(This is the sixth chapter of my autobiographical series. It covers 1983-1991, after I moved from Phoenix to Tucson and resigned from the SWP. 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 12, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
Independent Political Activist in Tucson, 1983-1991
After resigning from the SWP in the fall of 1983, I continued as an independent activist for the next several years. At the time I resigned, there was a copper workers strike going on in Arizona. The other copper companies had reached settlements with the Steelworkers union, but the Phelps-Dodge corporation demanded more concessions from the union. The union went on strike, and for the first time in decades in the copper industry, the company tried to continue operating during the strike with scab labor. The scabs were met by mass picket lines by the workers, and the liberal Democratic governor of Arizona, Bruce Babbitt, called out the National Guard to keep the mines open and break the strike.
The two mining towns in Arizona where the strike was based were Ajo and Clifton/Morenci. (Morenci was a company town, entirely owned by Phelps-Dodge, and Clifton was an adjacent independent town). These were close-knit communities, where generations of people had worked in the mines. The majority of the labor force was Mexican-American. The importation of out-ot-town scabs made the strike not just a labor issue, but an issue of defending one’s community from outsiders trying to destroy it.
The union leadership, being tied to the Democratic Party, didn’t see the danger, and didn’t really do anything to rally support for the strike. So my best friend, Eduardo, and I formed a support organization. (Eduardo had quit the SWP right after I did.) We organized a food drive for the striking mineworkers, helped tell their story to the media, and organized support rallies for them. I wrote a series of articles about the strike for Labor Notes, a newsletter of the progressive wing of the labor movement. But despite the soladarity of the workers and people of the communities, and the efforts of us and others, the strike was eventually broken, and the unions destroyed by the partnership of the New York-based Phelps-Dodge corporation and the Governor Babbitt. It was yet another lesson in the treachery of the Democratic Party.
When I moved to Tucson in 1983, I took a job at National Semiconductor, an electronics factory. The job paid barely over minimum wage, which I think was $3.75/hour at the time. That’s because the electronics industry in the US was largely non-union. I decided to go back to school at the local community college for a two-year degree in electronics, so that I could become an electronics technician. I didn’t have much interest in electronics; I’ve never had a technical personality; but I did it for two reasons: one, since I didn’t want to use my college degree to teach, if I didn’t want to work shitty low-paying jobs the rest of my life, I would need to learn a skill. The other reason was that I had decided to try and organize a union, and technicians moved around, fixing machines, so I would be able to meet and talk to a lot more workers.
By 1988 I had my electronics degree and had been working as a technician, and had an underground organizing committe of about a dozen workers. We launched a petition campaign to get a refrigerator in the break room to store our lunches, and won. But soon after that, layoffs began. During the 1980’s, the deindustrialization of America had begun. Electronics and other factories were being moved overseas. Even the pathetically low wages we got were much more than the companies paid in other countries. Many of our organizing committee were laid off. The union drive fizzled out.
Music and Fun!
After the union organizing committe ended, I decided to give up political activism and be “selfish” for the first time in my life. I was now 34-35 years old. I had given my youth to the “movement.” It was time to live a little before I was old. I was now free from the incessant SWP meetings and activity, and– with my Associates Degree in Electronics completed– more free time, I started to make up for what I missed the last 10 years. The workforce at National Semiconductor was young. The factory was on Tucson’s southside, which was mainly Mexican-American. So were most of my co-workers and new friends. I made a lot of friends there, and we partied together. I was digging the New Wave music of the 80’s– The Cure, The Church, Modern English, Berlin, Missing Persons. I was started going out to hear more live music in Tucson. There were only a few live music clubs in Tucson, but I made the rounds of them. The main one was Club Congress downtown.
I was also dusting off my neglected acoustic guitar, electric guitar and amp, and starting to play more music. I wanted to get into a band. I took guitar lessons, and later, vocal lessons. This will be covered in more depth in the next chapter.
Coming out of Activist Retirement to Protest the Iraq War
In 1990 or 1991, I quit National Semiconductor and took an electronics technician job at Burr-Brown. This was a better job– I was working as an engineering technician, assisting the engineers. While I was working there, the first President George Bush decided to invade Iraq. Although I had sworn off political activism for music a couple years earlier, I was so angry that I got back into it, and joined the Tucson coalition of people and groups to organize protests, this time operating as an independent. I became a leader of the group. We organized a march and rally in downtown Tucson. I created a mixtape cassette of political songs to play as the marchers entered the rally site, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s antiwar anthem, “Born in the USA.”
The antiwar coalition ended with the war. I decide to really quit political activism for good, and focus on music, and joining a band.
This concludes the chapters in this series called “The Missing Years,” so-called because I was reluctant to talk to them about anybody I met after 1991. I suffered a mid-life crisis when I turned 39, in 1993. I felt that I had wasted my youth, pretending to be a revolutionary, accomplishing nothing. I became very depressed. I had a great girlfriend, and she broke up with me because she didn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who was depressed all the time. I can’t blame her. But I snapped out of it six months later, deciding that what’s done is done, so why not make the best of the years to come? And that meant moving music to center stage.
(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.
(This is the fourth chapter of my autobiographical series. 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 1, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
In the previous chapter, I said that the City of Dallas had transferred me to a job where I worked alone, on the graveyard shift, and my days off were Monday and Tuesday. Whether they did this because they were worried I was trying to organize a union, or because of my socialist activity, I don’t know. But it definitely cramped my style, both in terms of political activity and social activity. Having to go to work on Friday and Saturday nights at 10pm sucked. Really sucked. No more hanging at Mother Blues– or anywhere. And what girl wants to go on a date on a Monday or Tuesday night? The SWP had been urging me to move to Houston, where there was a branch of the party. I had no desire to move to Houston, which had a well-deserved reputation as a redneck city, but given that I was no longer going college, and my social life killed by the new work shift, I gave in and moved in January, 1975.
Confronting the KKK in New Orleans
Soon after moving to Houston, I agreed to be part of a 3-person team of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members who travelled to various college towns in Texas and Louisiana to recruit new members. We would typically setup a literature table and sell the Young Socialist newspaper, books and pamphlets. We would also organize a meeting where we took turns giving a speech and hopefully recruiting new members. While visiting the University of New Orleans, a white student came up to our literature table, identified himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and threatened to attack us if we held the meeting. It was my turn to give the speech. The University of New Orleans was a community college; most of the students were from working class or middle class families, and there were a lot of Black students. At our literature table we met members of the Black Student Union, partly because we sold books of Malcolm X’s speeches. I told the Black students of the threat made by the KKK, and asked if they would be willing to sit on the front row of seats and serve as security. They readily agreed. By 1975, things had changed in the South. These young Black students were itching to kick some Klan ass.
Because of the threat by the Klan, and the response of the Black students, this was by far the best-attended meeting we held on the tour. There were 80-100 people in attendance. I was fired up and gave a good speech; it’s the same high I get now when I play music for a big audience. The Klan members, after seeing the first three rows filled with Black students, wisely chose not to attack me, and remained in the back, and limited themselves to hostile questions and comments after my speech. The FBI had an undercover agent there, too. Their files on me confirm that we recruited 5 new members there, enough for a new YSA chapter.
University of Houston: School, Work, Political Activity, Music
In the fall of 1975 I enrolled at the University of Houston and was a leader of the YSA chapter there. I also became a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I lived with a girl named Ellen, who I had met in Dallas, for all but my last semester of college in Houston. During all my college years I either worked part or fulltime. I had various jobs, but the one that last the longest was at UPS. I unloaded and loaded trucks in the horrible Houston heat and humidity, and UPS foreman were constantly pushing us to work faster. The work sucked big-time, but it paid better than any other part-time job a college student could get, so we put up with it. Eventually I got promoted to an easier job of sorting packages coming off the trucks onto conveyer belts to be loaded into other trucks. I led a organizing drive by the Teamsters, but that failed. The workforce was students, and so there was a lot of turnover. Nobody considered this a permanent job. And the Teamsters staff was never very serious about it.
Between work, classes, homework, and political activity I had little time for partying like most college students. I would invite a friend or two over to our apartment on Saturday nights to drink beer and listen to my records. The 70’s were bad for rock music, in my opinion. I found the music of bands like Aerosmith and Journey boring, and their vapid lyrics about sex and parying even more boring. I still hate that shit. Instead I got into other types of music– Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, Ricky Lee Jones and Alt Country/Texas songwriters– Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, B.W. Stevenson. Occasionally I would go to small live music bars to see people like Shake Russell play. Shake would play his songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a seeming random group of local musicians. I was thinking: that looks like fun; I wish I could do that.
My political activity at the University of Houston campus consisted of selling the YSA’s monthly newspaper, the Young Socialist, and the SWP weekly newspaper, The Militant, and staffing our literature table once a week. We would also hold forums where one of us would speak on current issues, and sometimes sponsor guest speakers that the SWP and YSA had organized national tours for, such as Tsietsi Mashinini, leader of the Soweto student uprising in South Africa, and Leah Tsemel, Israeli human rights lawyer who defended Palestinians.
We also participated in broader coalitions around various issues. Antiracist work and coalitions were a top priority; more on that in the next paragraphs. The women’s rights movement was focused on getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed, and our women members participated in the National Organization for Women and the campus women’s group. We supported and publicized the struggles of people internationally living under US-supported authoritarian regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, the Blacks living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Palestinians under occupation by the Zionist government of Israel. But results were minimal; by 1975 the “Sixties” were long gone, and the University of Houston was hardly a Berkeley even in the Sixties.
The Anti-Racist Movement in the 1970’s
After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, legal discrimination ended in the South. Gone were the white and colored water fountains of my youth in Jackson, and Blacks could now vote without fear of KKK violence. The Black struggle moved to a new level– ending illegal, defacto discrimination. Now the South became like the North, where Blacks were legally equal with whites, but in practice suffered discrimination in all walks of life. The schools in black neighborhoods received less funding that the schools in white neighborhoods. Real estate agents refused to show homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, and if they tried to buy one, the banks would deny the loans. Qualified blacks were turned down for jobs in favor of less-qualified white job applicants. Blacks were not admitted to colleges but whites with lower test scores were. And so on. This type of discrimination was harder to prove, and resulted in the demand for affirmative action, with quotas, to force racist institutions to end discrimination. White police in black neighborhoods were far more brutal and violent than they were in suburban white neighborhoods (sound familiar?). Then there was the death penalty, which was disproportionately used against Black defendants. The SWP and YSA supported all these struggles against racism.
Please allow me a short digression here to talk about my mom again. In order to combat housing discrimination, in 1968 the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, which included an enforcement agency. My mom took a job with this agency. They would first send a black person to inquire about renting an apartment, and if they were told there were none available, they would then send my mom, a white person. If they offered my mom an apartment, they were busted. I remember my mom was proud of this work; she was sort of an undercover antiracist activist.
The Boston Busing Crisis
In 1974, a judge ruled in a favor of a lawsuit file by Blacks ordering the Boston schools to end defacto segregation. Whites in Boston rioted when black students were bused into the formerly all-white schools. I have to admit, this southerner could not help but notice the hypocrisy of the white Yankees. The whites in the north supported the Civil Rights movement as long as it was confined to the South. But, as I told you in my previous chapters, my school in Jackson, Mississippi was peacefully integrated in 1967, and the schools in Dallas peacefully integrated in 1971. Southern white kids of my generation– most of them, at least– changed their attitudes and became friends with Blacks. Yet when the schools were integrated in supposedly progressive Boston– the heart of the Abolitionist movement before the Civil War– the whites rioted rather than accept Black students into their schools. Now who’s superior, Mr. and Ms. Yankee White Liberal?
It was around this time that a YSA member turned me on to Randy Newman and his brilliant album about the South, Good Ole Boys. Randy Newman liked to write “in character.” It’s like an actor playing a bad guy in a movie, except in movies, everyone knows your acting. With songwriting, a lot of people assume all your songs are about yourself. So it takes a lot of courage for songwriters to write “in charracter.” The opening song, Rednecks, is written from the point of view of a southern racist redneck, who Newman ridicules, but he also uses that character to blast northern hypocrisy. I immediately went out and bought my own copy of the album, and I listened to it over and over. In addition to the brilliant satirical lyrics, the music is beautiful. I would rank it as one of the Top 10 albums of all time, and probably one of the Top 5.
The Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Racist Movement
You must permit me another digression here. In the Sixties, the SWP and YSA played leadership roles in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Their strategy was to form broad-based coalitions open to all individuals and organizations who favored peaceful marches demanding the troops be brought home immediately. “Out Now!” was the slogan. They were highly successful, organizing the largest marches against the war, which, along with the soldiers refusing the fight, pressured Nixon into ending the war. The SWP and YSA-influenced antiwar coalitions embraced the troops, both active duty and those who had returned, and many of those ex-soldiers played a leadership role in the antiwar coalitions. This history is well-documented in Fred Halstead’s book, Out Now! Fred, himself a veteran, was the SWP’s main leader in the antiwar movement, and, to my knowledge, his book on the antiwar movement is still the best.
Many years later, when the government was trying to head off opposition to its new wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, a myth was created that the anti-Vietnam War protesters were against the soldiers. This big lie is easily disproved in Halstead’s book, and documentary movies such as Sir! No Sir! Even in the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam war, which is weak on the antiwar movement, some of the soldiers he interviews note that they joined the antiwar movement when they got home from Vietnam, some of them forming the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In GI opposition to the Vietnam War, 1965-1973 historian Howard Zinn, a leader of the antiwar movement, is well-worth reading. This article and this one (the latter has great photos), also effectively refute the big lie of the antiwar movement being against the troops, and the fact that soldiers, or “G.I.s”, as they were know then, were an important component of the antiwar movement.
The SWP and YSA tried to apply their successful anti-war coalition-building strategy to the anti-racist movement, centered around the Boston busing crisis. As part of that strategy, the YSA initiated the National Student Coalition Against Racism. I travelled to Boston to attend the founding convention. I met with members of the Black Student Union at U of H and helped initiate a local chapter. After the Boston crisis died down, we tried to expand the coalition to other antiracist issues, such as affirmative action and police brutality. But unfortunately, this attempt to build an antiracist coalition failed. Part of the reason was, no doubt, that the most gifted Black leaders of the time– Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and some of the Black Panther Party leaders– had been assassinated. Most of the rest had be co-opted into the Democratic Party machine. The SWP and YSA were unable to fill the void, because they had few black members, having recruited most of their members from the mainly white antiwar movement, and Blacks were not inclined to join coalitions with predominately white organizations. Their mistrust of white liberals and white radicals was understandable and justified. And I think the fact that there was no central issue in the antiracist fight at the time was a factor. Today, there is a central key issue– the issue of police murders in the Black Community– and, as a result, there is a national coalition–Black Lives Matter.
When the email series about my discography morphed into a semi-autobiographical essay, I mentioned that I had been observing the Black Lives Matter protests with interest, because I used to be an activist myself. Now you know.
Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, History and Spanish
I majored in Secondary Education, with a focus on History and Spanish. I didn’t want to teach high school; I was too shy and afraid of how to handle discipline problems. But at the time I thought that was the only career open to me in the social sciences, especially history, which I loved (still do). In my final Spring semester, I did the required student teaching which confirmed I did not want to teach high school. I needed two more Spanish classes to graduate, and found that the UofH had classes in Guadalajara, Mexico. I signed up for that, and lived with a family that spoke no English. I had to speak Spanish all the time. I had a headache the first three days because my brain had to work 10 times harder just to communicate. But by the 5th week, I noticed that I was thinking in Spanish. I passed my fluency test and remained fluent in Spanish for a few years, but as the saying goes, “use it or lose it,” so I’ve forgotten a lot of Spanish since then. I can just get by now.
Goodbye Houston, Hello Phoenix
I graduated from the University of Houson in the summer of 1978. At the time the SWP was growing and expanding into new cities. I never really liked Houston anyway, and was ready for a change. I asked if they could use help starting a new branch, and the SWP leadership suggested Phoenix. I quickly agreed, and moved there in August.
Next: 1978-1991: Phoenix, Tucson, Qutting the SWP/YSA, Independent Political Activity, Music
(This is the third chapter of my autobiographical series. Go here for Chapter 1 and here for Chapter 2. It was initially sent to my music fan email list on August 29, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
The previous blog, “LIttle White Boy Part 2,” ended with me graduating from high school in 1972. This blog is the first of what I call my “Missing Years.” You’ll see why I call them that. This one picks up with after high school graduation and covers the next 3 years of my life.
My First Two College Years in Dallas, 1972-1974
I had started college in the fall of 1972 at Mountain View Community College in Dallas. I was the oldest of 7 kids (my mom was Catholic, remember) and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a university. I didn’t put forth much effort in applying for scholarships because I was so shy that the idea of going to a university in another city where I didn’t know anyone was a little scary to me. So I stayed home and went to the community college where many of my other closest friends were going.
1972: My First Election
In May, 1972, I graduated from Kimball High School in Dallas. Three months later, I turned 18 and was eligible to vote for the first time. That summer, George McGovern had been nominated by the Democrats to run against Nixon for President. He had used the anti-war movement to get the nomination. But when I watched his acceptance speech, live on TV, rather than praise the Americans who had protested the war– including the soldiers– he sucked up to the pro-war crowd. I was appalled and angry at this utter betrayal of the people who supported him. He lost my vote right there.
The League of Women Voters used to send out a voting guide with information on all the candidates before an election. There were socialists running. Now I had somebody to vote for. They were called the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). They were against the war, anti-racist, pro-labor, pro women’s rights, and condemned the duplicity of the Democrats. They got my vote. To this day, I don’t vote for Democrats or Republicans. I don’t play the lesser-evil game. I only vote for candidates whose platform I support. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1920, said, “It’s better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” The lesser evil is still evil.
Not a Democrat, or Republican –from Misfit by Rob Roper
I’ve worked jobs since I was eleven years old. My first jobs were mowing neighbors’ yards for money. After moving to Dallas, I got jobs delivering newspapers early in the morning. My first on-the-books job was in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I was 15. I worked as a lifeguard at a City of Dallas swimming pool. Then, at some point in my junior or senior year of high school, I got a job at a Target store, unloading trucks. Most of the money I made was stashed in a savings account. Some went to buy a good stereo system and records. Money well spent!
Vietnam and the Draft
At some point in 1973, I took a full-time job at the City of Dallas water department. I was working second shift, 3-11pm. I only had to work about 3 hours of the time, so I had time to do homework. There was one other person working second shift with me, a Black man in his early 20’s named Charles. Charles had been in Vietnam and told me stories of what it was like. Lieutenants right out of West Point, clueless about the reality of Vietnam, making soldiers stand for inspection each morning in the jungle when there were snipers around– stupid and dangerous. This lieutenant was “fragged”– killed by his own troops. I learned later that the majority of US officers killed in Vietnam were fragged. Charles told me that he once saw his sergeant shelling a Vietnamese farmer’s crops with mortars just for sadistic fun. Charles aimed his M-16 at him and told him if he fired one more round he’d kill him. Charles’ best friend was killed in battle right next to him. Life was cheap, and it was largely random luck who lived and who died. The Hmong people sold heroin to US soldiers. This was allowed by the US military because the Hmong were pro-American and anti-communist, and the US had few friends among the Vietnamese they were supposedly protecting from communism. Charles started using heroin after seeing his friend killed. I think he had gotten off it by the time I met him. Now he just smoked pot. We would talk politics and music at work. Charles turned me on to the legendary comedian Richard Prior.
When I turned 18 on August 31, 1972, I had to register for the draft. At that time, they had gone to a lottery. Birthdays were randomly picked. I was worried about what I would do. By 1972, even in conservative Dallas, Texas, most young people were against the Vietnam War. There were only 3 choices if drafted: go into the army, go to prison, or go to Canada. They were all bad choices. If I was too shy to go to a university in a nearby Texas town, I definitely couldn’t imagine going to Canada. Going to prison was scary. And I definitely didn’t want to join the army. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the risk of being killed that scared me, I was terrified that I would have to kill people– people who I had nothing against. But I never had to choose; my birthday was a very high number in the lottery; only the first 13 birthdays were chosen. Nixon had been steadily withdrawing troops, due to pressure from the anti-war movement, and because the troops were rebelling and refusing to fight. An agreement would be signed with North Vietnam in January, 1973, and the rest of the troops would be withdrawn. Without US troops doing the fighting, the puppet South Vietnamese government would fall two years later.
Music in Dallas
Working full-time at the City of Dallas allowed me to move out from my parents and get my own apartment. I loved being on my own. My apartment was just north of downtown Dallas, where there was a great record store and several live music clubs. What more do you need? I lived near the now-legendary Mother Blues, now immortalized by Ray Wylie Hubbard in a song. Check out this video of Ray performing the song, it’s funny. I saw Ray perform there as well as a lot of other people. And there were other live music venues in the area as well, although I’ve long forgotten their names. I remember seeing Jimmy Buffett playing as an acoustic duo in a small bar near my apartment, before he became famous. He was hiliarious. It was just before his great album A1A was released, so I heard those songs first at that little bar. When he played “Door #3”– a co-write with Steve Goodman, I thought I would die laughing.
Joining the Young Socialist Alliance
The 1972 League of Women Voters voting guide had listed the address of the SWP campaign office in Houston. They had a youth group called the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). I wrote to them and asked to join. In early 1973, I became a member. Throughout 1973 and 1974 I read the newspapers of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), as well as a lot of books and pamplets. I became aquainted with their brand of socialistm and Marxism. The SWP and YSA were Trotskyist; their origin was in the factional fight between Stalin and Trotsky after the Russian Revolution. As you know, Stalin won that fight and Trotsky was exiled and eventually murdered by Stalin. Trotsky and his followers said they supported socialism and democracy, which appealed to me. There was no way I would have supported any anti-democratic or repressive form of socialism. I was someone who liked to read different ideas, analyze them, and debate them. I liked to think for myself and form my own opinions. Still do.
The FBI Spies on Me
After I completed my second year of college in 1974, I took a break from college. After 14 years of school, I was just tired of doing homework. Later that year, the City of Dallas water department moved me to the graveyard shift, 10pm-6am, which included weekend nights. That ruined my ability to go to the music clubs. Nobody played on Monday and Tuesday nights, my nights off. It also made it hard to have girlfriends. Looking back on it, I wonder if that was done because of my politics. Or maybe it was because I was trying to organize a union. (In going through my old stuff, I found a union card from February 1974. I don’t remember that.) So maybe they were trying to get me to quit. If so, they succeeded.
I found out later that the FBI was spying on me. After the Watergate scandal which caused President Nixon to resign, Congress passed the Freedom of Information act. Activists and journalists had previously exposed the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which showed that the FBI was spying on civil rights, antiwar and other groups engaged in peaceful, lawful political dissent. I was curious what they had on me, so in 1980 I requested my files. I found out that the FBI had interviewed my teachers at Mountain View Community College. The FBI agent wrote, “ROPER has been characterized by his teachers as being intelligent and idealistic, but is a person who will, in most probability, re-evaluate his purpose in life and will establish himself as a useful member of society working within acceptable parameters.” Obviously they were wrong lol.
Now the government’s unconstitutional spying is even bigger. In 2013, an employee of the CIA, Edward Snowden, revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was tapping into information from Google, Facebook and other internet companies, including cellphone data, to spy on not just activists, but all Americans. Snowden had to flee the country, because he knew that he would be imprisoned and possibly executed for being a whistle-blower, but he believed that Americans had a right to know what their government was doing to them. His autobiography, Permanent Record, is well worth reading. I wrote a song about this, Metadata, which I plan to include on my new album.
We’re watching you. Watching everything you do. –from Metadata by Rob Roper. To be recorded and released on my new album.
In the next chapter, I move to Houston, attend the University of Houston, and become more active in the SWP/YSA.
(This is a continuation of my autobiographical series. Go here for Part 1. It was initially sent to my music fan email list on August 19, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
In my last email about my childhood, I mentioned Jorge, my best friend from the 7th Grade. It was Jorge who, after we had moved to Dallas, sent me the Jackson Catholic high school student newspaper endorsing a Black candidate for governor, with the quote from “Southern Man” on the cover. Jorge’s dad was a doctor from Mexico, and his mom a Yankee Catholic, like mine. (Have you noticed the misfit theme yet?) Jorge had a guitar and was taking lessons, and I would go to his house after school and he would show me songs he had learned. I remember he could play “All My Loving” by the Beatles and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. Jorge also turned me on to Tom Lehrer, who wrote satirical political songs. It was my first exposure to combining music and politics. I loved it.
I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas ’66 and started taking lessons, too. I was taught to read music and play song melodies, and learned basic chords as well. I had a fundamentals guitar book with chords, and also a book of songs by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was big at the time. The teacher and I would trade off playing chords and melody. But I quit lessons after 5 months because baseball season was starting, and I wanted to focus on my last year in Little League. I was the leadoff hitter, batted .396 and made the all-star team. My athletic career was on downhill after that, because the other boys grew and I didn’t.
(That’s me in the center, behind the pretty girl.)
The Move to Dallas
My dad took a new job in Dallas, Texas that summer. The family moved there in August, 1967, right after my final All-Star game. I began 8th grade in a huge public Jr. High School with thousands of kids– a dramatic contrast to the small Catholic elementary school I came from. I was shy, I knew nobody, and I was the smallest boy in the 8th grade. It seemed like I was surrounded by giants. And Dallas public schools were still segregated in 1967, so there were no black students. I remembered thinking that Texas was more backward than Mississippi. I missed Jackson and my friends.
I soon made friends, however, with a guy named Richard who had a drum kit. I bought an electric guitar and amp from Sears, and took it to his house. I remember trying to play songs by the Ventures. I also have vague memories of jam sessions in someone’s garage. There would be about 8 guitar players, no bass player and a drummer. I learned at my 20th high school reunion that Stevie Ray Vaughn was my classmate. I don’t remember him. It’s likely he was in those jam sessions.
My teenage years were during the late “Sixties.” But it was visible to me only on the TV news and magazines like Newsweek and Life. Not much “Sixties” were happening in Dallas, at least where I lived and went to school. Not until my senior year anyway. Just before my senior year, the dress code was eliminated as a result of a lawsuit, and the public schools were finally integrated, as a result of another lawsuit. The “Sixties” had arrived in Dallas– in 1971.
At some point– I think I was fifteen– my mom pulled us out of the Catholic Church right up the street from us, and drove us across town to a smaller church in what seemed to me to be a poor neighborhood. (My sister recently told me that it was because the priest gave a sermon condemning Catholics for marrying Protestants– which, of course, included my mom.) There was a Mass in Spanish for the Mexican-American population, and a young priest who gave sermons supporting the farmworkers strikes. This priest also started a youth Mass on Sunday afternoons at 5:30, and encouraged us to play 60’s folk songs. I became the leader of that ensemble. After Mass, the youth group met and discussed current affairs. The youth group was multi-racial, with Blacks, Mexican-Americans and whites like me. Some of them became my closest friends. There were two black brothers, Duane and Mike, whose parents would let us hang out at their house and drink beer and listen and dance to music.
Those were good times. My friends turned me on to a lot of good music, including The Temptations and Santana, and I probably brought some records too. I may have brought “4-Way Street,” the live double album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Included on that album was Neil Young’s song, “Southern Man.” I listened to that album– and that song– over and over and over. The lyrics spoke to me and my life. And I loved the long jams and guitar solos by Young and Stills. I would play air guitar to that song (and sing air vocals) in the living room at night after dinner. I dreamed that I would be in a rock band someday, singing political protest songs, and rocking out on electric guitar. After high school, I resumed guitar lessons and learned more advanced chords and blues lead guitar.
In the summer of 1971, between my junior and senior year of high school, at a trip to the local library, I was looking in the political section and found a book by Norman Thomas about socialism. Thomas had been the perenial Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party in the US. The book made an impression on me, and I began calling myself a “socialist” during my senior year of high school. I remember having lively conversations at the lunch table in high school. I was on the left, and my friend Louis held down the right. The rest of the boys and girls ranged in between.
Louis lived up the street from me. Despite our different political views, we were good friends, and Louis was my musical mentor. He turned me on to “underground” music when I was around 15. Up til then, the only music I knew was popular Top-40 music by bands like Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Herman’s Hermits, and the Dave Clark Five. Louis said, “we got to get you off that.” And he did. He turned me on to albums by Grand Funk Railroad, the Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, and other bands that are considered “classic rock” now, but back then, were definitely NOT played on commercial radio. I never went back to pop music.
The Gospels and Atheism
Also around this time I had become an atheist. I started having doubts about the existence of God in junior high school, but decided I’d better believe because, when I died, if it turned out that God did exist, I’d be sentenced to hell for eternity for not believing. But by my senior year of high school, I decided that if God did exist, surely he wouldn’t be so vain as to judge people solely on whether they believed in him or not. Surely how you treated your fellow humans would count more. Being raised Catholic, and being part of the Catholic youth group, I knew the teachings of Jesus from the gospels, and I knew that the gospels emphasized how you acted and treated other people, especially the poor and outcast.
My Mom and Katherine Drexel
Please permit me a necessary short digression. In the 1891, Katherine Drexel, of the wealthy Philadelphia Drexel family, decided to become a nun and devote her life to helping the most oppressed people in the US– the Indians and Blacks. She used her inheritance to start her own order, called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She built 12 schools for Indians, and 50 schools for African-Americans, including Xavier University of Louisiana. Starting schools for Black folk in the South was considered subversive by the racist white power structure in those days. One of the first schools she built in the south was burned down. She had to work through an intermediary to buy the land for Xavier University, since it wouldn’t be sold if they knew Drexel was buying it to start a college for Blacks.
Drexel’s order was based in Philadelphia, where she trained the nuns to be teachers and missionaries. They had a farm, where whey had livestock and food crops, to feed the nuns. My grandfather– my mother’s father– managed that farm. My mom knew “Mother Katherine” and was a lay student at the school. In the previous chapter in this series, “Little White Boy,” I mentioned that my mom raised me not to be racist. Now you know where she got that from. My mom also was never impressed by the haughty attitudes of the rich and their cynical politicians.
My dad, on the other had, came from a typical white family in Mississippi and grew up in that racist environment. But he was a “black sheep” in his family. Many of you may not know this, but the Democratic Party in the South was a one-party dictatorship, racist and ultra-conservative, serving the wealthy white class, basically from about 1875 to about 1968. My dad in his teenage years in the 1930’s began supporting the Republican Party, which was consistent with this conservative economic views. In 1963, he was one of a handful of supporters of the Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi. Of course that failed because the white Democratic Party machine rigged all the elections in Mississippi. 5 years later, after Blacks won the right to vote, most white conservatives would join my dad in the Republican party. But long before others joined him, my dad was willing to stand alone for his political principles, and go against the mainstream, including his own family. I remember him having political conversations with me, telling me how two-faced the politicians were.
I once asked my dad why he wasn’t racist like everyone else in his family. He said being in the Navy, and working alongside Black folk there, is what changed him. Being a “black sheep” politically anyway, it was easier for him to abandon old attitudes. No doubt meeting and marrying my mom influenced him further in this direction.
Little White Boy
In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I grew from 5’2″ to 5’7″. I know this because I was so self-conscious of being smaller than all the other boys in my class (and most of the girls) that I would measure my height every month in hopes that I was growing. It finally happened that summer. I was now at least average height. I would continue to grow to 5’9″ over the next year. It was a great relief. For the first time– my senior year– I finally felt comfortable about my size.
I think it was my small size, and fear of bullies, that also contributed to my innate sympathy for oppressed and discriminated groups of people. It in addition to my support for the Black Civil Rights Movement, I was supportive of the women’s movement for equal rights, and the gay rights movement. This took no soul-searching on my part; it was innate. Afterall, people who oppress other people just because of their sexuality, gender or race are just bullies, when you come right down to it.
So there you have it: my small size, my parents’ non-racism, my dad’s willingness to stand alone for his political principles, my mom’s contempt for the rich and haughty, my own experiences growing up and making friends with Blacks and Mexican-Americans, the liberal Catholic Youth group and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the “Sixties” in the news and the music, finding a book in the library about socialism– all of that was the background and influences of my youth and led me to becoming a radical political activist after I turned 18. No doubt there’s something in my DNA, too.
In Part 3, I’ll talk about how I joined a socialist group in college and because a political activist for the next 18-20 years, before changing my focus to music.
End of Part 2. Click here for Chapter 3, “The Missing Years, Part 1”