Neil Chacker, 1942-2004

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

David Finkel

DURING THE VIETNAM war, one Colonel Reberry at Fort Lewis, Washington, posted a threatening notice forbidding the distribution of material that would promote “disloyalty and discontent.” A response shortly appeared on the same bulletin board, written by GI Neil Chacker, an American Servicemen’s Union organizer:

Let’s tell it like it is, Colonel. We are not discontented by what we read and hear. We are discontented be-cause of the way we live. Discontent is not caused by newspapers but by harassment and lack of freedom.

We could take the low pay, lousy food and rotten living conditions if we thought that what we were doing was worthwhile or beneficial to the country. But we don’t think so.

Our dissension will end when the conditions that cause it end. You may succeeded in driving dissension underground but you can never stop it. You may be able to extract sullen obedience as long as MPs are in range, but you will never get loyalty.

We are citizens, covered by the Bill of Rights. Your warning violates the Bill of Rights. (Quoted in Andy Stapp, Up Against the Brass, 141)

Once, when his daughter, Sasha, was making a family tree in grade school, Neil told her that the best thing he had ever done was “Organize GIs against the war in Vietnam.” (The worst thing was “shot a doe.”) An activist in the socialist movement for four decades, he first joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), then the International Socialists, and finally Solidarity.

To readers of Against the Current, Neil appeared as R.F. Kampfer (“rank-and-file fighter”) author of the “Random Shots” humor column that appeared in every issue and in a predecessor publication called Changes, all the way back to 1983. During this time I had the responsibility of editing and (to Neil’s dismay) censoring the items he submitted.

Neil was much more, however, than an offbeat humorist or reteller of strange and ironic tales from political and military history. In life and in the socialist movement, there are those people whom you know will always “be there,” solid and reliable, to do what is needed.

Neil died in Detroit on September 15, 2004 following a, six-year battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a still incur-able form of cancer. After several remissions and relapses, the cancer could not be controlled, but never claimed his spirit.

Neil emailed “medical bulletins” to his family and close friends, often mixing gruesome medical details with his own brand of humor. On July 3 he wrote: “The MRI was a waste of time. After a procedure that should be outlawed under the Geneva Convention, they tell me, `You’ve got a mass on your chest.’ ‘A mass of what?’ I ask, reasonably enough. They have no idea. Anybody from six feet away can tell that I either have a mass on my chest or a small turtle under my shirt.” That was pure Neil.

Years in the Struggle

Neil’s life was remembered by family members, comrades and friends at a memorial meeting in October. The stories they told were accompanied by some remarkable photographs of Neil in action.

Neil was the oldest of three children. The family was often on the move—from the Bronx (Neil showed an early love for animals including urban snakes), to upstate New York where his father operated a dairy farm, and to his maternal grandmother’s native Puerto Rico. Neil left home at 17 and joined the Merchant Marines. With his family background, Neil spoke excellent Spanish and could step in when translation at bilingual political meetings got shaky.

In 1971 Neil moved to Detroit with other members of the International Socialists to get jobs in industry and build a new revolutionary movement. As a steward at the turbulent Jefferson Assembly, Neil was known for timing the line with a stop watch to monitor speedup.

In 1973 he was a leader of a wildcat strike, which was overshadowed four months later by a truly historic event: to protest a racist foreman, two workers, Ike Shorter and Larry Carter, cut the power to the line and locked themselves in a fenced area to keep the power off. At a time when unity between Black and white workers could not be taken for granted, Neil was one of the first to sit down outside the fence to block security from ousting Shorter and Carter.

As a trade unionist, Neil was a front-line fighter, as witnessed by his activism during the Detroit newspaper strike in the early battles to stop the trucks at Sterling Heights and his arrest for sit-down civil disobedience at the papers’ office building.

Neil credited the U.S. Army for instilling in him a love of firearms, and he was ready and willing to train anyone who was interested. He was a dedicated annual deer hunter and often able to contribute a ‘Bambi and Babe’ chili to the annual Detroit Solidarity fundraiser.

Neil and his companion of more than 30 years, Elissa, raised two daughters, Sasha and Nina, and delighted in their grand-daughter Alisha.

His friends recall him as sensitive, caring and even-tempered—in a movement where arguments often boil over the top—but he was also a tough-minded revolutionary, whose broad knowledge of history guided his actions. Speaking at the memorial, Bill Parker, president of UAW Local 1700 said “I always knew Neil had my back; a rock-solid ally, unshakeable in his beliefs, dedicated to the struggle, and absolutely reliable to live up to his word.”

Neil’s humor, working-class loyalty and contempt for capital could be summed up in one his classic “Random Shots,” which I reproduce here (from Against the Current Jan.-Feb. 2000):

KAMPFER’S FACTORY RECENTLY held a poetry contest. Submissions had to contain the word “quality” twice, plus the phrase “going for the gold.” The entry below somehow failed to win any prizes.

I think that I shall never see
A Chrysler built with quality.
A car that’s made of parts we hit
With hammers so that they will fit.
A car whose bolts will surely fail
But that’s what K-Mart had on sale.
A car whose paint runs down in gobs
The work of rusty robot slobs.
For quality is fine, you know
Unless it costs a little dough.
For they are going for the gold,
The profits on the junk that’s sold.

David Finkel is an editor of Against the Current and member of Solidarity in Detroit. Thanks to our friend Gay Semel for tracking down Neil’s leaflet from the out-of-print book Up Against the Brass.

ATC 113, November-December 2004