Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 16, 2008

Reign of terror in Houston

Filed under: repression,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

To help move along my comic book memoir, I have supplied the artist with a number of photos to base her drawings on. Some I found on the Internet and others I found in Columbia library books, like Joseph Greenstein, aka “The Mighty Atom”. The Mighty Atom was a vegetarian strong man who styled himself after Samson and who still was able to bend iron bars across his nose in his mid 70s, when I used to watch him perform at his bungalow colony in my home town in the Catskills.

One of the photos turned out to be highly elusive. Before I moved from Boston to Houston to work with the SWP branch down there in 1973, there was a Militant article from 1970 or 1971 that showed a Houston cop in a Klansman hood standing next to his patrol car. Both his badge number and the patrol car id were concealed. Since I am persona non grata with the SWP, I could not even call them up to get a copy of the photo. It is so bad that an old friend from my party days who never quarreled with them at all told me that he couldn’t call either. Apparently unless you are part of their tightly controlled ex-members network, you might as well be in the 9th circle of Hell with me.

I finally came across the photo this week in an interesting article on Klan terror in Texas.

Back then, the city was gripped by Klan terror. The local Pacifica station, KPFT, had its transmitter blown up twice by the KKK. Our headquarters had been bombed also. And one of the most frightening episodes involved Fred Brode, an SWP member who had fled Hitler’s Germany in his youth. Now he was a retired railroad worker and chairman of the Houston Committee to End the War in Vietnam. On November 2nd 1970, the N.Y. Times had an article titled “Liberals Accuse Houston Police” that covered a press conference in which we participated. The Times reported in its characteristically understated fashion that Fred Brode was a “frequent target” of the Klan, with “20 bullets being fired into his home within five months and a fire started underneath it.”

The real story was more dramatic. Late one night the Klan rode past Fred’s house in a working class neighborhood and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, leaving a trail of bullets across the kitchen wall. The next day SWP members went over to his house and put sandbags in front of his windows. This was reported in a Newsweek article on a “Reign of Terror in Houston”, which included the photo of the Klan Cop I was trying to track down. Unfortunately Newsweek’s online archives do not go that far back and my only alternative was to dig through the microfilm in the Columbia library.

When I arrived in Houston in mid-1973, the Klan was still a major threat to the left. When we ran for local office, our candidates used to focus heavily on the need for the city to rein in the Klan and to purge the police force. This was around the same time that the SWP had launched a 27 million dollar suit against the FBI for Cointelpro abuses. Being on the front lines of such civil liberties fights earned us the respect of many local liberals including John Henry Faulk, who had been blacklisted in the 1950s. I called him once to ask for a donation to our suit against the FBI, but he pled poverty. I was still charmed by the old man who kept calling me “Darlin'” and “Dear”.

About a year after I had settled into branch life, I came to the headquarters one Saturday afternoon to pick up some Militant newspapers to sell at a local grocery store. I parked my car in the lot behind the office building where our bookstore and office resided on the second floor. I noticed about 10 comrades in the parking lot close to the back door of the building with a look of consternation on their faces. One of them broke from the pack and came trotting toward me. He said, “Louis, come over now. It is too dangerous to be by yourself. The KKK is on the streets in front of the building.”

At that point, the group of us walked to the front and surveyed the situation. There were about 6 to 8 Klansmen wearing either white robes or dressed in military fatigues on the corners surrounding the building. All were wielding semi-automatic rifles. Stu Singer, the branch organizer who I knew from Boston, told us to stay there while he called the cops. Even though we knew the cops and the Klan were in cahoots, we had to make the record that we were demanding the same kind of protection that any citizen would receive. Sure enough, the cops showed up 5 minutes after the Klan disappeared. Clearly, they were in communication.

Even though the event took place 34 years ago, I still remember it like it happened last week. I sat on the steps on the front of the building frightened out of my wits. My knees were knocking like a character in an old Loony Tunes cartoon who had just seen a ghost. While I understood that the Klan would have never opened fire on a Saturday afternoon in a residential neighborhood, there was something about the sight of an M-16 that terrorized me, which of course was the intention.

After a couple of years, the city finally cracked down on the Klan. Louis Beam was arrested for orchestrating the bombing of the Pacifica transmitters and our headquarters but was never convicted. Despite this, the Klan was put on the defensive and the cops were pressured by the Mayor’s office to clean up its act. Houston aspired to be a major American city after the fashion of Atlanta and did not need this kind of bad publicity. Back in the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of hype about northerners moving down to such cities to get away from congestion, high prices and crime. The local bourgeoisie was anxious to promote this migration and did not need a bunch of rightwing fanatics to mess things up.

It would have been tragic if the SWP had seen the fight with the Klan in terms of the armed struggle. Another group made this mistake a few years later and paid dearly. The wiki on the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved itself in 1985, reports:

Confrontations with the Klan were particularly acute in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Klan attempted to disrupt the work of the CWP and vice versa. In July, 1979, the Klan held a rally and viewing of The Birth of a Nation in China Grove, near Greensboro, which was disrupted by CWP members who burned a Confederate flag and taunted members of the KKK. There were also challenges in the press. “The KKK is one of the most treacherous scum elements produced by the dying system of capitalism. We challenge you,” CWP leader Paul Bermanzohn taunted the Klan, “to attend our rally in Greensboro.” These apparent provocations provided the KKK a pretext for a coming violent showdown.

November 3, 1979 saw members of the KKK, including a police informant, and the American Nazi Party attack a “Death to the Klan!” rally organized by the CWP. Members of the Klan were armed, as were some members of the CWP. Two members of the CWP and three rally participants were killed in the assault by the KKK. This was the incident that became known as the “Greensboro Massacre”. In response to the acquittal of the accused killers, the CWP attempted to storm the 1980 Democratic National Convention and succeeded in setting off firecrackers in Madison Square Garden.

There is not much of value that I have retained from the SWP, but understanding how to deal with the ultraright was one such lesson. There is a tendency for young radicals to see such fights solely in terms of the physical relationship of forces, whereas the real challenge is forcing the bourgeois state to enforce its own laws against lawless elements. This is not to say that there won’t be a need to occasionally battle with fascist and semi-fascist elements in the streets but there is nothing worse for the left to come out of such battles on the losing end, as was the case with the CWP.

10 Comments »

  1. We in the ISO had a run in round 1980 with some local fascists. After one altercation I came home to my house and an unsual smell (I know – I know!!) struck me. I found rotten maggoty meat had been secreted everywhere. Someone had broken in as a warning. The next morning a hearse arrived for my corpse. Needless to say I hadn’t ordered it. Nor had I put up my house for rent – a trick that brought hundreds to my door immediately after dawn.

    Still all that was small beer compared to the rifles being touted in the open street. I am not at all sure btw that they would not have opened fire.

    In general terms though I agree entirley with your line on avoiding physical confrontations.

    wr

    Gary

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — August 16, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  2. Whoa. Back up a bit. You’re writing a comic book memoir?

    Comment by Martin Wisse — August 17, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  3. I had seen the footage of the Greensboro Massacre on PBS quite a long time ago (15-20 yrs). I don’t see how one could really “avoid” these types of confrontations, as IIRC the Klan pretty much descended on them without warning or provocation.

    Comment by Paul — August 17, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  4. The CWP had an ultraleft conception of how to fight the Klan. It is a big mistake to hold “Death to the Klan” rallies since it makes the fight between the two groups look like one involving mirror image “extremists”. Such adventurism does not advance the cause of the left.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — August 17, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  5. “the real challenge is forcing the bourgeois state to enforce its own laws against lawless elements.”

    This is the political conclusion LP draws from a photo of a Klansman getting out of a police car.(!)

    What a perfectly bizarre example from the Jack Barnes school of reformism: The bourgeois state is just a ‘neutral’ body, standing above class struggle. It’s just a matter of ‘forcing’ it, SWP style, to do the right thing…

    Maybe Proyect ‘didn’t retain much of value’ from his SWP experience, but their worthless social-democratic view of the capitalist state apparently lives forever.

    Comment by Red Cloud — August 17, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  6. Thanks to Red Cloud for providing a graphic example of ultraleftist stupidity. By his logic, Trotsky was wrong to ask the Mexican police to investigate the attempts on his life.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — August 17, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  7. And what a tragedy it was for the CWP, but at least they had the chutzpa to do what they did, which reflected “ultraleftism” in the best sense of the word, an excess of righteous zeal and which did send a message to the Klan and the right wing, albeit at a terrible cost.

    While the SWP may have not been as naive, they were too much mired in their own routinism and bureaucratic smugness of themselves to really do anything. Fred B., a veteran of the German communist movement going back to the Spartakus uprising of 1919, a guy who had actually been involved in street fights with the Nazis, who was in the Houston branch and a leader of the dissident Internationalist Tendency there, commented with great contempt about what he saw as the atmosphere of petty middle class respectability that existed there and what he saw as the cowardly response of certain persons therein to Klan provocations. Needless to say, the response by them towards him was not to acknowledge any of his historical background or to treat him any respect at all, but rather to demonize him in typical style for petty rule infractions. One of these characters, who Fred was talking about, a friend of national leaders, Paul McK,
    has recently come out as follower of Hayek, Friedman and other exponents of laissez-faire capitalism and enemies of the labor movement. As Mao said of certain of his followers in the 1930s, “a harvest of fleas” [as opposed to the dragons that were needed].

    I had the privilege of attending a conference in Greensboro in December 1980 in solidarity with the CWP comrades in which a broad section of the radical left was represented. Needless to say, the SWP was nowhere to be seen.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — August 18, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  8. LP: “Thanks to Red Cloud for providing a graphic example of ultraleftist stupidity. By his logic, Trotsky was wrong to ask the Mexican police to investigate the attempts on his life.”

    ‘Ultraleftist’ may describe the CWP maoists in their tragically miguided confrontation with the KKK in Greensboro (which acted with support from the FBI and local cops). But this is a minor sin compared with the SWP’s unbroken record of reformist belly-crawling and anti-communism during the 70’s/80’s, which led so many young radicals at the time to misidentify ‘trotskyism’ with class treason. (The air of ‘bureaucratic smugness’ described by the post above was a necessary bi-product of this.)

    Unlike the Dobbs-Barnes SWP ‘tradition’, Trotsky and Cannon never corrupted the Marxist program into ‘peaceful, legal’ appeals to the bourgeois state. In fact, Trotsky described such social-democratic politics as “literally training the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the capitalist state.”

    Comment by Red Cloud — August 18, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

  9. […] 70s as a Trotskyist on assignment. I reported on the confrontation between the party and the KKK here. I think that it would be worth it to give you a flavor of daily life in Houston that was less […]

    Pingback by Life in Houston « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 16, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  10. LP, thanks for sharing this experience! I think militants today need to be looking at moments like you describe here and I am just so glad that you are documenting them for us to have! Recently in Houston there were a series of rallies in response to the Zimmerman verdict. One in particular had a counter protest made up of the right (anywhere from conservative folks, and tea party types, to some straight up fascists). I have heard that in the not to distant past a Houston-based ARA was successful in running these nazi elements out of the city. Now there is not an ARA to speak of here, as well as it being low movement times in general, it appears as though they are making there way back in the city. I am curious to know what your take on ARA and their confrontations with fascists. I have some thoughts, pros and cons, but given your own run-ins with the kkk I’d like to hear what you think.

    Comment by adelita — July 30, 2013 @ 7:57 am


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