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Ragged Ishmael

Mad Bomber Melville

Leslie James Pickering
Arissa Media Group, 2007

Activists and organizers today (the ones who didn’t live through it) tend to look at the1960’s with a mixture of excitement and envy. They yearn for a time when life in the trenches of social movements was more whole-hearted, more committed (or at least more widespread), when public opinion seemed to be in step with struggles against wars of imperialism, and other forms of injustice. This impression of course is not true; if you talk with any organizer from the time they’ll tell you of the daily battle to keep their movement going. On some strange level that’s comforting; we know at least that you always have to struggle – without it, it seems, there is no progress. So we still pour over the memoirs and histories of those days, learning all we can, hoping that we’ll be able to build stronger, more effective movements today. But a lesson that can be taken from those struggles is what happens when they turn violent? What happens when demonstrations in the street don’t bring change? As we look at the current protest movements, not just against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but in the form of so-called Tea Parties, we should ask ourselves, what happens if things are taken to a different level?

Mad Bomber Melville, Leslie James Pickering’s slim biography of radical activist Sam Melville, was thus long overdue when it appeared in 2007, and it’s well deserving of a second look today. Melville, a white working class radical, was responsible for a series of bombings in New York City in the summer and fall of 1969. Melville and his cohorts spent five months planting explosives in the offices of the military, corporate and federal institutions they felt were either profiting from the war in Vietnam or involved in it directly. They never set out to kill anyone, as opposed to their contemporaries in Europe (Red Army Faction in West Germany, Action Direct in France, and The Red Brigades, in Italy) and in some case went through great lengths to ensure no one was killed.

The fact that there was no body count to their actions owed more to luck than anything else, but whether or not you agree with Melville’s tactics, he remains an important figure. Any history of how the contemporary anti-war movement shifted from protests in the streets to bomb-making starts with him. The collective he belonged to was the first to take up arms, and he is openly cited as an inspiration to the Weather Underground and other leftist groups (a quote from weatherman and political prisoner David Gilbert is on the back of this book). After being arrested, Melville was sent to Attica, where he helped organize in the weeklong riot in 1971, in which he was killed. With credentials like these, you’d think Sam Melville would have been lauded as a hero of the left, a true revolutionary who died with his boots on. Instead, he has been relegated to the back pages of history, and Pickering’s book is the first full biography dedicated entirely to him.

Melville was born in Tonawanda NY in 1934. The poverty of his upbringing laid the foundation for his politics. In his youth he held a series of odd jobs, from working in a bowling alley to being a draftsman to working at a trade school. In this sense he is different from his activist contemporaries. While most of the leaders of the student left were from middle class families, Melville seems to be the last gasp of an age of white working class radicalism. The economic conditions of his upbringing made him more in-tuned to the critique of capitalism that flowed through leftist circles.

His real name wasn’t even Melville but Grossman; he took the name Melville in homage to his favorite book Moby Dick. It’s interesting that more than one radical of the time cited Moby Dick as having a profound effect on them politically. During the days of the Attica riot, defense attorney William Kunstler spoke to Melville as part of a negotiation team and inquired about his name.

“Sam where’d you get the name Melville?”

“I took it.” Sam told him. “My real name is not Melville, but I was so impressed by what [Herman Melville] was saying in Moby Dick that I took that name.”

“So?” Kunstler pressed, “What about Moby Dick? It’s just a whale story.”

“No it’s not Bill,” Sam explained. “The white whale is evil, that swims on…unconquerable. Everybody dies on the Pequod. The Pequod is smashed to smithereens by the whale. Ahab is lashed by the harpoon lanyard to the whale’s back and is drowned, the men in the long boat are destroyed, but one man goes back to sea.”

Melville, though always possessed of a rebellious spirit, gravitated to radical politics as a form of work. In 1968 after taking a job delivering papers for The Guardian, a leftist newspaper based in New York, he fell in with organizers from the Community Action Committee, which was made up of activist from all over New York City. Almost all members of the CAC were also involved in the struggle against the war, and it was through this group that Melville first made contacts with other radicals in the city.

The CAC was a couple dozen Columbia students, Upper West Side radicals and working-class tenants who were organizing against Columbia University’s tenant evictions… It was also through the C.A.C. that Sam met Jane Alpert. The group organized a sit in against the eviction of the St. Marks Army tenants on West 112th Street. Sam saw Jane reading the newspaper there and made his move. He swapped Jane’s copy of the New York Times for a copy of The Guardian. They got take-out from a nearby coffee shop and Jane gave Sam a check for a year’s subscription….she gave Sam her phone number on the back of the check.

Alpert would become his lover, comrade, co-conspirator and after the fact his greatest critic. I would encourage everyone to read her own memoir Growing up Underground, which is the only firsthand account of the activities of their group and offers a real insight into the sexist macho militancy that dominated the time. Alpert charges Melville with being a sexist; she talks of how he bullied her into having an open relationship and behaved irrationally when she sought male partners other than him. Alpert would later go on to write Mother Right, an open letter to the women of the left (the Weather Underground in particular) encouraging them to embrace her view of radical feminism.

Melville and Alpert began to form a small cluster of friends and fellow radicals involved in the struggle against the war:

The Vietnam War had been raging for years and the news flashes images of the carnage while tallying the mounting death tolls. The kids you knew that signed up back in ‘65 either come home dead or something maybe even worse than dead. It seems that every day you hear about friends getting called down for their physicals, and your stressing over tomorrow’s mail. The whole atmosphere in America has changed in the last few years. Protest, dissent and resistance are everywhere now. The opposition to the war has grown so much it’s taken for granted. Even the Beatles have gone from writing songs about having nothing but love eight days a week to writing about people who say they want a revolution. The cultural gap between American youth and the people in government who are drafting them off to be killed has widened so much that the kids relate more to the Viet Cong.

Almost all members of the group had been active on some level in the peace movement. It was with the election of Richard Nixon and the escalation of the war that seeded the idea the movement was accomplishing. It is this feeling which set the stage for what would follow, as Pickering writes:

“That winter the talk around our kitchen table turned increasingly to guerrilla action.” Jane remembered. “The argument went like this: if the movement was dying, it was because the movement had never really learned how to fight. We had to stop acting like coddled children, scared off by a few arrests, a couple of canisters of tear gas.”

The group’s structure was very fluid, with some members being involved in one bombing and not others. Melville is described as a revolutionary Johnny Appleseed, spreading the knowledge of urban militancy to any who wished to learn. Pickering doesn’t waste time debating or even condemning the use of bombs by Melville and his comrades. In an era when hundreds of people a day were dying in the war, the biography simply states that the members of Melville’s group decided they would do anything within their power to slow the war effort. When choosing their targets, they hit buildings that were owned either by the army (induction centers, offices etc) or by companies they viewed as profiting off of the war (Chase Manhattan Bank, Standard Oil, etc). The decision to use explosive almost reads like a natural progression, in the face a movement that had lost all hope to stop the war through other means, as Alpert is quoted as saying:

I had become convinced that bombings, aimed at property rather than people and accompanied by clearly written communiqués that we would send to the press, were the necessary next step in the evolution of our movement.

The goal of the attacks was to shut the offices down (at least temporarily), hoping they had inflicted enough economic damages to make those closures permanent. By the end of their bombing spree they had truly honed their technique, placing the bombs near piping or restrooms to cause extensive water damage.

Possibly this lack of condemnation on Pickering’s part is explained by his own background: he was the former head of the North American Press Office for the Earth Liberation Front (a radical environmentalist group, labeled as eco-terrorists by the government, that uses the same style tactics as Melville). During his tenure the press office went through two raids by the FBI and ATF, and Pickering has spent a great deal of time in front of various grand juries. So it seems natural that someone of his background would want to tell Melville’s story. This raises the question of whether or not Pickering can be objective about Melville, and it’s a legitimate question; although his book is generally sympathetic toward its subject, it does attempt to point out his complexities, contradictions, and vanities – it doesn’t read like a puff piece.

The major critique I have of Pickering’s book is its length – or rather, lack of it. At times it reads more like a dutiful term paper than an actual biography. People and events are passed over in mere paragraphs when whole chapters should be devoted to them. Take for example the F.L.Q. (Front de Libération du Québec), a Quebec revolutionary group that was fighting for independence from Canada. When two of their members ended up in New York on the run, they were passed from person to person, franticly trying to find someone to shelter them, until they landed on Melville’s door. He and Alpert took them in, viewing the risk as an act of solidarity with another revolutionary movement. For almost a month they provided support for the pair, getting them groceries, Canadian newspapers, and false ID’s. In exchange for this they were taught the tradecrafts of bomb making:

Whenever Sam had a chance he would drill the fugitives on the specifics of wiring dynamite bombs. He took notes and drew diagrams. They would stay up late into the night going over details of hiding bombs in briefcases, covertly planting them in buildings, safely storing and transporting dynamite, and putting a cloth over the telephone receiver to disguise your voice while making a warning call.

This is an extremely important part of Melville’s life. It’s where he obtained the detailed knowledge that he would use in making his bombs, yet it’s given a mere four pages.

The book serves as a warning to any who would follow in Melville’s footsteps, and the warnings are dire: Melville’s first bombing was of a pier owned by United Fruit (a company tied to many dictatorships and human rights abuses across Latin America), but had he done more research, he would have learned that United Fruit had switched locations and was renting the building to a small independent business. The blast destroyed some property and the door frame to the building, but inflicted no damage on imperialist corporations.

The second bombing, the Marine Midland Building, was much the same. Melville, acting alone, wired a bomb and then walked through the financial district until he found a building that looked suitable. When Alpert returned home and learned of the bomb, she had to talk him into phoning a warning. This was dismissed as a joke by the guard taking the call, and as a result, sixteen secretaries working in the building were injured (and there was a collective scramble to find out why the building had been attacked in the first place). Within the group, there seems to have been tension between those who wanted to be very careful with what they attacked and why, and Melville, who saw any symbol of corporate America as a legitimate target. One sees in Melville a Type A personality and an arrogance and egoism that tends to dominate in radical circle.

After the first two bombings, the group began to learn from their mistakes. On Sept 19th they set a bomb off in the Federal Building in New York, blowing up the army offices on the 40th floor, destroying files, and workspace. On Oct 7th they hit the Army Induction Center on Whitehall Street. This was perhaps their most import action: the blast destroyed hundreds of files on men who were about to be inducted and essentially shut down the draft in Manhattan. If one is looking for a reason why Pickering might be so sympathetic to Melville, surely this is it. How many men in New York weren’t sent to fight and die in South East Asia because of this one act? The tactics were reckless; if anything had gone wrong, innocent people could have been injured or killed. But the destruction of those draft records saved lives. This complicates what might otherwise be a straightforward stand on anti-government extremism.

Melville went on to bomb four more buildings before being arrested on the Nov 12th (as he was about to set his ninth bomb). After his arrest, he gained some fame from the bombings and was given the nick name “Mad Bomber Melville” by the press. After a speedy trial he was convicted and sentenced to a total thirty one years in prison. This is of course where the stories of most political radicals end, being dragged off to jail to slowly fade from public view. Melville, however was walking right into one of the biggest powder-kegs of the age.

The riots at Attica are perhaps the most famous of all American prison rebellions. Conditions in the jail were horrific, and the inmates were trying to organize around grievances that ranged from one shower a week to a roll of toilet paper a month. Upon his arrival at Attica, Melville joined in the campaign, trying, as Pickering puts it, “to unite the brothers across the barriers between races, cellblocks and organization.”

On September 9th 1971, as inmates were being led to their cells after breakfast, a riot broke out around 9:30 in the morning and quickly spread. Prisoners took guards hostage and a standoff began which lasted for five days. Negotiations began and an impartial committee was sent in to hear the prisoners’ demands. The siege drew the attention of the whole country and came to end on September 13th when the state police retook the prison. In the ensuing battle several hostages and inmates were killed, Melville among them. His own role in the riot was obscure at best, and Pickering suggests he wanted it that way:

Sam tried to keep a very low profile, but if you look at some of the footage that comes out of the rebellion….you see that he’s sitting right in the back of everything. And you know he was a major player in what happened and what was going down…he and Tommy Hicks, were…shall we say, the ideological backbone of what was happening.

Melville was aware of the fate that might await him. He mentioned to close friends that, should the police come over the prison walls he would not survive. It has been theorized that Melville was deliberately targeted. Some reports have him surviving the initial re-taking, only to be singled out and shot. Other accounts have him being hit by stray bullets, and some have even stated that he died fighting the invading police. The truth is unclear to this day, though in 2008 a court ruled that Melville’s son be awarded $25,000 in compensation for the death of his father.

Pickering succeeds in delineating the underlying complexities of Melville’s character. This was a man who committed himself to a peace movement – but used explosives. But the complexity does not rest with his use of force alone; he was rash, sexist, and sometimes had contempt for collective decision making. Still his acts inspired an entire generation of radicals. Pickering sums it up best his epilogue about dealing with the Melville’s problematic sides:

I didn’t write this book to idealize Sam Melville as a hero. He suffered from real life issues like the rest of us…He made considerable mistakes handling relationships with the people he loved, including his child. Much has been written about the sexism of radical men in the 1960’s and Sam is certainly subject to that constructive criticism. I wrote this because I believe the lessons that this piece of history has to offer are essential to our progress. As a movement, we need to learn from past mistakes and successes. We won’t be able to learn those lessons if we continue to let history be written and unwritten by the kind of people who want us to think of Sam Melville a “Mad Bomber.”

This underscores the book’s double importance, not just as a history about bombings and destruction of property, but also about the paths that can be taken by those in social justice movements. Pickering’s story is ultimately about responsibility. Many of the types things that Melville was fighting for back in 1969 are still being fought for today – many of the causes are obviously very little changed. Though we may not all agree on the methods he chose, every fighter in that struggle for peace and justice deserves to have their story told – even Mad Bomber Melville.

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Kevin Mullins is a playwright based in Boston. This is his first freelance piece for Open Letters.