Peter Camejo at Berkeley

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Jack Bloom

I MET AND worked with Peter Camejo in Berkeley during the latter half of the ’60s. He was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance there, while I was active in the Independent Socialist Clubs, which later became the International Socialists. Peter was always a hard-driving speaker who always knew what he wanted to say, and he could say it elegantly.

Though a number of those who commented on his life have claimed that he was active in the Free Speech Movement, often acknowledged as the beginnings of the white student movement in the ’60s, Peter did not arrive at Berkeley until 1965, after the FSM, but not after the many of the movements it helped spawn disappeared, and he soon became mightily active in them.

It was never clear to me whether Peter came to Berkeley because he had personally been lured there by the active student body (and the significant non-student activities, as well), or if he had been sent there by the SWP.  In any case it was clear that the SWP had set its sights on Berkeley, and that its presence there had significantly increased.

They created the “Granma” bookstore, an allusion to the title of the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, and they set up an office on Telegraph Ave., which ran straight into the campus and was the route many students had to pursue to get to the campus or to depart — which put them in the center of movement activity.

While Peter and I belonged to different leftist organizations, we did not see each other as enemies, but as collaborators, and that was a characteristic we persisted in sharing. It was helpful to both of us. We worked together on a number of movement activities, we frequently shared notes, discussed tactics and strategies, and over time became friends.

We played chess together in periods of free time, chatted about social history, considering things as far afield as when the fork was invented, how its use spread and what that said about the influence of social class.

We discussed social theory and where we saw the movement going (we both overestimated its influence, and neither of us saw coming the prolonged period of reaction that got set in train with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of the state, and that he carried to Washington with him, nor the lengthy period that his approach to politics would prevail).

The SWP chapter in Berkeley, and Peter, led the area response to the police riots at the Chicago Democratic Party convention that was nominating the once-liberal-but-by-then-tainted-by-LBJ-and-Vietnam, Hubert Humphrey. A number of us joined the demonstrations the SWP called in Berkeley to support those being attacked in Chicago. It did not take long before the local police were called in to get us.

We were soon surrounded and attacked with teargas, the canisters of which the demonstrators promptly sent flying back to the police. With a real wind, there was no way the gas would stay where it was meant to go, so it was not an effective tactic for them. Demonstrators continued fighting with the police until late into the night.

The next day, we gathered to continue demonstrating, and the second night was like the first. This time, the Berkeley City Council issued a state of emergency with a curfew. Peter and I and some of each of our collaborators agreed that we could not allow them to use a curfew to cut off demonstrations.

That was the time of the grape boycott that had been called by the United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez in order to unionize the horribly exploited farm laborers. We decided to call a night time rally to picket one of the local grocery stores that still sold the grapes.

I went down to the store to negotiate with them; they promised that they would no longer sell grapes after the bunch they were carrying. I said that was not good enough — that they had to dump those grapes. (We really didn’t want them to comply as the purpose was to have a legitimate political reason to bring people out into the streets to violate the curfew.)

They refused, and we were set for our demonstration. However, a short while later, they called to say they were destroying the grapes they had. I checked and found they had indeed done so, so now what? We ended up calling a rally on the steps of city hall in order to break the curfew and to have a public demonstration doing it.

I chaired that rally, and as I opened it and made some introductory remarks, I had two people standing next to me, one on either side, both eager to be given the microphone first: Ernie Haberkern, like me a member of the ISC, and Peter. I knew that when I finished my remarks I would have to give the mike to one of them and no matter which, I felt uncomfortable.

A month or so after the above-mentioned demonstrations, a new issue emerged. Eldridge Cleaver had signed on to be a lecturer for a course that was to be given at Berkeley. At that time, Cleaver was a leading light of the Black Panther Party and a celebrity in his own right. The regents promptly cancelled the course. A number of those of us in the left were buzzing in response to this matter and decided that something had to be done.

That afternoon, I gave a speech urging students to go sit-in at one of the university buildings. After they had done so for a while, I left to take care of some unfinished business. When I returned, the students had moved to another building and built barricades, as had happened at Colombia University earlier.

The administration let us sit-in there over night and then arrested us in the morning. Three of us — Peter, Paul Glusman and I — were for some reason charged with conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor (trespass), which was a felony. (Go figure!) It was nonsense. There had been no conspiracy; we had not talked to one another before and not that much during. But the effort to get the left by using conspiracy charges was in the air at that time.

This was not long after the trial of the Chicago 8 (later Chicago 7, as Bobby Seale’s case was severed from the others’). Not much earlier, the same District Attorney who was prosecuting us had failed at a similar type of prosecution of the Oakland 7 who had been charged with organizing the spectacularly successful set of anti-war demonstrations at the Oakland Draft Board, called Stop the Draft Week. As I wrote about it at the time:

“All either of us had done was speak at a rally or chair a meeting — but that was precisely the point. If it were determined that such activity was sufficient basis for a felony conviction, few people would risk speaking out or organizing against oppression: that perennial nuisance, the freedom of speech and assembly, would be a dead letter.”

The effort failed. Peter was acquitted right out. Paul and I got a hung jury, 8-4 in our favor; we were then permitted to plead guilty to the trespass misdemeanor and we spent a few days in jail; but Peter got off free. He was expelled at that time from the university.

They tried to do the same to me, but the student-faculty committee that heard my case recommended lenience, so I was suspended for a year — but not until after I was allowed to take (and pass) my PhD qualifying examinations. They then tried to fire me from my job as a teaching assistant, which required student status. But our then union AFT Local 1570 had an agreement with the university that such an effort to fire me had to go to arbitration — another victory that had emerged from the Free Speech Movement.

The arbitrator ruled in my favor, so they had to keep me on. And because I was a university employee, with all my rights intact, they could not keep me from using the library and being active on campus, including giving speeches. The penalty that I did suffer: I was not allowed to register and pay my fees (which at that time were very small, as there was still no longer any tuition charge for California residents — Reagan soon changed that)!

I enjoyed Peter’s friendship and I kept in touch with him from time to time over the years. We spoke last a few weeks before he died — when he told me that though he was in no hurry to go, he was ready: He had had a full life and had accomplished much.

ATC 139, March-April 2009