Revolution #217, November 21, 2010
From Ike to Mao and Beyond
My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist
A Memoir by Bob Avakian
from Chapter Eight: Getting Down with Revolution
Moving to Richmond
Toward the end of 1967, it was time to make the move. It was time, as Mao had put it, to "integrate with the masses." We were trying to take radical and revolutionary politics, as best as we understood them, particularly to poor white people, which was what the Panthers, SNCC and other Black nationalist forces were urging. So, in a basic sense, that was our mission, but we didn't really have any idea how to go about it. We just knew we had to move there. That was the first thing, just literally move there. We had an orientation that we were still going to relate politically to things happening at Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area and other important political struggles, but we were going to try to orient ourselves toward really, deeply immersing ourselves there in Richmond, and not just always go back to those places that we were more familiar and more comfortable with every time we wanted to do anything culturally or socially. So it was a big move and a big change for us.
Ideologically, we were into a real mixed bag. We thought of ourselves as revolutionaries and we were for socialism — sort of — but with a little bit of Mao, a little bit of Che, the influences of the Panthers and revolutionary nationalism all part of this mixed bag. That's where we were at and it was typical of a lot of radical people at that time. And it wasn't just the radicals in the Bay Area who were into this kind of mixed bag, but people more generally throughout the country and even in other parts of the world. Things are very different now, but at that time, even a lot of bourgeois heads of government in the Third World — say in Algeria or India — would talk about socialism of one kind or another in some sort of favorable way. So there was a lot of mixed bag ideology around and we were just a part of that.
Then we tried to figure out, "Okay, what are we going to do practically to begin trying to integrate with people here socially and culturally, and what are we going to do to start doing some political work with them?" So we started hanging out in bars to get to know people and going to local events. I always hated beer, but I started drinking beer so I could hang out and socialize with people. Politically, we decided, "Well, let's go investigate things they're doing with poor people here." So one of us went to this meeting of the local group that was set up under the whole Johnson "Great Society" anti-poverty program. It was a government-run group there in Richmond, but we decided, "Well, maybe we'll meet some interesting people there anyway." And we did meet a few interesting people that way, but I remember the person who went to the meeting coming back and describing how it was just this whole bureaucratic thing. It was captured in this diagram that they had with the President of the United States at the top, then all of these other government agencies, and then down at the bottom is "us," said the person who was running the meeting — this was actually a poor person from the neighborhood, but they were being turned into a hack by this whole program. Our comrade who went to the meeting finally couldn't take it anymore, and he got up and said, "The first thing we need to do is turn that chart upside down!" And that was our first political foray.
At the beginning, it was just a couple of us guys there. We were radicals, revolutionary-minded. We even had this sort of macho image of ourselves as revolutionaries. Now, as it turned out, as we did more work there, we started working among all different kinds of people, women as well as men, Black people, Latinos, Native Americans — but our goal initially was that we were going to hook up with poor white people. And so the first people we started drawing around us a little bit were a number of these young white working class guys, poor whites who lived in the area where we were.
The First Political Steps
After getting to know them a little bit socially, we decided: we've got to do something to break the ice here politically. What could we do? Well, we lived in this house where the bedrooms we were staying in were upstairs and the living room was downstairs and we used some other rooms downstairs for a mimeo machine — back in those days, that's how you did things, you ran off flyers on mimeograph machines — and we had typewriters and things like that down there. So we took all the newspapers we could find — movement newspapers, regular newspapers — and we clipped out everything we could find where people had gotten into it with the police, like a police attack on strikers in Newport News, Virginia, cases of police murder, cases where the Panthers were defending themselves and Black people against the police, cases where Latinos were getting into it with the cops. All the way around the living room walls we pasted up these pictures and then we put captions below all of them. So one day, okay, here it goes — some of these guys we were hanging out with came over to our house. We opened the door and welcomed them in, and their eyes went really wide and they started walking around the living room almost as if they were in a museum, quietly looking at these pictures from beginning to end. And it was very interesting. Their response was very good. It was very favorable. They identified with the people who were being brutalized by the police and the people who were fighting back, and so this broke the ice politically.
During this time we were pretty sure our phone was being tapped, because you'd hear these clicking sounds and things. So, more to make a statement that we were aware of this than to actually get it fixed, we called the phone company and said we wanted someone to come out and see if our phone was being tapped. So this fairly backward guy came out. He walked into our place and he did the same thing — he looked all around our living room at these pictures — and he knows he's there to check to see if the phone is tapped, and he says, "What are you guys, spies?" "Man," we said, "just check the phone." Then he checked it and said he couldn't tell if it was tapped or not.
So this is how we began our political work. We started increasingly to involve the people we were meeting in various political activities — both things we did locally but also having them go with us to demonstrations in other places, and political meetings, and things like that. And then pretty soon through these first contacts and in other ways we started meeting other people; and again, while our initial mission was to go work among especially the poor white youth but more generally among poor white people, our contacts had friends who weren't all white and many different kinds of people were attracted to what we were doing — mainly younger people but some who were older, women as well as men, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and these white proletarian youth. We started developing a kind of a political center there and of course it became known after a little while to the police in San Pablo and Richmond and the Sheriff's office, partly because we were also doing support work for the Panthers there. This was after the Huey Newton shootout incident, and his case had become a major political battle. So we started doing work around that in Richmond and that created quite a bit of controversy, but also brought forward some more advanced people.
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