fall into the hands of the state. We met regularly and argued – fortunately, I missed the worst excesses of Weatherman because I was on the reservation or out in the woods – and I supported the move by WU to reinvigorate the mass movement and reintegrate themselves into it. I had never been in SDS, and I became drawn to be an activist because of my experience on the reservation and the deepening realization that the government was attacking the revolutionary upsurge. After working on the reservation, it did not take much for me to understand that the anti-colonial national liberation movements were challenging centuries of oppression around the world. Eventually, I became even more involved in the Eggplant, as we called it, meeting with units, but always involved in the “aboveground” work, although not organizationally with Prairie Fire. Eventually, there was a crisis in the organization over whether or not it was becoming “opportunist,” had lost its revolutionary commitment to armed struggle because of its involvement in the mass movement, and I left, along with others. There were bitter splits, wounds, friendships wrecked, and good people plunged into a maelstrom of fantasy and violence.

I can understand the political perspective we had – the sense of imminent assault from the state, even if the revolution kept getting extended further and further into the future, and that we had to take up arms, along with others. COINTELPRO was all too real.

Many people have memories of coercion or of being self-deluded in the Weather Underground. I remember a lot of stupid things, a lot of arrogance and presumption – I always giggle at the disguises and complicated ways to elude detection, although they did work – but I don’t think I was coerced or brainwashed or followed a cult. I never lost my critical judgment – I just judged mistakenly on a lot of political assessments, and kept my self-righteousness at a fairly high level of intensity, probably coercing others or at least being obnoxious, particularly with hierarchies of those who knew and those who didn’t when it came to clandestine work.

I kept writing, and after teaching a community class on Native American history with Acoma poet Simon Ortiz, I suggested that we write a book, or two books, actually, on how we got to California. Soon after that Simon realized he had to get the hell out of California, and he went back to New Mexico and ended up writing a wonderful book of poems about working in the uranium mines when he was young. I ended up doing research, historical and personal, on my family, Jews, Zionism, American Indians, Palestinians – and I wrote This Passover Or The Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, a series of poems and sketches of the experiences of Native Americans, Jews, and Palestinians that attempts to recover or create an American Jewish identity that does not flow from the premises of Zionism.

This Passover received the American Book Award, but otherwise was pretty much blacklisted. I did begin to receive invitations to read from the book and to give talks at college campuses, sponsored by Arab student groups. I had the awkward experience of being a strange fish for a lot of Arabs who had never seen a Jew who was critical of Israel. It was also awkward receiving a cavalvade of insults and death threats from fanatically pro-Israel Jews. It’s funny now because there are plenty of Jews who are critical of Israel today – it’s just that it was so odd in the late 70s and early 80s, especially from someone whose family had been murdered by the Nazis. I guess I was a “premature anti-Zionist,” but others felt the same way at the time, and we started a group called the Jewish Alliance Against Zionism in the Bay Area.

I also became involved in an effort to reform – “rectify and restore” – the Communist Party in an organization called Line of March led by many of the Filipino activists that I had worked with, along with others. Much serious political education took place, and a lot of excellent analysis and organizing work in many movements. We expected that the state would use violence to stop any real threat to capitalist rule but our focus was patient mass organizing and not the apocalyptic visions of revolution I had earlier. Everyone worked very hard trying to be cadre quality, exhausting ourselves with meetings and projects, pushing ourselves endlessly, and we did gain increasing influence. However, by the late 80s, the group fell apart due to personal failures and internal conflicts.

In 1981 I was invited to visit the PLO in Beirut as part of an American delegation. I could see how poorly united they were. I could also see the misery of the people in the refugee camps, and how unbearable the situation was, and how this could easily drive people to despair and violence. By this time, the more spectacular actions – the famous plane hijackings, for example – were pretty much over, and the left parties were interested in mass organizing, following a similar trajectory as groups in other countries. When the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began in 1982, I became very active – demonstrations every week, sometimes more, with hundreds and thousands, and an almost total blackout by the press with virtually no reports on protests.

From that point, I became deeply engaged in Palestine solidarity work, getting involved in what became the Palestine Solidarity Committee and being a co-editor of Palestine Focus, as well as writing for the National Guardian. Very difficult work trying to convince liberals to support Palestinian rights, but we did make gains, especially with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition presidential campaign. I ended up going to Palestine and other places in the Middle East several times. Once again I didn’t entertain romantic notions of misery in Gaza, but I was deeply moved by the determination of Palestinian activists in the occupied territories. I attended UN meetings in Geneva and traveled through Europe to make links with European solidarity groups. When the first intifada began there was an even bigger whirlwind of activity, and I could understand the even deeper desparation of mothers in Gaza and the exultation of kids throwing rocks in Nablus. At the time, it was a magnificent secular uprising that achieved . . . disappointment. If the Israeli strategy has been to drive Palestinians insane, it has worked, although that strategy also had the unintended side effect of also driving Israelis to their own form of murderous self-destructive insanity. It has not been a pretty sight watching two peoples destroy each other.

In the late 70s I left the printing collective, and I got a job in the largest non-union shop in SF to help in a union organizing drive. When that failed – the Chinese owner would threaten the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam in the bindery with trouble from immigration – I worked at Inkworks, another movement press in Oakland. I began to get headaches from the chemicals, and I decided to change careers. I went to SF State to get a degree in education, and I began writing training programs in finance, electronics, science, management, educational TV, along with other writing, such as oral histories of corporations, as a professional writer and instructional designer.

I had one job to write the history of the NY Fire Department for the firefighter’s union in 1982. I wrote the book but the company went bankrupt and the president of the union that had commissioned it lost the election because of a typical money scandal. I then wrote my own book – New York on Fire, narrative poems and monologues on the history of NY from the point of view of its fires. For me it was a real thrill: New York kid comes home riding on a fire engine. It’s hard to get any better than that. A couple of years later I wrote another city-book, Cannibal Eliot and the Lost Histories of San Francisco, a novel of invented documents about the history of SF (from the point of view of mass psychosis).

I also became deeply involved in the LA 8 case – the attempt to deport 7 Palestinians and a Kenyan for distributing pro-PLO newspapers who were arrested in January 1987. It took over 20 years, but we finally won this year. In April, before their arrests, I spoke on a college campus in southern California in a debate with extreme rightwing Zionists who supported the settler movement. The two main people involved in what would become the LA 8 were supposed to debate with me – but then they smelled something fishy (and they were right: the FBI even had cameras in their bedrooms). I ended up debating the two extremists alone. They quoted from Mark Twain to show that Palestine was desolate and empty (and therefore deserved to be colonized), then they actually threatened to kill me before hundreds of people for being a traitor to the Jewish people.

This really pissed me off – the threat, but also the abuse of Mark Twain – and consequently that ugly scene launched a project lasting 12 years that ended up with me getting a doctorate late in life at Stanford and publishing American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania. This project brought together my understanding of America’s colonial history and the colonialism of Zionism, how the early Puritans regarded themselves as the New Israel, how “Jewish restoration” was a key narrative of American settlement, how in turn the Zionists used the image of America’s frontier, and more. I’m still writing critical and historical works about all of this, and it’s as if all of my experiences with Jews, Palestinians, Native Americans, African Americas, Filipinos, and many others came together in an analysis of the US as a settler-colonial society with a chosen-people sense of possessing the land, and how the same process also inspired settlement in Northern Ireland, South Africa, even Liberia, and of course Israel, each with their own unique characteristics. I’ve been able to bring this to academic journals and have set up seminars and conference panels to explore these relationships further, with other scholars now thinking along the same lines.

Because of my experience writing in many different areas, I was asked to stay at Stanford to teach advanced writing, so I mostly teach honors students and others how to write extended research projects in all fields, and it’s a wonderful job. Over the years, I’ve learned to work with all sorts of people – whether Palestinians in refugee camps or conservative thinkers at the Hoover – and I have had no problem working at Stanford with people who have completely different views than mine, students and faculty. I find it to be a healthy experience, and I’ve learned to keep an open mind as much as possible, which is, I suppose, what a university is supposed to be about. I never attempt to “indoctrinate” students – which is almost impossible, anyway, at least with smart Stanford students – but I do try to get students to exercise their critical and ethical faculties. That’s pretty subversive in itself.

I’ve written several other books, including Running through Fire: How I Survived the Holocaust by Zosia Goldberg as told to me, an oral history of my aunt’s survival of WWII, a*hole: a novel, and now Busy Dying. Each project I work on is driven by some need – some problem or issue or anguish or joy to work out. That satisfies me – and I hope the reader too.

I have 2 step-sons, one step-daughter, and one son, Isaac. We have 7 grandkids. I wanted Isaac to have a bar mitzvah – my family was not murdered by the Nazis for me to so easily relinquish my tradition – but I didn’t want him to end up saluting the Israeli flag. Fortunately, I met a rabbi who was interested in building a congregation that veered from all the typical boundaries, one that allowed all opinions to flourish freely, and I became part of the founding board of directors. She taught the kids about Israel and the Palestinians and the conflict without demanding allegiance to any side but compassion for all, and my son had his bar mitzvah. He’s 25 now, the youngest of our kids, and he works putting on the programs at the Manilatown Center in the newly rebuilt International Hotel for low-income senior housing. After 40 years of the I-Hotel struggle, it’s good to see a victory – and satisfying to see our son working there.

I still find Marxist analysis useful, but I also find other frameworks valuable, and I think there are many problems with the left’s history of forms of organization and coercive practices, tyranny, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the other horrors of what passed for revolution. I still seek to extend democracy and equality, and I have no regrets about trying to make a revolution, even if I made mistakes, considering how difficult it is to change people, and how dogma and narrow-mindedness affected the left as much as everyone else. I think people should avoid violence as much as possible, and I know that when we are pushed to violence as a last resort, even to protect ourselves, we are diminished, we lose the humanity we’re trying to save.

I always remember the experience at Columbia in 1968 as a moment that filled me with unimaginable optimism, with a sense of a new type of radicalism, outside of the Cold War, a surge of change and democratic, creative energy, uniquely American but also part of the world as never before, and the high of the Low Library Commune propelled me through life.

I don’t think there’s any teleological oomph, no inevitable socialism or anything inevitable, but there are possibilities, despite stupidity, greed, hatred, and all the ugliness of people. I’m not reduced to being a “consumer,” and I think there are values beyond commodities and the market place. I love my country, despite the fact that it has so many problems, has committed so many crimes, is filled with the arrogance of empire. I’ve met so many people in the US, of all types, who have a sense of fairness and justice and have magic in their souls. I know that people, when they are moved by great feelings, have the capacity to make a difference. I still think humans got a chance, small as it is – and the smarts of many of my students and their innovation and courage keep me thinking that it can be done. I’m still the same damn fool I was in Low.

- by Hilton Obenzinger
^ Back to Top |
© 2018 | RSS | Sitemap