The Defense of John Smith

Speech at the Third National Conference
of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA -- Fall 1986
Reprinted from the Workers' Advocate Supplement (1),
vol. 3, #2, Feb. 15, 1987

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Subheads:
Ten Years of Racist Attacks in Boston
Black Bourgeoisie Stonewalls Every Attempt to Organize Mass Resistance
And the Reformists?
The Black Workers Had a Different View
Years of Party Agitation Against Racist Attacks
Building the Party's Ties Among Transit Workers
Ties with the Militants
T Workers Come to the Party to Expose the Racist Cover-up
The Party Carries the Ball in Defense of John
The Possibility Opened Up for a Defense Benefit
Organizing the Fundraiser in Defense of John
Combining Direct Party Work with the Action of the Defense Committee
A Speech in the Name of the Party?
Avoiding Hybrid Organization
Fighting the Racists to Organize the Benefit
Dealing with the Lawyers
Fall Actions to Protest the Railroad of John
Party Building and Communist Agitation Are at the Center of United Front Tactics

. Many comrades have probably followed reports in the Workers' Advocate of the work with the John Smith Defense Committee. (2) The agitation in defense of John has been an important part of our anti-racist agitation among the workers in Boston. The fact that over 200 workers participated in the May fundraiser is an indication that this agitation has struck a responsive chord among the workers. While hundreds of workers participated in May, it should be remembered that a fund-raising dance is a very low form of struggle. Nevertheless, given the generally low level of the movement and the weak sense of organization among the workers at this time, it is an important development.

Ten Years of Racist Attacks in Boston

. The successes in the John Smith campaign are not the result of some magical non-party form of organization. Rather, they are the fruit of years of agitation and of concentration of the Party's work in the work places. As well, the successes arise because, at this moment, there is a political vacuum in the leadership of the anti-racist movement in Boston due to the bankruptcy of the black bourgeoisie in the face of the longstanding ferment among the masses against racist attacks.

. There has been a long history of racist attacks by fascist gangs on black masses in Boston. This has especially been the case since the days of the fascist anti-busing movement. The bourgeoisie used the anti-busing movement to organize numerous extremely vicious, racist gangs. And these gangs have continued to operate with the full cooperation of the police and authorities. In the past ten years over a dozen black workers and youth have been murdered by these gangs. And it is hard to find a black person in Boston who has not been physically attacked or threatened by these cowardly racists.

. There is considerable sentiment among the masses on this question. The youth, in particular, have a healthy spirit of resistance to the racists. Over a period of years, this has forced the racists to retreat somewhat.

Black Bourgeoisie Stonewalls Every Attempt to Organize Mass Resistance

. But the bourgeois community leaders and politicians have stonewalled every attempt to organize mass resistance to, or even protests against, the racist violence. Four years ago, when William Atkinson was murdered by a gang of racists in the Savin Hill area, the District Attorney went to outrageous lengths to let the racists off the hook. He even invented the absurd theory that William Atkinson was hit by a train, not beaten to death, even though the physical evidence refuted this theory. The masses, both black and white working people, were outraged. But the black bourgeoisie refused to organize a single protest. The liberal white ministers actually made more noise about the murder of William Atkinson than did the so-called leaders of the black community.

. So naturally, when John comes along and successfully resists the racists, the last thing the black bourgeoisie is going to do is rally to his defense. That would give too much encouragement to mass resistance. It would upset their plans for deals with the white bourgeoisie. It would disrupt their drive to set up their own place in the capitalist sun.

. Shortly after he was arrested, John's family approached the NAACP to see if they would provide legal assistance. But the NAACP demanded $50,000 before they would even consider the case. Such was the typical response of the black bourgeoisie towards the defense of John Smith.

And the Reformists?

. Not only did the black bourgeois organizations refuse to help John, but the reformists and liquidators, those "left" slaves of the liberals, have also, in general, shied away from the case. Ten years ago the neo-revisionists [Maoists and others who postured as if they were against revisionism and revisionist capitulation to the bourgeoisie--WAS] would have been in a rush to form a defense committee for John. But today -- in the period of Reaganism and revisionist liquidationism -- they consider even a defense committee to be in the way of their opportunist maneuvering in the liberal-labor marsh.

The Black Workers Had a Different View

. Yet, while the black bourgeoisie and the "left" camp followers of the liberals turned away from John, among the black working masses there was tremendous support for the kind of stand that John took. Thus there was a vacuum in the leadership of the movement which provided an opening for our work to develop.

Years of Party Agitation Against Racist Attacks

. Of course, we would not have been able to take advantage of the situation had the Party not already had its own strong, independent agitation on the anti-racist front and had we not established strong ties with the workers, in particular with the transit workers.

. Since the mid-seventies our Branch has maintained a very vigorous program of agitation on the anti-racist front in Boston. It has participated in and promoted the major battles against the racist offensive. This included such struggles as the fight to integrate Carson Beach, the trouncing of some South Boston Marshals when they attacked our meeting for the Montreal internationalist rally in 1978, and the routing of the KKK in 1982. This work has won the Party a lot of respect among the workers. And it has played an important role in the development of our work and contacts in the work places.

. Thus vigorous revolutionary agitation on the anti-racist front is not something new for our Party. The revolutionary agitation that we have done historically put the Party in the position to seize on the John Smith case and to develop a campaign of agitation around it.

Building the Party's Ties Among Transit Workers

. Equally important to the building of defense for John was our extensive ties with workers from the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority).

. In 1980 the Boston Branch took a decision to develop work among the public sector and service workers. These workers form the largest section of the class in the city of Boston. As well, there are almost no factories of significant size inside Boston. So the public and service sector workers are especially important. In 1980 we began investigating the motion of the public sector workers, including the MBTA workers. And we developed a large volume of agitation on their struggles, which flared up in 1981 and 1982.

. We paid particular attention to the transit workers. The T is important not only because it holds significance for the economic struggle, but also because it is one of the places where the anti-racist struggle is sharpest in the city. At the same time, both the management and the union on the T are closely tied the Democratic Party machine and are extremely racist. In addition, about eighty percent of all racist attacks in Boston are carried out on T property. Numerous black workers have been physically attacked on the job. Nearly all workers have witnessed or broken up racist attacks.

. Our work among the transit workers went fairly well from the beginning even though our distribution of literature was limited by the physical dispersion of the transit workers. Our agitation for the economic struggle -- developed against the complete and open sellout by the union officials --was quite popular. Even more popular was our anti-racist agitation. By maintaining a vigorous and timely program of leaflet agitation on economic and political issues, and by carefully guiding the day-to-day struggle among the transit workers, we were able to develop ties with a number of militant transit workers fairly rapidly.

Ties With the Militants

. These militants proved to be quite valuable in deepening our agitation on the anti-racist front. For example, in the spring of 1983 our T contacts gave us important information to expose the cover up the government was carrying out to let the murderers of William Atkinson off the hook. The T militants also provided us with the information we needed to deepen our economic agitation.

. By 1985 we had built up a large contact network of workers who we could see outside of work. And there were many more who we could distribute the Boston Worker to on the job. A few of the militants would also help us distribute the Boston Worker intermittently. And every once in a while one of these workers would go to a demonstration with us. Nevertheless, in no way could we say that these contacts constituted a stable pro-party network or group.

. Through these contacts we have had eyes and ears everywhere. And we have been able to lead a number of small struggles on the job. For instance, in January of 1985 we initiated a petition demanding the reinstatement of a black T worker (who was then pregnant) who had been suspended for defending herself from a racist attack. Within a week, with the help of our party contacts, we had nearly half of the workers on the Red Line sign the petition. The management was forced to back off and re-instate this worker. We quickly reported this victory in the Boston Worker, and a number of workers helped us circulate the paper.

. It was the extensive contacts and influence among the workers on the T, developed through our straight-up Party agitation, that enabled us to initiate and broaden the campaign to defend John Smith.

T Workers Come to the Party to Expose the Racist Cover-up

. It was on the evening of June 1, 1985 that John and his friends were attacked by a racist gang and John killed Joseph Hennaghan in self- defense.

. The bourgeois media immediately launched a campaign to slander John and to paint up Hennaghan, a punk with a violent history, to be a saint. They even tried to make it appear that John and his friends had launched a racist attack on Hennaghan.

. But a number of T workers had witnessed the racist attack. Pieces of the truth began to circulate among the anti-racist T workers. As the word spread, militant workers sought out Party comrades. From our leaflet agitation and from the anti-racist struggles we had led on the job, they knew our Party was the staunchest fighter on the anti-racist front.

. Alerted by our contacts that a railroad job was being done on John, we proceeded to investigate what had happened by talking to the workers who had witnessed the incident. Based on the information that these workers provided us, we were able to come out with an issue of the Boston Worker defending John even before we were able to establish contact with John or his family.

The Party Carries the Ball in Defense of John

. Through the summer and fall of 1985 the ball was carried by the Party directly. We continued to issue leaflets periodically. We fought for speeches to be given about John's case at anti-apartheid rallies held around the city. In the Party's October 1985 anti-apartheid/anti-racist campaign, we made the defense of John a center piece of the agitation and the demonstration that we held.

. Initially, John's family did not have much idea of fighting, but they were happy to see that we were supporting John. We invited family members and T workers to participate in the city-wide anti-apartheid actions and in our demonstration. While there was interest, at that point none actually showed up. Nevertheless, our militant public stand in defense of John was having some effect in raising the family's confidence that a struggle could be waged as well as preparing the ground for wider agitation among the T workers. When a friend of the family excitedly told a family member about this leaflet she had got in Central Square about John, the family began to have some idea of the effect that our policy of going to the masses was having.

The Possibility Opened Up for a Defense Benefit

. As part of our wide-scale agitation, over the winter a comrade began going to a social club and bar frequented by black T workers. This club is not only a major social center but also a semi-political center among black transit workers. It is also a well-known social center in the whole black community.

. In his discussions among the workers at the club our comrade noticed a lot of interest in the John Smith agitation. He suggested to some of the club members that they hold a benefit to raise money for John. The worker members of the club, including one of the members of the executive board, were excited for this idea. However, some club members opposed having an event, arguing that the club should just be social and not deal with controversial issues. In addition, a number of black T cops who frequented the club were upset with the idea of taking a stand in favor of John, and they defended their fellow cop who arrested John. But overwhelmingly the sentiment was in favor of the benefit.

. After considerable debate among the leaders of the club they finally decided to allow us to use the hall for a benefit, free of charge. But they did not want to sponsor a benefit in their own name. It doesn't seem that this was a compromise decision. Rather, it appears that this is what the militants meant all along by sponsoring a fundraiser.

Organizing the Fundraiser in Defense of John

. We had figured that the club would organize the dance and that we would simply mobilize workers to support and participate in it. But the club's decision threw the whole affair into our laps.

. In considering how we should go about building for the benefit, we concluded that we should involve as many people as we could in the actual work to organize it. There was a lot of enthusiasm among the workers and other anti-racist activists for the benefit. So we initiated the defense committee as a form for involving these people in the work to organize the benefit.

. We invited various of John's family members, a half dozen T workers, and members of The Student to an initial meeting to form the defense committee. Transit workers rarely came to the formal committee meetings, but eventually about a dozen or so took up the selling of tickets, distributing flyers, and helping get the food together for the event.

Combining Direct Party Work with the Action of the Defense Committee

. Up to this point all the work in defense of John had been done in the name of the Party itself. With the launching of the defense committee, and the holding of the benefit, the question arose of how to maintain the Party's independent work and combine it with the work of the defense committee.

. Initially, this question came up around how to maintain the Party's face and develop its work at the benefit which was being organized in the name of the defense committee. A benefit dance is a particularly rudimentary and informal form of meeting and agitation. We decided that it would be inappropriate to have a Party banner and literature table at this event.

A Speech in the Name of the Party?

. We also decided not to push to have a separate speech in the name of the Party at the dance. Looking back, we think this was a mistake since the Party had played such a major role in organizing the defense of John and many of those participating recognized this fact. Nevertheless, we did have a comrade (who spoke as an organizer of the benefit) point out the important role of the Party in building support for John and explain the Party's line on the struggle against racism and the general class struggle against racism. As well, other comrades carried out verbal agitation, met workers, and developed new contacts.

. We also followed up the event with a summation of the fundraiser in the Boston Worker. We organized discussions with the active workers on the need to build up the Party, and around it other independent class organizations.

. In short, despite the mistake on the speech, we paid attention to promoting the Party and working to build its influence through the work around the benefit.

Avoiding Hybrid Organization

. While doing work directly for the Party, it is important to keep in mind the basis on which workers are participating in the non-party form of organization. We must avoid the trap of hybrid organizations where, in the name of this non-party form, one tries to carry out actions or put forward political positions which only the Party is ready to support. Such a mistake would tend to restrict the non-party form and drive away workers who find it is not what they thought. What is more, this would tend to downplay the Party's independent work to win the masses to its positions.

. This problem of correctly combining straight up party work with actions of a non-party organization came up repeatedly in our work with the defense committee. For example, at a recent defense committee meeting a comrade proposed that the members of the defense committee set up tables at shopping areas to sell tickets and distribute flyers. The comrade proposed that not only should the tables carry the defense committee flyer but also the Party leaflets. None of the workers or the family opposed this combination, but we feel it was a mistake. This would mean that to do this work a worker would have to be ready to distribute Party literature as well as defense committee literature. We concluded that it would be better to distribute Party literature ourselves, and to directly mobilize people to help us do this, rather than make it a de facto condition of doing defense committee work.

. We must be especially careful on this question at this time when there is only a low level of and low sense of organization among the workers, on the one hand, and the very high level of organization and strength of the Party, on the other hand. Inexperienced people might well agree to such hybrid proposals only later to realize, and become uncomfortable with, what they had agreed to. The workers must be trained to support their class Party. But there are no shortcuts in this work. The workers must be helped to come to the conclusion that they must take up party work by our example, by our ideological work, and by their experience in fighting under the Party's leadership. But they must come to that conclusion voluntarily.

Fighting the Racists to Organize the Benefit

. Despite anything we might have done better, the fundraiser was a smashing success. The speeches were wildly applauded. The workers were all impressed with how many of themselves had turned out. And the spirits of the black and anti-racist white workers were greatly raised.

. The racists went wild against the benefit. The T cop who had arrested John ran around in the racist circles of supervisors and backward workers trying to discredit our story of what had happened. Some of the racists made threats against one of our comrades. But they were powerless to do anything. The T cop who had arrested John had even gone to the manager of the club and threatened that if the club allowed the fundraiser to take place it would have trouble with City Hall (liquor license, etc.). But the racists were rebuffed at every point, and the workers' spirits soared.

. The agitation around the fundraiser -- though done mainly in the name of the defense committee rather than the Party -- was also useful in increasing the Party's ties among the workers and expanding our contact network. Comrades were able to have considerable discussion with militant workers about the role of the Party in organizing the class struggle. And comrades made good use of the Boston Worker article summing up the fundraiser. We were also able to draw one of the main workers who worked on the fundraiser into our Party contingent at the June 14th anti-apartheid demonstration in New York.

Dealing with the Lawyers

. Given the high spirits following the fundraiser, we wanted to organize a picket line demanding John's release. But we were somewhat delayed by word from John's lawyer that his partner was taking over the case and that the trial would be coming up in a few weeks. We wanted to save the energy for a demonstration at the time of trial and so held off calling an immediate protest. But it turned out that the lawyers were lying and never intended to take the case to trial. As a result of this false step we lost the momentum for a demonstration at that time. This disruption was typical of the role of the lawyers.

. When the Boston Branch began its agitation in defense of John Smith, we decided that we would not get involved in the legal side of things and would leave that to the family. However by the fall of 1985 it had become clear that John's lawyer was not doing anything to build a case for him. We raised this to the family at the time but they wanted to stay with the court-appointed attorney. But by the summer of 1986 John and his family had also become convinced of the need to get another lawyer who would at least put up a bourgeois legal defense.

. John's first court appointed attorney was a big-name liberal trial lawyer. But he never even visited John, nor did he show up in court, for a whole year. The second lawyer visited John three times, but then only to pressure John to cop a plea for manslaughter and an 18 to 20-year sentence. The lawyer refused to even discuss building a case and taking it to trial. The District Attorney and the lawyer figured that if John sat in the county jail long enough then he would eventually agree to anything. They were determined not to go to a trial where the facts would expose the state's blatant racism.

. Thus in order to defend John, and in order to continue our agitation, it became necessary to find John a private lawyer. Over the summer we were forced to spend a horrendous amount of time investigating and talking to lawyers. I will spare you the unpleasant details. Let it suffice to say that most lawyers either did not want to touch the case or wanted such outlandish fees that it would be impossible to retain them. The "left"/liberal lawyers were actually the worst.

. We have finally retained a lawyer who has agreed to defend John. The man is a good legal technician who makes no claim of being a leftist. We have an agreement that he will provide a good legal defense and bring out the facts and we won't ask him to make political statements in court. At the same time he will not obstruct us from building a political movement.

. Dealing with the lawyers has been a very unpleasant but necessary task. The movement is by no means yet strong enough to free John without a fight also on the legal front. And if the state were to force John to cop a plea after the vigorous movement in his defense, it would be a blow to the idea of building the mass struggle against racism. In addition, forcing the state to hold a public trial -- which in this case would help bring out all the facts -- provides an excellent opportunity for agitation.

Fall Actions to Protest the Railroad of John

. This fall we have used the fact that we need to come up with several thousand more dollars to pay the lawyer as a reason to organize another fund-raising benefit. Militants among the transit workers are again participating in this campaign. This time around we are trying to use the event for political agitation not only among T workers but also for more widespread work among the workers at other work places, among students, and in the black community.

. Last spring there was some difficulty in getting ourselves organized to use to the full extent the agitation around the defense committee fundraiser at other work places and campuses. To some extent this was due to the intense pace of work around the spring demonstrations and the May Day campaign. But, as well, there was a problem of thinking that the John Smith agitation and fundraiser was an issue only for the unit involved and for the T work. Because of this thinking, the potential for drawing the workers at other work places into political struggle around the Party, at this low and very understandable level, was not fully realized. This fall that mistake is being rectified.

. In addition we are planning to use the momentum from the second fundraiser to organize a demonstration around John's next court appearance, which occurs a few days after the benefit. [For an account of the fundraiser and the demonstration, which were held in November 1986, see the Workers' Advocate, December 1, 1986.--WAS]

Party Building and Communist Agitation Are at the Center of United Front Tactics

. Comrades, the John Smith campaign has been one of our Party's more successful campaigns. The ferment among the oppressed black workers and masses is growing, and the black bourgeoisie is allowing it no outlet. This has allowed our agitation on this front a wide impact and has extended the Party's influence.

. The work around the defense committee has been a learning experience for us in using non-party and low-level forms. We have used them to broaden our agitation among the masses and to draw wider sections into the movement. And we have used work in conjunction with them to expand direct Party work into new circles among the workers.

. However, non-party forms are not some kind of magic wand that will automatically give us numbers. Sometimes they can be useful in widening the impact of our agitation. But in other conditions they can be harmful, mere paper forms that serve to do nothing but to liquidate direct party agitation and to subvert party consciousness among the workers. Whether such forms can or should be used depends on the concrete situation among the workers, the alignment of political forces, and so forth.

. If the black bourgeoisie and the reformists had provided even a little support for John, the family might not have worked with us. As it is, while the black bourgeoisie and opportunists told the family to stay away from us, they did not do one thing to help John. So the family saw that the Marxist-Leninist Party was the only political trend that was serious about defending John.

. If the social-democratic and cultural nationalists opportunists were better organized among the T workers -- or even organized at all -- then organizing the benefits would have been much more difficult to pull off.

. In addition, it is important to see that the basis for being able to use such non-party forms is our direct Party work of revolutionary agitation and building up the trend around the Party.

. As the political situation develops, and as our Party's work among the masses goes forward, the question of united front tactics, and its relation to direct party work and to non-party forms, will increasing come up. There will be many complex situations. The liberals and reformists will not leave ready-made vacuums when they see the masses rallying around the path of class struggle. This will affect the forms and tempo of our work. But our Party will continue to make use of the vital weapons of party building and Leninist united front tactics.

. The successes with the John Smith campaign are a sign of the correctness of our line for work in the present period. And it confirms in miniature the correctness of the Leninist orientation that building the Party and extending our communist agitation are at the center of all united front tactics. <>           

Notes -- September 2008

(1-WAS) The Workers' Advocate, and Workers' Advocate Supplement, which carried additional materials including many of the longer theoretical articles, were publications of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the US. The MLP, which was founded on Jan. 1, 1980 and dissolved in November 1993, stemmed from the anti-revisionist movement of activists who wanted to push forward the mass struggles and root them in the working class, saw Marxism as an essential guide for the revolutionary struggle, and rejected the sell-out reformism of the official pro-Soviet communist parties. It was opposed to both Soviet revisionism and Trotskyism. Its roots went back in the mass movements of the 1960s, such as the anti-racist, anti-war, women's, student, and workers' movements, and the WA itself was published from 1969 to 1993. The cause of anti-revisionist communism is upheld today by the Communist Voice Organization, and the Communist Voice is a theoretical journal which is a successor to the Workers' Advocate. (Return to text)

(2-John Smith) In this reprinting of the article, we have changed the name of the black youth to "John Smith" to protect his privacy. Although the agitation was of course public, the events related took place prior to the days of the internet, and there is no reason for identifying him on the internet now, a couple of decades later. (Text)


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Posted September 22, 2008.
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