Tuesday, April 21, 2009
In Spite of LaRouche and Because of Him, I Will Remember John Morris
I received some distressing news last week. It's taken me a while to process it because it's brought back memories of experiences that I stopped thinking about quite some time ago. I debated, for a while, whether I should write anything about it, and if so, whether I should do it publicly. And then, if I did it publicly, I wondered whether it would be a good idea to do it under my name or anonymously. My thoughts have led to this conclusion: The Internet can be a valuable resource for others. I hope that what I have to share can be of some value to someone else.
I've mentioned in the past that I had some involvement with Lyndon LaRouche and his international political organization. That's really a polite way to refer to a man who leads a powerful and destructive cult which operates internationally and has a strong presence here in the United States, particularly on college campuses. From 2000 to 2001, I worked for him on the streets, on college campuses, at post offices and county buildings, in airports, in front of libraries and supermarkets, at busy intersections and on freeway off-ramps, raising money and spreading the word: "The world was headed for certain doom and LaRouche is the only force in the universe who can stop it. Now buy a subscription to our newspaper." I worked 16-hour days and lived on about $30-$40 a week. Sometimes $50 if I was lucky. If this sounds bad, know that I got off easy. I recruited people into this group myself, and many of these folks are still in lockstep behind LaRouche. They were young people just like me: disillusioned, intelligent and creative, just looking for answers and an alternative to the mainstream path which seemed empty and unfulfilling. Worse off than these people, however, are the ones who have spent most of their lives there, people who joined when they were younger than I am now, and are older than my parents are today. I won't name any names. I am not looking to make enemies, or cause any strife.
I am not writing this so that I can talk about LaRouche. There have been plenty of people available to do that over the years, and there will continue to be. The person I really want to speak up about is John Morris, who was one of LaRouche's faithful organizers. LaRouche is alive and well, still preaching his twisted gospel and abusing his membership more than enough to keep them in line and maintain a healthy flow of cash. But John Morris is dead. This is the news I received the other day that has left me so upset on many levels. He died one a night last June at about 10:30pm, along with Gary Genazzio, an organizer I did not know. They were on a highway between Chicago and Detroit. Their car had run out of gas, and they pulled over to the side of the road, apparently to try to refill the tank. A passing dump truck hit them and killed them both.
Maintaining friendships was not easy. The work was often too all-consuming to make room for strong personal friendships. In fact, allegiances to anything other than LaRouche and the rest of the group were strongly discouraged. I remember a couple of months after I joined full-time, I had a conversation about my best friend with one of the local leaders of the organization.
"What do you call him a 'best friend?'" he asked. "What does that even mean?"
"Well, we go back. We've known each other a long time. He understands me probably better than anyone"
"Does he understand what you are doing here? Does he understand LaRouche?"
"A bit," I said. "I'm still working on him." (Indeed, at that time, I was 'working' on all of my friends, many of whom had long stopped speaking to me by the time I finally left LaRouche behind.)
"Well. You do that. But if you can't get anywhere, you have to remember that there are more important things. You can't let him hold you back. You're going to have to leave him behind."
You can't take them with you. That was the message that I got from all sides. My friends. My family. I remember one night I invited my father to an evening briefing, hoping he would see something good in it that I hadn't been able to explain to him in private. Instead, my father was full of objections to the rhetoric, and left that night feeling angry and uncomfortable. A leader (or National Coordinator, as they are called) pulled me aside and asked that I never have him come by again.
The work was difficult. Raising money is exhausting work, but doing it for the long hours that I did is grueling. I rarely got more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night. Even more exhausting than this is living with the memory of some of the things I did: Manipulating people into giving up money they clearly wanted to hold on to, "educating" others that anyone who supports Israel is a "Nazi," that jazz music is pure evil, and the entire environmental movement is a fraud were, in retrospect, some of the less humiliating aspects of the work. The most upsetting would probably be the giving up of the self. I willfully and gleefully gave myself up to be scrubbed of personality, taste and ambition, instead seeing myself as a conduit to funnel followers and money towards a man that I'd been convinced was something of a savior. Indeed, the most devoted followers of LaRouche place him on a pedestal somewhere close to God himself. And that fact that LaRouche frequently stated in no uncertain terms that human society (and, indeed, the known universe) could not exist without him indicated that he felt the same way himself.
John Morris wasn't the only LaRouche member to die recently. Jeremiah Duggan is the most well-known example. The story of his death, which has still never been fully understood or explained, was carried on all the major news outlets when it happened. He was a young Jewish man from London, a little bit older than I was when I was in the organization. He had gone to Wiesbaden, Germany to attend a LaRouche conference in March, 2003, much as I had done less than two years earlier. He then attended a "cadre school" at a youth hostel there in town. It may very well have been the same hostel I stayed at when I'd been there. Then he died. He had been alarmed by the things being taught by LaRouche followers at the conference and the cadre school and had become afraid. No one knows for sure what happened, but he had been running along the side of a highway. There's debate over how he died, but the official ruling from German police was that he'd been hit by traffic. They ruled it a suicide, but there are many lingering questions.
Ken Kronberg died in 2007. He had been a tireless worker for LaRouche for 35 years, and ran the publishing outfit responsible for printing many of LaRouche's publications. The company was experiencing incredible financial shortfalls, and it looked like Kronberg was going to end up bearing much of the burden. On a day when LaRouche suggested that the baby boomers in the organization "commit suicide," Ken Kronberg quietly threw himself off of a highway overpass.
I never got a chance to meet Jeremiah, and I knew of Kronberg only by name, but I did know John Morris.
I don't know what he and Gary were driving such a long distance at that hour for. I don't know whether they were coming from a long deployment (standing at a small table selling subscriptions and literature, collecting names and phone numbers to call later), or driving back from an event. But I do know why they ran out of gas. They ran out because there wasn't enough in the tank, and there wasn't enough in the tank because there was never much gas in the tanks of LaRouche cars when I was in the group, when the stuff was well under $2 a gallon. I can only imagine that the problem was only more pronounced last summer when gas was $4 a gallon in many parts of the country. Gas tanks were never filled because cash from deployments was a precious commodity. It was always better to bring cash back to the office than spend it all to fill up a tank. Usually, there was only enough gas in our cars to last a day. At the end of a long day of selling literature on the streets, we'd put a few gallons in, at most. Enough for tomorrow.
The cars were never in very good condition. Though these cars were used every day for driving over long distances (sometimes for 50 miles or more each way) they were rarely maintained. I remember a car or two in Los Angeles that didn't even have a working gas gauge. We always had a can of gas in the trunk of the car. If the driver of the car ran out of gas, he'd have to pull over and re-fill out of the can. I've heard that it was a common problem elsewhere in the country as well. Given that John and Gary were trying to refill their tank on the side of a highway, I think there's they may have had a car in this condition.
The LaRouche organization makes millions of dollars every year.
John had been moved to the mid-west a few years ago, but he was in Los Angeles before that. That was where I met him. Once I joined the group full time, I moved into an apartment with another organizer, paid for by the organization. John shared a place with another organizer only a few blocks away from mine. Working the kind of hours we did (16 hours a day, five or six days a week) made it hard to forge friendships. What interactions I did have with my colleagues were generally centered around the activities of the group. Indeed, focusing on anything other than LaRouche was discouraged and avoided. When I spent time with John, it was often easy to forget that I had changed my entire lifestyle, altered my entire way of being (at the expense of friends, family and personal tastes) for a cause dominated by one single personality.
It's not an easy schedule to adjust to. The atmosphere in a high-pressure, money-driven cult is one of constant demand. If you aren't focused on raising money, or otherwise furthering the cause, then you are being reprimanded for not doing so more effectively. (These reprimands continue even when you are working hard and doing the very best you can). I remember one night in particular not long after I had joined the group full-time. I went over to John's house for dinner on a Sunday night, our one day off. Upon arrival, I suspected that like everyone else in the group, John would want to spend our free time talking about LaRouche, or Friedrich Schiller, or "psycho-sexual impotence" (a blanket term for whatever was keeping us from raising more money), or how we could work towards meeting our quotas every day. Instead, John wanted to talk about beer. He took me upstairs and into his bedroom where, in his closet, he had jugs of beer fermenting. He then explained the practice of home-brewing. I was just 18 years old, and had never considered that a man could make his own beer. That night, over a simple dinner of salad and pasta dish with chicken and pesto, we enjoyed the finest beer I had ever had up to that point. A few years later, it was John I was thinking of when I decided to start brewing my own beer at my house in Humboldt County.
John expanded my ideas about food as well as drink. We both shared a love of Mexican food, and a particular appreciation for the La Estrella taco stands in the Los Angeles area. One evening, I was on my way out to grab a couple of tacos (a huge luxury) before spending the night fund-raising. "Get me a tongue taco, will you?" he said. I laughed, thinking he was joking. I'd been eating taco truck fare for years, but had never considered sampling the less common meats: cabeza, lengua and tripas. "Oh, I'm serious," he said. "You've never had tongue? You call yourself a taco fan and you've never had tongue?! There is nothing--Nothing--that beats some nice lengua sliced really lean." Well, that was enough for me to try it, and a mere half an hour later I had become a fan of the tongue taco. Even today, I rarely pass up a chance to have an authentic lengua taco (though such opportunities seem to be rather rare here in Manhattan), and I've no one other than John to thank for this.
John also had a strong sense of humor, and no matter the circumstances, he always managed to make me laugh. Even after being yelled at for not meeting quota, being reminded of our general lack of worth, or bring subjected to a conference call in which specifically-named people were held up as examples of how not to be, John was always ready to put on a smile and share his good humor. He made the work easy, lightening not simply his own burden but also those of others.
(You can't take them with you.)
As I said before, having "friends" in the organization wasn't practical. I say that, most of all, because once you leave the group you are cut off from it. No one speaks to you. A friend one day, and then next day you are nobody to them. There were people I knew who were my age and shared my interests. We were all swimming in the same shit: the same abusive hours, the manipulation, the near-desperate poverty. We banded together. It was unusual to spend time alone even in the rare hours away from the office. I met good people while I was in there. Now, more than 7 years later, I look back on the experience and think more of the good people I lived and worked with than I do of the leaders of the group, and LaRouche himself, those who wielded power over us. There's a small core of people who made such an impression on me that I've thought of them every day. Funny, intelligent, bright people. Folks I would be friends with right now if they weren't in the cult, if their impressions of the outside world weren't being manipulated, if they weren't expected to NOT SPEAK to anyone who has left the group. I've always considered John Morris to be part of that group.
I've always said to myself that if one of those people who was close to me were to call me out of the blue and ask for help to get out, I'd do everything in my power to make it happen. And I admit that there's a fantasy I indulge in from time to time, one in which my old friends are free of the cult, have reclaimed their lives and are living happily. We are all in touch and helping each other through the recovery which never really ends. We enjoy one-another's company, and share humor and insight without the profound pressure and guilt.
But now, John Morris is dead. He can't be a part of that mental picture anymore. Learning of his death reminded me that this isn't a fantasy. There are some things that will never be fixed. It reminded me that I was one of the lucky ones. I could have easily stayed. I could have run out of gas between Detroit and Chicago instead of John and Gary. I could have been Jeremiah Duggan and, disoriented and afraid, run into traffic and gotten killed. Had I stayed longer, I could have even been Ken Kronberg, and thrown myself off of an overpass because I lacked the will and the strength to break free. Someone else could just as easily be writing these things about me right now. In essence, I survived that car wreck, that highway, that overpass, even though I wasn't even there.
You can't take them with you. This is true of your family and friends when you go into a cult, and just as true of your colleagues when you leave.
Even though I will never see John Morris again, I will still continue to think of him, and mourn the loss. He was more than a quota, more than a list of contacts, more than a LaRouche organizer. He was a human being with taste, humor and dignity. And, most of all, for a year between 2000 and 2001, John Morris was my friend.