Talking back to the man – Gerald Smith – Winner 4th annual Slignshot award for lifetime achievement

Slingshot awarded its 4th annual award for Lifetime Achievement to Gerald Smith at our 21st birthday party in March. Gerald has been a key member of the direct action, grassroots radical scene in the East Bay since Slingshot started in 1988, and long before that. In addition to writing for Slingshot over the years, he frequently drops by our offices for spirited discussions. Gerald challenges lazy assumptions and offers sharp critiques in a funny, comradely and engaging way.

Slingshot created our lifetime achievement award to recognize direct action radicals who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for alternatives to the current system. Front-line radicals frequently operate below the radar and lack recognition, which is too bad. While awards can be part of systems of hierarchy, a complete lack of recognition for long-term activists robs us of chances to appreciate and learn from the contributions individuals can make during a lifetime of organizing. Thanks, Gerald, for your continuing contributions to the struggle. Here’s a short biography of Gerald.

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Gerald was exposed to radical activism and ideas at an early age, and he’s stayed engaged and active ever since. “When I grew up, there was an existing social movement in progress. The civil rights movement was not limited to the South. We had become a mass movement in the North. That social movement made it relatively easy for me to connect — because it was large, because it was clear, it was urgent.”

Born in 1949, he grew up in the South Bronx and went to see Malcolm X with his father when he was 10. “I was enamored of Malcolm X – I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread.” But Gerald didn’t find Malcolm’s religious rhetoric convincing — Gerald had already read and rejected the Bible and religion by the time he was 10.

When Gerald was 14, he joined the NAACP youth group but he found it to be bureaucratic and timid. “The NAACP was afraid of young people — we never made decisions on our own.” So Gerald joined CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and started organizing rent strikes in Harlem during 1964 and 65. He contrasts activism in the mid-1960s to activism now, noting that at that time, just hanging a flier in a building advertising a tenant’s meeting would bring a significant portion of the tenants to a meeting, ready to go on strike. “It was easy because the buildings were falling down. It was very clear that unity in action – you could actually win things. Now there is extreme alienation – people on the same block don’t even know each other.” Back in 1960s “even in a 14 story project, we tended to know each other.” The rent strikes in Harlem proved extremely effective, as building after building struck and won improved conditions.

In 1967, Gerald entered Manhattan Community College. “That’s when I really started to get political.” He worked on a broad range of political action on the campus. In 1969, he joined the Black Panthers, inspired by the Black Panther 21 case. “It was so clear that they were being framed up. I thought, if they’re framing them up, these guys must be revolutionaries.” Gerald notes that the Panthers were the best people he ever worked with. He worked on the takeover of Lincoln Hospital with the Young Lords and helped run the Martin Luther King, Jr. Liberation School, a free school run by radicals. He also sold the Black Panther paper and continued working on housing protests and strikes. But mostly, he worked on the Panther 21 case.

When the Panthers split in 1971 with ugly arguments broadcast on mainstream TV, Gerald entered a period of serious study trying to understand what had gone wrong. He became more committed to the radical struggle. During this period, he moved away from a black nationalist position and moved towards a class analysis. While he knew that “the oppression is all intertwined” he concluded that “blacks alone couldn’t overthrow capitalism by themselves” and he rejected the multi-vanguardist ideas of the times. He became a socialist.

In 1975 Gerald moved to the Bay Area and soon became involved in the Camp Pendleton 13 case. Black soldiers were facing years in prison after they defended themselves against KKK activity. The campaign achieved complete victory with all charges dropped. He met other activists through the campaign and ultimately joined the Peace and Freedom Party. During the 90s and in the last decade, Gerald has run for statewide public office a number of times as a PFP candidate.

In 1984, Gerald worked on the Longshore Union’s refusal to unload South African ships to protest apartheid. That drew him to the anti-apartheid movement at the University of California, Berkeley, which saw a huge, on-going sit-in in 1984 and a militant shantytown protest in 1985. In 1990, working with activists he met during the anti-apartheid struggle, Gerald was one of the founders of Copwatch in Berkeley, which eventually spread worldwide. He’s worked with Copwatch in Berkeley ever since.

In the mid-1990s, Gerald was one of the early DJs at Free Radio Berkeley, an unlicensed micro-powered radio station at 104.1 FM. Gerald has also worked with KALX, on the Amandla Program, and volunteered at KPOO and KPFA. In 1999, helped organize street protests against a Pacifica takeover of KPFA. Currently he is running for the KPFA board.

He’s also stayed involved supporting political prisoners including imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu Jamal and more recently, ex-Black Panthers charged with murder known as the SF8.

A high point of his activism was when he helped organize a one-day, West coast-wide longshore strike to protest the imprisonment of journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. Seeing the power of collective action, he reflects “this is what keeps you going–this is real. [The action made clear] what this could be — people joining together for a just world – that stays with you.”

It isn’t easy to keep struggling, year after year, avoiding burnout or getting discouraged and bitter. On a trip to France for a worker’s festival, Gerald realized how backward the US struggle was compared to rest of the world. “But I wasn’t discouraged. I thought ‘I’m going to measure up – I’m going to improve.’” Perhaps it is that ability to look at the historical moment and see an opportunity for struggle — rather than a hopeless situation — that enables Gerald to keep on keeping on.