On the Release of A Brilliant Red Thread by Don Hamerquist
06/21/23, Presentation at Brooklyn Book Event
It has been my privilege to know and work with Don Hamerquist and his partner Janeen Porter for a large chunk of my political life as a leftwing activist in this country. I met Don in the late 1970s. He lived and worked in Chicago. I lived and worked in Brooklyn, having arrived in this country in the fall of 1978. Our South African war resisters group, the South African Military Refugee Aid Fund (SAMRAF) was then developing a political and working relationship with Sojourner Truth Organization (STO). SAMRAF’s goal was to help spread dissent amongst young South African whites, especially with those who were drafted into the South African military. We viewed such disloyalty to the South African regime as being concretely beneficial to the fight for liberation there. Thus, it made sense for us to seek like-minded political comrades here. This wasn’t a one-way street. Our battle was not just against a particularly odious and bellicose bunch of armed racist white people with strange accents on the southern tip of Africa. It was also against the international monster that benefitted from apartheid and allowed it to carry on. The more we learnt about the situation here, the more we realized that the very challenges we faced were in essence not that different from the challenges that U.S. revolutionaries have always been confronted with. That was a huge wake-up moment for me.
I have always believed that political relationships are forged not only by an acceptable degree of ideological solidarity for all involved, but also by joint practice. These are what build comradeship and trust. If done respectfully and honestly, they constitute the ties that bind forever. Here are some stories about working with my friends Don & Janeen, who exemplify that for me. Hopefully, these tales are not boring and are somewhat entertaining. If certain information appears to be scant, it is by choice. I leave the redacted bits up to your own imaginations. There are also important things that are too complicated or sensitive to explain in this setting. Another time and another place for those. To the best of my memory, this is all true. It’s the thunder and lightning part of the evening.
Don and Janeen operated their own printshop in Chicago called C&D. It was situated in a warehouse industrial part of town on the near West Side of the city, which has now been gentrified up the wazoo. C&D was not far from the Henry Horner Homes, a large black public and very poor housing project (not part of the civic improvement scheme). The Chicago Bulls play basketball and the Chicago Blackhawks play ice hockey less than a mile up the road at the United Center Arena. That is where Al and Tipper Gore, together with Hillary and Bill Clinton, danced the Macarena during the 1996 Democratic Party convention. On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, the popular young Black Panther, was assassinated by elements of the Chicago Red Squad Police and the FBI on West Monroe Street, on the border of the same neighborhood. It is a dark and bloody ground.
Sometime in 1981, C&D Printshop printed the latest issue of our underground South African magazine entitled Omkeer (Afrikaans for About Face). Omkeer was sent into South Africa and its recipients were draft-age white boys. We had access to address lists, lots of them. Don was behind the stick for that print job, and he had to tolerate my clumsy operating of the folding and the stapling machines. He also printed several thousand envelopes with phony return addresses, all shipped off to various comrades at the corresponding U.S. cities for eventual mailing into South Africa. That particular issue of our magazine irked the South African Security Police so much so that they actually reprinted it, with not-so subtle editorial changes that made it sound as if the content had been written by the KGB. And then they sent it to the same people in South Africa, mailing it from here too. Smart Alecks, hey! Don might not have known it, but his print job was now on the books of BOSS (the South African Bureau of State Security). Maybe he can add that to a page of A Brilliant Red Thread in the new “by the way” section.
That was the first of many sessions I had in the printshop. C&D was a real boon, and I got to understand the value of being able to print one’s own material, without being under surveillance. It was also literally home for Don & Janeen, they actually lived there for a number of years. Because it was independent and off the grid, the printshop was non-union, so a bunch of the established local Left and liberal organizations refused to do business there because they demanded an official union logo on their printed matter. Go figure.
Amongst C&D’s regular customers was the Puerto Rican Independence Movement (the MLN). The MLN was always at it, and felt it had a lot to say. I remember one such job for an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of a chapter they had formed at North Eastern Illinois University in Chicago. This particular printing job arrived the eve before the occasion and it demanded immediate attention. The headline of the poster in Spanish read something like “Honor 20 Years of Struggle.” There was no time to be wasted proofreading the final. The word “anos” in Spanish with an accent means years. “Anos” without an accent means assholes. Of course, it was printed without the accent and plastered all over the campus.
In 1984 and 1985, Don & Janeen invited me to participate with them in the “Shut Down the Rock Island Arsenal” actions, one in the summer of ’84, the other in the fall of ’85. The Rock Island Arsenal is situated on the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa…Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. There are plenty of bridges. In those days, John Deere was the main employer in that urban region, but they were relocating their plants. The farm equipment industry was on the wane, while the Rock Island Arsenal was going full speed ahead with heavy cannon and howitzer production for the Contras and the various U.S. supported regimes in Central America, the height of the Reagan era. The arsenal was a natural target for our side.
Our effort here was to affect and begin to transform the approach of normal and accepted mass peace and anti-war political protest. Little or no emphasis was placed on rallies in front of empty buildings, speeches by so-called leaders, or tables hawking movement newspapers and propaganda. Our focus was to avoid arrest by being mobile and smart enough for once, by stopping the police from doing their jobs, and by causing the arsenal to have to halt production, at least during the period of the actions.
Don and Janeen were deeply involved in the organizing of these activities, recruiting for them out of Chicago. The overall umbrella organization was called Disarm Now Action (DNA), and it was comprised of various affinity groupings. DNA reached out to workers at the arsenal and the local Quad Cities community. There were various preparatory activities that took place in the weeks leading up to the planned big events, and during the period in-between them. Railway bridges and sidings were messed with. International Harvester officials came to work one morning to find their huge tractor tires were all flat and useless.
For the main show, Watney Wobblers were manufactured. The Watney Wobbler (named after a group member who came up with the idea) was a piece of metal that was split three ways, with each end sharpened. Whenever thrown on the ground, it always landed pointy end up, kind of like some thorns. Light bulbs were filled with paint. The Watney Wobblers worked like a charm. There is nothing quite so rewarding as hearing the hiss of a disabled police car, especially if you are a protestor running away from it. The paint bulbs smeared cop car windshields. Small boats tied up on the Mississippi were unmoored and jammed up traffic on that part of the river. There is something to be said about going up against hick town police departments. One of our affinity groups even managed to sneak into the Davenport Police garage and deflate the tires of their entire fleet of parked black and white prowlers. All of this happened in the early hours before dawn (in the 1985 action).
By sunrise, the survivors who hadn’t been arrested assembled at the foot of one of the bridges, and we made a run at the arsenal. The cops gave chase, legging it too. I was convinced that Don was behind me. I could hear the puffing, wheezing and heavy footsteps of a big fella. I turned around to share a wisecrack with him and was tackled by a brute of a Moline cop. It wasn’t Don behind me, it was the police! I have never returned to Moline. Best let sleeping dogs lie.
Here’s one important aspect that we noticed during the first of these activities (the ’84 one). When we went to our motel an hour or so before the festivities began to gather up some ordinance, the parking lot was filled with Dodge Diplomats with out-of-state plates, and a group of fairly large armed individuals milling around wearing body armor and cop slickers, identifying just who they were. The U.S. Marshals had come to town…Federal Police, dangerous goons. Their point of assembly happened to be our cheap motel. What a shocking but valuable coincidence. The rest of the movement might not have noticed what we were doing, but the State surely did.
It should be noted that DNA was very busy during that whole period. Mass actions took place at the Great Lakes Naval Training base, north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, and at the Northrop Grumman defense manufacturing plant in north Chicago. Attempts were made by STO to stop Greyhound buses during the drivers’ strike, when scab operators were behind the wheels. Don and Janeen participated and helped plan all of these activities.
In 1986, I reciprocated the Quad Cities invitation by asking Don and Janeen and some other STO Chicago comrades to join our Brooklyn effort to shut down South African Airways (SAA) at JFK Airport. SAA, owned by the South African government, flew a daily late afternoon commercial flight out of the British Air terminal. One job was to cripple their check-in counter. It succeeded with the help of some 10W-40 motor oil, and the people responsible were able to scram before the police figured out what was up. An affinity group from our collective committed similar disruptive acts around the terminal simultaneously, including officially re-directing passengers on the SAA flight to the Qantas or Varig boarding areas, and padlocking the swing gates, blocking traffic to the drop-off and pick-up spots. If we had tried this fifteen or so years later, we would all be dead. In a court affidavit, the head of security for British Air described three of the protestors as “two bearded thugs and a dirty white woman.”
I asked Don to relate the following story about another 1986 event in Chicago because I could not remember the details and I wasn’t there. He wrote and sent this back to me last week and I quote:
We’d had a brief street fight with the SS Action League Nazis and some of their police protectors, and a few of us were arrested and hauled off to the Belmont Avenue police substation and jail. A portly higher-up cop came by my cell and asked if I could help them deal with another arrestee, a ‘crazy woman’ who was answering cop questions about our intentions with a barrage of ‘Fuck Yous’. ‘That’s my wife,’ I said. I must have appeared somewhat reasonable because a different cop came to me shortly after and asked if I would calm down another of our arrested group, a guy named Tomahawk who was threatening to commit suicide. Surely enough he was. Tomahawk asked me whether I thought it would work if he could tie his sweater around his neck and jump off his cot. It was an intriguing jail stay for a few hours indeed, but nobody died. However, Janeen came out of it with a felony conviction that bothered us for years.
And that was that.
I believe the last action that Don and I participated in together was the IMF/World Bank protest in Washington D.C. on April 16, 2000. A Chicago comrade was part of a roving Black Bloc. They were looking for an edge, and the comrade had roped in Don and me to monitor police radio traffic. We were in communication with him. This was before smart phones. I had driven down from Brooklyn with a friend in an older model Saab with a gear stick shift transmission operation and a wonky clutch. So, there we all were early on Sunday morning, Don and I in the dodgy Saab with a radio scanner motoring around the outskirts of the demonstration, thousands of protestors who converged from all over the country, and a gazillion different police.
Washington D.C. has more police departments than any other city in the U.S., they even have a large Parks Department Police Force. I still can’t believe that these clowns were caught unawares on January 6th. They’re on horses, on bicycles, on Vespa scooters, on Harleys, in cruisers, on foot, in riot gear, with attack dogs, and overhead with helicopters. Being in Washington D.C. on days like that is akin to being in Pretoria, South Africa in 1976. The only difference…Pretoria has fewer grotesque monuments, but the ones they have are pretty awful to look at.
Don and I then scored our first major coup. There was a large construction crane on a tall building looming into the sky. We kept on hearing recce reports from the same voice. It finally dawned on us…the bastards had planted one of their own atop the crane in a crow’s nest position. Don adopted his low-key radio voice and repeatedly told our comrade, “Stay away from the crane.” Afterwards, the black bloc comrade informed us that he had no idea what we were going on about.
At first, we were able to drive around unimpeded, the street traffic was somewhat light. By 11 that morning, that had all changed. Everywhere we turned we wound up in a traffic jam that was going nowhere. Then the Saab’s faulty clutch started misbehaving. I was driving and was rear ending cars in the jam. I actually managed to hit the same guy twice on different streets. He got out and asked me why I kept bumping into him. “Lousy Swedish engineering” was all that I could come up with. He looked more threatening than the Washington Metropolitan Police. The grand finale was when a plain clothes cop approached my window and flashed his badge. He had seen me with the scanner in my hand. Don said to me, “Oops, the jig is up.” Never underestimate the fraternal order of fellow police. He took one look at us and all of our radio equipment, our shoddy Saab, and our slovenly attire, and assumed we were undercover cops on the job. He even cleared the traffic for us and allowed us to buzz down the wrong way of a one-way street. I didn’t know what to do, so I saluted him. I thought Don was going to rupture himself from laughing so hard. We found a phone booth and called Janeen in Chicago. “Is he okay?” she inquired. I told her that I thought Don’s hernia was acting up.
A year or so after that, Don and Janeen packed up and left the printshop and Chicago for good. They relocated in a small town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to live in Don’s parents’ old house. Don was back in logger country, and Janeen wanted to be there too. They arrived there exactly on 09/11/200I, how surreal is that. I felt like they had moved to the North Pole. I thought that it was the end of an era, but I was wrong. Our friendship has remained solid, we rely on each other for updates, we either like, tolerate or detest the same people, we laugh at the same old or new gags, and we share each other’s advice. In other words, we trust each other. That’s the way it should be. I was so proud of them when I heard that Don’s book was finally in the works. I know he won’t talk much about these kinds of stories that I’m now relating, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you that they are the necessary straws that stir the drinks. If it wasn’t for the advent and limitations of old age, Don and Janeen would still be mixing those special cocktails. I encourage you all to read Don’s book.
*Main photo: Mike Morgan and Don Hamerquist standing outside a Mexican cowboy store in Chicago, early 1990s.