Wilfred Burchett was a key source of information for many of us who wanted to understand what the United States was doing against Southeast Asians. Burchett was an intrepid reporter for decades. He was the first correspondent to enter Hiroshima after the nuclear bombing and brought the world the military censored news of its horrors.
Burchett’s journalist code influenced my journalism: “It is not a bad thing to become a journalist because you have something to say and are burning to say it. There is no substitute for looking into things on the spot, especially if you are going to write on burning international issues of the day. Make every possible effort to get the facts across to at least some section of the public. Do not be tied to a news organization in which you would be required to write against your own conscience and knowledge.”
I later met Burchett. We spoke of doing some writing about Cuba but we never got to it.
I had begun working as a reporter in 1967. The written word for me is a tool I wield for our liberation from exploitation and oppression. My first reporting was for the Communist party California weekly, People’s World. My last articles were first-hand accounts from Prague just after the Soviet invasion. They were not published however, a decision taken by top party leaders over the editor’s objection, and I ceased writing for the People’s World.
Che was with me in more ways than I knew at the time. His image and revolutionary thoughts were often present at demonstrations in which I participated, especially anti-imperialist actions. But what I did not know, until I worked in Cuba in 1988, was that he had a flare for writing journalistically.
On June 14, 1988, Cuba’s Journalist Union published Che Periodista (Journalist Che) commemorating his 60th date of birth. It is a collection of chronicles, battle accounts, critiques of imperialism, ideological think pieces, and an homage to Camilo Cienfuegos, a close comrade killed in an airplane accident after the revolutionary victory.
Che’s reportage originally appeared in Verde Olivo (Olive Green), the Cuban revolutionary army magazine, written between October 1959 and April 1961. I found Che’s writings concise, freshly formulated in a crisp style.
After my Czechoslovakia report was ideologically censored by the Communist party, I sought employment in the mass media, or mainstream media (MSM). My first job was as sports editor in central California at the Hanford Sentinel (1969-70). Not knowing anything about sports writing, I learned on the job. Then, I moved up to general reporting and features. I was soon fired, because I wrote about a taboo subject: racist covenants in housing.
The editor ran my piece, “Titles Include Race Restricting Provision,” on the front page, January 29, 1970. The lead read: “Said premises shall not be sold, conveyed, rented or leased to or occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race.” I had found this restriction on deeds at a real estate agency.
When real estate advertisers complained to the publisher, he warned me to learn what to write and what not to write. After I told this to a local Mexican-American, who had told me that some of his people had been denied the right to buy certain properties, one hundred people showed up to picket outside the newspaper offices. This was the first time in its history that the paper had been picketed. The publisher fired me as they chanted to save my job.
“Twins! I had twins,” I yelled to Bill when I came to work one morning at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, my next newspaper job. The week before, I had been congratulated and promoted by the publisher after my probation period of three months. I worked on the editorial desk with Bill, our city editor. But now he wasn’t smiling as usual.
“Ron, I’ve got bad news,” Bill said glumly. “The FBI is coming tomorrow to talk about you,” his voice tapered to a whisper when mentioning the FBI.
Goddamn government! Just got back on my feet; and now with two sons I had to find another job.
The FBI agents told the chief editor and the publisher that I was secretly working with the Black Panther Party in the city. It didn’t help my case with the anti-union publisher that I was trying to organize a union as well. The publisher fired me upon hearing from the FBI.
I didn’t know it at the time but I had been a target of COINTELPRO, the Agency’s code name for its dirty tricks campaign against leftists, especially anti-war and civil rights activists, and Black Panthers. Their tactics included periodic murders, fraudulent imprisonment, and cajoling employers to fire their workers who were government opponent activists.
After leaving the Committee United for Political Prisoners, I took a reporting job at the weekly Los Angeles News Advocate (LANA), whose slogan was “radical, responsible journalism”.
I covered many topics, but concentrated on the Vietnam War and resistance to it. The publisher and I were often at odds over how radical we should be. With my last reportage for LANA I combined my activism in the anti-war movement as one of 150 delegates from US groups participating in the largest world-wide anti-war conference. The World Peace Assembly was held in Versailles, France February 11-14, 1972.
We were 1200 delegates from 84 countries. Both US anti-war coalitions were present: People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice and National Peace Action Coalition. I supported both and tried to get them to cooperate in some actions, which rarely succeeded. It was a unique event for me personally because it was here where I first met Burchett. It was also my first encounter with the people that my country was murdering in Southeast Asia, and with people from Cuba, the country that would become my true homeland in years to come.
Among several well known participants was one of Bolivia’s many generals who had seized political power, Juan José Torres. In fact, General Torres had just been ousted the summer before as the nation’s top leader by another General, Hugo Banzar, in yet another coup. I did not know it at the time but Torres had been on the Joint Chiefs of Staff under yet another coup general, René Barrientos, and as such he had cast his vote to murder Che. Yet here he was a “peace” delegate.
During three days of speeches, debates, and working group sessions we adopted an extensive program of antiwar activities to occur in many parts of the world throughout the rest of the year. We were not united on priorities or tactics, however. Some wanted to concentrate on pressuring politicians to be more serious about peace negotiations; others wanted more actions against politicians for making the war in the first place, having no trust in their “peace” rhetoric.
I came under fire from some for my position to boycott the crucial war technology industry, especially war aircraft corporations. Nixon had begun to withdraw troops and was bombing all the more. While we met, in fact, the International Herald Tribune reported, on February 14: “The US Command in Saigon announced that B-52 bombers few 19 missions in the 24 hours ending at noon today, the largest number of missions flown in a day…”
My proposal to boycott and picket war industries was denounced by the French Communist Party (supported by other national CPs) as “anti-working class”. They had control of the unions in many war plants, especially in France. If my proposal took effect, workers would lose wages and even jobs. I was seen as a provocateur, something the CIA also circulated. Divide and conquer!
There was a special meeting with the leading delegates from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for all the delegates from the United States. I felt overwhelmed with admiration for them and tearfully sad.
I also met had a heartfelt meeting with Melba Hernandez, Cuba’s leading international representative. She had been a guerrilla at the Moncada barracks, Santiago de Cuba, July 26, 1953.
We concluded the conference with most of us marching in Paris against the war. Between 25,000 and 40,000 participated. At a celebration in the evening, Joe Bangert sang. He was a New York delegate of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He had been a solider in Vietnam and had gone over to the people’s side, and married a Vietnamese woman. She and her child had just been killed in a US bombing raid.
Leaving LANA, I went over to its competitor and much larger Los Angeles Free Press, or the Freep, as it was known. I was the political reporter. I continued anti-war reportage, exposing police brutality, racism in housing and in government, covering the student revolt and various liberation struggles. One of the most significant reportages was May 1972 demonstrations, which had been called for at the World Peace Assembly.
My two page spread in the forthcoming Freep started thusly:
Anti-war activists say that the government of the United States is waging an all-out war against the people of Indochina and the people of this land.
On May 11, 1,800 tons of bombs were dropped on a small area outside the town of An Loc in South Vietnam. The same day, the news media reported that 1,800 Americans had been arrested during the three-day period in protests involving hundreds of thousands against Nixon’s actions.
Furthermore, for the first time, Nixon’s generals had mined Vietnamese harbors.
In the Los Angeles area, we held demonstrations in many places, among them at Nixon’s reelection campaign headquarters. The police were extremely violent. They beat people, and chocked some unconscious with truncheons. Two civilian clothed policemen, who had been on the picket line, beat Ron Kovics with blackjacks as he sat in his wheelchair. I filmed the police violence.
Kovics had fought against the Vietnamese. After he was wounded and paralyzed for life, he began to see who the real enemy was. He eventually wrote an auto-biographical account, “Born on the 4th of July” (his birth date as well as that of the U.S. Declaration of Independence), which was made into a Hollywood movie. Kovics is still acting against US wars to this day, now in the Middle East.
On that day, four decades ago, 200 Los Angeles demonstrators were arrested for “failure to disperse when ordered”. My colleague, Earl Ofari, wrote a sidebar to my coverage:
“Among those arrested…was Ron Ridenour…as soon as he began filming Ron Kovics being pushed out of his wheelchair by police officers, two plainclothes officers whom [Ridenour] knew from other demonstrations yelled at a uniformed officer to arrest him.”
I was jailed and released hours later on bail. I was later charged with the usual “disturbing the peace,” “interfering with an officer”, “resisting arrest”, and a couple more for good measure.
My case spurred several newspapers and media associations to support my right to report and photograph without being arrested. A defense committee was also organized. Nevertheless, I was found guilty of some of these charges and sentenced to one year in prison. One charge was “disturbing the peace”: swearing in the presence of women as I was being attacked by cops.
Kovics commented: “They beat me because I represented the undeniable truth of the war. I represented the crimes of this war. …It’s absurd that [Ron] should get one year in jail for taking pictures of me being beaten.”
We appealed the case. We had many witnesses, including the ex-wife of undercover cop Stanley Frugard, who testified that he had been an undercover policeman who had been after me for years.
Appellate judges concurred that the sentencing judge had erred in not allowing my attorney to argue that I was a victim of “discriminatory enforcement”. So, I was free again. But Los Angeles “red squad” police did not rest at that.
“Ron Ridenour’s [pen has] inspired some and angered others… a copy of [Ridenour’s] 1971 Internal Revenue Service forms…
found its way anonymously to the newspaper offices. The same forms were also sent to the “Staff” [another “underground” newspaper], the Socialist Workers party headquarters, to the Peace Action Council, and to the Citizen Research Investigating Committee,” wrote Los Angeles Free Press editor Art Kunkin.
This was another COINTELPRO action, trying to cast me in the light of an agent for the US government. Someone(s) had taken my signature, the same one as was on my California driver’s license, and copied it onto fake tax forms. I was supposed to have earned $17, 784.54 from the “United States Army, Pentagon Building Arlington, Virginia.”
A handwritten note said: “I think you’ll know what to do with this information about a pig agent”; signed by “a concerned friend.”
Government agents of world destruction were trying to make my fellow activists and government critics think of me as a “pig agent” and they were nearly successful, because the “Staff” had assigned someone to write a story that I was an agent. Fortunately, Kunkin did his homework convincingly for the reporter, and others who had received the forgery, that this was, in fact, a provocateur action.
This was becoming a common tactic, which caused several honest leftists, especially Black Panthers, to be cast aside as agents. In some cases, violence was committed against innocent people.
In my case, it was ironic that in the same period that I was being smeared, a FBI memorandum from the L.A. office, dated November 28, 1973, noted:
“RIDENOUR’s long association with the ‘underground’ press as well as his affiliation with numerous subversive groups would both tend to preclude interview of subject since this would most surely be a futile effort.”
I continued writing exposes and acting against their wars abroad and brutality at home. I wish to share one more issue where I was both reporter and activist, that of Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee was part of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. It had the highest murder rate of any area of the United States. Between 1973 and 1976, there were 170 murders per 100,000 population average, whereas the city with the highest murder rate was Detroit, Michigan with 20 per 100,000. The national average was nine per 100,000.
At Pine Ridge, poverty, alcoholism and unemployment were widespread. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ local authority, Richard Wilson, and his deputies ruled over the large reservation like concentration camp guards.
The traditional Oglala Sioux chiefs called in AIM (American Indian Movement) to help them out. This resulted in an occupation of the local post office. Then the chiefs declared secession from the United States. They declared secession and initiated the Independent Oglala Nation (ION). They sought their sovereignty long ago stolen from them by the US government despite treaties that had supposedly guaranteed them self-determination.
US Marshals, FBI agents and National Guards were sent in. Indians held their ground with rifles. The government had 15 armed personnel carriers, .50 caliber machine guns, and helicopters, as well as light weapons. Apparently, their orders were to prevent numerous deaths. Nevertheless, in the 71 days the ION held out two Indians were killed by snipers, and two, at least, were wounded. One Marshall was wounded.
This unusual militancy created a stir across the nation. Celebrities, such as Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, spoke out for them. In fact, during the stand-off, Brando asked Apache Sacheen Littlefeather to speak for him at the Oscars where he was to be presented with the best actor award for The Godfather. She said that Marlon would not accept the award due to “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry”.
While the Free Press’s owners and I differed over politics and their sexist sex ads, they allowed me to rent a car at their expense and drive to the battle field. Many supporters had come in stealthily as well. Among the 500 defenders of the new nation were representatives from 60 other tribes from many states. There were a few Chicanos (Mexican-Americans active in their own liberation struggle), a handful of blacks and a few Vietnam War veterans. One of those was Joe Bangert.
I came as a reporter-photographer but also helped the leadership with publicity and getting the message out. When I left, I carried information to another reservation and organized support.
One of the leaders of the movement, Carter Camp, a Poncha Indian from Oklahoma, told me: “We’re going to revive our roots; return to the ways we always lived and complete the hoop that was broken when our whole nation was broken… The new nation shares what it has. There will be no accumulation of goods. No one will have so many horses that some do not have any.”
“We identify with the oneness of all people. Black, yellow, red and white are the four scared colors and are the colors of all people.”
These Native Americans felt kinship with the 200 Indians massacred at Wounded Knee by U.S. government troops, in 1890. They now declared that, “The right to life belongs to each man. By remaining a separate nation we choose to live.”
But it was not to be that way. On May 5, a peaceful negotiation had been worked out. Some leaders were arrested but allowed to make bail, and some courts dismissed the charges. U.S. government “spin doctors” understood that the Native peoples had a lot of sympathizers around the world.
In December 2007, some activists from the 1973 takeover restarted a move to secede from the US. Representatives take their message to international bodies. I met some in Bolivia, in 2010, at the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth—about which I write further on in this series.
Besides my writings at the Freep, I was somewhat more successful at organizing a guild union there than I had been at the Riverside Press-Enterprise. But as we were negotiating a contract, the publishers fired me. They were angry about my organizing and also because I supported radical feminists who were protesting the paper’s sexist ads. Shortly after firing me, Kunkin was fired and many workers left. The union fell apart.
Graham Greene’s writings influenced me deeply. One of the philosophical pearls that Greene wrote became a motto for me as well as that of Burchett’s. “I try to understand the truth even if it might compromise my ideology.”
I met Greene in Panama where he wrote a talk to launch a solidarity march with Central America for which I was an organizer and media coordinator, in 1985-6. We were 400 people from a score of countries joined to support the Contadora peace process—a Latin American initiative to pressure the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments to stop repressing their own people and the US-made contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. We crossed through much of Central America and ended in Mexico City “marching” mainly in buses we hired. The last demonstration attracted 50,000 people in Mexico City. Most of us stopped to shout our anger at the Embassy of Death, as Mexicans call the US Embassy.
For me, as a solidarity activist and Marxist thinker, the most decisive motivation to struggle is the issues and not what any political party or government advocates—first an activist and then an advocate journalist for the underdog, for the invaded peoples.
So, after being fired from several jobs both in the mass media and the alternative/left media, I went about making a so-so living free lancing rather than cow-towing to MSM ideology or too simplistic leftist ideological media.
During the next years I wrote and/or edited for scores of US newspapers, news agencies,
magazines and alternative media as a stringer, correspondent or free lancer.
One of the most popular pieces I did as a free lancer was the Playboy scoop interview with Jane Fonda, and her radical husband Tom Hayden. I knew them from the anti-war movement and convinced Fonda to do this interview. She had despised Playboy for publishing a nude or semi-nude photo of her without permission. She had always refused their interview requests.
Washington Post‘s west coast bureau chief Leroy Aarons joined me. I had to miss the fifth and final session because I started serving a six-month jail sentence for supporting striking textile workers. Four civilian clothed policemen had jumped me as I stood before a busload of Mexican workers brought in from across the border. They had not been told that the Mexican-American workers at the plant were on strike. I spoke to them in Spanish about this and encouraged them not to become scabs when the cops took me down. I was arrested for “resisting arrest”, of course.
In between free lancing for magazines and newspapers over a decade, I worked 18 months for the American Civil Liberties Union as its media chief. I got our civil liberty court cases and general message out to the media, often successfully. I also edited and wrote for our newspaper-journal.
In the mid-1970s, I had a stint as an editor/reporter at the rebellious and investigative reporting weekly, the Los Angeles Vanguard. We were a handful of full and part-time editors and writers but we put out a good rag. We even won an award for pieces Dave Lindorff wrote. My forte was police brutality investigations. This was, perhaps, the best newspaper I worked on, but we couldn’t last long without advertisers. Newspapers can’t survive in the capitalist world on sales alone.
Four or five years after I was fired from the Los Angeles Free Press, the iconoclastic Larry Flynt of Hustler and Chic magazines hired me as its managing editor. Flynt had recently bought the Freep and gotten rid of the sex ads. He wanted an investigative reporting, ass kicking newspaper.
Soon after coming aboard, a whistle blower handed me a copy of the former LA Police Department chief’s auto-biographical manuscript, Hang ‘Em at the Airport, which was a reference to what chief Ed Davis had remarked on how he would handle the airplane hijacking problem:
“I’d move a portable courtroom, complete with judge, jury and executioner, out to the airport. Once a skyjacker was taken into custody, he could have the benefit of a swift and sure justice. If he was found guilty, he could be hung on the spot.”
This crazy man was running to be governor at that time, and he had the audacity to entitle his biography with that hanging judge message. Fortunately he didn’t win but not because he was crazy, I think, because several other crazy men became California governors: Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger among them.
There wasn’t much revealing about the manuscript and Davis hadn’t found a publisher, but we had a scoop anyway. The reporter I assigned to do the story, Bruce Henderson, called Davis’ agent-lawyer to get a response. The response came quickly in the form of an injunction against publishing any material from the book. So we wrote around it and when indicating a citation from the book, we had blank spaces around the words: “Deleted by order of commissioner Arnold Levin”.
Unfortunately, Larry Flynt was soon shot walking out of a courtroom, one of many he was forced to appear before by authorities opposed to his magazines. This was in Georgia where he and his lawyer were shot by yet another crazy man. Both men survived but Flynt was paralyzed from the waist down. Flynt’s executives did not like Flynt’s maverick ideas about radical, muckraking journalism so they closed down the Freep. I was out of a job again and went back to free lancing.
At the end of 1978, I traveled to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to cover the liberation war fought by the Sandinistas (FSLN). This was the era of President James Carter. He realized that the Somoza family dictatorship was coming to a close, and an alternative had to found—much like the imperialists have recently decided to get rid of Gaddafi. There was no alternative, other than the leftist FSLN guerrillas and they would not do for imperialism. Among those I met in death-soaked Nicaragua was Carter’s government messenger, who told me that they were working on an alternative. But before they could create one, the Sandinistas won on July 19, 1979.
Before their victory, I had met with some guerrilla fighters. Among those I interviewed were the future Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, who also became the United Nations general assembly president years later; Father Ernesto Cardenal, who became the Minister of Culture; and the future Vice-President Serio Ramirez.
My writings appeared in magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. I left the United States soon thereafter, in 1980. In 1984, I worked for President Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, for a while. She was the director of the Sandinista Cultural Workers Association (ASTC). I wrote public relations pieces for them, including from the war zone by the Honduran border. I also did a report about censorship affects for the Minister of the Interior, Tomas Borge.
When I moved to Denmark my pen continued painting sketches of United States-caused pain.