Revolution #210, August 29, 2010

From Ike to Mao and Beyond
My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist
A Memoir by Bob Avakian

from Chapter 3: The World Begins to Open

Arbitrary Authority

Even though I did this whole traffic boy thing in grammar school, I had also at a very early age internalized the idea that arbitrary authority wasn't deserving of respect. I had gotten from my parents a strong sense that you should not have to follow people who required unthinking obedience—the drill sergeant or the military dictator being the embodiment of that. I don't know if they ever articulated it exactly that way, but that was sort of a general value or outlook that I got.

I remember we had this math teacher in junior high who kept three of us after class one time, because we were joking around in class. He started reading us the riot act, and one of the kids started laughing out of nervousness. The teacher yelled, "You think that's funny?" He grabbed the kid by the throat and started choking him and almost pushed him out this second story window. So that kind of arbitrary, dictatorial authority was something that I hated from early on. It was against everything that I thought was worth anything and should be respected.

I had also internalized from my parents and from my father in particular that the Constitution provided you with certain rights, and you should stand up for them. If people tried to take away your rights, you should resist that. So, in my own mind, with a lot of these teachers, that's what I was doing. They were exercising arbitrary authority, insisting on their way in the classroom, and not willing to be flexible or to bend. That's overwhelmingly the way the teachers taught in the '50s, so I had a lot of conflict with them.

But one time, when I was thirteen, I applied what I had learned from my dad—and got in big trouble with my parents for doing so. I had been down at the park and I was coming home, riding my bike. I took a shortcut that ran by my old grammar school. It wasn't actually on the school property, it was a public sidewalk, or a kind of a paved path between two streets, right next to the school. A couple of my friends were hanging around my old grammar school, so I stopped and started messing around with them. One of the things we liked to do was to climb up on the roof of the cafeteria of the grammar school. But we knew that you weren't supposed to do that, that you'd get chased off of it. So we took our shoes off and threw them up on the roof, and then climbed up—ostensibly to retrieve our shoes. It was about five o'clock and the only person there was the janitor. Understandably, as I look back on it now, he was freaked out that we were up on the roof. First of all we could get hurt, and second he could be held liable. So, he's yelling at us to get off the roof, and we're saying we have to get our shoes, because somebody threw our shoes up here! But he kept insisting we come down. The more he insisted that we come down, the more we refused to come down. Finally he said, "I'm gonna call the police if you don't come down right away," and at that point we did come down off the roof.

Well, he had called the cops and a cop showed up. By that time my friends had split, but I had decided to stand my ground. I was standing on this pathway, which was adjacent to the school grounds but was not technically school property. So the cop comes and he starts giving me all this trouble. He says, "You know you can't be up on the roof." And I answered, "Well, I got down off the roof. I had to go get my shoes, but I got down off the roof." Then he noticed that I didn't have my shoes on, and he said, "What's the matter with you, you don't even wear shoes?"—and he started insulting me and told me to go home. But I said, "You can't tell me to go home. You can tell me to get off the school property, but you can't tell me to go home, this is public property, I can do what I want, you can't make me go home." He argued with me a while longer and then got in his car and took off.

At that point I started riding my bike home. I was about halfway home when I see my dad driving down toward me. And he sees me and pulls over. I get off my bike and I go running up to the car, and I say, "Dad, dad, a cop can't make me go home if I'm on public property, he can't tell me what to do, can he?" "You better get on your bike and go home," said my dad. So then I knew I was in big shit. I go home and we go through the whole story, and I'm insisting, "Okay, I shouldn't have been on the roof, but I got off the roof, and I was on public property, and I was standing up for my rights, and this cop had no right to tell me to go home."

And then it turned out that the worst part of this is that what really bothered my parents was that they were embarrassed in front of all the neighbors in their nice neat middle class neighborhood—a policeman had come to their door to tell them their son was doing something wrong. And all the neighbors must have figured out that something like that was happening. Here was my dad, with his stature as a lawyer, having a policeman come to his door to tell him his son was doing something wrong. On top of that, this cop tells him, "Well, you know, we're used to getting this kind of attitude from kids in west Berkeley"—in other words, in the ghetto—"but we're not used to seeing that from kids around here."

Instead of standing up for me, my parents were embarrassed and actually coerced me into writing a letter of apology to this cop. I held out and held out, but it was gonna be hell for me in the house if I didn't. So they finally made me write this letter of apology. And here what I was doing was standing up. At that point I frankly had pride in being associated with kids from west Berkeley, because I felt that they must know how to stand up for their rights then—I felt like I was being cast into good company. But, at the time, my parents were just horrified. That really made me feel terrible, and lowered them in my estimation, because I felt like: "What hypocrites!" They taught me all this stuff—how did I know to stand up for my rights? How did I know to tell this cop that I had a constitutional right to go where I wanted, and he could tell me not to be on school property but he couldn't tell me I had to go home when I was on public property? I knew that from my parents, and in particular my dad, all the legal training that I'd gotten, just by listening to him tell stories, but also talking with him about the constitution and everything. And here they were turning on me when I stood up for this. So that was kind of a traumatic experience. On the other hand, it was an experience that stood me in good stead for the rest of my life, really.

As I said, for a while this really dropped my parents in my estimation. But I will give them credit that later on they recognized they were wrong and criticized themselves. My dad, with great chagrin but also with a certain amount of pride in having learned better, would always tell this story from the point of view of how screwed up he was in taking this position. It was years before they finally recognized that I was right and they were wrong, but they did finally recognize it.



In junior high I stopped playing baseball and, although I would still go to baseball games sometimes, I didn't have the same enthusiasm for it that I did as a younger kid. I just didn't think it was as exciting as basketball and football and track. But I remember very starkly a story involving a baseball game which has a larger social significance.

Even in seventh grade, I was known to kids in my school, including older kids, as being really knowledgeable about sports. And one day there was a ninth grade baseball game between my junior high, Garfield, and Burbank Junior High, which was overwhelmingly Black, with some Latinos. The Burbank team showed up for the game after school, all ready to play, but there was no umpire so it looked like they would have to cancel the game. Some of the guys from the ninth grade Garfield team came up to me and said, "Hey, we want to play this game, but there's no umpire—will you umpire the game?" And I foolishly said okay.

So I was the only umpire. Usually, even in these junior high school games, you had at least two or three umpires. But I was all by myself: I had to stand behind the pitcher and call all the balls and strikes from there and I had to cover all the bases too. I stood behind the pitcher and called balls and strikes, then the ball would be hit and the runner would run toward first, and I had to go over there and say "safe" or "out." Then if somebody was running the bases, I had to run around with them and say safe or out.

Well, the game came down to the last inning and the Garfield team was ahead by two runs. The Burbank team got two guys on base, the next Burbank batter came up and it was one of those dramatic moments: two outs, the last inning and two guys on base for Burbank. The batter hit the ball to left field, way past the fielder, and these Burbank guys started running around the bases. One guy scored, another guy scored, and then there was a question whether the guy who hit the ball was going to get all the way around to home. I'm running around the bases next to him. The Garfield outfielder finally catches up with the ball, throws it in to an infielder, and the infielder then turns around and throws it to the catcher at home plate. The Burbank guy runs in and slides. There's this cloud of dust coming up from the dirt as he slides, the game is literally in the balance, I'm standing there and there's like a little delay—and everybody looks up at me. I yell, "Safe!" And all these guys from my school were furious at me.

But I made the right call, because if you're in doubt or it's a tie, you're supposed to say safe, and there was so much dust and everything that I couldn't really see, and it was really close. So I made the call that I thought was the honest call, which was safe. But, of course, all these kids in my junior high accused me of being intimidated by these guys from Burbank, and none of them would talk to me for a long time.

To be continued

Insight Press • Paperback $18.95
Hear Bob Avakian read sections from his memoir.

Go online to or

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond