Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 23: With Andrea Eagan and Newsreel, 1970

Chapter 23: With Andrea Eagan and Newsreel, 1970 (i)

After a brief interview in the Newsreel office in late December 1969, I became an official member of Newsreel and began to work with its high school organizing caucus. Other members of the caucus were Florrie, Karen of Newsreel, Steve, Sara, Mindy, Zarrow and three other activists from the Columbia SDS scene: Andrea, Richard and Jim. As a Newsreel member I also met Bev and Lala for the first time and attended collective meetings that included 1960s Movement “heavies” like Norm, Lynn, the Falks, Allen Young, Kramer, Siegel and Melvin.

Most of the activists in Newsreel were upper-middle-class artsy-bohemian whites in their mid-to-late 20s, who were from wealthy intellectual backgrounds. Newsreel offices were located in New York City and San Francisco and plans were being made to set-up or expand existing Newsreel offices in Chicago, Cambridge and Putney, Vermont. Over 80 films were being distributed from Newsreel’s New York City office and there were many requests for Newsreel films at this time from white and African-American student groups at campuses all around the country, from faculty at various educational institutions and from political, church and community groups in Latino and African-American communities.

What was good about Newsreel was that it would provide its films for free to activist groups that could not afford to pay any film rental costs but wished to use the revolutionary films as organizing tools. Better-financed, institutionally-affiliated individuals and groups, however, would be billed at the listed rental fee. Because Newsreel was willing to provide its films to activists for free and wasn’t into moneymaking, it was not a profit-making “alternative” Movement media venture, economically. But it did seem to have the potential in early 1970 to make a good impact on U.S. life politically. It had been formed less than 2 ½ years before, but its collection of films produced and its Movement reputation were already quite impressive. Politically, most Newsreel people were close to the Black Panther Party in their views and even less sectarian than Columbia SDS’s New Left faction had generally been.

Working with Newsreel in January, February and March 1970, I attended many internal political meetings, brought Newsreel films to be screened and led discussions at places like Richmond College, the High School of Music and Art, Mamaroneck High School, Cardozo High School, Erasmus High School and a special education high school in Westchester. I took my turn every few weeks staffing the Newsreel office for a day and, in March 1970, took a turn as office manager for a week.

As a member of the high school organizing caucus, I also handed out Rising Up Angry underground newspapers and “Free The Panther 21” Committee leaflets to students entering and exiting different high schools; and I spent a number of weekdays hanging out in White Castle Hamburger restaurants, across the street from city public schools. I also performed day care duties at the Falks’ townhouse on East 15th Street in Manhattan.

Like all the other Newsreel activists, I neither expected nor received pay for this kind of revolutionary organizing. But my low rent enabled me to survive by just working about 10 hours a week in the early evening, for two months, as a file clerk for pay, at American Express’s corporate offices, in a skyscraper on Broad Street. I got this early evening job through a temp agency and it provided me with enough money for food and my low rent.

By the time I started to work in an intense way with Newsreel, the main political issue within the organization was how to organizationally respond to the Newsreel women’s radical feminist criticisms of the way the organization functioned and the way the Newsreel men related to Newsreel women, politically and personally. At the first internal Newsreel high school organizing caucus meeting I attended (which was held in Mindy’s Lower East Side apartment), much of the discussion was devoted to criticizing Steve’s male chauvinism. He was criticized for describing Florrie as “pretty,” for putting his arm around Newsreel women in the Newsreel office and for relating to Mindy in a male chauvinist way when they did a film screening together. Movement men were also criticized by Florrie for still sometimes referring to women as “chicks” or as “girls.” Although there was also some talk about the best way to turn on high school students to the Movement, the main focus of the discussion was on combating male chauvinism within the Movement.

Mindy was not as physically beautiful or as personally warm as Florrie or Karen of Newsreel. And unlike Florrie or Karen of Newsreel, Mindy appeared to generally dislike men. But she seemed very intellectual and very politically conscious and the observations she made about male chauvinism among Movement men appeared to be valid. Florrie also impressed me for the first time at this meeting with her intellectual power and her political consciousness. Along with Andrea, Florrie appeared to be the dominant strategist within the high school organizing caucus. Clearly, Florrie was as capable of being a Movement political leader, and not just a Movement office worker, as any Movement man.

Andrea seemed even more intellectually self-confident and politically aware than she had been during the 1968-69 academic year as a Columbia SDS leader. Andrea was the daughter of a medical doctor; and she had been married to a brute of a first husband, following her graduation from Bennington in the early 1960s. After enrolling at Columbia, however, Andrea met Richard. But neither Andrea nor Richard had been active in the Movement while at Columbia until the April 1968 revolt, during which they were married inside Fayerweather Hall when it was still occupied.

Initially, like nearly everyone else who had been active in Columbia SDS during the 1968-69 school year, Andrea and Richard identified with the Weatherman faction. But by Fall 1969, Andrea and Richard felt the Weathermen were off-the-wall and so, instead, they became active in something called the “Mad Dog Caucus.” When the “Mad Dog Caucus” (which was a sect that was militantly anti-imperialist, but not as militant as the Weathermen) broke up in late November 1969, Andrea and Richard drifted into Newsreel.

Karen of Newsreel seemed as politically dedicated, personally sweet and as unselfish personally as she had seemed when I first met her at Richmond College. But she appeared content to let Florrie and Andrea exercise strategic and intellectual leadership within the high school organizing caucus.

Despite all the internal conflict around the struggle against male chauvinism, I, initially, felt we would be able to turn on high school students to the Movement, once we began leafleting and hanging out around the white working-class high schools we were going to focus our organizing on.