Journalist Victor Riesel’s work in the 1940s to 1980s as an FBI-friendly news source – creating suspicion of dissidents and dividing labor from student activists – is continued today by his many intellectual heirs.
It was one of the darker moments of the era. On May 8, 1970, four days after a quartet of students were shot dead on the Kent State University campus, a demonstration of high school and college students protesting the escalation of the Vietnam War in the Wall Street area of New York were attacked by construction workers. By all accounts it was vicious. One report described workers chasing students into nearby Pace University, “The workers smashed windows and beat students in the lobby. One student was taken away apparently in convulsions. The workers threw wooden wedges, pipe joints and rocks through the windows apparently angered by an antiwar banner some students had draped over the facade of the building.”1
News of the attack went out worldwide. In its aftermath, supporters of the war sought to drive home a message: The students had gone too far and these hardscrabble workers were justified in doing something about it. One of those sounding off was columnist Victor Riesel. In a piece called, “Counter Violence is on the Move” he wrote:
The construction trades union men marched on City Hall. They’re hard. I’ve seen them in action. They’re tough. And they were bitter mad. They hit the young people, lashed at the demonstrators as the nation now knows. They invaded a nearby college. But they carried no lead pipes. The carried no urine or human feces in cellophane bags as did the 1968 Chicago young peace demonstrators.2
Riesel’s column was an open endorsement of violence against antiwar demonstrators, one that fit the narrative/polarization pushed from the highest levels of government at the time – the hardworking silent majority finally standing up to spoiled, intellectual, privileged youth. This incident now sits decades in the past, but an astute observer of the Occupation of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 will see its ghost in the way unfriendly tabloids, right-wing television and hostile radio commentary took aim at the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that respect, a closer look at the work of Victor Riesel is instructive: exemplary of the way a certain type of journalism undergirds the repressive forces of the state.
Who was Victor Riesel?
Victor Riesel was a New York journalist who covered the labor beat as a syndicated columnist from the 1940s until the early 1980s. At the height of his career he was carried in nearly 350 newspapers – giving him a direct voice to the mainstream in the US. He is perhaps best known for an incident in 1956, when he was attacked on a Manhattan street by a man who threw sulfuric acid in his face, blinding him. This was in response to a column Riesel wrote claiming that a Long Island union had mob connections. At the time of his death, Riesel was described as a dogged journalist with little mention of his hard-right politics. His New York Times obituary described how, “Despite his blinding, Mr. Riesel never stopped inveighing against gangster infiltration and other corruption in labor unions that had stirred his emotions since his youth.” Curiously absent in this denouement, was his role in promoting the blacklist during the McCarthy era,3 his personal and partisan friendships with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan,4 and his close association with the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover and His Contacts
For nearly 50 years J. Edgar Hoover occupied the top position in the FBI. During that time he assembled a list of contacts in the press to be called on when he needed to get the FBI’s position out, or in other ways needed their assistance in furthering the bureau’s work. In 1975-76 the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, known by its chairman’s name Frank Church – the Church Committee -issued several reports. One of those reports detailed how the FBI went about using the press in targeting radicals:
Typically, a local FBI agent would provide information to a ‘friendly news source’ on the condition ‘that the Bureau’s interest in these matters is to be kept in the strictest confidence.’ Thomas E. Bishop, former Director of the Crime Records Division, testified that he kept a list of the Bureau’s ‘press friends’ in his desk.
Riesel died in 1995 and his papers are now housed in New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Among those documents is significant correspondence with labor unions, appointment diaries for his years as a reporter, notes and drafts of columns. They also contain something else. Three file folders of correspondence with various FBI officials from the 60s and 70s. Included among them are several pieces of correspondence from Thomas E. Bishop. In other words, Riesel was one of those FBI “friendly news sources.”
The correspondence in the file starts as the FBI began to confront the growing unrest on university campuses in the 60s. In 1965, the number three man in the FBI after Hoover, Deputy Director Cartha DeLoach, wrote to Riesel, “As is well known, the communists are attempting to influence the minds of college students and are eager to do anything possible to promote their own selfish aims on our campuses.” 5
That same year, Hoover himself wrote a letter to Riesel, thanking him for a column dealing with the mob and vending machines: “I feel you have performed a real public service by bringing this information to the attention of your readers.” Written on the director’s letterhead it was signed with the familiar, “Edgar.”6 Another letter explains how Hoover had agreed to write a guest column for Riesel.7
The file makes clear Riesel’s relationship with the FBI continued after Hoover’s death in 1972. There is a note in 1973 from the new director Clarence Kelly, writing, “Your staunch support and kind comments regarding our accomplishments in 1973 certainly mean a great deal to all of us in the FBI.”8 Such relationships continued right up through the administration of William Webster – with whom Riesel lunched in 1978, soon Webster took over the Director’s job.9
The Black Panther Party
Concretely, this relationship meant that Riesel would serve as an auxiliary to the FBI’s legal and extra-legal efforts to go after bureau targets. In this, Riesel played a direct role in the FBI’s work against the Black Panther Party, particularly in undercutting its ability to get out its newspaper. According to the Church Committee:
In November 1970, seeking to create a boycott by union members handling the newspapers’ shipment, Mr. Hoover directed 39 field offices to mail copies of a column about the Panthers by Victor Riesel to ‘unions such as the Teamsters and others involved in handling shipment of B.P.P. newspapers.’ The column was also to be sent anonymously to ‘officials of police associations who might be in a position to encourage a boycott.’10
What was not known (or at least reported), is that the FBI, beyond circulating his columns, was feeding Riesel information about the Panthers, particularly on the East Coast. As correspondence from the FBI’s Bishop to Riesel in 1972 outlines:
In connection with your request this morning about the publication ‘Right On,’ I am enclosing a copy of the undated issue distributed in October, 1971. You will note the article in which you are interested is set forth on page 19 entitled ‘Black Cops.’ 11
The note goes on to supply further background – and the FBI’s assessment of the status of the publication:
‘Right On’ is the official publication of the Cleaver faction of the Black Panther Party. Although advertised as a bi-weekly newspaper, financial difficulties apparently have plagued the paper since its first issue in April, 1971. Since that time 11 issues have been printed and distributed on a nationwide basis.12
At the same time he was serving as an FBI mouthpiece, the columnist decried the restraint imposed on the bureau as it was exposed for undertaking directly illegal activity in its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). “The undercover persons are mocked and hounded and when the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried counterintelligence infiltration with the COINTELPRO-New Left he was forced to kill it.”13
The RU Memo
Aspects of the direct role of the FBI and Riesel targeting the Panthers has been public knowledge for some time. Another target however, one that extended throughout the 70s, remained hidden – until now – in Riesel’s papers.
Between 1968 and 1981, Riesel wrote numerous columns about the Revolutionary Union and Revolutionary Communist Party. In column after column, he created the specter of foreign influence, subversive manipulation, and anti-Americanism. What is now clear is that his “inside” information and “federal sources” for these columns, came directly from the bureau. In the late spring of 1969 Riesel received a packet of material from the FBI’s Bishop, with a cover note:
I thought you might be interested in the attached material concerning the Revolutionary Union (RU) and the activities of one of its leaders, Robert Avakian, in support of recent strike activity by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. A memorandum, also attached, sets forth Avakian’s connection with the RU, a militant pro-Chinese communist organization, and shows attempts to take advantage of labor problems.14
The letter ends with explicit instructions:
No attribution, of course, should be made in connection with any use you can make of this material.15
The Standard Oil strike was a unique event in 60s history; it was one of the rare times that workers (in Richmond, California) joined with students, supporting the strike by students at San Francisco State College. That solidarity was due in part because of work by people like Robert Avakian, Steve Hamilton and others in an early RU collective in Richmond. These were students – both Hamilton and Avakian being veterans of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement – who wanted to fuse with the working class, which they felt was essential for a revolutionary movement. Needless to say, this caught the interest and set in motion the counterintelligence machinery of the FBI.
As a result of the information he was receiving, Riesel would begin to incorporate RU information into his columns, initially making a passing mention of the RU, in a piece titled, “Plan New Offensive,” in March 1970 16 and getting more explicit in 1971:
RU’s objectives are a United Front, development of a working-class unity and ‘leadership in the struggles to organize a new national Communist Party, based on Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Tse-tung thought, which would lead to the overthrow of the US government by force and violence.’17
In another column he obliquely refers to Leibel Bergman, an early leader of the RU, “Launched in 1968 in the San Francisco Bay area, the RU was directed by an American Maoist who had just returned from Peking.”18 Bergman was a former member of the Communist Party and Progressive Labor Party, who left both of those organizations to join with the new generation of revolutionaries to form the RU. He had lived in China in the early 1960s, along with other disenchanted Americans like Robert F. Williams, William Hinton and Vicki Garvin, who were looking to China as a model of socialism in contrast to the stultifying Soviet Union. Bergman in turn saw applying some of the revolutionary concepts he learned in China to the US. This, in the context of the labor unrest among younger rebellious workers who were beginning to come into factories – including not a few Vietnam veterans.
By the early 70s the US economy was undergoing a profound transformation. Things were moving away from better-paid industrial jobs; wages and benefits were under attack; and the overall middle-class stability of the US postwar world was in flux. In that respect, Riesel manned an antagonistic point position in attacking labor insurgents. Throughout the 70s he wrote numerous columns – not just red-baiting the RU, but zeroing in on its work in industry. He especially singled out Skip Delano, a radical worker and member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War:
For several years now the Revolutionary Union through a faction which calls itself ‘The Outlaws’ has attempted to seize power in the New York Metro Area Postal Union (AFL-CIO)…. And there is the saga of the big, tough, fist-thumping RU man, roving activist Lewis (Skip) Delano who, though educated and skilled, got a job as a part-time “sub” on the midnight shift in the New York General Post Office. Soon he was a union shop steward…. Then in December 1974 he left with a female aide and turned up in the West Virginia coal fields in early 1975. By August he had a committee going. With him were two other young RU men. By early September (1975) Delano and his cadres had provoked 80,000 coal diggers into a long illegal strike.19
The RU’s work in industry wasn’t especially secret – though there was a covert aspect tactically. The pages of the RU’s newspaper at the time, Revolution, were full of coverage of struggles in various industries in which the RU worked or was trying to gain a footing. Indeed, reading deeper into Riesel’s writing, it is clear there is more going on than conspiratorial paranoia. Riesel – and by extension the FBI – understood something about the RU, “The new revolutionist aren’t ‘nuts.’ They are bright, young, educated and tough.”20
So watch the political elephant grass. The Revolutionary Communist Party has money, newspapers, organizational talent, and most important can approach younger workers of today as one of their own kind; youthful, articulate, brainwashed and hep to the lingo in the bars and pot-filled rooms.21
Leaving aside the corniness, the RU and RCP were being talked about because at the moment they were a force, albeit in a tentative stage (after the death of Mao in 1976 and the transformation in China away from its model of socialism, there was a major schism in the group that ushered in a period of extended decline and an exit from working in industry).22
Occupy and the Media
While Riesel is no longer with us, the legacy of media playing the role of auxiliary to the state remains. Perhaps the sharpest contemporary example is the way certain media approached the Occupy upsurge in the fall of 2011. While there were plenty of sympathetic and even ambivalent media, there was another strain, one unambiguously hostile. Prime examples include the New York Post and the New York Daily News. These papers carried prominent coverage of outraged business owners, office workers and construction workers who were said to be majorly inconvenienced by the Occupy protests. One Post article quoted a man stalled in traffic because the police were conducting mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, “I work my ass off all day, and these goddamned hippies close down the Brooklyn Bridge so I can’t get home?” Another Post headline took relish, proclaiming, “OWS bums are a big joke: Hard workers enjoy a good laugh as May Day skirmishes fizzle.” The Daily News attempted to marginalize the protests by pointing to the scope of issues ( “Occupy Wall Street – less comprehensible than ever: From blocking ports to backing Bradley Manning.”) and editorialized that the OWS takeaway message was “Aggravate workers. Snarl streets. Injure cops. Hammer taxpayers.” Another piece quoted an antagonistic bricklayer: “There are kids who have silver spoons in their mouths. Now I’ve gotta go to work. What about them? I’ve had enough. I’m sick of it.” Meantime Crain’s New York exposed hidden subversives in articles like “Veteran agitators flock to Occupy Wall Street,” and “Unions, left-wing groups join Occupy Wall Street.”
Whether such reporting sprang from personal bias, the police whispering in the ears of reporters or something more formalized, is in a certain sense beside the point. The media in these cases worked to create divisions where none existed and sharpen ones where they did, i.e. defending the ruling structure, the 1%, if you will. If this line of attack sounds similar to the tack taken by Victor Riesel, all those decades ago, it is an indication of how, despite dramatic shifts, some fundamental things in the US have not changed.
This article was written with the assistance of Conor Gallagher.
See for example, Navasky, Victor. Naming Names: With a New Afterword by the Author. Hill and Wang, 2003, 52 and Barranger, Milly S. Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater and Film in the McCarthy Era Southern Illinois University Press; 2008) 30.