Jon Moscow

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Today’s Q&A is why—263 and five years in—I still love doing the Quaz.

Jon Moscow is not famous. He is not a household name. There have been precious few stories written of his plight; no mentions in history books; in chronicles of higher education; in Bob Dylan songs. Put different, upon first glance he is merely a guy.

And yet, that’s a false impression. Along with being the father of David Moscow, an actor and Quaz No 224, Jon Moscow is a man who has devoted much of his life to fighting sociological injustices. Back in the 1960s and ’70s he was heavily involved with the Black Panther Party, opening a health clinic in Portland to provide services for overlooked African-Americans. He has been arrested multiple times, including during a 1999 protest after Amadou Diallo was shot by the New York City Police Department. He burned his draft card in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, compares Donald Trump’s rise to that of Hitler and Mussolini and believes climate change is worth screaming about.

In short, he’s a guy who gives a shit—and does something about it.

Jon Moscow, fight on. You’re Quaz No. 263 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, in the late 1960s/early 1970s you were heavily involved with the Black Panther Party in Portland, ultimately opening up the Fred Hampton Memorial People’s Health Clinic to provide medical services to the region’s underserved African-American population. You also protested the Vietnam War, were arrested, etc … etc. I’ve never asked this of someone with such experiences, but I wonder: When you look around today, and you see the earth melting, you see millions of people staring down at glowing screens, seemingly concerned more about Kim Kardashian’s bare ass than, say, Trump-Clinton, do you ever feel like the efforts of you and yours were for naught?

JON MOSCOW: No. I think of the amazing things we—a multifarious, multi-faceted we—accomplished (and are continuing to accomplish). I love time-travel stories—Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear—but when I think of going back to the 1950s or early 60s I get claustrophobic. Racial segregation of everything from bathrooms to marriage; lynchings; male/female help wanted columns; homophobia so pervasive that the word didn’t exist; wife beating and pinching women’s butts topics for TV jokes. Child abuse invisible; vegetarians weird, and healthy food practically unavailable. Cigarette smoke everywhere. No environmental movement. The list goes on.

Everyone knows these things, but think of (or remember) living with them as the givens of daily life. I tried to watch Mad Men but couldn’t make it through the first episode. Of course, it’s only the time-traveler who sees it this way; when it’s happening, it’s just the way things are.

And that’s without mentioning the Vietnam War.

We changed or helped change all these things. We didn’t end the Vietnam War; the Vietnamese did. But we helped. And we changed ourselves at the same time, as day-to-day time travelers.

So there’s no way that any of it has been for naught. The idea of naught doesn’t even make any sense.

As far as comparing then and now, things are dialectical. When you solve one problem, the solution (or partial resolution) always generates other problems that then have to be confronted. I don’t think it’s working toward some definite end and, in the bargain, things rarely work out the way you think they will. We are always in “the best of times and the worst of times.” You just have to “keep on keepin’ on” to improve things and to stave off the worst. And I was so struck by Rabbi Michael Lerner’s eulogy at Muhammed Ali’s funeral, where he said, “the way to honor Muhammed Ali is to be Muhammed Ali.” You do what you need to do for your sense of integrity even when there is a price.

And lots of people are always going to be more concerned with the celebrity of the month, or, more importantly, with making the rent and feeding the kids so they don’t have time or energy to do other things.

Harrier days ...
Harrier days …

J.P.: Through the years the very words, “Black Panthers” have come to mean, among certain white (and Fox News-loving) circles, violence, disobedience, wrongheadedness, viciousness, racism, etc. But you were not only in Portland when the local chapter began—you were a (white) part of it. What has history misunderstood about the Black Panthers? What do people misunderstand?

J.M.: I wasn’t actually a member of the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. I was in Health-RAP (Health Research and Action Project), a white group that was an ally of the Panthers. Health-RAP worked to make health care more accessible. At the time, the only public medical clinic in Portland was at the county hospital, up Sam Jackson Hill, which was hard to get to, and people had to be there at 8 am and sometimes wait all day to be seen. We successfully kept Buckman Clinic, Portland’s only public dental clinic, open. We also tried to get the non-profit hospitals such as Emanuel and Good Samaritan to serve the communities around them and to stop expanding and expanding at their expense. We were influenced a lot by Health-PAC, a really cool policy center with a national focus.

We collaborated with the Panthers to help start the Fred Hampton People’s Free Health Clinic and the Malcolm X People’s Free Dental Clinic. We named the health clinic for Fred Hampton the month after he was murdered in his sleep by the Chicago police. I was the treasurer of the clinics. The clinics were in the black community, Albina, but we welcomed everyone. The county social service offices even referred people, black and white, to us because there weren’t other places to refer them. It definitely was a trip to think of the welfare office referring people to a clinic with Emory’s Panther posters on the walls. When some of the volunteer doctors asked why we had the posters up, we pointed out that Good Samaritan had crosses on its walls and nobody asked why they had them.

Like Panther chapters elsewhere, the Panthers in Portland also started a free breakfast program for children. The government started school breakfast programs because it was embarrassing to have the Panthers being the only people providing them. In Portland, kids continued to come to the Panther breakfast program even after the schools had them because the food was better and the atmosphere was loving.

There’ve been a lot of lies and distortions about the Panthers because they were black revolutionaries. There are lies about anybody who tries to make change, especially anyone who challenges racism because of how deep it is in American history and society. To treat the Panthers with the respect they deserve is to have to look at the system they were fighting and to take responsibility for it. And that is scary. It’s scary as a country and it’s scary in Portland.

Portland’s history—and Oregon’s history—as far as black people is concerned, is ugly. Oregon banned black people when it was founded. It had a Klan governor in the 1920s. Oregon Public Broadcasting did a documentary (Lift Ev’ry Voice) that shows a lot of the history, including talking about the Panthers, and Ron Herndon, and other black activists and movements in Portland. There’s a really good book that just came out. It’s The Portland Black Panthers: Empowering Albina and Remaking a City, by Lucas N. N. Burke and Judson L. Jeffries. It puts the Panthers in the context of Portland’s history and gives them the credit they deserve. If you want to know what the Panthers stood for, read their 10-point platform. The Panther concept of “revolutionary intercommunalism” was a very exciting way of approaching how people can build their own communities, but work collaboratively with other communities—it is the antithesis of racism or of “narrow nationalism,” which the Panthers opposed.

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J.P.: You were a kid from Long Island, living your young life. You could have surely ended up like your peers. Who, I imagine, largely stayed in the bubble, attended college, got jobs at banks, law firms, schools, etc. But when you were 13 you read a story in Newsday about a group of people arrested while demonstrating against school segregation, then joined the Congress of Racial Equality. What was it about you that stirred the empathy? The emotion? The desire to help those of different races at a time when many stayed within their ethnic lane?

J.M.: It just seemed like the thing to do. First of all, it was 1962 and a lot of other teenagers were going through the same thing. Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’” came out in 1964, but they were changin’ in 1962 as well. In retrospect, I can think of a number of things. An important one, in both positive and negative ways, was my parents. My parents had been socialists in the ‘30s and went to rallies to support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. My father was a founder of the Newspaper Guild in New York City and was active trying to get the U.S. to fight the Nazis. He argued his way into the army in World War II at age 38 because he wanted to fight, even though he could easily have been exempted. My parents told me that the only way Jews would ever be safe was if everyone was and the only Jewish holiday we really celebrated was Passover, as a holiday of liberation. We had Paul Robeson records, including “Songs of Free Men,” with an album jacket of a dagger slashing a Nazi snake. I read Emma Goldman’s Living My Life when I was about 11 or 12 because it was on a lower shelf of my parents’ library and I was fascinated by the idea that it was a first edition.

On the other hand, my father, whom I admired in many ways, had no idea of how to deal with children, which he apologized to me for many years later. He expected obedience from my sister and me and didn’t know what to do when he didn’t get it. Today, I would be considered a physically abused child. At the time, there was no such concept. When I tried calling the police once when I was about 9 or 10, they told me, “Son, whatever your father does is right.” When my sister’s older boyfriend took us to our family doctor’s office in the middle of the night so he could look to see if my finger was broken, the doctor never asked any questions. I decided early that family is the root of all evils and that I would never get married, much less have kids. Of course, I’ve now been very happily married to Pat for 42 years and have two sons—David and Lev—who I’m very close to, but it took a long time and a lot of changes to get there. The experience with the police made me cynical about the police and official versions of reality. I think all these things helped contribute to me becoming a radical and an activist.

J.P.: How do you explain the rise of Donald Trump? How does it make you feel?

J.M.: A lot of people wonder how Hitler and Mussolini and lots of other demagogues get into power. Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here in the 1930’s to show that it could. Trump’s rise shows how it could happen now. Trump’s rise is scary. Also scary is that the Republican establishment’s disagreements with him were that he wasn’t right-wing enough. They were torn between crawling into his camp and keeping their particular set of super-right wing tax cuts for the wealthy, gut-social security, put-women’s- and-gay-and- trans people’s-bodies back-under-their-control, die-quickly-if-you-get-sick policies intact.

Now it looks like you’re getting a convergence. They’ve mostly crawled in, while keeping their policies intact. So you’ve got North Carolina doubling down on the imaginary dangers of trans folks in bathrooms. Even after Orlando, you have Rick Scott refusing to say “LGBT.” And the Republican leaders who are ambivalent about Trump at this point are mostly simply trying to decide if he’s become too toxic—too out front in what they’ve been doing through their racist dog-whistles all these years– for them to keep their seats.

What’s also scary and often overlooked is that while Trump is getting a lot of the attention, a lot of the things he’s advocating are already in place with very little attention. For example, just in the last month the New York Police Department restated in Federal court in the Handschu Guidelines Fair Hearing their intention to keep doing broad, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslim communities if they want to. And in a Freedom of Information Law case in New York State, an appeals court ruled that the NYPD could refuse to either confirm or deny whether they had records on someone having been under surveillance—rejecting the idea that, at least, they should have to make a case to a judge in the judge’s chambers.

With Pat Sterner.
With Pat Sterner.

J.P.: You turned 18 in 1966, you burned your draft card in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, then sent the ashes to the draft board. So … what happened next? And why were you so bothered by Vietnam?

J.M.: I was lucky. Nothing more happened with my draft board, Selective Service Board #6, the most reactionary board in the country, when I sent the ashes. I had applied for conscientious objector status on grounds that I was a pacifist but that I wouldn’t go even if I weren’t because the war was immoral, but they rejected that. I refused to apply for a student deferment, so I was 1-A. Because I failed my physical, I didn’t have to refuse induction, and stayed out of jail.

How could anyone not be “bothered” or more accurately, horrified, by what the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam? As Martin Luther King said in his Riverside Church speech in 1967, our government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” They can name a holiday for him and put him on the back of $10 bills, but they have to hope that few people today read that speech. Unfortunately, it’s as applicable today as it was then.

J.P.: You were arrested. I’ve never been arrested. What happened? What was it like? Even though I’m guessing you expected it to happen, were you terrified? Satisfied? And what do you remember of your time in jail?

J.M.: I’ve been arrested a number of times, sometimes planned and sometimes unplanned. Unlike friends who were in Parchman jail in Mississippi during the Freedom Rides or in federal prison for draft resistance, my longest stay has been overnight. The one with the best outcome was when I was arrested during the Fry Roofing strike in the summer of 1969 in Portland. The leftist political community and the beginnings of the environmental movement joined in supporting the workers at a factory that combined bad labor practices with terrible pollution. We had a big demonstration that caught the police off guard—surprisingly, because we’d put flyers all over the city. So people stopped scabs from going in and tore down the company fence. Wally Priestley, a distinctly atypical state legislator, drove his car onto the assembly line and shut it down. The next day there weren’t many of us and there were lots of cops. The company had gotten an injunction against blocking the entrance and a police lieutenant delivered it to the union trailer. But we weren’t part of the union, so I shouted, “I haven’t even seen your fucking injunction.” They arrested me for disorderly conduct—this was 6:30 am in the industrial area of Portland, so I’m sure everyone was shocked at hearing the f-word. The arresting cop punched me in the stomach in the cop car to let me know what he would do if “you were my kid.”

Anyway, I had to find witnesses and someone said, “The Sterner girls were there.” So, I met Pat and her sister, Arla. Pat had seen the arrest and said she’d testify but she needed a subpoena to get off work. It turns out she thought I was cute.

The cop never showed up in court, but I still have the subpoena over my desk. It makes a good story when people ask how Pat and I met.

Another time I got arrested on a picket line going to help a friend who was legally blind who had gotten in a fight with someone who was harassing the picket line. Of course, I discovered later that my friend had actually started that fight …

The most recent time was when Amadou Diallo was shot by the NYPD in 1999. That one was a planned arrest with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, blocking the entrance to One Police Plaza. We organized something like 125 Jews, including 15 rabbis, to get arrested, on one day in a series of planned arrests by different groups. It made the front page of the Times because it signaled to Mayor Giuliani that he had lost that battle.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

J.M.: Don’t know yet. Ask me in 30 years if I’m still around. Actually, I don’t think so much about the “greatest” moment as just feeling OK that Pat and I have been able to live our lives the way we’ve wanted to. We were really determined that we wouldn’t stop being activists and taking necessary risks when we had kids and had to worry about schools, and rent or mortgages. And we’ve been able to integrate our politics into our lives on an ongoing basis. I am really happy that my kids turned out to be mensches. I’ve gotten to work with both of them on work-related projects. David and I have worked for almost five years now on “Brown,” a feature screenplay about John Brown, which has been optioned, and with luck may become “a major motion picture coming to a theater near you.”

Lowest moments are those middle-of-the-night times when I think of all the really stupid and silly things I’ve done. Mostly, I’m able to just say, “There’s nothing I can do about them now” and let them go, but sometimes …

J.P.: This might sound like as odd question, but how did you feel about your son going into acting? I mean, here you are, a guy who lived his life fighting, protesting, struggling for change. And your child enters a visual medium with, some could argue, the fleeting impact of temporary enjoyment.

J.M.: I’m much more concerned with what kind of person he’s become. And like I said, he’s a mensch. Entertainment and culture are super-important. As Emma Goldman said, “I don’t want your revolution if I can’t dance.” Working with David on “Brown” has been very exciting. I can imagine a tag line: “Before there was Lincoln, there was Brown.”

Also, there are lots of similarities between being an actor and being an activist. Demonstrations and rallies are true-life performances designed to make a point and both educate and sway people’s emotions.

J.P.: I live in California, and I’m at a loss with the drought. I truly am. It’s the worst in state history, yet nobody seems to care. Sprinklers run, pools are filled, etc … etc. I feel helpless; like I’m screaming into the wind. So what’s a guy to do?

J.M.: Whether it’s the drought or Miami Beach going under water or all the other “climate weirding” things that are happening, you just have to keep screaming. It may feel like your voice is getting carried away by the wind, but if “two and two and fifty make a million” people screaming, there’s an impact. We just have to hope that it’s fast enough.

J.P.: You turn 68 this year. I’m wondering how you feel about aging and the inevitability of death. Does it keep you up nights? Not bother you at all? Do you think, once a final breath is taken you’re simply gone forever, food for the worms? And are you comfortable with that?

J.M.: I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I love reading about the ways it’s been imagined. Two of my favorites are Mark Twain’s “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and I.L. Peretz’s “Bontsha The Silent.” I’ll be fine with being worm food, ashes under a tree, but it will also be nice if there’s something totally different from anything we’ve imagined. I’ve gone through the dying process with my parents and with a number of older friends and I’ve seen that a lot of times there comes a point when they say, “I’m tired. I’m ready to go.” And that’s sort of comforting. I definitely believe in a right to die—to pick the time and manner of your death.

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• Five greatest leaders of your lifetime: “Don’t follow leaders/watch your parking meters.” So here are some non-leaders, and as long as I’m disregarding your instructions, here are more than five. The members of SNCC and CORE in the South collectively; Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Ella Baker; Dick Gregory; Eleanor Roosevelt; Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Kurt Vonnegut.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Pagliarulo, Bobby Seale, “Dances with Wolves,” Oakland, spray tanning, Robert Loggia, Donna Summer, the smell of mashed potato, Bernie Sanders, Food Network, NFL cheerleaders: I hate rank orders, especially since US News and World Report started doing their stupid rankings of schools and everything else. So (in no particular order) I love the smell of mashed potatoes, feel the Bern, and admire Bobby Seale for starting the Panthers and not falling apart like Huey did. I’m glad the NFL cheerleaders are doing a class action for better pay and workplace rights; Robert Loggia was great in “Big” (and other things). I enjoyed “Dances with Wolves,” until Kevin Kostner ruined it for me a few years later by messing with Lakota land to get even richer. I just don’t understand the compulsion to get rich once you have enough to be comfortable and not to have to worry about not having any money. Don’t know much about Mike Pagliarulo, but can (on some days) recite the 1961 Yankee lineup from memory.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Every time I take off and every time there’s turbulence. I just watch to see when the wing is going to break off and wonder what it will feel like if it actually does.

• What’s the impact on your life of sharing a last name with the Russian capital?: When I was a kid in the early ‘50s, other kids knew the Russians were “bad” and they knew the Nazis were “bad” but they sometimes got them confused, so they would come up and say “Heil Hitler” and laugh. Lots of people seem to think Moscow must be short for Moscowitz, which it isn’t. It’s easy for people to spell once you tell them it’s “the same as the city in Russia.” No one ever spells Jon right even when you tell them.

• Three memories from your first-ever date?: I remember the girl well; I thought it was amazing that she used beer on her hair; and I was totally focused on whether we would kiss good night because that is what was supposed to happen.

• Best advice you ever received?: “Facts don’t speak for themselves.” “Never compare your own insides to someone else’s outside.” “We’re never getting divorced so we might as well make up as soon as possible.”

• Five reasons one should make Portland his/her next vacation destination?: The coast, the Gorge, Mt. Hood, Forest Park, The Lathe of Heaven, Trask, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”

• You wrote, “The Supervisory Selection Process in New York City: A Parent Activist Perspective.” I’m thinking the movie stars Brad Pitt and Emily Watson. You game?: More like a seven-year HBO series. Maybe like “The Sopranos” in a school setting.

• You have a six-page resume. My college journalism professor always told me to keep the resume to one page. Think you can get that to me in a few hours?: Which resume do you want? I’ve got several, all accurate, all different.

• In exactly 22 words, what are your thoughts on Common Core?: Experts developed Common Core in isolation, rushed its introduction, and tied it into destructive testing. Things never turn out how you expect.