Trim Bissell, A Committed Life

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Chuck Kaufman

TRIM BISSELL, FOUNDER and National Co-Coordinator of the Campaign for Labor Rights, succumbed after a twenty-month battle with a brain tumor and left the ranks of those who struggle for justice and peace.

Trim died on June 15, 2002 in the home he shared with his wife, Ruth Evan. He was surrounded by his art, vividly colored paintings and sculpture that were his third passion in life following Ruth and the Campaign for Labor Rights.

Trim was diagnosed with terminal cancer in October 2000, less than two months after he and I had spent eight days backpacking in the beautiful Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon.

In March of 2001 he was paralyzed on the left side of his body as a side effect from experimental “blood brain barrier” chemotherapy. Trim was left handed, but immediately began to teach himself to sculpt with his right hand to lessen the financial burden of his illness on Ruth and the Campaign for Labor Rights.

Trim marked his sixtieth birthday in April. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and held a masters degree in Creative Writing. He was deeply influenced by his mother, who was a life-long activist for racial justice and, late in life, for gay and lesbian rights.

Trim taught college level creative writing for three years and was becoming a nationally noted poet when, in 1968, his outrage at the U.S. slaughter of Vietnamese peasants caused him to give up his academic life and move with his first wife to Seattle, WA to, as he described it, “join the armed resistance to the Vietnam War.”

After his first arrest, his mother told him, “It’s about time. I was afraid you would never be arrested.” He and his wife joined the Weathermen, a more radical off-shoot of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). One of Trim’s regrets is that the Weathermen takeover of SDS destroyed a mass movement organization with over 100,000 members.

His activities in the Weathermen resulted in his arrest on federal charges of attempting to set off a bomb late at night at the University of Washington ROTC building (Reserve Officer Training Corps). With the willing agreement of his parents, who had put up their house as bail, Trim went underground where he remained a fugitive for seventeen years. For a time he was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list.

Life Underground, Life in Prison

Contrary to many press reports, Trim was never in the Weather Underground. His fugitive life was built alone after the stress of life on the run caused his wife and he to separate and divorce after a few months. Ironically, the reason the Weather Underground wouldn’t take Trim was because he refused to stop being monogamous.

He took a new name, Terrance Jackson, went back to college where he earned a B.S. in Biology and a Masters in Physical Therapy. He rooted himself deeply in the Eugene, OR community working as a physical therapist and, beginning in 1980, as a painter and sculptor. In 1981 he and fellow artist Rich Klopfer formed an art partnership that lasted until the end of Trim’s life.

In 1987 the FBI finally caught up with him. He was quickly released on bail thanks to four friends putting their houses up as guarantee. There was widespread support — from friends, former patients, the local newspaper, and even the FBI agent who arrested him — for the argument that his seventeen years as a productive citizen paid his “debt to society” and he should not be sentenced to jail. But a jury in Seattle sentenced him to two years in a minimum security prison. (In 1970 he would likely have gotten twenty-five years.)

While in prison he received a letter from Ruth Evan, a woman he had known slightly in high school. That letter, and the fact that she volunteered to take care of his dog while he was in prison, began a romance that resulted in a prison chapel wedding in January 1988.

Working for Human Rights

When he was released in 1989 Trim returned to Eugene where he and Ruth have lived since. He resumed his physical therapy and art. But, in 1993 when many in the press sought him out for comment when another high-profile Eugene fugitive, Katherine Powers, was arrested, Trim decided to return to human rights activism.

I first heard of Trim when the Nicaragua Network received a letter proposing that we hire him as our Northwest Coordinator. He was already doing that work for the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), and wanted the Nicaragua Network and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) to unite our efforts. I dismissed the proposal as being from some guy who was just looking to create a job for himself. Nicanet was still struggling financially as a result of the Sandinista electoral defeat of 1990. I’m not even sure I answered his letter.

But Trim came to the next National Leadership Meeting and his impassioned plea for unity in the Central America solidarity movement convinced the assembled Nicaragua Network committee representatives, who endorsed that goal as an organization priority. We began talks with CISPES and NISGUA and eventually agreed to work together on an anti-sweatshop campaign.

Ultimately CISPES and NISGUA were unable to prioritize sweatshop work because they were focused on the peace accords in their respective countries. However, the Nicaragua Network decided that the concept was simply too important to let die, so in late 1995 we created the Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR) with Trim as its unpaid coordinator.

Eventually Soren Ambrose, who was working on 50 Years is Enough issues as a Nicanet staff member, and I went on unemployment for a few months to make funds available to pay Trim and build financial stability for Campaign for Labor Rights.

CLR grew quickly due to Trim’s indefatigable energy and incisive analysis and soon became known as the “grassroots organizing department of the anti-sweatshop movement.” CLR became its own organization in 1998 when we formed the Alliance for Global Justice as an umbrella organization to house a number of grassroots progressive groups.

Even as his illness progressed, Trim continued to offer valuable advice and to stay as much in the loop of CLR planning as his illness would allow. He also continued to sculpt until about a month before his death.

I last visited Trim and Ruth in Eugene in early May. At that point Trim was in home hospice care, but he still determinedly exercised his paralyzed leg every day. He was no longer able to read or write, but I would read him the newspaper and we would discuss the latest U.S. military atrocities and Israeli war crimes as well as how to build a movement that could stop Bush’s plans for “endless

He had lost much of his vocabulary to the advancing tumor, but he hadn’t lost his analysis and his passion, and for that and his steadfast friendship, I honor him.

ATC 100, September-October 2002