Artifacts for Survival: A Review of Diana Block’s Arm the Spirit

In a nation like the United States, where history is not only forgotten, but intentionally suppressed, it is no surprise that most US residents do not understand that Puerto Rico is a colony of Washington. Consequently, it is also no surprise that very few people in the US know about the movement against Washington’s colonization and for Puerto Rican independence. Of those who are aware of the situation, many are convinced that the movement for Puerto Rican independence is composed of nothing but a few dozen “terrorists” who deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Of those who actually support the independentista movement, many would be surprised that its members and supporters include folks different nationalities and backgrounds.

Diana Block’s recently published book Arm the Spirit: A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back is the personal tale of one such supporter. A white North American women involved in the feminist, lesbian and gay rights and new left movements in the United States of the 1970s primarily as a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), Ms. Block joined forces with other white North Americans to support the endeavors of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN ) in its endeavor to free Puerto Rico. Her support resulted in several years underground as the result of her partner’s entrapment in an FBI sting operation. The tale she tells in these pages is the story of those years and the decisions and circumstances that brought her to them. It is also the story of her family’s lives underground. For those who were involved in or at least paid attention to the left in the 1970s and 1980s there will be descriptions of moments that jog the memory. For those that didn’t, this will open their eyes to the reality that existed within Ronald Reagan’s morning in America.

This is a very political book. It is also a very personal book. It is about lives determined as much by one’s political beliefs as they are by personal emotions and about the juncture between the two. It is about very political people in an apolitical time. Many of those who had been involved in the antiwar and antiracist moments of the 1960s and 1970s were moving their lives into more conventional arenas that involved making money and buying things. Others, meanwhile, had drifted deeper into the life of the street and poverty, leaving their political personas behind in the daily struggle to survive. Meanwhile, the men and women involved in leftist groups like Prairie Fire Organizing Committee were existing on the fringes of US society trying to figure out how to maintain a political relevance. It may have been that existence on the outside that colored the decisions they made: going underground when they maybe should have involved themselves in a more public type of organizing; adopting immovable positions that alienated them from other groups with similar agendas, to name a couple such decisions.

Block’s memories of that period are consistently evocative and occasionally emotionally wrenching, compelling the reader to stay glued to the text. Her reflections on the thoughts about how the decisions made by her and her partner Claude Marks affected the lives of their children and families reveal caring and thoughtful parents whose politics are motivated by a love as deep as the love they have for those closest to them. They also provide an insight into the difficulties involved in living a life of resistance inside the belly of the imperial beast that is the United States. To put it succinctly, it is safe to say that Arm the Spirit is about the multitude of forms love takes: familial, romantic, comradely and revolutionary. It is also about the difficulties we face trying to meet the ideals these loves represent, especially when they come into conflict with one another.

Besides the aforementioned political and emotional realities revealed in this book, there are the descriptions of daily life on the run. Periods of normalcy when you and your family are as normal as the neighbors next door interrupted by days and weeks of uncertainty tinged with fear after your picture makes the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Joy and tears as you wrestle with how much information you should share with your maturing child.

Genuine friendships made under assumed names that must be broken when the presence of the law gets too near. The frustrations felt because your political self can not speak out when the Empire attacks for fear you will be recognized and taken away in chains. The decision to finally give up your underground status and face the courts. The period of adjustment to once again using your family name and living as the person you couldn’t be while underground.

Politically, Block’s experiences as a revolutionary and a woman lead her to a conclusion perhaps best expressed by the writer and revolutionary Margaret Randall: that the inability of almost all twentieth-century revolutionary movements to develop a feminist agenda contributed to their failure to evolve new and equitable forms of power sharing that might have helped keep them alive. The period of adjustment mentioned in the previous paragraph provokes some other interesting observations by Block. Foremost among them are her observations regarding the changes in the progressive movement in the 1970s and the movement today, especially her remarks that much of the work formerly done by organizations with no financial portfolio now being done by what she calls the nonprofit industrial complex.

The shortcomings of this movement are even more apparent today as funding for these nonprofits dries up in the wake of the economic shocks throughout the capitalist world. This factor doesn’t even touch the political timidity of many of today’s organizations–a timidity certainly influenced by their need to gather money from beneficiaries of the very system whose excesses and wrongs they hope to remedy.

One other insightful observation is that, despite the multitude of single issue movements and organizations, many of the groups and individuals involved have no underlying philosophy to bind these issues together and present a systemic analysis that would propel the struggle for economic and social justice forward. Although Block does not examine this much further, it is clear that she sees the need to develop and provide that analysis as part of the role of her and others involved in the struggles of the latter half of the twentieth century. After all, the fundamentals of that analysis are the same as those the left has always referred to. The economic crisis of capitalism and the wars of Washington make that clear.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. Victor said on April 5th, 2009 at 8:37am #

    Thanks to Ron for calling our attention to an important book. As a long-time supporter and activist of Puerto Rico’s independence I have felt a sense of awe for the incredible acts of solidarity (whether at times effective or not) that many North Americans expressed for our struggle. Recently, a group of activists toured the West of the United States and found an unexpected surge of support, this time the audiences were not the white middle class radicals of the 1970s-80s but the Latino/Chicano immigrant organizations rising in U.S. communities.

    Unfortunately, for many North American activists the lack of political organizations with that “underlying philosophy to bind these issues together and present a systemic analysis” in the continental US, did not provide a support network for those who chose to re-engage with the above ground struggle for liberation and justice. Fortunately, for Puerto Rican revolutionaries they have, in most instances, been supported, welcomed home and have re-engaged in work and activism and have become admired activists in the movement, whether in Puerto Rican communities in the US or in Puerto Rico. There is a lesson here, no movement that will energize the left can afford to ignore, as is happening today, the colonial case of Puerto Rico (leading to President Obamas tepid statements on the issue), the feminist struggle, workers and immigrant struggle and the need for a multi issue broad organization (not a party) that can link the diversity of single issue organization into a network/matrix that can wield power in this strategic time.