Portrait of the Activist as a Young Man

What it's like to read your own biography, as penned by J. Edgar Hoover.

Nothing is quite so startling as a glimpse of yourself as others see you. I don't mean a candid photo or a snippet of overheard gossip, but a detailed analysis of your life and person from a point of view very different from, even hostile toward, your own. Thus, even expecting the worst, I was not prepared for the contents of my Federal Bureau of Investigation files when they finally arrived last spring. It was a veritable Portrait of the Activist as a Young Man, as penned by J. Edgar Hoover. I would have been terribly disappointed if there had been nothing, but this was unlikely. If you were politically active to any degree during the 1960s, even if you merely inhaled in public, the FBI probably kept a file on you. Hell, as The Nation recently reported, it even tracked Groucho Marx, presumably on the theory that Karl was his fifth brother. So, back in March 1994, at the outset of research for Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press), I applied under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act for copies of all FBI files concerning me. After verifying my identity with everything but a DNA test, the FBI grudgingly conceded that it did have some documents with my name on them and told me to wait quietly for them to be copied. Four years later, and two years after my book came out, a package with the heft of a telephone directory arrived. (This is a typical turnaround time, by the way, and not necessarily evidence of a sinister conspiracy.) My wife, Marie, suggested that the Blue Moon Tavern was the appropriate venue for opening the box. We settled into a booth and tore into the box of photocopied documents. The very first memo stopped us mid-beer. "He is well read, well educated and has a brilliant mind," it declared, and "a talented artist" to boot. This boded ill for the accuracy of what was to follow, although I appreciated the sentiment. Unfortunately, this was not a MacArthur Grant nomination but a report by an FBI agent to headquarters. The encomium closed with a chilling postscript: "It is suggested a new 100 dead file be opened on this individual for the incorporation of future reports from security informants on him." I don't know what a "100 dead file" is, but it doesn't sound like something one would volunteer for. The entries revealed that the FBI had stalked me for nearly a decade—monitoring my movements, checking up on my residences and employers, clipping my articles and news accounts, collecting photographs and anecdotes—doting on my every word and deed like some kind of demented fan. The FBI's interest in me had been triggered by a secret informant (all names are blacked out with a marker the size of a tar brush) who "telephonically furnished" information on my politics, college studies, freelance art work, amateur dramatics, and even my "extensive library containing numerous works on Marxism." In other words, somebody I knew well enough to welcome into my home had dropped a dime and reported me to the FBI as a "subversive." I haven't the vaguest idea who this person was, but I have to confess that I find myself speculating from time to time, weighing one suspected rat against another. "Paranoia strikes deep . . . " and it remains one of the most powerful weapons in any secret police arsenal. It is also an occupational disease for agents, and the FBI took this initial report seriously enough to start tracking a scrawny, confused 19-year-old college dropout as a potential "threat to national security." My life was assigned file number 100-28836, which quickly fattened as the bureau documented my ideological peregrinations through a succession of socialist and radical organizations, counterculture gestalts, and a three-year stint with Helix, Seattle's underground newspaper. Despite the hyperbole of the era, none of these groups posed any threat to anyone, let alone the Republic, although my Trotskyist comrades could bore you to death if you let them. It never occurred to my FBI biographers that I and my associates were merely exercising our First Amendment rights to speak, publish, and petition the government for a redress of grievances. On the plus side, the FBI was a most diligent clipping service. My files are full of reprints of articles I wrote for the underground press and other papers, as well as articles on me. They are marked up with scribbles indicating referrals to other agents and agencies. I figure that the FBI must have doubled or tripled my readership during the 1960s. The FBI made some embarrassing, even comical errors as it chronicled my subversive activities. It placed me in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1967, for example, apparently not realizing that Stokely Carmichael had already banished honkies from SNCC's ranks. The bureau also repeatedly confused me with another band of Crowleys, anarchists George and Louise and their brood of hooligans, who were unrelated to me except for some ancient Celtic genes. Other errors were not so benign; one almost led to my indictment. On February 17, 1970, a motley crew of radicals called the "Seattle Liberation Front" staged a protest of the contempt rulings against the "Chicago Seven." The ensuing melee resulted in federal conspiracy charges against a septet of SLF leaders (including Michael Lerner, now editor of Tikkun magazine), who were promptly dubbed the "Seattle Seven." My files reveal that I almost made it an octet based on the misidentification of my face in police photos of the incident and the testimony of a notoriously obvious and inept informer, one Horace "Red" Parker. I had in fact been miles away, lecturing a Mercer Island High School class on environmentalism. For all the FBI's scrutiny, it had never noticed that I was also a vocal critic of SLF and its tactics, and a most unlikely co-conspirator. These details did not deter months of intense scrutiny by the FBI and attorney general's office. No less than J. Edgar Hoover listed me on the "Security Index" as a "Priority II" threat to President Nixon on the grounds of being "potentially dangerous" and a member of a "group or organization inimical to the U.S." In 1973, a year after I had joined the staff of Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman, my secret admirers reluctantly concluded that while my "philosophy is obviously at odds with traditional American concepts," I no longer posed a "realistic direct current danger to the national security." The FBI kept an eye on me through 1975, in case I sputtered back to life like a damp fuse. I feel like I've let them down, but perhaps there's still hope. So take a memo, Mr. Freeh: I just joined the AARP. This article was adapted from the August 1998 "Wordscape/Point-No-Point." To make your own FOIPA request in Seattle, write the Special Agent in Charge, FBI, 915 Second Ave, Seattle, WA 98174. Use your full name, include a list of your past addresses and employers for the period of interest, and notarize your letter. Allow four years for delivery.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow