The Bells did not toll in remembrance on April 9, 2006. The flags did not fly at half-mast. The rubbish that passes for “news” in the world of corporate-controlled media did not mention his name. Even the glut of television programs and networks devoted to the sycophantic worship of “celebrities” failed to acknowledge him.
He was, after all, a man of substance, and substance finds no home in a culture obsessed with sensationalism and superficiality. Of course, visionary that he was, he recognized that reality long ago when he became one of the first musicians to impersonate Elvis Presley in the belief that social change would only come to America when entertainers like Presley blended some Che Guevara style activism into their performances.
There was some precedent for this belief. The Beatles had moved from traditional rock-and-roll to songs about Revolution with minimal effect on their popularity, and even Elvis had addressed the tragedy of poverty in America with the song In the Ghetto.
But success in America rarely comes to those who attempt to alter the status-quo, and he was no exception. Fans of his early music would not accept his excursions into “rock-and-roll,” and rock-and-rollers still considered him a “folk singer.” In seeking acceptance in two worlds, he found acceptance in neither.
Instead the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) spied on him, and questioned him about his political activities; he went from playing concerts at Carnegie Hall to performing in small coffee houses, sometimes to audiences no larger than thirteen people; a mysterious assault by unknown assailants in Africa severely damaged his vocal cords; he lost one of his friends to torture and murder; he descended into depression and spent weeks living on the streets under the alias John Butler Train; he ended his life on April 9, 1976, at the age of thirty-five.
His name was Phil Ochs, and his life was a mirror that reflected both the optimism and pessimism of the chaotic decade in which he achieved his greatest fame: the 1960s.
A more detailed account of Phil’s life appears in the article The Essence of History (PRAVDA.Ru, October 7, 2003). But on the thirtieth anniversary of his untimely death, I thought an additional tribute would be appropriate.
Phil Ochs left college before the start of his senior year and migrated to Greenwich Village, New York, where he became a folk singer. His early songs dealt with the spectrum of social issues confronting America during those turbulent days: the struggle for civil rights, the escalating war in Vietnam, and the general apathy of Americans to the injustices that surrounded them. But they also echoed the intrinsic belief that America could no longer refuse to live up to its promises.
But the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not only assassinated Phil’s optimism, but America’s as well, replacing idealism with the grim realization that dreams of peace, justice, liberty and equality are incessantly eclipsed by the forces of evil.
Tragically, these forces murdered Phil’s friend, and fellow musician, Victor Jara. Jara’s brand of South American music, known as Canto Nuevo, had helped to transform the political landscape in his homeland of Chile—at least until September of 1973. During that fateful month, the dream of lasting democracy in Chile was replaced by a nightmare when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored a military coup that replaced the democratically elected President Salvador Allende with the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. Jara, like thousands of other Allende supporters, was now an enemy of the new regime. On September 12, 1973 he was arrested and taken to a soccer stadium, where, legend has it, his captors sadistically broke both his hands to prevent him from bolstering the spirits of his fellow political prisoners by playing guitar and singing. During the next three days, he endured more beatings and torture, before being shot to death on September 15th courtesy of that alleged proponent of freedom, democracy, justice and human rights, the United States government.
Some may ask why this tribute to Phil Ochs was not written closer to the anniversary date of his passing. The answer is simple: shortly after I began researching and outlining this article, I also lost a loved one to death.
In discussing this loss, I wish to make it clear that I am not attempting to consider myself unique or special. It is a sad reality of life that people lose loved ones everyday. What I found particularly difficult to deal with, however, was death’s finality and the sense of powerlessness it wrought. Death, after all, does not give one a second chance, does not respond to cajoling, does not succumb to bribery, and does not trade one life for another. All the riches of the world cannot purchase one additional second of life, and all the condolences of the living cannot produce one word of comfort from those who have departed.
My delay in completing this article had an unintended consequence, however, when I learned that an Alderman from the City of Chicago named Madeline Haithcock had introduced an ordinance seeking to name a small portion of a Chicago street after slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
This reminded me that Phil Ochs had a unique connection to Chicago. He was an eyewitness to the clashes between police and anti-war protesters during the Democratic Convention of 1968, later writing a song about his experience entitled William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed. A year later he testified on behalf of the “Chicago Seven,” the name given to a group of anti-war protesters who were standing trial for allegedly inciting riots during that convention.
This confluence of events inspired Phil to acknowledge in his songs the growing influence of groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP), a predominantly African-American organization that came into prominence during the late 1960s. The Panthers’ advocacy of self-defense and their revolutionary rhetoric caused their popularity to grow, and with it grew the efforts to destroy them. The FBI, then under the directorship of the racist J. Edgar Hoover, considered the Panthers to be “Public Enemy Number One.”
As any historian will explain, Chicago has a culture of corruption and political patronage that exists to this day. At one time its unofficial motto was, “Vote early and vote often.” Recent documentaries have revealed that Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. may have used his connections to organized crime figures in Chicago (formed during his days as a bootlegger) to ensure that his son John would win the State of Illinois during the 1960 presidential election.
This milieu of corruption frequently inundates the entire Chicagoland area, particularly its legal system. During the past several years, numerous people once housed on death row in Illinois were released after it was discovered that torture and other illegal tactics had been used to convict them. Ironically, as I was completing this article, Michael Tarm of the Associated Press (AP) reported that a Chicago Criminal Court Judge, in spite of police opposition, recently ordered the release of a report that details the results of a four year investigation into allegations that, during the 1970s and 80s, some members of Chicago’s violent crimes unit tortured over one hundred and ninety African-American men in police interrogation rooms.
If the past is any indicator, however, these officers have little to fear from Chicagoland’s so-called legal system. Those who doubt this need only recall the ordeals of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, two men who spent almost a decade in prison for a crime they did not commit. When police and prosecutors were put on trial for the misconduct that facilitated these wrongful convictions, a “good-old-boy” jury not only acquitted them, but celebrated with them afterwards.
In a political and social climate that embraces injustice and malfeasance, there was no doubt that a man like Fred Hampton would not survive very long. He soon became the target of two of the vilest tactics the FBI employed during its infamous COINTELPRO operation.
The first of these tactics involved an effort to have Hampton murdered by a rival. In furtherance of this effort, the FBI mailed an anonymous letter to Jeff Fort, then leader of a Chicago street gang known as the Blackstone Rangers. This letter claimed that the BPP had a “hit out” for Fort, and suggested, “I know what I would do if I was you.” It was signed, “A black brother you don’t know.”
It was hoped, according to an FBI memo dated January 30, 1969, that this letter would “intensify the degree of animosity existing between these two black extremist organizations.” A request to mail a similar letter to Hampton was rejected because “the BPP [Black Panther Party] is not believed to be as violence prone as the Rangers . . .”
When Fort failed to react to the letter, a second COINTELPRO tactic, known as “the raid,” was put into motion. The “raid” was (and is) a devious way to murder political dissidents in America, and is remarkable in its simplicity. Minor, and often bogus, criminal charges are filed against an intended target, then a “raid” is conducted on the pretext of serving arrest warrants, even though the real motive is to kill some or all of the occupants in the dwelling being raided.
So, armed with a sketch of Hampton’s apartment, the Chicago police carried out such a “raid” during the predawn hours of December 4, 1969. Years later, an FBI agent would admit to a colleague that the sketch had been provided in the hope the police would “kill the whole lot.” This agent expressed disappointment that “only two of those black n****r f****rs were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”
Although initial reports claimed that an intense shootout had occurred between the police and the occupants of Hampton’s apartment, the lies surrounding this so-called “shootout” were subsequently exposed when a ballistics expert disclosed that, out of the more than ninety shots fired, the Panthers had fired only one.
According to the book, THE EVIDENCE NEVER LIES, this expert was also able to establish that the police had not only fired the first shots, but had actually entered the apartment shooting. Yet, in spite of the gunfire exploding around him, Hampton could not be roused from his sleep—lending credence to the belief that an FBI informant within the BPP (who later committed suicide) had drugged him. Although there was no evidence of any gunfire coming from the bedroom where Hampton was sleeping, he was shot once in the left shoulder and twice in the head. He was only twenty-one-years-old.
But apparently getting away with killing Hampton is not enough for Chicago officials. The effort to rename a street for him ignited a political firestorm. Some claimed it would racially divide the city--a specious argument, since a city where the circumstances of Hampton’s death do not provoke continuous outrage is already racially divided. And, despite all pretenses to the contrary, it is clear that the true fear of these Chicago politicians resides in the knowledge that a street named after Hampton would serve as a permanent reminder of the malfeasance, excesses and human rights abuses that occurred on both the local and federal levels—malfeasance, excesses and abuses that, under the auspices of the Bush dictatorship, persist to this very day.
Nevertheless Alderman Haithcock, in an act of cowardice that apparently is a prerequisite for political office in today’s America, withdrew her efforts to rename the street. So once again the corrupt power structure writes history, while those who suffer most from its abuses are expunged from the pages of time.
Sadly there may come a day when the names Phil Ochs, Victor Jara and Fred Hampton do not even stir a distant memory. But, as I stated in previous PRAVDA.Ru articles (The Illusory Praise, June 15, 2004; The Human Rainbow, Part II, March 22, 2005; and America’s Reluctant Holiday, Feb 17, 2006), human praise is often vacuous at best.
Human praise usually means that one has obsequiously played the right games, told the right lies, made the right money, exploited the right connections, kissed the right posteriors, and ignored the most wrongs.
I once believed that if people were more aware of their own mortality they would also be more honest and honorable in their treatment of others. I was wrong. The brevity of life and the certainty of death often compel people to acquire all the power and possessions they can, anyway they can, regardless of who they hurt in the process.
But I also learned that death is the great equalizer. It does not favor the powerful over the meek, or the wealthy over the poor. Those who torture and murder without fear of human justice, those who wage and profit from illegal wars, and those who seek to erase the names of their victims from the pages of history will one day face a justice they cannot evade.
Does this mean that one should not tremble at injustice, and simply take solace in the hope that all things balance out in the end? What reason is there to stand for truth, or right a wrong, when all one can expect from the world is hatred, ridicule, condemnation, poverty and perhaps even premature death?
Perhaps the reason can be found in the words of Phil Ochs: “It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That's morality. That's religion. That's art. That's life.”
Sadly the absurdity of this world destroyed Phil Ochs, Victor Jara and Fred Hampton. I hope a better world has finally brought them peace.
David R. Hoffman
Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru