Forty years ago I lay face down on the cement floor of a building, as a group of people with faces covered spread kerosene around, lit the flammable liquid, watched the flames ignite the wooden walls, and announce as they ran out of the building, “Death to Fidel Castro!” I almost died that day. Along with the few others in the center named “The Haymarket” on Hoover Street, I scrambled out the back door and over the chain link fence to the back alley, then out to Hoover St. to watch while our gathering place burned to the ground.
I’ve just spent the past couple of hours trying to resurrect some hidden history of Los Angeles. I failed. I have to rely on my memory. The memory of the rampage of Cuban exile terrorists in Los Angeles, people who were well known to the police but never brought to trial. There is a note, barely a mention, that fires closed the Ash Grove, Los Angeles’ influential folk music club, twice. It was rebuilt twice before a third fire forced it out of existence 1n 1973. Almost as an aside, as if to discount the reality, the report says that some attributed the fires to political arson.
I can’t say that I spent a lot of time at the Ash Grove. Not having disposable income had something to do with it. Nevertheless, one of my best times was spent ushering in the New Year listening to Barbara Dane and Jack Elliott lead the drunken revelry of a packed house with their anti-war and pro-labor songs, to launch the struggles of the next year. This had to be 1967, when I was still in medical school. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and the magic fingers of Lightnin’ Hopkins introduced me to live blues at the Ash Grove. Oh yes, and panel discussions and films about Cuba and the Cuban revolution.
Three years later I had left medical school and was two years into work as a social worker, active in a caucus of union workers we called Social Welfare Workers Movement (SWWM, pronounced SWIM). We had a newsletter that I edited. The Haymarket had a selectric typewriter, the kind that had balls with different fonts. The collective that ran the Haymarket would generously let groups like ours use their facilities to do our work. On the first floor, the one with the cement floor, was a coffee, pastry and sandwich bar and a riser that acted as a stage for events, with chairs arranged for people to see and hear. The place was home to a variety of “movement” groups who often used their stage for opportunities for discussion and debate. One subject of such discussion was the Cuban revolution, now 12 years old. I had been to Cuba myself over the December/January period 1968-9. I was fiercely partisan in favor of the revolution: how could a country as wealthy as the US be unwilling to enact the kind of health care system that had already given underdeveloped Cuba recognition around the world?
I think that we were all aware of threats to burn or bomb The Haymarket. I think we knew that “security” measures were in place. But that night, sitting at the long improvised desk on the second floor, typing the copy for the SWWM newsletter, I was absorbed in my work. I think others had come with me that night to do the work, but I think the others of my group had left. I could be wrong, it’s so many years ago. But what happened next is indelibly etched into my memory.
A commotion, perhaps some shouts from the first floor, and Roger is running up the stairs, behind me as I barely look up, and he rushes into the back room, followed by two men with bandanas over the bottoms of their faces, and the three of them emerge, one of them wresting a shotgun from Roger’s hands and forcing him toward the stairway down. The other, waving some weapon, perhaps a pistol, orders me (us?) down the stairs and orders us to lie face down on the cement floor, to stay still, and we hear the sound of liquid sloshing and the unmistakeable aroma of a flammable solvent and we realize what is going on. When the salute to the death of Fidel is followed by shuffling feet out the door, it didn’t take more than a second or two for us to realize what we needed to do, someone called out to head to the back. And I’d say the rest is history, except . . . it’s not. It’s a lacuna.
And it’s all brought into focus now as five Cubans, held as prisoners in the U.S., have been repatriated to Cuba; Cubans who infiltrated the Miami terrorist cells in order to report on activities and gather evidence for the Cuban government. Evidence of their terrorist activity in the U.S. under the sponsorship or (at least) quiet tolerance of the U.S. government, despite violation of U.S. law.
Here is the link to an interview with René Gonzalez, the first of the repatriated Cubans. As we consider the issues around which organizing is taking place now, we need to recognize that this is a different time than 40 years ago, when our history was erased. Social media can spread information about the demonstrations and rebellions that follow police brutality and murders. And then what? The stakes in a contracting economy are greater than they were in the expanding capitalism of the late sixties. I’m glad the Cuban 5 have been repatriated. The American State, however, is even more dangerous than it was then, and that requires the utmost in consciousness, study and organization.