Stew Albert, who influenced you even if you never heard of him

by Eric Jackson


(from an article in the Panama News, thanks Eric)

A giant who dwelled mostly away from center stage in the American left has passed. Stew Albert died of cancer at his home in Portland, Oregon on January 30. He was 66 years old.

This reporter is not sure whether Stew Albert ever set foot in Panama --- he may have, briefly, going to and from the Chile of the Allende era --- but regardless of that he left a footprint here, and a lot of places where he never went, and in the minds of a lot of people whom he never met.

I take this space to remember him in The Panama News on a point of personal privilege. Stew Albert was a mentor and inspiration to me, mostly from afar, very frequently by indirect means.

One of those “indirect means” was Stew’s powerful life partner Judy Clavair Albert, better known in other times as Judy Gumbo. I hope that when life’s cycle calls Judy to join Stew those journalists who take note don’t lazily summarize her as Stew Albert’s widow, because she’s an amazing woman when considered alone, the Quebec-raised daughter of American and Canadian communist parents who, when the American hippie radicals determined to end an atrocious imperial war needed someone to talk with the Vietnamese and thus help shape the movement’s strategies and actions in the end game, served as a functional if unrecognized diplomat par excellence. That, among the many other talents and accomplishments in her own right. But Judy and Stew were a team greater than the sum of their parts, and now nature has torn half of it away. My heart goes out to Judy, and to her and Stew’s daughter Jessica, the latter whom I have never met.

Among the direct influences from afar were the Albert family’s occasional newsletters, and the Yippie Reading Room website, upon which Stew worked even on the day before he died. If you never received the innoculation, or if you did but never realized that you had, or if you intuitively understand that you acquired some sort of attitudinal immunization somewhere along the way but never had a clue as to its sources, go to http://stewalbert.com. It will make you better in times of mass hysteria and enforced stupidity.

My main personal contact with Stew Albert was early in 1971, when Stew and Judy gathered about them in Washington a number of young activists to produce literature for a series of demonstrations that coming May. When the protests we promoted came to pass, William Rehnquist coordinated the mass roundup of more than 12,000 people that was in many ways a test run for Latin America’s 9/11, the bloody September 11, 1973 Nixon-Kissinger-Pinochet coup against Chilean democracy. (I was unable to be there in DC to get arrested that May, having been locked up elsewhere in the meantime.) These working sessions proved to be an invaluable creative writing seminar, a passing on of skills to be honed and, it is hoped, passed on to yet another younger generation.

It was also a gathering of which Richard Nixon’s goons took notice. On the way home the airwaves carried news of a bomb exploding in the US Capitol building, and in the days that followed the feds locked up one of the people with whom I had worked and learned, a young woman named Leslie Bacon. She was haled before a grand jury and alleged to be a participant in or at least a witness to the bombing conspiracy, which she was not and which the Nixon administration knew she was not. When, predictably, she refused to play the game and took a principled non-cooperative stand, they threw her in jail. It turned out that the “evidence” used to smear Ms. Bacon’s name in the press and strip her of her liberty and dignity was the cynical ripping out of the context of eavesdropping logs of Stew Albert’s assessment of the qualities of the contents of a manila envelope full of a green leafy substance --- “dynamite,” he called that pot.

So who was Stew Albert? You can read the usual citations in a number of online obituaries: co-founder of the Yippies, beloved husband of Judy and father of Jessica, noted member of the underground press corps way back when and author of the “Jews in the News” column in his later days, the guy who got busted and made bail along with Mario Savio back during the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, champion of Pigasus and scourge of the Blue Meanies.

To me, Stew was a working class Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn, as shrewd and streetwise a political tactician and strategist as the American left ever had. He was as deliberate and discerning and persistent of the American progressive tradition’s propagators as there ever was, whether as precisely the “outside agitator” that the University of California regents had in mind when they passed the rule that incited the Free Speech Movement, as founder of the Berkeley Free University, as co-editor with Judy of "The Sixties Papers," or in his dying days on his website and blog. He was the sage counselor and trustworthy critic and friend whom Abbie Hoffman needed when afflicted by the bipolar depression that eventually did him in, and whom Jerry Rubin needed when he went off the deep end. He was a peacemaker across divides of personality, faction, race, religion and nationality. He was a tireless champion of human equality and foe of racism, from his work with the Berkeley chapter of the Congress Of Racial Equality that so upset the university regents to his role in Oregon Jewish Agenda. He was part of an astoundingly talented group of activist writers and intellectuals who, with very few assets at their command, swept away so much of the mediocre trash who passed for eminent thinkers and politically acceptable university administrators after the filter of the McCarthy era had done its vile work. He was one of the people who restored notions of freedom, a sense of humor and a modicum of vigor to an American left that had long since become dogmatic, intolerant, boring and moribund. He was a great friend of Latin America, systematically defending it against coups, economic strangulations, invasions and other injustices imposed from Washington.

Vaya con Dios, Stew. You left this world a better place than it would have been without you.

 

Do you want to know more about this man whom the editor counts among his mentors? Go to a bookstore, or put in an order to an online bookseller, and get a copy of Stew Albert’s 2004  memoir, "Who the Hell is Stew Albert?"

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