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The white-Left Part 1: The two meanings of white

Monday, February 24, 2014

Rest In Peace Harold Ramis, the Activist

I never knew Harold Ramis, although at different times we were both members of what we later called the Washington University Liberation Front, the relatively small click of leftists at WU in St. Louis. 

I started at WU in 1966-1967 as a double E major, but soon fell in with "the wrong crowd" and they set me on the course I'm still on almost 50 years latter. Although I didn't know it at the time Harold Ramis, who left WU the year before I got there, was also a member of this same click.

In 1970 I was indicted for my leadership in the WU anti-ROTC protests and ended up serving 4 months of a one year sentence for unlawful assembly in the St. Louis County Jail. It was widely thought that I was the first one indicted and jailed because I was a past president of the campus SDS chapter, had organized and led a march of thousands against the ROTC buildings (one of which was burned down before I went to jail, and one that burned down while I was in jail [the FBI suspected me for the 1st one, but as we said about the 2nd burning - I had an iron-clad alibi]) and because I am Black. This was just weeks before Kent State, which lit the fuse on just about every campus in the country.
A few years earlier four of us were brought up on campus charges for protesting Dow for napalm

George Lipsitz, Clay Claiborne, Joel Allen & Terry Koch
With Donna, my first wife

In one sense, I was lucky to be first because later the charges for other members of our group became stiffer until by the time they got to Howard Mechanic, they charged him under federal felony statues. Facing five years in jail, he jumped bail and took it on the lamb. He made a good long 28 year run of it, but as the FBI agent in the commercial for "Without a Trace" answers the kid who asks "How long do you look before you give up?", "We never never give up." That is certainly true for anti-war activists, so in 1998 they caught up with Howard and threw him in the hoosegow.

This prompted a new gathering of the tribe as we came together to campaign for a pardon for Howard, which Clinton granted as he was leaving office. To celebrate, we had a reunion in St. Louis of what we were then calling the WULF. That was April 2001 and we naively congratulated ourselves with the thought that because of our opposition to the Vietnam War, the US wouldn't repeat that mistake again. We didn't know it at the time but 9/11 was just months away. At that reunion, I was interviewed extensively on my student protest days for WU's American Lives Project, and I learned that Harold Ramis, now famous, was a part of our group. But I didn't meet him there either. He had left the reunion the day before I arrived. He was due to return before it ended but then my brother died and I had to leave suddenly.

Photos from the WULF reunion April 18-23, 2001 - these are pictures of Harold the activist that you won't see anywhere else.

The above caption misnames Bruce Roger for Howard Mechanic
Buzz Hirsch was our other Hollywood hero.

Anyway, I always loved "Animal House" [written by Harold Ramis] and always thought it reflected my college experience in a way that was eerily familar. It was only then that I realized why.

From Wikipedia on Harold Ramis:
He graduated from Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School and Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago,[6] and, in 1966, from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri,[2][7] where he was a member of the Alpha Xi chapter of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.[8]

Rest in Peace Harold Ramis, You will be missed.


It's been a long, strange trip for Howard Mechanic. From the quiet, leafy streets of Shaker Heights, to the conflicts on American college campuses during the height of the Vietnam War. From being arrested after a campus protest he merely attended to the courtrooms of the early 70s, where judges channeled the near-hysterical perception of an onrushing tide of youthful lawlessness by making examples of those they saw as dangerous subversives. From life as a fugitive, living under an assumed name in a new town, to a prison cell and 15 minutes of infamy. And last, but certainly not least, from the lows of oblivion to the heights of redemption, as documented on one thin sheet of paper a presidential pardon a gift from a recently departed bigwig who himself knows a little bit about highs and lows, mistakes and forgiveness.

Ingrid Gold could not sleep a wink the night of January 19, she was so nervous. First thing in the morning, she called a Phoenix news radio station. They had just received the list and hadn't fully processed it yet. Still, they made a quick check and told her his name was not on it. "I was crushed, absolutely devastated," she says. It felt like her entire world was collapsing around her. But minutes later, Janet Grossman, a close friend, called and dropped another bomb. It was difficult to understand her at first, she was so giddy, but then she yelled clearly, "He is on the list," and with those magic words, Ingrid's suffering faded away like a half-remembered nightmare.

The list in question, the cause of so much suspense and excitement for the two women, contained the names of those fortunate souls President Clinton had chosen to pardon in his final days in office. It was long, more than 150 names, but the only one they saw that morning was that of Ingrid's ex-husband, Janet's current boyfriend, Howard Lawrence Mechanic. He was a 60s antiwar radical who in 1972 had fled his home and family in Shaker Heights rather than go to prison for allegedly throwing a cherry bomb at firefighters during a student protest. His sentence: five years in a federal penitentiary.

Following his conviction, Mechanic's case drew the attention of a polarized nation. For some, he was a symbol of all that had gone wrong with American youth. For others, he was a victim of the law-and-order hysteria sweeping the country, a scapegoat for a regime desperate to suppress any dissent against its immoral and illegitimate policies. All Howard saw, however, was his life slipping away; he made the fateful decision to go underground rather than serve what he believed was an unjust sentence.

Skip forward to the morning of the pardon. Mechanic received word of his good fortune in a cell in the minimum-security federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California. He'd been incarcerated there (as well as another prison) for more than 11 months. It wasn't that the feds had caught up with him, exactly during 28 years on the run, he had succeeded in creating an entirely new and stable life for himself under an assumed name. But in February 2000, a reporter for the Scottsdale Tribune, conducting a routine get-to-know-the-candidate interview with a first-time city council hopeful, discovered there was a lot more to her subject than he let on.

Yes, bizarre as it may seem, the fugitive "armed and dangerous," according to the government had run for office. Howard Mechanic, aka Gary Tredway, then surrendered voluntarily to authorities, who promptly sent him back to the pokey. But that reporter's expose also set in motion a chain of events that culminated in Mechanic's presidential pardon.Within 12 hours of receiving word of his release, he was back in Arizona, savoring a joyous reunion with family and friends.

THE FIRST THING you notice about Howard Mechanic is that he just doesn't look the part. You'd expect the self-described last political prisoner of the Vietnam era, a man who spent all those years on the run, to look just a little more scruffy, a little more, well, countercultural. Aside from a fondness for Birkenstocks, the ubiquitous sartorial symbols of the 60s on the tye-died T-shirts, Guatemalan serapes, and so on are noticeably absent. There isn't even a whiff of patchouli within 100 yards of him.

Rather, what you get is a nondescript, though still youthful-looking, middle-aged man (he turned 53 in February) with neatly combed short black hair and receding hairline, impeccably if unostentatiously dressed in a button-down shirt carefully tucked into a pair of khakis. He looks every inch the average Joe, normal, conventional, unthreatening.

Maybe that's really not very surprising, and not just because as a fugitive he was compelled to make every effort to blend in and escape notice. Mechanic will tell you, in measured, thoughtful tones, that the life he led over those 28 years was not that different from anyone else's. That being a fugitive didn't keep him from working hard to build the kind of existence he could be comfortable with, in spite of the assumed name, the constant lying about his past, the ever-present fear of exposure. That if all the weirdness had never happened the arrest the felony conviction, the prison sentence, the decision to go on the lam he would have still turned out to be the same guy.

But despite his normal appearance, Mechanic's story is anything but ordinary. It is the story of justice denied and justice delayed, and perhaps, after 30 long years, of justice finally being served, providing reassuring proof that no matter how badly the wheels of justice become untracked they can eventually be set right again.

It is also a much sadder tale the story of the warp and woof of one man's life, and how a succession of mistakes (both his own and those perpetrated upon him) magnified and compounded each other until the trajectory of that life was forever altered.

And with all the controversy surrounding some of President Clinton's other last-minute pardons, Mechanic's story stands as a salutary reminder of why the founding fathers invested the presidency with the pardoning power in the first place. Given the circumstances of his conviction this is one pardon that's hard to protest (but, of course, some still do).

For these reasons and many others, the media has once again found the Howard Mechanic story irresistible, and he has accommodated them accordingly. Besides making appearances on Dateline NBC and A&E's American Justice, his case became something of a cause celebrate in Phoenix and St. Louis, and even attracted the interest of the august New York Times Magazine, which gave him the cover treatment last April. But though his story has been told several times in different media, questions and inaccuracies regarding its details have persisted.

Mechanic lied for 28 years to protect his identity, and, at least to some extent, continued to lie even after his re-emergence, in order to protect the select few who knew his secret. Indeed, it is only now, since his pardon has come through and the threat of further legal sanction has been lifted, that we can pierce the veil of deception and secrecy to assemble a truer picture of the circumstances that drove Mechanic to go on the run, and of the second life he led for so long as Gary Tredway Arizona businessman.
Flier I wrote that kicked off anti-ROTC protest

For the Record - More Pictures of Harold Ramis from the 2001 WULF collection so they will be available to the world