(This is the fifth chapter of my autobiographical series. It covers 1978-1983, after I moved from Houston to Phoenix. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 6, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
In my last email I mentioned that I had gotten away from rock music in the 70’s. I still hate most 70’s rock. But after I moved to Phoenix in the Fall of 1978, I got back into rock music, thanks to the arrival of Punk and New Wave music. Punk bands like The Clash were raw rock with angry political lyrics. I still remember being at a friend’s apartment when he put on The Clash’s first album. I had never heard anything like that before but I loved it immediately. “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” Hell yeah.
New Wave music was totally different than punk, both musically and lyrically, but I loved it also. Musically it was much more interesting than the boring 70’s rock music, and lyrically the songs, while usually not political, tended to be emotional and introspective. When I first heard The Police on the radio, I was blown away. They didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. The guitar style was so different and cool. And I still remember being in my apartment when U2’s “New Year’s Day” came on the radio. I had never heard that style of guitar playing before. It was so different, and so cool. Other New Wave bands I loved included The Pretenders, Berlin, Modern English, 10,000 Maniacs, Missing Persons and A Flock of Seagulls.
But playing music then was an impossible dream. All my time was spent going to meetings and doing political activity, and working. A couple of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members turned me onto political folk music, and I would sometimes get out my acoustic guitar and play at parties but that’s it. But when I would go see a New Wave band at a local club in Phoenix, I couldn’t help but think “I wish that was me up there.”
Political Activism in Phoenix
In 1978, the SWP leadhership realized that the Sixties were over, and began a campaign to get members to take jobs in factories and join unions to build the party among blue-collar workers. Since I didn’t want to teach high school, and needed a job anyway, I took a job at Capitol Castings, a steel foundry in Tempe, just outside of Phoenix. I worked there for the next 3 years and was a member of the Steelworkers union. I was pretty freaked out the first time I saw a giant bucket of molten steel being poured into sand molds. The work was hard and dangerous; I went to the emergency room twice because my fingers had been smashed by the machinery. I shudder to think of that now; I came close to never being able to play the guitar again.
I got a one-room apartment
and a beat-up old car
I work in a factory
a disgrace to my family
–from my song None of the Above, to be recorded on my new album
The Sandinista Revolution in NIcaragua
In July, 1979 a popular uprising led by the Sandinista guerilla movement overthrew the longtime US-backed Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua. The Sandinista revolution generated a lot of hope and enthusiasm around the world. The Sandinistas setup a coalition government of all those who had opposed the Somoza dictatorship, and scheduled–and held– free elections for a new government. There was freedom of speech and press. Opposition parties were not suppressed. The Sandinistas were for a mixed economy, with some industries nationalized but most private enterprise. The death penalty and life sentences were abolished.
Sandinista leader Tomas [ add accent ] Borge had been imprisoned and tortured by the Somoza dictatorship. He became Minister of the Interior in the new government. But rather than do the same to his torturers, he forgave them, and wrote a poem, My Personal Revenge, explaining why. Jackson Browne turned the poem into a very beautiful and moving song.
I Travel to Nicaragua for the Revolution’s First Anniversary
A year later, I travelled to Nicaragua with two friends from Phoenix to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution. My second teaching field in college had been Spanish, so I was mostly fluent at that point, and one of my friends was a fully bilingual Mexican-American. So we were able to converse with the people there. It was great to see what an actual revolution was like. That could be the subject of an entire chapter in this email series, but for now let me just say what impressed me was that the revolution was led by young people– teenagers even. I was 25 at the time, and I felt old. They told me stories of erecting barricades in Managua, the capitol city, to repel the dictator’s army. I travelled to two other cities, including Estelí, where some of the fiercest fighting had taken place. It was sobering to see all the bullet holes in the walls of almost every house there.
I had loaded my camera with color slide film and took a lot of photos there. When I came back to Phoenix, I put on a couple of slide show presentations about the trip. Unfortunately, I can’t post any here for you because they’re slides, so I can’t scan them. Maybe someday I’ll take those slides to a shop and have them converted to digital photo files. You’ll have to settle for these old buttons I found.
Reagan Organizes to Destroy the Revolution
The Reagan administration began re-organizing, funding and training the former dictator Somoza’s army in the border nations of Costa Rica and Honduras. These groups conducted terrorist operations against civilians inside Nicaragua. The Socialist Workers Party and YSA formed coalitions with other organizations and individuals to protest the US government’s actions. The pressure from our efforts and internationally was enough for Congress to cut off aid to the counter-revolutionaries, or Contras, as they were known. Reagan’s team, headed by Oliver North, then organized a scheme to allow the Contras to smuggle cocaine into US cities, especially Los Angeles. The CIA/Contra leaders used Black street gangs to sell it. This led to the crack cocaine explosion in Black communities in the US. All this was exposed by the journalist Gary Webb. The Reagan administration organized a slander campaign against Webb, which resulted in his death, officially pronounced as a suicde. His articles were published as a book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. The movie, Kill the Messenger, was made based on the book. The movie is excellent.
The Iran-Contra Scandal and the Overthrow of the Nicaraguan Revolution
Another aspect of the Reagan/North fundraising campaign for the Contra terrorists was to secretly sell arms to Iran and fund the money to the Contras. Arms sales to Iran was illegal. So the Reagan/North gang was breaking a whole series of US laws in order to raise money for terrorists– drug smuggling and illegal arm sales to Iran– not to mention organizing and directing mass murder. When this became exposed, Congressional Democrats held hearings and pretended to be outraged, but, of course, they did nothing about it. To this day, Oliver North heads a company that provides mercenaries to the US military. Other key operatives in this criminal operation, such as John Negroponte, served as US Ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush from 2001-2004 and helped orchestrate the fake “weapons of mass destruction” excuse for the US invasion of Iraq. Another, Elliott Abrams, continued to hold responsible posts in the US government, and is currently serving as President Trump’s Special Representative for Iran.
The Nicaraguan government finally caved in to the terrorist campaign, and new elections were held in 1991. The US government funded an opposition party linked the Contras. (The Democrats did not object to this.) Naturally, they won, and began reversing the gains of the revolution, and restoring Nicaragua to a third-world country serving the interests of foreign corporations. So when the Democrats profess outrage at “Russian interference” in US elections, I call bullshit. And I call them what they are– hypocrits.
Rob Roper: Socialist Candidate for US Congress
In 1980, the SWP chose me as their candidate for the US House of Representatives, running against John Rhodes, the long-time leader of the Republicans in the House. The Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. I participated in a live TV debate with Rhodes, and with the other candidates for national office. A former Democratic staffer who had recently come over to the SWP did research on Rhodes voting record, and so I was prepared with notecards on various issues. When someone from the audience asked Rhodes about supporting veterans, Rhodes claimed he did. I countered with the exact bill number and date when he had voted against an increase in veterans benefits. I swear I could hear Rhodes audibly groan. I then stated that I was in favor of supporting veterans who had been wounded physically or psychologically in this country’s wars.
I enjoyed being a candidate, and public speaking. I worked hard at it. I learned from listening to recordings of the speeches of Malcolm X. I also learned from hearing the speeches of Peter Camejo, the SWP’s Presidential candidate in 1976. Camejo was the greatest public speaker I had ever heard in person. Both Malcolm X and Camejo used humor and historical anecdotes to make their points. And they didn’t read their speeches. I tried to do that, too. I prepared my speeches in outline form, with historical anecdotes (easy for me since I was a history major) and left room for improvisation. Most of the other SWP candidates wrote out their speeches word-for-word, without humor or anecdotes, just giving the party line. Boring. My speeches were more like musical performances. Needless to say, I got a better reaction from the audiences that the other candidates, and recruited more members. My popularity grew, and I was now a leader of the YSA and SWP. I was oblivious at the time, but my popularity was viewed by the national leadership and their local followers as a threat to them.
The Decline of the Socialist Workers Party
The national leadership of the SWP had mostly come from college students active in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s. From there they went straight on to the SWP full-time staff. They had no experience working real jobs with real workers. By 1980, they had been “going to work” in their office in New York City for the past 15 years or so. They were completely isolated from the American working class. But they styled themselves “proletarian” leaders and handed down decisions to the local branches that were increasingly out-of-touch with reality.
Despite my conflicts with the party bureaucrats, they still chose me as the SWP’s candidate for US Senate in 1982. I guess nobody else wanted to do it. That was fine with me, it allowed me to speak to union meetings and at other events, and bring working-class people around the SWP. But as members began to question the NYC leadership’s policies more and more, the New York leaders became more paranoid and repressive. Two years later, they cancelled the party convention in 1983 rather than face criticism of their policies, which was a blatant violation of the party constitution. They expelled members who expressed opinions different from the leadership. But mainly members just quit. The workers I had recruited began dropping out. I tried to work within the SWP to reform it, but by 1983 it had become clear that was impossible. The organization I had joined at 18 and devoted the last 10 years of my life to– the best years”– according to most people, was dying and I had to admit I couldn’t save it. All that was left was the out-of-touch and paranoid NYC leadership and their local ass-kissers who did what they were told. Not the kind of organization that would ever make a difference.
I Move to Tucson, Resign from the SWP
I had moved to Tucson in 1983, because tension between me and the local leadership and reached toxic levels. I wanted to get out of that atmosphere and make sure that it wasn’t just a local problem. It quickly became clear that the problem came from the top, and I resigned from the Socialist Workers Party in the fall of 1983.
Next: Tucson 1983-1991: I continue political activism as an independent, but eventually end my career as a political activist in favor of a new one in music.