Push Back, Breathe, Repeat: A Brief Bio by Erika Raskin

I recognize that I may be a tad more sensitive to the prospect of police state behavior than the average Jo but I come by this extra helping of unease naturally. Because of his liberal politics my dad, Marcus Raskin, earned a permanent spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar.

Bigly.

Dad was the frequent object of surveillance and dirty tricks. (He even had his own covert agent assigned to him when he worked as an adviser in the White House—something I discovered in college when I accidentally dated a guy whose father was that agent.)

protesters listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington
My parents listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington. (photo from Life Magazine 9.6.63)

When the war in Vietnam escalated, Dad and Richard Barnet, a disarmament expert, left the Kennedy Administration in protest. They founded the Institute for Policy Studies in 1963. Mr. Hoover’s paranoia was seriously stoked over IPS’s mission—the promotion of peace, justice and human rights.

The domestic spying intensified.

IPS was targeted by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, which was designed to ‘neutralize’ groups Hoover deemed subversive. Agents scurried through IPS trash looking for old mail and used typewriter ribbons (early key-stroke recorders) that might contain evidence. (They didn’t.) Scores of informants were tasked with infiltrating Institute seminars and highjacking meetings about antiwar events. With a goal of demonizing anti-war and civil rights activists, some tried to instigate violence.

(As long as we are on the subject of malignant interference, I have serious suspicions that at least some of those who are committing vandalism as a means of protesting President Trump’s agenda are actually having their strings pulled by right-wingers waiting for the excuse to impose martial law.)

(The others are just dangerous morons.)

(Just sayin’.)

Typed paper with large chunks blacked out
FOIA file

To spy more efficiently, the government set up a ‘listening post’ in the Dupont Plaza Hotel, directly across from IPS. Other tactics included sending anonymous letters to my dad intended to trigger distrust between Jews and African-Americans in the civil-rights movement. (It didn’t work). And years after the fact my mother told me that a live-in babysitter of ours was a police informant—which explained the time I walked in on the woman going through my dad’s jacket pockets when I was seven.

Dr. Spock, Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Michael Ferber, Marcus Raskin and Mitchell Goodman.
Dr. Spock, Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Michael Ferber, Marcus Raskin and Mitchell Goodman.

In 1968, my father was indicted as part of the Boston Five conspiracy trial—along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Harvard graduate student Michael Ferber, and writer Mitchell Goodman. They were accused of encouraging draft resistance. There was widespread support (including from Martin Luther King, Jr. who said he, too, should be jailed if prison sentences were imposed) but being nine and having your parent facing five years for protesting an illegal war was confusing. And terrifying.

Dad was acquitted, the harassment continued. Late one night when I was 13, we walked together to the newsstand on 18th Street to get the early edition of the Washington Post. In it was Nixon’s enemy list, which included my father and Dick Barnet. My heart dropped. Was it a silly middle-schoolish in group/out group kind of thing (something I was intimately familiar with) or a record of dissidents to round up at a madman’s whim?

That's me napping next to Joan Baez. Not too longer afterwards Dick Barnet's daughter, Beth, and I got arrested at another protest. My recollection was that none of the parents were all that pleased. Photo from Newsweek (7/72).
That’s me napping next to Joan Baez. Not too longer afterwards Dick Barnet’s daughter, Beth, and I got arrested at another protest. My recollection was that none of the parents were all that pleased. Photo from Newsweek (7/72).

Right after I started my freshman year at college Dad called and said I needed to come home. Two of his colleagues had been assassinated on their way to work. Under the direction of General Augusto Pinochet—a dictator who had been supported by Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—a bomb was attached to the car of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the US who had recently been stripped of his citizenship for opposing the brutal Pinochet regime. The bomb also killed Ronni Karpen Moffitt, my father’s beloved assistant. Ronni had helped Dad found the Music Carry-Out in Adams Morgan, a storefront that provided free music lessons and instruments to local kids. She was 25. I attended both funerals and went back to my dorm room and cried for weeks. IPS fought on, helping to bring the murderers to justice, continuing Orlando and Ronni’s work for decency in the United States and beyond. Real progress was made on a variety fronts.

But.

Here we are.

These days, I look at my dad and the other warriors for (true) morality, and feel stunned and sad. I can’t believe how quickly the gains might vanish. Things we thought were settled—like civil rights and health care and feeding poor children.

Then I remind myself that this is America and we are Americans. We will push back against the minority of mean spirited people who care only for their own interests. And we will never, ever accept the dangerous acts of unstable leaders. We can’t.

Women's March In Charlottesville 2017
Women’s March In Charlottesville 2017

Photo of author Erika Raskin
Erika Raskin is Streetlight’s fiction editor. Her novel, Best Intentions (St. Martin’s Press), is coming out in August. This essay originally appeared on erikaraskin.net

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