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Ian Angus: An Injury to One

Ian Angus is Director of the Socialist History Project and editor of Climate and Capitalism. He plans to write a series of episodic reminiscences about his experiences in the socialist movement in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

An Injury to One
Remembering May 1966 in New York

by Ian Angus

Peter Schulz convinced me to join the Young Socialists in Ottawa in the Spring of 1964, when I was 18. I was the second member in the city — when Gary Porter joined a few weeks later, we had the minimum number needed to formally establish the third YS Local in the country. (The others were in Toronto and Vancouver.) Over the following year the Ottawa YS grew to about 10 members.

I moved to Toronto in the summer of 1965, and took a job sorting and delivering mail at a big detergent company — but my real (unpaid) job was writing for and helping edit our bi-monthly magazine, Young Socialist Forum.

At that time most members of the Young Socialists, including me, were working inside the New Democratic Youth (youth wing of the social-democratic New Democratic Party), so the YS was not a public organization. Until I was expelled from the NDY in 1967, all of my articles were signed “David Lynne.”

I joined the League for Socialist Action early in 1966, but the YS remained my main area of work until the early 1970s.

In May 1966, Penny S. and I decided to take a one-week holiday in New York City — the kind of holiday that would consist of meeting all the comrades we’d read about in The Militant and Young Socialist, and doing whatever tasks the New York SWP and YSA assigned us to. A perfect working vacation for two neophyte revolutionaries.

It was a 12-hour overnight bus ride to New York. I don’t remember if we slept during the trip, but I doubt it.

We arrived and headed straight to 116 University Place — where we were greeted with the news that a right-wing gunman had shot three comrades in Debs Hall, the Socialist Workers Party headquarters in Detroit. Jan Garrett and Walter Graham were injured, and Leo Bernard was killed.

We watched the SWP defense operation go into high gear very quickly. A press release was issued that day.

“The SWP, as the most intransigent opponent of U.S. imperialism, mourns the martyred Leo Bernard. But it pledges to fight all the more resolutely to advance the socialist cause for which he died.

“The best way to honor Leo Bernard is to stand firm and close ranks against all assaults by the forces of reaction.

“Defend the right of all Americans to speak out!

“Build a bigger, stronger anti-war movement!

“Forward to a socialist America in a socialist world — a society cleansed of violence where peace, justice, equality and an end to poverty can be realized!”

Everyone in the SWP switched gears and focused on this campaign. The front page of that week’s Militant was rapidly rewritten — I got to proofread the copy and late that evening Penny and I hand-carried it down to a printshop. (We got thoroughly lost walking back, ending up in the Bowery, where a friendly cab driver gave us a free ride back to University Place.)

The SWP branch meeting that week was focused and disciplined. It lasted about 40 minutes, and one comrade complained that was too long! (I was used to Toronto, where branch meetings lasted hours and everything was discussed and debated.)

Farrell Dobbs gave the main report on how to respond to the attack. He spoke quietly and deliberately, in his flat Midwestern accent, emphasizing key points by stabbing his middle finger onto the podium. Leo Bernard was the first martyr of the anti-Vietnam-war movement, he said. We will not be terrorized by this attack, we will not cower in our headquarters, or do anything stupid like arming ourselves. We will launch a public response, and we will call on the entire left to support us, to support the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

When he was finished, there was no debate — he was that convincing.

(I remember thinking that Dobbs looked like William Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy in cowboy movies. Tall, lanky, and absolutely serious. My main reaction to him, though, was awe — this was the legendary teamster leader we had all been reading about in Art Preis’s book Labor’s Giant Step.)

The next day Penny and I were sent up to Columbia University to distribute leaflets for the Memorial meeting. We distributed more later in Washington Square.

We also spent time meeting the YSA national leadership and briefing them on the state of the movement in Canada. Names and faces that stand out in my memory include Betsey Stone, Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters, Doug Jenness, Carolyn Jenness, Barry Sheppard, and Melissa Singler. Undoubtedly there were others. We felt like kids from the sticks meeting celebrities!

Perhaps they were checking me out, because after those discussions I was asked to speak at the Memorial Meeting as a representative of the Canadian movement. To protect my position in the NDY, I spoke as “David Lynne” — I think that name was also used in The Militant’s report of the meeting. My remarks were brief and not very memorable — I for one have no memory of what I said — but the exhilaration of speaking on the SWP’s platform, in a hall where some of the greatest radical leaders in America had appeared, is still with me.

The meeting was an incredible experience. Close to 400 people jammed into the hall on University Place. There were speakers from a range of organizations, including groups that were normally hostile to us. For the first time in decades (maybe the first time ever?) a representative of the Communist Party, Tim Wheeler, appeared on a Trotskyist platform. I remember the gasp and applause that followed when he said, that Leo Bernard “was committed to the very highest dream of mankind, which is socialism. And it was because he was committed to that dream that I count Leo Bernard as my comrade!”

Farrell Dobbs was the main speaker of the evening. He began by thanking the guest speakers and audience members who were not SWP members. “In simple human terms, your act of solidarity gives us comfort and lends us encouragement at a time of grief and a time of trial.”

“In the meaningful solidarity demonstrated at this memorial meeting, in the comparable solidarity that is being demonstrated at the memorial meetings throughout the country this week, in the messages that are pouring in to our party from all over the country and all over the world, there is every reason to take fresh hope and gain more confidence that more and more fresh forces are coming to the support of those of us who have long been fighting against these wrongs in our society, and that we’re finding in the course of the struggle how to work more effectively, wherever we can, to promote the common aim that so many of us fundamentally share.”

George Novack gave the collection speech, raising money for the Detroit comrades’ medical needs. I had never seen anything like it. First he took pledges until the well seemed dry. Then he sent the baskets around to collect paper money. Then he sent them around again to collect coins. That was my first direct experience of SWP’s firm policy that the movement had to be financed by its members and supporters, and that raising money was a serious political task assigned to top political leaders.

Those few days I spent in New York City in 1966 were a huge part of my political education. I learned concretely what I had known only abstractly — that the fight for socialism was a totally serious matter, in which any of our lives could be forfeit. I learned that I was in a movement that was determined to defend itself effectively, and that had the political smarts to do so.

And I saw the finest team of revolutionaries I was ever to meet in action, building the kind of campaign that made the SWP/YSA the most effective socialist group anywhere in the 60s and 70s.

It gave me something to aspire to.

(For a more complete account of the assassination in Detroit and the SWP’s response to it, see pages 161-4 of Barry Sheppard’s political memoir The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume 1: The Sixties, published by Resistance Press in 2005)

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