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Thu Nov 23, 2017, 11:13 AM

#9 Dream [View all]

So long ago
Was it in a dream?
Was it just a dream?
I know, yes I know
It seemed so very real
Seemed so real to me
-- John Lennon; #9 Dream; 1974

Rather than write about Thanksgiving or the Russian-Trump scandal, I thought I'd share a memory about Rep. John Conyers. I suppose that's something old people do, because we have one foot in the past, and one in the present. Younger people have one foot in the present, and one in the future, and at risk of boring them, I think this is an interesting story. (But, of course, I am old, and prone to thinking these things are important.)

I was thinking about the December, 1975 night that Bob Dylan and friends performed at Madison Square Garden. It was the “Night of the Hurricane” benefit for Rubin Carter. These were curious days in America: following the hopes of the 1960s, things looked particularly dismal when Nixon was re-elected in 1972. But Nixon's circumstances were circumcised by the Watergate investigations, and citizens began to recognize that government officials sometimes abused the power of their offices.

After the weirdness of Manson, Kent State, Attica, Watergate, Weathermen, and the seemingly never-ending war, Carter's case was among the “causes” that people felt good about. Nixon had resigned in disgrace, the war ended, and the idea of prison reform had taken root. And – seemingly suddenly – Carter's case was in the spotlight. Selwyn Raab of the NY Times did a series of front-page articles on Carter's case that suggested Rubin had been railroaded by corrupt New Jersey officials, and Carter appeared to be a charismatic potential “leader” for institutional reform.

As older forum members know, I had become friends with Rubin a few years by then, before his case became popular. There was a core group that did a lot of work that resulted in the case becoming popular among the “beautiful people” of Hollywood, the music industry, and the sports world. But by the time of this star-studded benefit concert – topped off by Dylan performing the song “Hurricane,” actually written by Jacques Levy – all of Carter's supporters were confident that he would soon be cleared by the New Jersey legal system.

But a funny thing happened along the way. And no one saw it coming. The original support group was almost exclusively white. As the case became a popular cause, it attracted more black people, especially after Muhammad Ali became one of its chief spokespersons. And the organized support committee was beginning to raise a significant amount of money.

Being white myself, I'm comfortable saying that some of the white supporters began spending to “cover their expenses.” Some were making a real profit. Others had mapped out their plans for Rubin in the world of politics post-retrial. Without question, some of the black supporters were making themselves quite comfortable while promoting the cause, too. And they resented the white people's attempts to plan Carter's future for him.

But what has this to do with John Conyers, you ask? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to answer it. John Conyers was among those who had joined the support committee. He was at the hotel where the “beautiful people” were staying on the day of the concert. He understood that the growing tensions within the support group, which were generally a racial divide, represented a real threat to not only the movement, but especially to Rubin and John Artis's chances of being found not guilty in their eventual retrial.

He knew that it would be difficult for anyone, including Rubin, to transition from inmate to a free person quickly, after spending almost a decade incarcerated. He knew that many within the support committee had lost focus on what was most important. And thus, during an afternoon confrontation within that hotel, when he spoke up, one of the white people making the most profit off of Carter's case (over $40,000 for “expenses” from the concert alone) threw a drink in his face.

The support committee fractured, and at the retrial, prosecutors used this (including where the money had gone) to discredit Carter and Artis's legal defense team.

I do not pretend that Conyers is a perfect man, for he is not. No one is. But he recognized that groups that work for progressive change often contain internal seeds of division. These can be along the lines of race, sex, social class, and other issues. I suspect that this is something that is just as true today as it was in 1975. Maybe it is worth thinking about now.

H2O Man

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