San Francisco As luck would have it, I had gotten a notice that there was going to be an event to publicize Gabriel Thompson’s excellent book, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century, at the Crossroads Café in San Francisco on one of the nights that I was in town, so I stopped by. Thompson ably presented the book and a bunch were sold, but this was this was more of a reunion, than a reading.
The Crossroads Café turned out to be a of the signature efforts of the justly famous Delancey Street Foundation, one of the bright lights of the rehabilitation movement for prisoners and others. Dr. Mimi Silbert, the general and CEO of this all volunteer, self-help operation, was one of the livewire story tellers, introducing the program and cementing the bonds between the farmworkers and the foundation and its people. Fred Ross, Jr., also a career organizer, didn’t give an inch of ground though in telling stories about his father as well, including one legendary family tale that Thompson had not been able to authenticate, but had famous Hollywood moviemaker Cecil DeMille seeing Fred Ross and his brother in their youth and muscle building stage working as extras in one of his productions where they were Roman slaves, and reportedly saying, “who are those two assholes with the Hollywood haircuts!”
Thompson did a fine job of understanding the crowd and focusing on a few of the Ross’ axioms and reading several sections of the book and taking the opportunity with this group of thanking many for paving the road to getting the book done. Social Policy in its most recent number did a special feature on the book, but somehow hearing from Thompson that June 9, 1952 was the exact date that Fred Ross recruited Cesar Chavez, speaks volumes in and of itself about the value of the book and the wealth of its information.
But the night belonged to the people who came to share their memories of Ross and the work, and that was a special celebration to be able to witness. There was testimony from old comrades remembering the struggle and what they had shared, shoulder to shoulder with Ross, and what it had meant to them, while also making it clear when speaking of Ross that there was no sacrifice involved, no regrets expressed, because he “loved organizing.” What a wonderful truth, rarely realized!
Henry Weinstein, the veteran, former labor reporter from The Los Angeles Times told the story of the Gallo fight with great vigor, and his anger, even as a supposedly objective observer, subtly demonstrated another, often missed, truth that universally motivates organizers and animates the work. Christine Pelosi, one of the daughters of the former House Speaker, told a story about taking off a semester from Georgetown to help in her mother’s first Congressional election. Ross and Ross, Jr. were both working in the guts of the campaign. Ross, Jr. had told an earlier story about Pelosi’s father having sent someone over from Baltimore where Pelosi’s father had been mayor to make sure the “house meeting” strategy was for real. Christine described showing up to work on a phone bank and telling Fred Ross that she didn’t know what she could do, because she didn’t have a phone list. Ross told her, “Use the book.” He meant the phone book, which he sat in front of her. She described him sitting there, silently, arms and legs crossed to observe her as she began doing what she had felt impossible and ridiculous moments before, and started cold calling through the numbers. She also told about a boot camp preparing for the 2008 election and bringing the Clinton and Obama teams together, and the fact that using house meetings came up in the discussion. The Clinton team, said, why bother, “we didn’t use them in South Carolina.” The Obama veterans shouted, “We did!” Obama had of course won the South Carolina primary, a turning point in his campaign.
In some ways that said it all about Ross, a legacy written in the work and in the leaders he developed and trained. Fred, Jr., still organizing as well, understood that the book is simply a platform, almost an excuse, to call the troops back from memory lane and into battle.
In the rare opportunities to celebrate, there is a rekindling of conviction.