Chapter 20: Commune On Staten Island, 1969 (iii)
Near the end of April 1969, I stopped by the New York SDS Regional Office on Prince Street with an evening student at Richmond College who had been working to build TDS in Manhattan with Ted and Teddy, in order to use the office’s mimeograph machine. We bumped into Mark in the SDS office, where he was winding up a stint of organizing there that had begun in October 1968. (The lecture fees Mark obtained from his 1968-1969 campus speaking engagements also had been used to finance the daily operations and pay the rent of the Prince Street SDS Regional Office). Despite the pre-April 1969 campus quiet around New York City, it suddenly appeared in late April 1969 that the spirit of the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt had spread to other U.S. campuses over the past year. Revolution in the U.S., once again, still seemed to be developing. SDS around the U.S. had, indeed, grown, and Mark appeared comfortable in his role as head of the SDS Regional Office at Prince Street.
Despite the failure to shut down Columbia again in Spring 1969 and despite the intensified repression of the Black Panthers, the Movement in the U.S., as a whole, still appeared much stronger than in the previous year. I had just spent a weekend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after Harvard SDS’s seizure of the Harvard Administration Building there and the calling-in of cops to brutalize students on campus. Harvard’s 1969 student revolt appeared to be a less dramatic imitation of the 1968 student revolt at Columbia. But it provided yet another indication that Revolution in the U.S. still appeared to be on the historical agenda.
Earlier in the month, I had bumped into Mark at an anti-war march in Manhattan, as he marched with his woman friend Jean. My hair was much longer than during the previous year at Columbia and I now looked more like a hippie than did Mark. While the other marchers were chanting, “End the war in Viet Nam, bring the troops home!”, Mark made a point to chant: “End the war in Viet Nam, bring the War home!” Because I supported the Leninist notion that revolutionaries should always attempt to “transform an imperialist war into a civil war at home,” I felt Mark’s chant was both clever and politically appropriate.
Around this time, I became closer to a hippie woman student in her mid-20s at Richmond College, named Helene. The dark blond-haired, blue-eyed Helene resembled a Hollywood movie actress like Marilyn Monroe in her physical beauty, worked part-time as an usher at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East rock concert hall and lived, with a musician, a few blocks from me on Staten Island. During previous summers, she had worked as a lifeguard and she was somewhat of a tomboy. One of her previous boyfriends had been an African-American guy in the music business, named Eric.
Helene made additional money from dealing marijuana on a small scale and was usually stoned all the time. After we turned on together in her apartment and I noticed her huge Bob Dylan poster on her bedroom wall, I began to feel that Helene and I might be destined for each other. The powerful hashish that we shared made me long for Helene even more. But although she was New Left in her political sympathies, Helene wasn’t interested enough in political activism to fall in love with me.
Around this same time, I also first met Karen of Newsreel. Like Helene, Karen of Newsreel had Hollywood movie actress looks and was in her mid-20s. But unlike Helene, Karen was intensely committed to the Movement and her work with Newsreel. She decided to make a short documentary about the Richmond College Social Change Commune and the political choices faced by Social Change Commune members each day: i.e. to what degree did Commune members attempt to relate their lives to organizing for Revolution, now that they were free of the usual academic work requirements?
In early May, Scott, Wendy, Stephanie and I decided to move out of the Carrol Place apartment on Staten Island, after the apartment was broken into and robbed one day. Scott moved in with his woman friend Carol on the Upper West Side. Stephanie and Wendy moved in with different guys on Staten Island and I decided I had had enough of Staten Island. To accumulate the remaining 12 credits I needed to secure my CUNY BA, I decided to enroll at Queens College during its two summer sessions; and live at my parents’ apartment again, for a few months.
Once Scott had moved from Staten Island, the scene there seemed less interesting politically, especially now that Richmond College was deserted because the semester had ended. During late May, June and July, I attended Queens College and did Movement work in Queens in my spare time. Not having any summer job lined up and being out of money, the rent-free option of moving back to my parents’ apartment while I went to summer school seemed the only economic option for me at this time.
As usual, I found it difficult to adjust to being back in Queens with my parents again. In May and June, I would spend the morning in my two classes at Queens College and hang out in Caf Plaza for a few hours each afternoon. In June, my sister also began crashing in my parents’ apartment. Initially, her presence made my stay there more pleasant because she was still a fellow-radical at this time. On a few afternoons, we spent time together at a local beach club off Whitestone Parkway that our parents had joined for the summer.
Near the middle of June, my sister decided to go out to the 1969 National SDS Convention in Chicago. I considered going out there also, but decided that I could hear about the Convention from my sister. It didn’t seem to make sense for me to lose the summer session class time just to attend a national meeting which I assumed would not be particularly relevant to local New York City revolutionary organizing problems.
At the June 1969 SDS Convention, my sister felt alienated from both the PL faction and the New Left faction, although she followed the New Left faction when Bernardine led its walk-out from the Chicago convention hall, after it expelled PL because of PL’s opposition to revolutionary African-American nationalism. She ended up hanging out with the anarcho-communist followers of Murray Bookchin, who criticized both the PL and the Weatherman-New Left faction for being too elitist, too Marxist-Leninist, too politically sectarian and dogmatic and too much into anti-democratic “vanguarditis.”
Because most Columbia SDS veterans who were at the June SDS Convention went into the Weatherman faction, I naturally identified myself with that faction, initially, despite my sister’s reservations about the way Bernardine, Mark and other Weatherleaders had handled the convention split.
By early July, I was bored attending the Queens College classes I needed to secure my BA from CUNY. I was taking an introductory economics course and a sociology course on deviance. In both courses, I was the only student who participated in the class discussions with the professors with any kind of intellectual enthusiasm. The other Queens College students only seemed able to passively take notes in class and seemed to have no confidence in the worth of their own intellectual opinions. After classes broke up in the early afternoon, I continued in July to spend a few hours each day just hanging out in either the college cafeteria or outside the cafeteria in Caf Plaza, smoking cigarettes, flirting with Queens College women students and chatting with Queens College hippie men or politically radical men students. On a few occasions I bumped into some students whom I had known at Flushing High School, but none of these old classmates appeared to be on the same SDS wavelength I had gotten on.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
6 years ago