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(DV) Cohen: The Passing and Passion of Grandpa Al Lewis, 1910-2006







The Passing and Passion of Grandpa Al Lewis, 1910-2006 
by Mitchel Cohen
February 6, 2006

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[Friday, February 3]

What a sad day ... and what an incredible, artistic and political life! 

I first met Al Lewis in person in New Haven in 1971, at a demonstration in support of the jailed Black Panthers. I remember it being a very raw afternoon, and I kept staring at the man I'd later introduce myself to, wondering at the famous fellow standing all by himself unlike so many actors and famous people, and then lost in the small crowd that turned up. 

Later, I was to learn that Grandpa was rarely alone in that way. Campaigning with him for Governor all over the City with other Green stalwarts like Frank Carr, Craig Seeman, Michele Daneles, Afrime Derti, Carl Lawrence, Pete Dolack, Johann Moore and Robb Ross -- the core of the Brooklyn Greens at that time -- I was struck by the amount of adulation and genuine affection that so many people had for Al, especially (gulp!) cops, I suppose thanks to his role in Car 54 Where Are You? as well as The Munsters. They all wanted Al to sign autographs. I collected hundreds of signatures to put Al on the ballot from cops riding home on the Long Island Railroad and the Staten Island ferry. It was amazing, the transformation that came over people when Al greeted them. He ended up getting just over the 50,000 votes we needed to put the Green Party onto the ballot in NY State. 









Photo by Michelle LaRose
Phantom Photography
Copyright © by Michelle LaRose

Al was also incredibly scholarly, a voluminous reader and fluent in Yiddish, which he used during his borscht-belt schticks, regaling his audiences with gossip and hilariously funny stories about his friends, which included certain Mafia chieftains like Gotti. He told Greens over and over about how his first political protest was when his mama brought him to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, and he fought for political prisoners all his life. 

One of his disappointments in the last few years was his difficulty in being able to read due to problems with his eyesight. But he maintained his saber-slashing anarchistic stance when dealing with U.S. politicians, prison wardens and warmongers to the end. 

Al and Karen were incredibly supportive of many people, including me, personally, when I was a Green Party candidate and as an organizer against pesticides and genetic engineering. They sponsored several events with the Roosevelt Island Greens at which I was the featured speaker, and contributed generously to the NoSpray Coalition over the years as well as to my campaign for Mayor on the Green Party line in 2001. I remember when Al was already sick, a Reclaim the Streets party/demo had ended up on Roosevelt Island. We marched past Al and Karen's apartment, and I started the chant: "We love you Grandpa, we miss you, get better!" and pretty soon the hundreds of us took up the chant, lights came on in the apartments, people looked out the windows, and everyone waved, knowing whom we were chanting about as we snaked by. 

To say Al will be missed is, as is often the case, a vast understatement. Among the many issues that he took on, the fight to get rid of the onerous Rockefeller drug laws in New York (in which people have been imprisoned for 20 years and more for first offense non-violent drug charges) was dear to his heart, and he fought the thanatocracy ceaselessly to free the hundreds of those imprisoned, their lives meaninglessly stolen from them. 

This crotchety, funny, whip-smart, annoying, funny, ribald, funny, generous, funny (!) and always dependable anti-racist activist was, in my opinion, one of the great people of the century, a legend walking among us. I loved him dearly, even (or especially) when we argued, and so did many, many others. 

A life well lived? Hell, a life in REVOLT! 

Grandpa Al Lewis -- Presenté! 

Mitchel Cohen is a member of the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of NY State. 

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