The death of north-american political activist, Roz Payne, takes us back not only to her life, but to an extraordinarily intense moment of radical politics in the united states.
Originally published by Autonomies.
It is impossible to say what was most significant politically in all that Payne dedicated herself to. We will mention only the Vermont commune movement of the late 1960’s, a movement that was easily the largest and most sustained effort to put an end to capitalism through rural communes and cooperative forms of life, in the country’s recent history.
Below, we share a testimonial of Payne’s life by David Van Deusen, a short article on her political life, a short text by her on the Newsreel Collective (of which she was a founding member), and final account by Van Deusen on the Vermont commune movement, in which she was also involved.
May 21, 2019. Vermont lost one of our most remarkable woman today; film maker, journalist, Black Panther historian, communard, Green Mountain Red, revolutionary, and (ironically) Richmond constable Roz Payne has left this world and these Green Hills for points beyond. Roz grew up in a working class-leftist household in New Jersey. Her mother was a union organizer in Lawrence, MA during the Great Depression. Her father ran for NJ State Senate as a member of the Socialist Party. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was her sometimes babysitter.
Come the late 60s, Roz was a member of the Newsreel Collective where she worked on films dedicated to telling the truer stories of the unjust war in Vietnam, the social revolution occurring in Cuba, the struggle for Black Liberation, and the plight & struggle of the common people. As part of Newsreel she worked closely with the NYC Black Panther Party, aiding in the political education of new recruits through film showings and discussion groups.
In the early 1970s, Roz (and other members of Newsreel) moved to Putney, Vermont where they started the Red Clover commune. Red Clover, in turn, went on to be one of the founding communes in Free Vermont –a federation of Vermont communes which aimed to recreate a more cooperative anti-capitalist social framework throughout the Green Mountains.
Later in the 70s, Payne moved to the Burlington area where she co-founded the Green Mountain Red commune (also affiliated with Free Vermont). Her work in Chittenden County around this time included helping to form Burlington’s Community Health Center (recently unionized by AFT), and the Onion River Co-op (now Burlington City Market – unionized by UE Local 203).
Later, she moved to Richmond, Vermont, where she was elected to the office of First Constable on a lark, and spent much of her time researching and archiving materials on the Black Panther Party. Roz continued to live in Richmond for the years to come.
I had the pleasure of meeting Roz on a couple of occasions throughout the years, and of interviewing her for an article I wrote on Vermont’s commune days for Catamount Tavern News. While I did not know her well, I do know this.. Roz was one of the most remarkable women to call Vermont their home. She lived her principles and lived them well. While there is no painting of her hanging on the Statehouse walls, there damn well should be. But perhaps a more meaningful memorial already exists in the social framework that now exists around us… From the Community Health Centers in Chittenden County, to the co-ops in every town worth its weight in salt, to the farmers markets (which were reinvigorated by the commune movement of the 70s), to the body of knowledge that has been preserved in regards to the Black Panther Party, Roz played a role in all of it. Roz, in short, was on our side. She will be missed, but she will not be forgotten. Rest In Peace.
David Van Deusen, District Vice President of the Vermont AFL-CIO
What follows is an article on Roz Payne which was published in Vermont Women in 2007:
Born of a Red Flame, Documenting the History
of the Black Panthers – Filmmaker Roz Payne
By Margaret Michniewicz,
When Black Panther Party (BPP) member Dr. Curtis Powell was about to be arrested on April 2, 1969, it wasn’t an attorney or a family member that he called. Roz Payne and her colleague in the Newsreel film collective, both white, accompanied Powell to his apartment where he prepared to turn himself in to the NYPD. As the trio entered the apartment, police in bullet-proof vests with rifles rose from behind furniture while Payne and her colleague went in shooting – with cameras.
Powell – one of the so-called Panther 21 indicted and subsequently cleared on charges of conspiracy, arson, and attempted murder in New York City in 1969 – feared that when he turned himself in to police he might never get to a courtroom – that instead, he would be shot while supposedly “trying to resist arrest.” Just one year before, fellow Panther Bobby Hutton had exited a building surrounded by police in Oakland, California with his hands in the air, and was shot twelve times, fatally. Powell believed that if he was accompanied by white photographers he would stand a better chance of getting to the courthouse. And so, Roz Payne was the second person to enter that apartment, right behind Powell. She shot; fortunately the police didn’t.
That was nearly 40 years ago, at the zenith of the BPP’s power and prominence. By the early 1970s, Payne had settled in Vermont. Through deaths, imprisonment, rifts, and changing leadership the Panthers continued on, as has Payne’s involvement with them. “For the past 40 years, I have collected and maintained an archive of Newsreel films and materials related to the Black Panther Party. Both of those groups are part of me,” Payne says. The culmination of their relationship is Payne’s DVD tour de force, What We Want, What We Believe: the Black Panther Party Library, released last fall by the Roz Payne Archives and Newsreel Films. The four-disc collection features 12 hours of footage, including three Newsreel films (Off the Pig; Mayday; Repression) and other archival material. It’s a fascinating and compelling look at a critical point in United States history, not to mention a cautionary tale for 21st century PATRIOT ACTive America.
From Muscle Beach to Harlem
“I was always chicken,” Payne tells me at her Richmond home, an unconvincing characterization following the Powell story. She’s recalling an incident in which fellow Newsreel members got arrested when they staged a protest at a TV station. “My theory was that you don’t get arrested, you escape. My mother told me that – escape!”
Not that her mother followed her own advice, however. Edith Berkman – described by one Catholic priest as a “red flame straight from hell” – was an organizer for the textile union in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and in 1932 at the age of 28 she was trying to persuade all of the mills’ workers to go on strike at the same time. “The owners of the mills [had gotten together and] decided to cut the wages by five cents – when you’re making thirty-five cents an hour that’s a lot,” notes Payne. Years later, one of Payne’s aunts gave her two newspaper articles about her mother from this time. “Before I saw this picture,” Payne says, pointing to a news clipping, “I visualized [the police] dragging her off – but she looks really proud there. It says ‘A Socialist agitator arrested in Lawrence, Mass. last Thursday while speaking on behalf of textile workers protesting ten percent wage decrease. She’s now in Boston facing deportation as an undesirable alien.’ That’s one picture. And I’ve got another picture but it’s totally different. They’re twisting her arms, her face is in pain, they’re taking her away – she was held because she wasn’t a US citizen – held for deportation back to Poland. Another organizer, Anne Burlak, came to take her place and the newspapers said ‘Another Red Flame Has Appeared.’”
Fortunately, Berkman was not deported, and Roz was subsequently born in Paterson, New Jersey, where her father, James Cristiano, ran for the state Senate on the Socialist Party ticket; in the liner notes of the DVDs, it’s mentioned that Allen Ginsberg was an occasional babysitter. “I came from a very political home, and had a Leftist background, let’s say. My parents were really activists against racial discrimination; they talked a lot about equality as part of our day-to-day life,” Payne explains. “It was the fifties and schools were being desegregated, and friends of mine were doing Freedom Rides, going to Mississippi to work in the summer. I didn’t do that but it was part of my background.”
Her family moved to Hollywood, where Roz grew up, graduated from high school and UCLA and, in 1962, married her high school sweetheart, Arnold Payne (“Mr. Muscle Beach, Jr.” as Payne dryly refers to her husband of five years). The couple moved east and Payne began teaching in New Jersey after earning her masters degree at City College New York. By 1967, her marriage broken up, she was already moving toward a life of activism. As she recalls in the What We Want liner notes: “I left a little house on the Palisades cliffs in Jersey, overlooking the boats on the Hudson River. As the sun set, I would look out at the burning windows of the NYC skyline. That fire and the fire from a GI’s Zippo lighter on the straw of a Vietnamese hut helped ignite me.”
Anyone from her generation, Payne explains, recalls the “appalling” images of US soldiers in Vietnam burning down villages and cutting up bags of rice to dump on the ground.
Meanwhile, Payne’s career as a teacher wasn’t going smoothly. “I was having a hard time teaching. I got sent home by the principal one day because – mini skirts had come out – and he said my skirt was too short and I had to go home and change. Luckily,” Payne comments in her characteristically wry tone, “I lived close by.”
She was ready to make concessions on fashion, perhaps, but it became increasingly impossible for Payne to toe the educational establishment line. Her students made a mural that incorporated newspaper articles, one of which showed the resulting carnage from an accidental bombing of a Vietnamese village by the US. When Payne was not present, the principal asked students about the mural’s content and they told the principal it was the result of a Vietcong bombing, so that he wouldn’t get angry at Payne. She quit teaching and became a filmmaker.
Newsreel was a collective of independent filmmakers, photographers, and media workers formed to make politically relevant films. “The only news we saw was on TV and we knew who owned the stations. We decided to make films that would show another side to the news. It was clear to us that the established forms of media were not going to approach those subjects which threaten their very existence,” writes Payne on her Web site about the group. “Our films tried to analyze, not just cover, the realities that the media, as part of the system, always ignores. We didn’t like to just send our films out; we would go out and speak with our films. We saw them as weapons. We hoped to serve as part of the catalyst for revolutionary social change.” Sometimes, Payne recalls, they would park a van in front of a “fancy” restaurant and project a film on the side of the vehicle as a movie screen.
Black Panther member Zayd Shakur asked her to show Newsreel films to the new BPP recruits and young BPP party members on Monday nights at their Harlem branch, as part of their political education class. “I would take one of our projectors in a case – projectors are pretty heavy, by the way – and maybe two films under my arms and my purse and I’d take the subway up to Harlem, get out and walk a number of blocks to the Panther office. I’d set up the projector and show films and lead discussion. I’d show films on the Panthers, or the war in Vietnam, maybe some other issue happening in the US, and we’d have a discussion. And then, I’d pack up my stuff and go back [downtown]. We let the Panthers use our dark room, taught them photography techniques. We considered them comrades. They always treated me with great respect and we had a lovely relationship. We were in partnership in our struggle.
“The Panthers – a lot of people don’t know this – were not racist against white people,” Payne continues. “They cooperated and worked with white people; white people supported them” (among those who attended the funeral of the murdered Panther Bobby Hutton was actor Marlon Brando) – as did Asian Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans. “That was another reason why I loved the Panthers was because of their relationship to other people in the community.”
Founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, the BPP began as a response to police and Klan violence routinely directed at African-Americans. Payne explains that the commonly accepted origin of the name was because the black panther is an animal that will not attack, and if it is attacked it will back up until it has no more room to back up. Then, it will strike out at its assailant.
At the time, it was legal in California to carry loaded guns in public, but not concealed weapons. The Panthers began forming armed patrols that followed the Oakland police to deter them from brutalizing African American citizens, which was a frequent occurrence. They came to worldwide attention when they went to the state Legislature and surrounded the building, wearing their signature black berets and leather jackets, standing at attention – and prominently holding guns. It was legal, and a powerful message was sent out that perhaps there was no longer any room to back up.
The media relished these types of Panther activities, which were more sensational to portray than the widespread social programs that the Panthers instituted in each city as BPP chapters flourished throughout the US. “The world over, the image of the Panther is tied to standing up for your rights,” Billy Jennings told a local paper on the occasion of the BPP’s 35th anniversary, pointing to law enforcement’s establishment of Miranda rights, a federal feeding program for needy students and a national focus on the impact of sickle cell anemia in the Black community as issues first introduced by the Panthers. The Panthers also started the Free Breakfast for Children Program; they would cook and serve food to poor children in the cities. Soon they were feeding over 10,000 school children in the morning before they went to school, and some believe it may have been a major influence on President Lyndon Johnson enacting the federally funded School Breakfast Program.
Among the thousands of still photos that Payne shot of Panther activities are scenes from the “Free Huey!” protests in California, when Newton was on trial in 1969 for murder, a conviction that was later overturned. Also in 1969, Bobby Seale and nine other Panthers were charged with murder in New Haven, Connecticut; during the proceedings, a young woman named Hillary Rodham was one the Yale law students who volunteered with the ACLU to monitor the trial for civil rights violations.
Concurrently, Payne photographed the widespread protests around the New York Panther 21 trial, which would be the longest-running political trial in New York history – eight months – and resulted in acquittal for all 21 defendants after just 45 minutes of jury deliberation. Among the defendants was Afeni Shakur, pregnant at the time with the future rap artist, Tupac Shakur. She was the only Panther defendant released on bail, so, many days after the court proceedings, Payne joined Shakur in her hotel room near the courthouse to review the day’s events. Payne also testified on behalf of Powell, relating how he had turned himself in to the police.
Dhoruba Bin Wahad was also among the Panther 21 and within a month of that trial ending he was arrested again for attempted murder on dubious grounds, was found guilty, and began his 25-year sentence in prison.
Richmond by Way of Putney
Payne eventually settled in Richmond in the 1970s, but her first Vermont home was on a Putney commune – a “political collective” as Payne prefers to call it. She can point to a number of currently thriving mainstream establishments that have their roots in the idealistic efforts of Payne and her hippie colleagues. For example, her Burlington-area political collective would buy oregano in bulk and divvy it up; the practice eventually evolved into the Onion River Co-op which is now Burlington’s City Market. And the traveling medical teams they formed to serve low-income individuals in the far reaches of the Northeast Kingdom were predecessors of the Queen City’s Community Health Center.
Payne was also involved in the founding of the Vermont Women’s Health Center (VWHC). VWHC intended to provide abortions in addition to other reproductive health care services to women and, when it came time to open their doors, the staff anticipated opposition. As a result, Payne was VWHC’s first patient, “treated” with a blood test on a Sunday evening. “We decided it would be harder to close us down on Monday if we had already [started serving patients],” Payne explains.
In 1981 she began to work as a legal investigator and law clerk in the office of Burlington attorney Sandy Baird, and from 1985-89 completed the Vermont Law Clerk Program. Today, she is on the faculty of Burlington College and continues to live in Richmond.
Back on the Panther Beat
In the mid-1950s, the FBI began its counterintelligence program, commonly known as COINTELPRO, aimed at investigating – and disrupting – what it deemed “dissident” political organizations in the US. Targets ranged from Native American groups to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; up until 1971, COINTELPRO was secret. By 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
COINTELPRO’s stated methods included infiltration and exterior psychological warfare – as well as harassment through the legal system and extralegal force and violence. The latter could and did mean political assassination.
On September 1, 2001 a report entitled “COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story” was presented to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. According to this lengthy document,
In 1980, the FBI and NYPD were ordered by the Court to produce their massive files on Mr. Dhoruba Bin Wahad and the BPP, that they had claimed did not exist. The FBI and NYPD documents revealed that Mr. Bin Wahad was indeed a target of FBI/NYPD covert operations…. The “Newkill” file, which was finally produced in unredacted form in 1987, after 12 years of litigation, contains numerous reports which should have been provided to Dhoruba Bin Wahad during his trial.
It was just by coincidence that Roz Payne happened to be in NY visiting at the law office of her friend, Liz Fink – the day when Fink received word that she had won a suit and the FBI had to turn over documents relating to the case of Fink’s client, Dhoruba Bin Wahad. “He had been in jail for 17 years and there had been real problems in his case – material withheld, information about ballistics that was wrong that was withheld; they really wanted him to remain in jail. Liz got it released. She put all this material together and brought it to the offices of the judge, who happened to be a black woman (Mary Johnson Lowe). At the end of the day, when the judge went into her office to have her cigarette she began reading it and she couldn’t leave her office because she couldn’t believe what she was reading – that the FBI had actually done all of this. She called Liz Fink and said, ‘if this is true, there’s going to be some heads rolling here.’ And so the next day in court she ordered all the material on Dhoruba Bin Wahad and the Black Panthers released – which turned out to be 350,000 documents.
“When I read them I couldn’t believe that the FBI actually released this material. I was used to seeing things blacked out and they didn’t black out stuff because it was what’s called ‘discovery material,’ it wasn’t Freedom of Information material [which can be redacted],” Payne explains.
Release of these documents eventually led to the release of Wahad from prison. In addition to their value in clearing his name, Payne discovered the extent of the dirty tricks directed at the Panthers, many of whom were people she knew personally. Or, material that showed how even the BPP breakfast programs were sabotaged by COINTELPRO. Payne spent the next eight years painstakingly indexing all of the material, working out of Baird’s Burlington law office on Main Street.
Of Pigs and Harrington Hams
From the mountain of documents, “I started to compile my own special file called ‘WAC,’” Payne says of material signed with these initials. She would subsequently find out that her Agent WAC was FBI agent William A. Cohendet who was not part of COINTELPRO, but responsible for summarizing field reports submitted by agents throughout the country, in all the cities with BPP activity, and submitting them to FBI headquarters.
“In the law office, going through these hundreds of thousands of documents, all of a sudden somebody would call out ‘Agent WAC report!’ and the whole office – lawyers and paralegals would gather around and we’d read it out loud,” Payne grins. “He was a great writer, he was gossipy, he was racist, he was sexist, he liked to make jokes – and he wrote it so well. We’d say, ‘Can you imagine that he said this, that he wrote it on paper?!’”
Through what can only be described as a bizarre twist of fate, a photocopied list of San Francisco FBI agents from the time, with their home addresses and phone numbers, was part of the package of documents that the Bureau released, and Payne was ultimately able to contact Cohendet. They became pen pals of a sort, over the course of a number of years, with the retired FBI agent, then in his late 70s, knowing only of Payne that she was a history teacher who taught her classes about him. Cohendet was interested in seeing some of the things he had written and Payne accommodated his desire, in increments. “I teased him a little,” Payne smiles conspiratorially. “I didn’t send him anything interesting to start off. I never told him a lie, by the way. I never lied to him – I never told him the truth, particularly, but I never lied to him.”
In 1989, Payne was elected constable in Richmond (the result of a joke, when friends wrote her name in on the ballot – and she won) and in this capacity, she was sent to the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford – yet another intriguing nugget to woo the confidence of Agent WAC. He noted that he had heard of Payne’s small Vermont village out of fond familiarity with Harrington Hams.)
After a couple of years of their relationship by correspondence, Cohendet informed Payne that he was going to be coming East for a school reunion and to visit his in-laws in the area, suggesting that maybe they could finally meet in person. And that they did, with Payne going so far as to buy a new dress and have her hair done so as to look “proper” for their dinner engagement at the Radisson Hotel, joined by Agent WAC’s wife and another couple. When she met him, Payne said, politely but in all seriousness, “You did a very good job of helping to destroy the Black Panther Party,” to which he thanked her. “His wife then patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘You appreciate him more than his own children.’ And then we had dinner, and I enjoyed myself immensely,” Payne smiles.
Cohendet must have, too, for he agreed the following year to have Payne come to his Burlingame, California home to interview him on video about his work with the FBI. The interview, on his 80th birthday, is included in the What We Want. The unsuspecting Agent WAC, with a disarmingly kindly face and smiling eyes, is ultimately pressed more and more by Payne as she interrogates him on his complicity in the dirty tricks of COINTELPRO.
After some time, he concedes that it was a “shame” about what happened to “that actress,” referring to Jean Seberg, whom Hoover [said] should be “neutralized” because of the financial support she had been giving the BPP. According to the “Untold Story” COINTELPRO report, this was achieved by planting the false story with a Hollywood gossip columnist that Seberg was pregnant by a Panther and not her husband. The report continues: “Seberg responded to the ‘disclosure’ by attempting suicide… This in turn precipitated the premature delivery of her fetus; it died two days later. Seberg held a press conference, and brought the fetus in a glass jar, to prove that it was white.” Eventually, she did take her own life.
America’s Untold Story is Told
By the beginning of the 1970s, the Black Panther Party was in disarray through a mixture of internal turmoil and strife, and external interference by the US government. Factions emerged between Huey P. Newton’s supporters and the followers of Eldridge Cleaver (who by then was living in exile in Algeria). Payne refers to it as the West Coast/East Coast split, herself aligning with the latter. “When you have a relationship with somebody it’s not necessarily that one’s right and one’s wrong – but [that] you care about your friends. [It’s] kind of like the Sunni and the Shia – not everyone’s necessarily bad. I supported the East Coast Panthers because I knew them,” Payne acknowledges.
“The Panthers helped destroy themselves because they’re just human. Whatever group you’re dealing with, people leave, there are arguments. But at the same time, COINTELPRO did all sorts of stuff to really push this,” Payne explains. “The COINTELPRO program did everything they possibly could to destroy the Panthers,” she asserts soberly.
Life has gone on, though, for many BPP members. Kathleen Cleaver, herself a prominent leader of the BPP in its heyday (she was the first woman in the Party’s decision-making body, the Central Committee) went on to graduate summa cum laude from Yale University, and then Yale Law School. She now teaches law at Emory University, outliving Eldridge, whom she divorced in 1987. In one of the segments showing the 35th Reunion of the Black Panthers, Kathleen Cleaver smiles warmly at the audience and notes “There are now more children and grandchildren of Panthers than there ever were original Panthers!”
Payne has been faithfully on hand to record even these recent Panther activities, including bringing the Panthers’ 20th “birthday” cake all the way to California from Burlington’s Doughboy’s Bakery. She had asked that it say “Power to the People” on top of the cake and when she went to pick it up, asked the cashier what she thought that meant. “You’re taking it to a party for the electric company?” the young woman ventured.
The release of the DVD set has brought invitations for Payne to speak about the Panthers and show excerpts from the series. She enthusiastically describes the energy and diversity of the audience at Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk Festival at which she spoke in early July, where a significant number of young people expressed keen interest in learning about this era of US history.
According to Dr. James Turner, former president of the African Heritage Studies Association, quoted in “The Untold Story” report: “The F.B.I. set out to break the momentum developed in black communities in the late fifties and early sixties… [it was necessary] to put together organizational mechanisms to deliver services [but instead] our ability to influence things that happen to us internally and externally was killed.” He assessed COINTELPRO programs as having “serious long-term consequences for black Americans.”
The United States is not quite a democracy, write the authors of “The Untold Story,” and one of the things that makes it not quite a democracy “is the existence of outfits like the FBI and the CIA. Democracy is based on openness, and the existence of a secret policy, secret lists of dissident citizens, violates the spirit of democracy.”
And this was presented on Sept.1, 2001 – before the enactment of measures taken during the war on terror.
Remember, warns Payne: “What our government did to the Black Panthers could happen to you.”
Margaret Michniewicz is editor of Vermont Woman newspaper.
Roz Payne on the early Newsreel Collective
In 1967 a group of independent filmmakers, photographers, and media workers formed a collective to make political relevant films sharing our resources, skills, and equipment. As individuals we had been covering many of the events that we considered news, demonstrations, acts of resistance, and countless inequities and abuses. Sometimes films were made and some times not. Most often they were made too late and did not go to the people who could use them best.
We met in a basement in the lower eastside of New York and later at the alternate U, then more basements until we got an office. The only news we saw was on TV and we knew who owned the stations. We decided to make films that would show another side to the news. It was clear to us that the established forms of media were not going to approach those subjects which threaten their very existence.
I was a school teacher in New Jersey who shot photos. My marriage with Arnold Payne, Mr. Muscle Beach Jr. had broken up, I left a little house on the Palisades, overlooking the boats on the Hudson River right over the Spry sign across from 96th Street. I would sit looking at the burning windows of the NYC skyline as the sun set. That fire and the fire from a GI?s Zippo lighter on the straw of a Vietnamese hut helped ignite me. I moved to New York City.
Walking down Second Ave and 10th Street with my camera one afternoon Melvin Margolis, a wild looking hippie stopped me and said, ?Hey, your a photographer and there?s a meeting tonight of all the political film people. You have to go. It is very important. Make sure that you go. I?m not kidding.? I showed up that night, to the first meeting of Newsreel.
About 30 people met weekly to talk about films, equipment, and politics. I think we were great because we came from various political backgrounds and had different interests. We never all agreed on a political line. We broke down into smaller groups to work on the films. The working groups included anti-Vietnam-war, anti-imperialist, high school, students, women, workers, Yippies, Third World, and the infamous sex, drugs and party committee.
We wanted to make two films a month and get 12 prints of each film out to groups across the country. We wanted to spark the creation of similar news-film groups in other major cities of the United States so that they would distribute our films and would cover and shoot the events in their area.
The first film I worked on was the 1968 student take over of Columbia University. The students had taken over 5 buildings. We had a film team in each building. We were shooting from the inside while the rest of the press were outside. We participated in the political negotiations and discussions. Our cameras were used as weapons as well as recording the events. Melvin had a W.W.II cast iron steel Bell and Howell camera that could take the shock of breaking plate glass windows.
Newsreel worked to expand the awareness of events and situations relevant to shaping the movement. Our films tried to analyze, not just cover; they explored the realities that the media, as part of the system, always ignores.
In the 67 the FBI started the Counter-intelligence program to try to destroy African Americans, especially the Black Panther Party and the New Left. We worked with Third World groups. We produced various films that these groups could use to tell their stories and to use in organizing in their own communities and workplaces, hopefully serving as catalysis for social change.
Newsreel not only made films but we were among the first to distribute films made in Cuba, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East.
As Newsreel grew we spread out, opened offices and distribution centers across the country. We had offices in San Francisco, Detroit, Boston, Kansas, Los Angeles, Vermont, and Atlanta. We made films and distributed our films in the hope that the audiences who saw them would respond to the issues they raised. We wanted people to work with our films as catalysis for political discussions about social change in America and to relate the questions in the films to issues in their own communities.
We had many struggles in Newsreel around class, women, political education, cultural and worker politics, the haves and have nots. It was hard to hold to the correct political line. Little by little the groups changed from film-maker control to worker control, to women control, to third world control. Today, Third World Newsreel is in New York, California Newsreel is in San Francisco, and there is a Vermont Newsreel Archives.
In l972, myself and others moved to Vermont. We continue to distribute Newsreel films, shoot videos, use computer graphics, and maintain a film, photo, and document archive. With the easy accessibility of video cameras thousands of people are making their own documents to tell the stories of what is happening around them. I am shooting history of retired FBI agents that worked on Cointelpro against Don Cox, an exiled Black Panther and the white women who helped him. I teach History of the Sixties, Civil Rights Movement, Women, and Mycology at Burlington College.
The Newsreel Collective was founded in 1967, in New York City (today, it bears the name Third World Newsreel). Their film work was concerned above all with radical political activism, and it covered an remarkable range of events and movements. But it also sought to capture the violence of everyday life under capitalism and endeavoured to politicise it. Today, this work is a living archive of political possibility.
An excellent source for this work is available at a digital archive.
But a few Images of this work …
Green Mountain Communes: The Making of a Peoples’ Vermont (2008)
David Van Deusen/Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (anarchist library)
Gonna leave the city, got to get away,
Gonna leave the city, got to get away.
All that hustling and fighting man,
you know I sure can’t stay.
-Goin’ Up To The Country, Canned Heat
Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.
Do you, Mr. Jones?
-Ballot of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan
From 1965 through 1975 it is estimated that 100,000 young people migrated north to the Green Mountains; most simply passed through. Still, many thousands remained. These newcomers, mostly white, of mixed class background and primarily from the eastern cities, shared the commonality of being part of a loosely defined 60s counter-culture. This youth migration culminated in the founding of 50-100 communes by 1970. Their forms varied; some were organized around radical left politics, others around agriculture, many more lacked any defining focus beyond the vague parameters of the hippy counter-culture. What they all had in common, whether this was individually articulated or not, was a desire to transcend mainstream America. With this, social experimentation as opposed to adherence to traditional political-social-family structures became the counter-culture norm.
The first wave of communards hit the Green Mountains in the mid-60s. By 1967 a number of communes were established, especially in the southeast part of the state. Of these, a good deal of their members cut their teeth in the Civil Rights Movement, and the continuing resistance to the war in Vietnam.
Robert Houriet, an early communard and a current resident of the Northeast Kingdom, recalls, “The commune movement began with the Civil Rights Movement. The Freedom Houses in the south became the incubators of the communes… People continued to live communally because they wanted to restore the broader community of the Civil Rights Movement.”
However, Houriet [who authored Getting Back Together, a book on communes in 1969] contends that this first wave was not necessarily intending to organize Vermont – at least not at first. In fact he understands these first commune pioneers essentially as political refugees suffering from both urban police repression and political burnout.
“The first phase was an escape, but it was an escape which had a utopian element… The big bang came after the Chicago [Democratic National] Convention. The Chicago convention [and the ensuing riots] was the epigamic event where people realized the political movement was over –fractured beyond repair. You can go to the Weathermen or you can go to Vermont,” says Houriet.
Many of these early migrants, a good number of whom were formally members of or allied to the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), sought to take refuge in these northern hills. It was a time for reflection, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and an evaluation of their personal and social lives. But it was not long before two things occurred. First, after 68’ the trickle of counter-culture migrants turned into a flood. This mass second wave quickly led to the formation of dozens of new communes, especially in the north. Second, the older SDS/political elements realized that any attempt to circumvent personal and economic alienation was intimately tied to the external community. And with that, new efforts at political organizing were rekindled.
One commune, Red Clover, was at the forefront of these new efforts. Members, including John Douglas, Jane Kramer, Robert Kramer, and Roz Payne, began as a radical media collective in New York City called Newsreel. By 1969 this group, now transplanted to Putney, formed an organization called Free Vermont. The goal of Free Vermont was, simply put, to bring forth a popular revolution in the Green Mountains. To do so they worked to consolidate the newly arrived counter-cultural elements into the radical left. To a smaller extent, and with mixed results, they also sought to radicalize the native population. Free Vermont’s political analysis also hinged on the belief that the urban centers of the United States were teetering on revolt, especially in the Black community. In the event of widespread urban insurrection, it was their contention that Vermont, and other rural areas, should be prepared to act in a supporting role. Towards this end they acquired firearms as a means of self-defense. But the acquiring of weapons was by no account considered a strategic end by Free Vermont. They realized that to foster a meaningful and socialist revolution and/or to provide the anticipated broader revolution support, it was first necessary to build up their own effective institutions which in turn would give the counter-culture left a non-capitalist (or at least a more participatory) means of subsistence and production. By enlarge these new institutions took the form of producer, consumer, and service orientated co-ops and collectives. By bringing people together within co-ops it was hoped that the ingrained cultural posits of individualism and authoritarianism could be, in part, replaced with a new cooperativism compatible with the basic principles of socialism.
As Free Vermont began to reach out to the communes, they soon launched a number of co-ops across the state. In Brattleboro they opened a free auto shop (Liberation Garage) and worker-owned and operated restaurant (the Common Ground). They began dozens of food purchasing co-ops. A free health clinic was formed in Burlington. A children’s collective school called Red Paint was formed in southern Vermont. A Peoples’ Bank was started whereby economically better off communes deposited money that could be accessed by communes of lesser means. They organized forums against the war, organized woman’s groups, and around ecological issues. Free Vermont also printed a leftist newspaper which was distributed by the thousands in the high schools and communes alike. In the north, where many communes focused on agricultural pursuits, farming co-ops were formed. Attempts were made to circumvent the highly capitalistic produce markets in Boston and New York by establishing a cooperative distribution center. The success of these endeavors varied, but for a few years, perhaps between 1969-1973, one could squint their eyes and almost see the outline of a true cultural revolution on the horizon. Free Vermont, though counting a hardcore activist base of no more 100, soon attracted ten times that many fellow travelers; a sizable force in a state that at that time had a total population of less than 400,000 people.
John Douglas, co-founder of Free Vermont and current Charlotte resident, recalls “[Our goal was] fucking revolution! Free Vermont was… the umbrella organization we had put together… We traveled around Vermont rooting out communes and collectives. We really were focused on bringing the state together politically around [opposition to] the war [in Vietnam], around the [Black] Panthers, [and] Civil Rights.”
Roz Payne, who later went on to form another Free Vermont commune in Burlington called Green Mountain Red states, “We were living together and we were trying to create a better world together… We were trying to make changes in our lives and the politics of the world as far as racism and imperialism and capitalism.”
But the story of Free Vermont is not the whole story. In Plainfield the Maple Hill Commune, which had dealings with Free Vermont but should not be considered part of its political core, also had their own impact on their surroundings.
Jim Higgins, a former Maple Hill resident and presently a writer for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, recalls “[In 1971] I went on to form the Plainfield Co-op with a lot of my old communards… One of our goals was to bring into our co-op network local born adults. It was an energetic effort to reach out with our ideas of cooperative business practices and wholesome food and subverting the system as it were through tremendously reduced prices… There was many co-op discussions about products we would offer that would bridge the gap, so we vigorously pursued non-food products from [wood]stoves to chainsaws, to ball jars, snowshoes, [and] skis; products that generally had interest to those around us who would not necessarily be interested in brown rice and soy beans. That helped a great deal simply breaking social barriers. They had to come into the co-op to buy it. ”
The experience of the Maple Hill Commune, who also took an active role in organizing demonstrations and teach-ins to end the conflict in Vietnam, is not dissimilar from experiences of dozens of other communes across the state. In short, the Commune Movement was a force, or at least a point of conversation, in many a small Vermont town.
Internally, a good number if not most communes sought to break the subtle and not so subtle chains of sexism. More often than not (and as a rule on Free Vermont Communes), decisions were made democratically, by all the members, housework was expected from males, while tasks such a splitting winter wood was also done by women. Childcare was collectivized and was performed by both sexes. Political meetings would include woman’s caucuses. The Liberation Garage in Brattleboro held free auto repair classes, organized by Jane Kramer, especially aimed at teaching women how to fix their cars and trucks. In Burlington the Green Mountain Red collective was pivotal in opening a free woman’s health clinic (which today is merged with the local Planned Parenthood). The Red Clover Collective organized a touring performance which taught and celebrated woman’s history.
In many ways, Vermont communes, or at least the more politically active communes, did not suffer the same fractures that much of the broader U.S. left did when feminism came into its own in the early 70s. This was a result of the genesis of the Free Vermont Movement. Free Vermont was essentially founded by the Red Clover Collective, which itself was an outgrowth of the older Newsreel Collective. And here, the Newsreel Collective already recognized the problems of internal sexism and found ways of correcting these tendencies.
Roz Payne, who was considered one of the political heavies of the movement, contends, “Free Vermont was a political activity that we had undertaken to organize and politicize all the [Vermont] communes. And we’re the ones that…came out of a Newsreel Collective that talked about woman’s issues starting in 67, 68, and 69 when we were making films in New York and we had those discussions. ‘Why were only the women holding the microphones…and why are all the men holding the cameras?’ Then John Douglas got cameras for [women] to use… These were issues that we brought up earlier. So we already had those issues [dealt with]… I never felt oppressed in my commune around the women or the men.”
However, their efforts did not result in perfection. Female communard, Lou Andrews, recalls her days on the rural Franklin Commune (which was a core Free Vermont commune) as a time where she felt more liberated than previously in mainstream society, but one where men still had a disproportionate influence upon the general direction of the commune. In her opinion this influence was a subconscious force; one that was not guaranteed by formal process, but one that existed none the less.
As far as the division of labor goes, Lou, who now lives in Burlington, assesses her commune as a mixed bag, but one that clearly falls more in the direction of sex equality than does the traditional nuclear model. “It was always a struggle to get men to do the dishes… [But] we all gardened. Men and women canned the food. Men and women drove the horses. And men and women did the sugaring, although it was men who primarily were what we called ‘the firemen’ who in the sugar house fed the wood into the evaporator. And that was kind of a little macho deal going on. Cause they got to where cowboy chaps (ha ha ha).”
Roz, current resident of Richmond VT, also recalls that not all communes were free of the traditional divisions of labor based on sex. “You’d find some of the more rural communes the women were in the kitchen, and the men were outdoors doing stuff. So [Free Vermont] would talk about that, and we would have women’s meetings, a communal women’s grouping that would break off to discuss the things that were happening with various people.”
While Free Vermont sought to build equitable relations on the communes and a radical base of operations in the Green Mountains, it did not lose sight of its second purpose. As the local counter-culture became better organized, aid was offered to the urban revolutionary movement. In some instances children of Black Panthers from the eastern cities were sent north to attend the Red Paint collective school. Political aid was offered too. One former communard (who will remain unnamed) contends that the first dynamite procured by the Weather Underground Organization [an armed leftist group who carried out 27 bombings between 1969-1977 including those on the US Capital Building and the Pentagon] came from a granite quarry in Barre. John Douglas, for his part, states that Free Vermont helped establish safe houses for Weathermen and Black Panthers who went underground. They also facilitated clandestine border crossings into Quebec. But these activities were not committed without a price. Free Vermont communes were raided by the police and FBI. Government informants were known to be operating in many quarters. Douglas tells of a gathering he attended at the Franklin Commune (in far northern Vermont) where a group of federal agents posing as bikers offered to provide them with hand grenades and dynamite. Douglas declined. This surveillance and harassment ultimately lead to a pervasive atmosphere of paranoia and tension. In turn these pressures contributed to the eventual decline of the movement.
While many of the hippy communes collapsed due to lack of rational internal organization or focus [see Barry Laffan, Communal Organization and Social Transition, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1997] the decline of the more overtly political communes has more to do with political repression, disillusionment (as neither the local or urban insurrections came to pass), and again a new round of burn out. Just as they were compelled to evacuate the cities by the end of the 60s, the radical communards felt an increasing pressure, though be it maybe in a more personalized and defuse form, to abandon their communal lands in the face of a new backlash of political repression and interpersonal pressures. By 1976, following the end of the Vietnam War, less than half of the original 100 communes remained. By 1980 all but a few were gone. While many former communards remained in Vermont, and while a number of the institutions they founded continued, the general trend was overwhelmingly a turn away from models espousing collective living and working. Instead they increasingly turned to a private home life, or a traditional nuclear family arrangement. Cooperative farms were replaced with privately owned and operated organic farms. Radical agricultural organizations, such as the Northeast Organic Farmer Association (NOFA), drifted into a modest liberal reformism. Calls for insurrection were heard less, while calls for issue based reformism became louder. Where in 1970 the battle cry was for a complete new left social revolution, the mantra of the 80s was for a nuclear freeze. In short, as the Commune Movement broke down, and as its participants began to return to more individualistic-traditional living arrangements, their politics, though remaining left, grew more moderate.
During the declining phase of the Franklin Commune it is interesting to note the further observations of Lou Andrew. She contends that when the difficulties of operating the collective farm were exasperated by a serious house fire, it was the men who were the first ones to leave the commune, and oftentimes Vermont too. On the other hand she notes that the women were more apt to try to work through the difficulties longer and ultimately, to at least remain in Vermont. Andrews speculates that the reason for this dynamic is because woman found their social relations and power within a communal structure to be more liberated than that which they previously experienced in mainstream America. The men on the other hand had a male dominated outside world to return to where they would at least be afforded the same limited rights and privileges that were too often elusive to women.
In the end the Commune Movement did not vanish into thin air, nor did all communards drop out of the social and political arena. The Vermont of today is inescapably a product of those times, just as it is also a product of other progressive migrations; be it radicals coming north during the Great Depression, the anarchist and socialist labor movement brought by Italian immigrants in 1900, or yeoman farmers/Green Mountain Boys who pioneered Vermont during the 1760-70s. The Commune Movement is just the latest of these defining eras of Vermont’s history, and its epitaphs and advancements are perhaps most apparent in their relative newness. The Bread & Puppet Theater (now considered a staple of Vermont culture), the dozens of food co-ops (perhaps the most per-capita in the world), a large free health clinic in Burlington (now employing over 60 people), a number of worker-run businesses (i.e. the Common Ground in Brattleboro), NOFA (and by extension Rural Vermont which began through NOFA), and countless farmers’ markets are all direct results of organizing done by Free Vermont and the communards of the 60s and 70s. However, its true legacy can perhaps best be seen through its indirect contributions.
Generational diffusion of the basic values of the 60-70s counter-culture has resulted in the left being more firmly embedded in all corners of Vermont making the state the most progressive in the country; the only state never visited by President G.W. Bush. In recent years Vermont (population 600,000) has led the nation in many important social issues. Universal healthcare is provided for all its children (and will continue to be regardless of the eventual outcome of the Federal SCHIP debate), funding for public education has essentially been socialized, gay couples retain the same civil rights as straight couples, and more than 70% of the people firmly oppose the war in Iraq (in 2003 three thousand marched on the rural state capital to oppose the war). Even Vermont’s organized labor is greatly influenced by the Commune Movement.
In 1998 a Central Vermont anarchist group known as the #10 Collective [themselves members of the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and largely influenced by the political teachings of Vermont 60s radical Murray Bookchin] played a lead role in forming the Vermont Workers’ Center. One of the prime movers of this collective was a young man named Jason Winston. Jason, like thousands of other native born Vermonters, was the child of counter-culture parents. And today the Workers’ Center, with a constituency above 20,000, functions as a grand coalition of most the major Vermont labor unions as well as individual workers. As such Vermont labor has been a leader in opposing the current war, and in the fight for the establishment of single payer universal healthcare. This fact can also be understood as another indirect influence of the leftism of the 60-70s. In a word, those communards that stayed, those that organized, those that eventually became neighbors and friends with thousands of native working class Vermonters, did in fact have an impact on public opinion.
Electorally Vermont, unlike most of the US, recognizes four major political parties. In addition to the Democrats and Republicans, there is also the very far left Liberty Union Party. This party, which received 5.7% of the vote for State Treasurer in 2006, was formed in the 70s as the electoral expression of the Commune Movement. Besides the Liberty Union, there is also the social-democratic oriented Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives were formed by former Liberty Union member Bernie Sanders (now serving as the first socialist in the US Senate) and includes many activists and supporters from the commune days. Sanders won his first election in 1981, becoming the socialist mayor of Burlington. He formed the Progressive Coalition, the forerunner of the Progressive Party, shortly thereafter. His victory was a result not only of gaining the backing of key unions, but also of support work done by former communards. One such communard, Barbara Nolfy of the Franklin Commune, went on to serve in his administration as a member of a newly organized Burlington Woman’s Counsel. Furthermore, Progressive Party Chairman Anthony Pollina (who won 25% of the vote in the 2002 Lieutenant Governor’s race and is currently considering a run for Governor in 2008) was once an organizer with counter-culture allied NOFA. Presently the Progressives are the strongest third party in the nation, with six seats in the State Legislator (including the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee), the Mayorship of the largest city (Burlington, population: 39,000), several City Council positions, and countless Town Select Board seats as well as lesser elected posts.
And again, our present seems to be witnessing a generational revival of cooperativism. In 2006, on the heels of greatly falling wholesale milk prices, the Dairy Farmers of Vermont (co-founded by Anthony Pollina) opened a farmer owned milk processing plant in Hardwick. More generally, of the forty worker-owned businesses in the state (which employ 2000 people), 10% are organized as democratic co-ops. From the Red House construction company in Burlington, to the Brattleboro Tech Collective, to the popular Langdon Street Café and Black Sheep bookstore in Montpelier, worker and farmer co-ops are again on the rise.
But just as the Commune Movement has had its effects on Old Vermont, Old Vermont has had its effects on the counter-culture activists and institutions that have survived. Its long standing tradition of local democracy through Town Meeting has focused much of the continuing political angst of the left out of closed off communities, and into the directly democratic Town Halls, where their ideas have spread throughout the population. It should come as no surprise that hundreds of Vermont towns have passed resolutions against the war, for the impeachment of the President, against GMOs, and in support of universal healthcare. And where the old co-ops have drifted into more traditional business practices, the unions have been there to organize the workers [such as the United Electrical Workers at Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Co-op, and Burlington’s City Market –both of which are large area employers]. In a very real sense the relationship between Old Vermont and the Vermont of the communes has become symbiotic; elements of each driving the state in both a more democratic and more socialistic direction.
This continuing trend to the left can even be observed in the declarations of the State’s General Assembly and other bodies of Vermonters who have gathered in capital building in Montpelier. Pressured from below, in 2007 the State Senate passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush, and both the House and Senate passed a resolution calling for a military withdrawal from Iraq. In 2003, the day the U.S. invaded Iraq, hundreds of Vermonters met in the State House where they unanimously passed resolutions condemning the acts of the Federal Government as illegal and immoral. And again in 2006 more than 200 Vermonters held a meeting in the State House to discuss the possibility of secession from the United States (a cause now supported by 13% of the population). Former communards and 60s-70s radicals were undoubtedly present at both events. All these declarations, as symbolic as they may be, point to the leftward trajectory of politics in Vermont; a trajectory which, in part, was set in course by the Commune Movement a generation before.
The final chapter on Vermont’s Commune Movement cannot be written until history reveals whether or not those heady days of the 60s and 70s were a cultural abrasion, or an immediate harbinger of things to come.
For Robert Houriet the future, and therefore the past, holds a bitter promise. “We were just ahead of the economy,” says Robert. “We were trying to go back to 1930 at a time when the economy was going off the scale in terms of abundance. A false abundance, as it turns out… [The final victory of the cooperative movement] will have to be economically determined. People will do this because they have to, because they choose to do what is possible. And what becomes possible is [determined] when the price of oil becomes too high, when the price to the environment becomes too high not to do it that way. Not for idealistic reasons, but because they have to. The farmer [for example] will feel the pinch… –they can’t achieve the mechanization, the storage, the distribution without doing it cooperatively. So cooperativism will become efficient. It will become necessary that people adopt cooperative methods.”
A brief video history of the Vermont commune movement …
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