Posts Tagged ‘student movement’

My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

You don’t just open the door and walk into the Berkeley FBI offices. You don’t get into the offices at all. You ring a bell and someone opens an inner door, which he closes, certainly locked, behind him. Then he opens the outer door and you are let into a sort of antechamber, which contains a small table and a couple of chairs. It was May 17, 1974, and I was there by invitation.

A couple of days before, or perhaps the day before, I had gotten word from the secretary of my group at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab (still called the Rad Lab by most of us), where I was a grad student research assistant, that someone had called and left a message for me to call him: someone from “the government” he had said. I thought she emphasized the word a little ominously, but it was probably just the word itself. What government agency would refer to itself as the government? That didn’t sound like an income tax question. It made me a little apprehensive.

My fears were not groundless. The man whose call I returned turned out to be with the FBI, and he was asking me to come talk to him about something, which he didn’t go into, and soon. I took whatever appointment he suggested, which, when I started to write this, I thought I remembered as having been in the morning. Based on some research into other events with a known time, I reason it’s more likely to have been in the afternoon. I remember waiting in a cafe or drugstore across the street from the offices for the appointed time to arrive.

Why me? Why now? I tried to think of any possible reason for the FBI wanting to talk to me. True, I belonged to a radical socialist group, but I was not by any stretch a leader at that point, nor could I think of anything that would have made me or my group stand out. The days in which our group had served briefly as a point of contact between the Berkeley student movement and the early Black Panther Party were well in the past. Our small organization’s leading role in organizing the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) and the drive to get it on the 1968 ballot in California had been a major achievement, and members of our group had also been instrumental in bringing the PFP and the Black Panther Party into an electoral alliance. There was nothing illegal about it, but with J. Edgar Hoover still in charge of the FBI, it’s a safe bet that we had gathered a lot of attention from the FBI back then. We had been involved in some illegal demonstrations over the years. No one doubted that our office’s telephone was tapped, and we pretty much assumed our own phones were too. But I had never heard of anyone being called in to talk with the FBI. So why me now?

By May 1974 the mass student movement was long since dead and so was the Black Power movement. US troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. There were a few organized remnants of the student-based movement, largely made up of people who had decided to devote their lives to political activism when it was exciting and seemed historically important, and who were now faced with mass political apathy and smaller memberships.

Since our group was for overthrowing not only capitalism but also bureaucratic communist rule and thus had no more allegiance to Mao or Fidel than to Richard Nixon, we had always been a small minority on the left and were scarcely acknowledged as being part of it by the Maoist groups and Maoist-flavored “crazies” that had dominated the movement and who would have certainly put us up against the wall, along with many others, if some catastrophe had ever put them in power. The group I was in probably wasn’t significantly smaller then than it ever had been in the past eight years (excepting a few brief periods of recruitment, which had always been followed by sectarian splits to reduce the number again).

Our “purist” positions for democratic rights such as free speech, free press, and the right of workers to strike (real socialism as we and Marx, we thought, viewed it) and belief that revolutionary change had to come through the activity of the working class had never held much appeal to many student radicals. We didn’t even like Che, and most student radicals didn’t like workers or any Americans, really, that weren’t oppressed minorities or student radicals like themselves. The worst of them basically thought that any white American that hadn’t thrown off “white skin privilege” (as they had) by joining the Black Struggle was a “pig,” worthy of being murdered and mutilated, a sentiment so memorably captured in the Bernadine Dohrn (soon to be a visitor in the White House?) “dig it” speech eulogizing the Manson gang murderers.

It’s probably hard for people that didn’t live through it to understand how deeply pathological was the hatred toward almost every aspect of “AmeriKKKa” by many in the American student left; or to understand at what a low intellectual level, despite their academic credentials, those people operated—truly a Nazi level of both hatred and intellect. Directing their hatred against the overwhelming majority of their fellow countrymen was not likely to be a winning formula, but I think they equated destruction with winning and overestimated their own strength by several orders of magnitude.

The recent appearance of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a violent, radical microcult with a charismatic (to them anyway) Black leader, Donald DeFreeze (SLA name Cinque), a convicted armed robber recently escaped from prison, showed that the militant slogans were still capable of inspiring in 1974 a few fringe characters—heroic in their own eyes and those of a lot of spectator radicals—to acts capable of gaining enormous publicity. In relationship to the mass upheavals that had occurred a few years before, they were like the last kernel of popcorn that pops a few seconds after all the rest have finished popping in a sustained eruption. They had in a short time assassinated Marcus Foster, Oakland’s popular first Black school superintendent (agent of the oppressor to them for his “fascist” decision to require student identification cards), and kidnaped Patty Hearst. They were very audacious and cruel, if not overly bright.

The organization I belonged to had decided to “industrialize,” that is to have everyone get jobs in important unionized industries such as auto and steel in order to attempt to influence and recruit workers, largely through supporting or starting rank-and-file organizations to fight for union democracy and militancy. Some in the group had already moved to a few industrial centers such as Detroit, where the national headquarters was now located. Yes, it sounds extremely quixotic, but it was at least logical from the Marxist analysis of the working class as the key actor in this stage of history. I didn’t think I was going to go to work in an auto plant, but I had been helping put out and distribute a dissident Teamster newsletter, while still trying to finish my Physics PhD thesis at Berkeley. It would soon turn out that my estimate of how much political work I could do would not meet the standard of some others, who of course were feeling their own personal conflicts about sacrifices, and I would leave the group.

I knew that several years earlier the FBI had visited a woman who had just broken up with our group’s most prominent leader, hoping that they might catch her in a weak moment in which she might be willing to reveal a few secrets out of spite, I suppose. It had been pretty creepy that they had that kind of knowledge in the first place. Also, a year or two before, my landlady had told me the FBI had come by looking for the previous tenant who was also a member of the organization, a real (as opposed to a converted student) worker with a skilled trade. I had made a long distance (payphone to payphone) call to pass that information on. I never knew why they were checking on him; maybe they just didn’t like to lose track of some people. I doubted this coming interview had anything to do with that. But I was worried because there had to be some reason they wanted to talk to me, and I figured it had to be about something political, yet I didn’t have a clue what it could be. Was the Teamster paper the best bet? It seemed too insignificant by far. The situation seemed more than a little Kafkaesque, to use a term that used to be in vogue.

Although I can’t remember whom in the organization I talked to about the interview beforehand, I know that I talked to some experienced person in the leadership both to get advice on how to proceed and to let them know about something that might turn out to be important. I definitely don’t remember being given any hint of what it could be about, and I don’t remember any advice anyone gave me. It never even occurred to me to consider getting legal advice. I was going to have to play it by ear.

The FBI agent was friendly and motioned for me to sit down. He sat down opposite me and pulled out a stack of what turned out to be photos and put them on the table. Who? What a relief! They were pictures of SLA members. Of course I knew who they were, as almost everyone did then, both real name and SLA name, because of the enormous publicity around the Patty Hearst abduction and the subsequent public demands and responses.

I thought the FBI was being awfully thorough though to have brought me in to talk about the SLA, as I had never had any contact with any of them that I knew of. All I could think of was that, since one of them, Nancy Ling Perry (SLA name Fahizah), had worked as a lab assistant in the same lab in which my wife (from whom I was now separated) had done graduate research at Berkeley, they had made some sort of computer match of all conceivable connections between members of known radical groups and SLA members. My wife did of course know Ling, as she called herself then, and had mentioned her having quit her job to do political activity or something and having said goodbye to everyone, quite some time before the SLA had gone public with the Foster murder. But I had never even met Ling. I remember my wife saying “There’s Ling” once as we were driving down a Berkeley street, but I didn’t see anyone and didn’t slow down.

Ling had been a Berkeley student but had never been involved in politics at all during the height of the student movement when many thousands in Berkeley were drawn in. About the only thing I can remember hearing about her, and it’s quite striking, considering her future path, is how terribly she agonized over the necessity for killing animals (very primitive ones, I think) for some of the lab’s experiments. I knew my wife had not had any involvement whatsoever with Ling’s new associates and hadn’t talked to her since she’d gone underground, so I didn’t have to worry about what I should say from any standpoint I could think of.

I clearly remember my feeling of relief upon seeing the SLA photos, but I can’t remember whether the sight of the photos came as a complete surprise, as presenting something I hadn’t even considered. Given the prominence of the SLA in the news, such a possibility, however unlikely, may have occurred to me, since everything seemed unlikely. Thirty-four years leaves little of certainty. In any case, it turned out I was wrong, once I’d seen the SLA pictures, to have assumed they’d called me in because of that distant secondhand connection.

The FBI agent asked me if I recognized any of the people in the pictures, and I told him that of course I recognized them as the same ones that were in the news every day, but that I didn’t know any of them personally. The next question he asked me took me by surprise. “Can you think of any reason why your name and place of work would be in Nancy Ling Perry’s handwriting on a slip of paper left behind in an SLA safe house?” He may have said telephone number or room number as well; I’m not sure. Well, that explained why he had called me at the Rad Lab. Despite being totally surprised by this news, I was able to come up with a plausible answer pretty quickly by telling about the lab connection and how Nancy Ling Perry could easily have heard where I worked and what my name was.

The FBI guy seemed satisfied immediately. “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection,” he said. “But for all we knew she could have been your girl friend.” We were done, and it had been so easy. He was definitely in a good mood, and, before I left, he added that, from what he was hearing, they had the SLA cornered in Los Angeles at that very moment. I think he was basically viewing it as a closed case already.

I had heard, as everyone had, about the previous day’s bizarre events in which the SLA had surfaced for the first time in Los Angeles. One of the SLA members had been caught shoplifting a pair of socks and had only escaped along with his wife when Patty Hearst, now known as Tania and acting as an SLA member herself, had shot up the front of the store. Luckily no one had been hurt then, and the inept SLA group had left a parking ticket on the van they’d been driving, which gave away the location of the gang hideout. After stealing a couple of cars, the SLA trio found a new place to stay rather than returning to the original place. Before the police arrived at their haven, the other six SLA members in LA, including Ling and Cinque, alarmed by the failure of the foraging party to return, had fled in the wee hours of the morning and forced their way into another house, which seems to have been a place for people to wander in at all hours to get drunk or high.

I’m sure I first heard from the FBI man that the police definitely knew where the SLA members were hiding. As I mentioned before, I first thought I recalled my meeting at the FBI offices as having taken place in the morning, but from some online research it doesn’t seem the police discovered the exact house the SLA members were in until early in the afternoon, when the mother of the woman in whose house they were called the police to report it. They had already learned in the morning the general neighborhood since they had identified the SLA members’ parked vans. In any case it was late afternoon before the press knew anything, so it’s likely I got the news early from an FBI agent that saw no need to keep it a secret, and possibly couldn’t restrain himself from telling someone.

I’ve been imagining the FBI man could have just been going through the motions in an interview that now seemed to him less significant than it might have before. He had asked me no follow-up questions that I can recall, not even what my wife’s name was. Now that I think about it, he could well have reviewed a couple of files before the interview, learned of the connections, and have thus been waiting for me to give the expected answer, watching only to see if I got flustered and seemed trying to hide something. Who knows?

Insightful PS to the above paragraph: The more one writes and thinks about something from the distant past, the more one remembers, and the more one may then understand. I only just now added the word “connection” to the end of the statement recorded four paragraphs above “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection” because that final word had became very distinct to me in my memory, and its absence in the written report of my meeting was something I felt I had to rectify. I heard the FBI man say “connection,” but its significance had never been apparent to me. He was saying that he had known that I had a connection to the lab Ling had worked in even before he called me. From the time he said it until just before this moment, I had not realized the obvious meaning of his words, and had interpreted them as equivalent to “We knew Ling worked in a lab. So that makes sense.” So my speculation (made before I added the “connection” and understood what it meant) in the previous paragraph can now be taken as proven, as it is the obvious way to interpret his words. The dumb thing is that I had always realized that there was something funny about the way he’d expressed himself, since that “connection” didn’t exactly fit with my interpretation.

Why didn’t I analyze this logically at the time? I guess that I was just so relieved to be out of there so easily that I wanted to leave the whole thing behind me, even mentally, as soon as possible. The surprise revelation about how my name had come up probably played a role also. It was confusing new information presented in a stressful situation. I had to find a reasonable explanation that would satisfy the FBI man. I was really only interested in that result, and my mind set about solving the puzzle. It was an easy puzzle, but, under the circumstances, probably all I could deal with.

How many other words that didn’t quite fit at the time I heard them spoken are waiting to be understood? How many readers immediately understood what the meaning of “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection” was when they first read it? Probably all or almost all, I’m now guessing. Yet I, the only one to whom it was relevant, have waited thirty-four years to get it. I feel like shouting Eureka! And then Duh!

Why had Ling, whom I had never met, written down my name and workplace anyway? She may have had nothing specific in mind. Maybe it was just something she’d thought might come in handy in case they ever wanted to plan an attack on the Rad Lab, which was falsely viewed as some kind of weapons research place by some radicals, who probably mixed it up with the other Lawrence Lab in Livermore, also run by the University of California, which was indeed used for designing and building thermonuclear weapons. In any case, there is no doubt that some people would have liked to bomb the Rad Lab as a symbol of an oppressive system if nothing else. The very fact that it was a large government-funded facility up on a hill overlooking the Berkeley campus was enough to make it an appealing target. Perhaps a fake id card with a real person’s name on it would have been thought useful? I can’t see any use my name could have had really, and I guess they didn’t value the information very highly or they wouldn’t have left it behind.

I distinctly remember one other thing about that day so long ago. I heard the news on the radio that all the SLA members that had been in the house in LA were dead, either shot or burned to death, while I was riding across the Bay Bridge to a meeting in San Francisco that evening with a few others, one of whom felt one of the deaths personally.