Posted by TAG - October 9, 2012 | Obituary

(Photo: Time Life Pictures / Getty Images [ ] )

Environmental advocate, presidential candidate and former Washington University professor Barry Commoner passed away on September 30 in New York City.

Commoner was 95 and lived in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. A product of New York City, he was raised in Brooklyn and was trained as a biologist, earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia and master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard.

After his service as a Navy officer in World War II, Commoner taught at Washington University from 1947 to 1981. In 1966 he founded the Biology of Natural Systems at WU and moved the institution to New York’s Queens College in 1981. He served as its head until 2000.

Commoner believed science should be used to empower the community. His work on the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing from the United States and Soviet Union contributed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In the same year as that landmark treaty he and Margaret Mead founded the Scientists Institute for Public Information, which served as a tool the scientific community used to educate the public. Commoner penned books like “Science and Survival” (1966), “The Closing Circle: Man, Nature and Technology” (1971), and “The Politics of Energy” (1979) that are considered classics of the environmental movement.

Commoner’s biographer Michael Egan said that Barry was less of an environmentalist than “someone who was committed to improving society as a whole.”

St. Louis resident Dr. Danny Kohl studied under Commoner at WU as a graduate student and also served as an assistant professor in the botany department.

“I think his greatest legacy is that change doesn’t occur through whispering in the ears of the powerful,” Kohl said. “He wanted to get scientific information out to the public and let citizen’s groups organize for change. He felt social change came from social movements.”

Also among Commoner’s accomplishments are formulating four laws of ecology now covered in many textbooks: everything is related to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Commoner blamed environmental degradation on capitalist economics in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation. He felt capitalist systems promoted profits and technological progress with no concern for environmental impact.

The scientist/activist took a journey into electoral politics in 1980 when he ran for the presidency on the Citizens Party ticket against Republican Ronald Reagan, Democrat Jimmy Carter and Independent John Anderson. The Citizens party stressed environmental issues. American Indian Civil Rights Activist LaDonna Harris was Commoner’s running mate. Harris remembers the rigors of running on a third party ticket. When she and Commoner travelled around the country campaigning in the 1980 election they often stayed in the homes of Citizens Party members. She said the party was started by citizens who were tired of the two-party monopoly in American politics.

“He [ Commoner ] taught me so much about the environment,” Harris said. “Like the things we’re doing to the environment that we don’t even realize. Barry had a real global perspective.”

Posted by TAG - March 10, 2012 | Obituary

The “Janitor Of History” — Louis Reyes Rivera
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Poet, essayist, editor, teacher, radio host, and union organizer with the National Writer Union, UAW Local 1981, Louis Reyes Rivera died in Brooklyn Hospital on Friday, March 2, following a brief illness. Serving as chair of the New York Chapter since 2004, Rivera was revered and beloved by all NWU members who saw him in action in New York and at Delegate Assemblies, providing leadership on union issues and performing his insightful poetry.

Calling himself the Janitor of History, Rivera is viewed as a living bridge between the African and Latino-American communities. Also called “the dean of Nuyorica Poetica,” he is an internationally recognized literary figure, with translations of his work appearing in Russian, Latvian, Spanish, and Italian. Rivera published four books, including Who Pays The Cost (1978), This One For You (1983), In Control of English (1988 and 1992), and Scattered Scripture (1996), for which he received the 1997 poetry award from the Latin American Writers Institute. He had just completed his epic poem, Jazz in Jail, and was in the process of preparing it for publication.

Rivera was the recipient of dozens of awards, including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship (2003), a Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), a Special Congressional Recognition Award (1988), and the CCNY 125th Anniversary Medal (1973) — each of which was given in recognition of his scholarship and impact on contemporary literature. Since 1996, Rivera appeared at jazz festivals and clubs, working with such bands as The Sun Ra All-Stars Project, Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora, Ebonic Tones, the James Spaulding Ensemble, and his own band, The Jazzoets. Last spring Rivera was inducted into the Brooklyn Jazz Hall of Fame. At his last public appearance on Feb. 11, Rivera was the featured poet at the American Jazz Museum’s Black History Month Salute to Jazz Poetry in Kansas City, Mo.

Over the past 40 years, Rivera assisted in the publication of well over 200 books, including Adal Maldonado’s Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience (IPRUS, 1984), John Oliver Killens’ Great Black Russian (Wayne State, 1989), Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Crown, 2001), co-edited with Tony Medina, and The Bandana Republic (Soft Skull Press, 2008). Rivera’s essays and poems appeared in numerous publications, including Areyto, Boletin (Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter), The City Sun, African Voices, and in several award-winning book collections, including In Defense of Mumia; ALOUD: Live from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; and Of Sons and Lovers. He also appeared on the Peabody award-winning HBO show, “Def Poetry Jam.” Rivera completed the translation of Clemente Soto Vel├ęz’s Caballo de Palo/Broomstick Stallion and worked on the collected poems of Otto Rene Castillo of Guatemala, Por el Bien de Todos/For the Good of All.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 19, 1945, Rivera was raised there and a proud graduate of Boys High. He began studying the craft of writing in1960 and founded the continuing student publication, The Paper, at City College of New York. After graduation in 1969, Rivera started teaching and his influence as a teacher spanned many generations. He distinguished himself as a professor of creative writing, Pan-African literature, African-American culture and history, Caribbean history, Puerto Rican history, and Nuyorican literature at such institutions as State University of New York-Stony Brook, Hunter College, College of New Rochelle, LaGuardia College, Pratt Institute, and Boricua College, among others.

For 15 years beginning in 1996, Rivera hosted a reading series in Brooklyn, 1st & 3rd Sundays Jazzoetry & Open Mic @ Sistas’ Place, where he also conducted writing workshops. For many years Rivera hosted the engaging radio talk and interview show, “Perspectives,” on New York radio station WBAI 99.5 FM (streamed at archives).

A political activist as well as a cultural icon, Rivera was active in the successful struggle for “open enrollment” at City College in1969. Since then he has participated in many progressive movement and activities, including supporting the establishment of the Freedom Party, which ran candidates in the 2010 New York State election. Rivera co-hosted two Writers for Mumia programs dedicated to freeing longtime political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, one in 2007, the other in 2010.

Rivera is survived by his wife, Barbara Killens Rivera; two daughters, Abiba Deceus and Kutisha Booker; son Barra Wyn ; and four grandchildren, James Booker, Akalia Booker, Quamey Venable, and Jean-Oliver Deceus.

For information on funeral services visit the NWU website.

Kathy Kelly at a 2009 Debi Rose fundraiser
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

NLN has lost a friend: a fighter for single payer health care, a woman who died of lung cancer at age 50, a woman who was fighting to stop the banks from taking her house after she went broke paying medical bills, a woman who repeatedly pressured Congressman Mike McMahon to represent his constituents and not the insurance companies, a woman whose presence made a long struggle enjoyable for those who stood with her.


Kathy occasionally contributed reporting to NLN
(Photo: Kathleen Kelly / NLN)


NLN has lost a friend.


Kathy Kelly at a 2010 HCAN rally
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

If you believe that people should come before profits, that education should come before foreign wars, that health care serves our nation better than torturing helpless prisoners, that elected officials who describe themselves as “centrists” while maintaining a corporate voting record are more accurately characterized as opportunists — then you too have lost a friend.


Kathy Kelly squared off with Mike McMahon on a regular basis
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

Her name was Kathleen Kelly. Kathy was a lifelong Staten Islander. She described herself as a moderate and was not a firebrand. But she was a community organizer who put people first and never seemed to tire. She will be missed.


Kathy Kelly interviewed by NY1 outside Mike McMahon’s office
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

NLN Articles mentioning Kathleen Kelly:

Health Care Reform: The Cure For Bipartisan Disorder?
“It’s Good To See So Many People Here…”
Activists Die-In For Health Care, Protest Outside McMahon’s Office
Looking For A Leader: Will The Real Mike McMahon Please Stand Up?
Public Option Protest At McMahon’s Office

Click Here To See Videos featuring Kathy Kelly


Kathy Kelly at a 2009 town hall meeting on health care reform
sponsored by McMahon
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)


Click HERE to read the obituary in the Staten Island Advance.


Kathy Kelly at a 2009 protest at Mike McMahon’s office
(Photo: Thomas Good / NLN)

In the end, McMahon voted against health care – declining to even discuss single payer health care – but the struggle continues.

Posted by Paul Buhle - January 30, 2010 | Obituary

Howard Zinn
(Photo: Wikipedia)

A Personal Note on Howard Zinn, by Paul Buhle

Whoever wants to know more about Howard Zinn’s life and accomplishments can find the details easily upon the web. I only want to add my own little bit, how I misunderstood and underestimated his popular histories for years, how I grew to admire him as I came to understand their importance, and how I was lucky enough to work with him on the comic art version of his story, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF AMERICAN EMPIRE.

Howard was always a bit larger than life and perhaps for that reason a bit distant to the New Left historians coming of age in the later 1960s and early 1970s. He had a legendary life already, from the Depression to the Second World War to the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement. In Boston especially, but far beyond, he was a speaker everyone wanted to hear, in an era when really appealing white radical speakers were not all that numerous (and they had this in common, most of them: the burden of what could be called guilt but would be better understood as TAKING RESPONSIBILITY for the civilization that prided itself so much, but took little responsibility for its effects upon others, or even the unfortunate at home). There was always something about Howard: if a speaker like Noam Chomsky was best in the Q-and-A, answering point for point and elaborating, Howard had an aura, the proverbial pin could drop as an audience small or large listened for his words. Sometimes, like CLR James, he would start a little quiet as he built up his physical delivery. Then, look out: he overwhelmed with eloquence. It was easy to get a catch in the throat while listening to him.

But I kept my distance unintentionally, publishing a new left radical magazine, creating oral history projects among radical oldtimers, writing social history and so on. He once told me that he was surprised his PEOPLE’S HISTORY was so popular, it might not even have been his best book. But it went to the heart of the issues of US history, and proved to be exactly what young people and many not-so-young needed to understand. My generation was great at finding and elaborating details. Howard was better at explaining them, incredibly better.

So it was my not-so-brilliant idea, after the creation of WOBBLIES! (a comic about the history of the IWW, produced on the centenary), to create a book that encompassed his classic and, in a sense or two, went a bit beyond it. Why beyond? Because when it comes to Empire, the American Empire, William Appleman Williams was the master radical history of the 1950s-60s. He didn’t grasp race and he hardly grasped class, but Williams had Empire down cold. So his work became a supplement of sort, an amendment, to the guiding ideas in Zinn’s work.

I did one more thing that was useful: insisting that Zinn’s own life be part of the story. The children of impoverished immigrants with a brother dead from an ailment that middle class families might have had healed, the working class guy who took part in 1930s radical demonstrations, worked at a defense plant, went into the war, and got the upward mobility of the GI Bill, he had been through it all by the time he went South as a teacher in the 1950s. His life, this life, was embedded in everything he did. Being able to see it on paper a comic art—thanks to scriptwriter Dave Wagner and artist Mike Konopacki-was one of the great pleasures of my intellectual life. I KNEW that we had created something that would find an audience and set an example for what comic art can do to offer simple but necessary truths.

That was my Zinn Moment. Since then, Dave Wagner and I have pondered how to understand and explain Empire as being a bipartisan operation at the center of American political life. The disillusioning developments of the past twelve months offer more to consider, no matter that we learn what we did not want to learn. We know that Howard, to the very end, was delivering the essential message. We will be hearing him, in one form or another, so long as the quest for imperial power, imperial dominance of the planet, is the deep logic of our rulers. It is not a message about Evil Americans, but about those who assumed too much about their own mostly good fortune and those in power, and who now must come to understand the dilemma that we all face together as humans: empire or survival, empire or species self-realization.

Posted by TAG - January 5, 2010 | Obituary

[ NLN has lost a friend. Ken BeSaw and I worked together at the Daily World in the mid-80s. We shared a darkroom, a vertical camera and a Nikon F – covering stories for the DW and sharing the joys and frustrations of photojournalism. In the years that followed I frequently saw Ken at protests and labor rallies. We would talk shop, compare cameras and tell old anti-war stories from back in the day. It is hard to imagine doing a protest shoot without running into my old friend and comrade. What follows is Ken’s obit from the Peoples World. I am very pleased that the photo editor opted to run one of my shots of Ken from our Daily World days.
— Tom Good, New York City ]

Kenneth J. BeSaw, photojournalist and Communist
by PW Editorial Board
Reprinted from the Peoples World

Kenneth J. BeSaw, longtime photographer for People’s World, died at the end of November while recovering from back surgery. Further details were not available at press time.

BeSaw, 58, was born in Worthington, Ohio, near Columbus, and graduated in 1970 from Worthington High School. Early on he showed a passion and talent for shooting – cameras and guns.

He was a marksman on the shooting range, and a member of the National Rifle Association.

But it was his passion for photography and social justice that propelled him into the working-class movement for equality, democracy, peace and socialism.

“Forty years ago I was on welfare in Ohio, the result of physical disabilities,” BeSaw recently wrote on his Flickr profile, entitled “Working Class Photos.”

“The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation canceled my college grant after I switched my major to photography. They said that I would never be able to get a job as a photojournalist. For the past 30 years I have been the chief photographer for a national daily [and weekly]. Photographically I am into sports, people and architecture.”

BeSaw joined the Communist Party USA and moved to Cleveland. In 1979, he moved to New York City and began work as a photographer for the People’s World’s predecessor, the Daily World, where in the era before digital photography, he developed photographs for the newspaper in a darkroom.

BeSaw had epilepsy and underwent experimental surgery some 10 years ago to relieve the seizures he had been plagued by his whole life. It was successful in stopping the seizures but he endured years of recovery, which he battled through heroically.

He found joy in the CPUSA and this newspaper, the movement, people and photography. He also found love in the 1990s when he met Susan Shifrin, also a long-time People’s World staff member. They married in 1996. Shifrin-BeSaw died of cancer Jan. 5, 2001.

“Ken was the heart and soul of the World’s photography,” said editor Teresa Albano. “He had a unique eye, seeing how to capture the best about people, their hopes and dreams, in a picture. He also knew how to capture the dastardly conditions of capitalism, be it homelessness or hunger.”

BeSaw also worked to get others involved in photography, coordinating the “Photo of the Week” feature, and writing a photography handbook.

He also took fundraising for the People’s World very seriously. He was a staunch supporter of the rights of disabled people, and was a member of an epilepsy group. That’s where he first raised money with a “bowl-a-thon.” He applied the bowl-a-thon to the PW, saying you have to have fun while you raise money.

Other years he would collect “change” for “change.” BeSaw raised hundreds of dollars singlehandedly for his favorite newspaper.

“Ken was a profound humanist,” People’s World website editor Joe Sims said. “He taught me and all his colleagues a lot about bringing out the best of people, and portraying all aspects of the human condition in the newspaper. He would say, ‘We need more sports photos’ and then he would go out and take them. Or he would say, ‘People are interested in history and architecture. I have shots of the Brooklyn Bridge that would make a good feature.'”

While BeSaw had expressed some bittersweet feelings about ending the newsprint edition, he fully embraced going online and becoming a part of social networking, especially on Facebook and Flickr. Plus, he joined photo contests online and won an honorable mention from a Sigma “summer dreams” contest with his entry, “We Are America,” taken at an immigrant rights rally.

Ken is survived by his brother and sister, nephew and cousins. A memorial is being planned for January in New York City at Unity Center.

Photo: Ken BeSaw at a Daily World fundraiser in Arrow Park, N.Y., circa 1984. Thomas Good/

Posted by Michael Steven Smith - June 8, 2009 | Obituary

NEW YORK (Special) — After battling recurrent cancers for half his life, Alan Berkman died in Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City around seven o’clock in the evening of June 5, 2009. He was under a death sentence with a cancer that was going to kill him. He chose to try a risky stem cell transplant procedure where he first had to have chemo-therapy to knock out his own stem cells and then replace them with the stem cells of a donor. Even finding the donor was difficult, the holocaust having significantly narrowed the gene pool of persons who might have a match. One was found. Alan entered the hospital knowing he might not get out. He understood what his doctors were telling him. He himself was a doctor, a sixties graduate of Columbia’s school for physicians and surgeons and now a professor there in the school of public health.

Alan Berkman
(Photo: Columbia University)

Alan was first struck by cancer when he was in prison. He served eight years, four of them in solitary. He diagnosed himself. But to no avail. The authorities would do nothing, as if they wanted him to die. They must have hated Alan. A communist. A Jew. A doctor. A supporter of blacks and latinos and native Americans at the second battle of Wounded Knee. They knew his history. It was quite a dossier. A sixties radical. SDS. Active in the anti-war movement. A practicing doctor in New York’s poor neighborhoods. Forced underground for years because he wouldn’t give up the name of a woman he treated for a gunshot wound she got in a failed Brinks truck robbery that killed two cops and a security guard in Rockland County. Then arrested and convicted and doing hard time in a maximum security prison. He helped a cop killer. And now he is in our hands. But Alan was unbent and unbowed. He was tough.

Finally his family and attorneys got him medical attention. He told me they operated on him while handcuffed to a gurney. Deep stomach surgery where the muscles need to be cut. When he awoke from anesthesia they took the handcuffs off and made him get up off the gurney and walk. He got cancer again before getting out on parol. Amazingly Bill Kunstler and Ron Kuby prevented the State from taking away his medical license. He started working as an AIDS doctor in the South Bronx.

That’s when I met him. About twenty years ago. He helped me on a case. We drove out to Brooklyn to see the client and then had dinner, the first of many. A steak and a martini. Alan and Barbara, Debby and me. We four. Good friends and comrades.

We went back to that restaurant a couple of weeks ago, just before Alan checked into Memorial. We thought we would see him the next week at the event honoring him and Dr. David Hoos for co- founding HEALTH GAP. But that was not to be. His doctors couldn’t give him the time and he was whisked into the hospital for first the chemo and then the transplant. Alan got the new cells but died before they could take root.

When HEALTH GAP was formed with the help of ACT UP and HOUSING WORKS the anti-viral AIDS medicine “cocktail” cost ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year. Big pharma controlled manufacturing and distribution with their intellectual property rights. Alan helped change that, not having the requisite respect for private property. Now the drugs cost about eight-seven dollars a year and some four million people are taking the medicine, prolonging their lives.

Alan wasn’t religious. Religion to him was superstition. Being part of a sect was too narrow and confining for Alan. The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition. The historian Isaac Deutscher had a phrase for it, “the non-Jewish Jew.” Alan was in line with the great Jewish heretics, rebels, and revolutionaries of modern thought; Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Freud, and Einstein. They too went beyond the boundaries of Judaism, finding it too narrow, archaic, constricting.

I don’t wish to stretch the comparison. Alan was not so much a radical thinker as a man of action. But his intellectual understanding – and he was well educated and widely read – powered his activity. He had in common with these great thinkers the idea that for knowledge to be real it must be acted upon. As Marx observed: “Hitherto philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.”

Like his intellectual predecessors Alan saw reality in a state of flux, as dynamic not static, and he was aware of the constantly changing and contradictory nature of society. Alan was essentially an optimist and shared with the great Jewish revolutionaries and optimistic belief in humanity and a belief in the solidarity of humankind.

The stem cell procedure failed to save him. Alan Berkman has passed, but his work and his example have taken root. Goodbye dear friend. We all remember you with the two best words in our language: Love and Solidarity.

Michael Steven Smith
New York City
June 6, 2009