Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Amidst the backwash of Alyssa Lappen’s attack on Ammiel Alcalay in a rightwing online zine called The American Thinker, reprinted by the equally rabid but more widely read Campus Watch, Lorraine Graham posted a note to the Wom-Po List that pointed out that when


Ron Silliman and Leslie Scalapino gave a reading at Georgetown University in early February and there were two spooks there! They weren't even trying to hide the fact that they were clearly FBI agents. I'd temporarily forgotten until I saw them in their nice "hello, I work with a government security organization" suits that Silliman is a former editor of the Socialist Review. Both of them sat and took notes all through his talk on H.D., and Leslie Scalapino's talk as well. And they sat and took notes during the reading...Really, it was quite amazing…. I wonder if Silliman is used to it.


“Used to it” is a strange category. Actually, one conclusion that I’d drawn differently from Graham’s was that I had not assumed that these fellows were “clearly FBI agents.” There are more than a dozen intelligence agencies, with the FBI & CIA simply being the most widely known. Also, I had not presumed that they were there necessarily for me. Leslie's antiwar work has been both visible and articulate.


Surveillance is one of the ugliest aspects of American life & yet we know that it’s gone on for decades. When I was in high school, my ninth grade social sciences teacher was “named” by the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a “person of interest” they would like to talk to on some future occasion because he had a very retro jazz program on KPFA, the Pacifica radio network station in Berkeley. The local rightwing politicians who controlled Albany, California, politics at the time hounded him as a result until he quit his job in disgust.


My first conscious direct experience of it came in 1974, when I was working with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), a prison movement organization headquartered in San Rafael. After a year as a caseworker at CPHJ in 1972, I’d been loaned to the larger coalition of prison movement organizations – it was called the Committee of 2600, after the statute in the California Penal Code that declared that felons retained no civil rights while incarcerated – and was one of the organization’s lobbyists in Sacramento, where I successfully kept the construction of new prisons out of the state budget for several consecutive years. After heiress and UC undergrad Patty Hearst had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, as confused a gaggle of ultra-leftists as ever existed, Hearst’s family had put up a “ransom” by starting a large food-to-the-impoverished program that it called People in Need. However, Cinque, the head of the SLA, had released audiotapes criticizing the program, which was in the process of collapsing into chaos, and the folks around the program, including the Hearst family and Patty’s then-fiancĂ© Stephen Weed began to look for other alternatives. When Weed contacted the American Friends Service Committee & the Prisoners Union about the idea of redirecting several million dollars to the prison movement in general, red flags went up everywhere. The coalition decided to assign one person to act as the conduit to Weed & this idea and since Weed was a grad student in philosophy at Berkeley, I was the “logical” candidate.


So here I was with Stephen Weed coming to my front door on Missouri Street in San Francisco, which was also being visited by such folks as Popeye Jackson of the United Prisoners Union, a more radical prison movement group half-sponsored by Bruce Franklin’s Vinceremos Brigade out of Stanford.


My roommate and I began to hear old phone conversations when we picked up our phone. In those days, you only had one line hardwired into the wall, without any fancy answering machines, let alone recording services available. Sometimes these were conversations one or the other of us had had days before. This was, we presumed, what was known in the intelligence trade as an “open tail.” Somebody wanted us know that we were being watched, just to see what we would do. Yet we were never questioned about our activities in the slightest, tho we reminded each other that should the FBI ever come to the door, we should step outside and close the door behind us, so that they couldn’t come in and claim they were invited. Every activist in the 1960s & ‘70s knew that.


I spent the better part of a week with Weed, mostly at a flat over in the Marina that belonged to a professional race car driver buddy of his, but his plans collapsed after the SLA robbed a bank in the Sunset District in which Patty herself was photographed holding an automatic weapon.


Two years later, after Sara Jane Moore, an FBI “stringer” who had infiltrated the United Prisoners Union, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, I got a call from the FBI. My name and my phone number at CPHJ had been in her address book. I explained over the phone that I presumed my name & number was in the address book of everybody in the prison movement in Northern California & that ended that conversation.


But that incident made me stop & wonder just how much the FBI did have on me, so I used the Freedom of Information Act to request all intelligence files relating to me. I expected to see that phone conversation & the stuff about Stephen Weed & possibly something relating to an incident in 1970 when I had been briefly stopped by the Berkeley police after a bank robbery occurred on Solano Avenue. I lived a block from Solano and had stepped out of my house on my way to meet my first wife & a friend for dinner when a cop running down the street comes to a halt & draws his gun on me. I was spread-eagled against a parked car & the officer told the little microphone on his epaulet that he had “got him.” The FBI showed up in about five minutes, dressed in the 1970 equivalent of business casual. They wanted to know where the money & gun were & I told them I had neither, thank you. Once the bank’s manager came out to identify me, everything got straightened out. The cop had only heard a description that the suspect was a hippy with long blond hair, but the branch manager noted that the suspect was also a woman. At which point I was allowed to take my hands off the parked car and relax. But the FBI agents wouldn’t let me leave until they had checked my draft status & found that I was not wanted for evading the draft.


That is what I expected to find, but in fact none of those three events was mentioned even once in the 130 pages I received back, mostly from the FBI, with a few pages actually from the CIA. Most of what I got back related to my application for a conscientious objector’s status with the Selective Service. The FBI had gone around and talked to the janitor at my mother’s apartment & to the professors of classes that I had dropped in college (tho not, apparently, to professors whose classes I actually took). A lot of this looked to me like a federal government with too much money & too little to do until I noted the CIA material. The CIA had a stringer, someone who turned in reports & got paid apparently by the piece, in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Although his name was blanked out, I could tell exactly who it was – a grad student in the same apartment complex my wife & I had lived in during 1968-69. He had identified me as being involved in rallies during the San Francisco State student strike that fall. They were trying apparently to see if there was a larger coordination of student radicals between Berkeley & SF State & I was a likely candidate. In fact, I had been a grunt during all those political events, far too focused at the time on learning about poetry to want to get diverted into the venal realm of full-time politics.


Sometime after I got my files in 1976, they disappeared from the collective household I was living in on California Street in San Francisco. If it was a burglary, those files were all that were taken.


After working in the prison movement up through ’76, I worked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin as an organizer for the next five years, then shifted my work – after a year of teaching at SF State & UC San Diego – becoming a grad school administrator for another five years, doing political work basically on evenings & weekends with the Democratic Socialists of America, until I was selected as the executive editor of the Socialist Review. The CIA actually had multiple subscriptions to SR, but so did the Ethiopian air force and the premier of Greece. After three years at that job, I shifted into working in the computer industry. I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be able to afford a family & the combination of non-profit wages & Bay Area housing prices made the private sector a necessity. My job at SR has always been on my resume & it never once proved the slightest detriment to getting hired by companies in the industry, including IBM.


Working in the industry, though, I have gotten to know some former spies. Market intelligence departments of large corporations – especially the pharmaceutical industry – have a fair number of these people and once they get used to the fact that they no longer get company cars and have to work from cubicles like everyone else, they’re pretty much the same as any other co-worker, except that they tend to gravitate toward high-adrenalin recreational activities.


This blog gets a steady trickle of readers from dot gov & dot mil addresses. Some of them may in fact be interested in the poetry – after all, from Christopher Marlowe to Basil Bunting & Roque Dalton, spying & poetry have intermingled. Once, when I read at the Ear Inn, I had a table full of kids in military haircuts right up front. When I read the line “Your haircut’s too political,” everyone at the table laughed (you can hear them on the Live at Ear recording, available now via PENNsound). It turned out that they were a group of cadets from West Point who had been ordered by their English prof to go into Manhattan to hear some live poetry. Since the Ear Inn was on a weekend afternoon and offered beer for sale, this was the perfect assignment.


Anyone who has read my work at all closely – spooks included – will note that one constant, dating all the way back to my days as conscientious objector in the mid-1960s, has been a serious & close reading of the U.S. Constitution & Declaration of Independence. If I’ve been an advocate for any principles, you will be able to find them enshrined there. Documents that you will note never once mention capitalism. But there are certainly periods when a serious reading of the Constitution will put you at odds with the government. The Nixon administration was one of those times & the current regime is another. My strategy has always been to be completely above board about what I do. But if/when they ever show up at the door, I’m stepping outside and closing the door behind me.