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How a Radical Leftist Became the FBI's BFF

by Josh Harkinson
Mother Jones
September/October 2011

To many on the left, Brandon Darby was a hero. To federal agents consumed with busting anarchist terror cells, he was the perfect snitch.

For a few days in September 2008, as the Republican Party kicked off its national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities were a microcosm of a deeply divided nation. The atmosphere around town was tense, with local and federal police facing off against activists who had descended upon the city. Convinced that anarchists were plotting violent acts, they sought to bust the protesters' hangouts, sometimes bursting into apartments and houses brandishing assault rifles. Inside the cavernous Xcel Energy convention center, meanwhile, an out-of-nowhere vice presidential nominee named Sarah Palin assured tens of thousands of ecstatic Republicans that her running mate, John McCain, was "a leader who's not looking for a fight, but sure isn't afraid of one either."

The same thing might have been said of David McKay and Bradley Crowder, a pair of greenhorn activists from George W. Bush's Texas hometown who had driven up for the protests.

Wide-eyed guys in their early 20s, they'd come of age hanging out in sleepy downtown Midland, commiserating about the Iraq War and the administration's assault on civil liberties.St. Paul was their first large-scale protest, and when they arrived they were taken aback: Rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, tumbling tear-gas canisters—to McKay and Crowder, it seemed like an all-out war on democracy. They wanted to fight back, even going so far as to mix up a batch of Molotov cocktails. Just before dawn on the day of Palin's big coming out, a SWAT team working with federal agents raided their crash pad, seized the Molotovs, and arrested McKay, alleging that he intended to torch a parking lot full of police cars.Since only a few people knew about the firebombs, fellow activists speculated that someone close to McKay and Crowder must have tipped off the feds. Back in Texas, flyers soon began appearing at coffeehouses urging leftists to beware of Brandon Darby, an "FBI informant rat loose in Austin."

The allegation came as a shocker; Darby was a known and trusted member of the left-wing protest crowd. "If Brandon was conning me, and many others, it would be the biggest lie of my life since I found out the truth about Santa Claus," wrote Scott Crow, one of many activists who rushed to defend him at first. Two months later, Darby came clean. "The simple truth," he wrote on, "is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

Darby's entanglement with the feds is part of a quiet resurgence of FBI interest in left-wingers.

From the Red Scare days of the 1950s into the '70s, the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, a.k.a. COINTELPRO, monitored and sabotaged communist and civil rights organizations.

Nowadays, in what critics have dubbed the Green Scare, the bureau is targeting the global-justice movement and radical environmentalists. In 2005, John Lewis, then the FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, ranked groups like the Earth Liberation Front ahead of jihadists as America's top domestic terror threat.

FBI stings involving informants have been key to convicting 14 ELF members since 2006 for a string of high-profile arsons, and to sentencing a man to 20 years in prison for conspiring to destroy several targets, including cell phone towers. During the St. Paul protests, at least two additional informants infiltrated and helped indict a group of activists known as the RNC Eight for conspiring to riot and damage property.

Brandon Darby. Courtesy Loteria FilmsBut it's Darby's snitching that has provided the most intriguing tale. It's the focus of a radio magazine piece, two documentary films, and a book in the making. By far the most damning portrayal is Better This World, an award-winning doc that garnered rave reviews on the festival circuit and is slated to air on PBS on September 6. The product of two years of work by San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, it dredges up a wealth of FBI documents and court transcripts related to Darby's interactions with his fellow activists to suggest that Darby acted as an agitator as much as an informant. (Watch the trailer and read our interview with the filmmakers here.)

The film makes a compelling case that Darby, with the FBI's blessing, used his charisma and street credibility to goad Crowder and McKay into pursuing the sort of actions that would later land them in prison. Darby flatly denies it, and he recently sued the New York Times over a story with similar implications. (The Times corrected the disputed detail.) "I feel very morally justified to do the things that I've done," he told me. "I don't know if I could have handled it much differently."

Darby "gets in people's minds and can pull you in," one activist warned me. "He's a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him."

Brandon Michael Darby is a muscular, golden-skinned 34-year-old with Hollywood looks and puppy-dog eyes. Once notorious for sleeping around the activist scene, he now often sleeps with a gun by his bed in response to death threats. His former associates call him unhinged, a megalomaniac, a manipulator. "He gets in people's minds and can pull you in," Lisa Fithian, a veteran labor, environmental, and anti-war organizer, warned me before I set out to interview him. "He's a master. And you are going to feel all kinds of sympathy for him."

The son of a refinery welder, Darby grew up in Pasadena, a dingy Texas oil town. His parents divorced when he was 12, and soon after he ran away to Houston, where he lived in and out of group homes. By 2002, Darby had found his way to Austin's slacker scene, where one day he helped his friend, medical-marijuana activist Tracey Hayes, scale Zilker Park's 165-foot moonlight tower (of Dazed and Confused fame) and unfurl a giant banner painted with pot leaves that read "Medicine." They later "hooked up," Hayes says, and eventually moved in together. She introduced him to her activist friends, and he started reading Howard Zinn and histories of the Black Panthers.

Some local activists wouldn't work with Darby (he liked to taunt the cops during protests, getting them all riled up). But that changed after Hurricane Katrina, when he learned that Robert King Wilkerson, one of the Angola Three—former Black Panthers who endured decades of solitary confinement at Louisiana's Angola Prison—was trapped in New Orleans. Darby and Crow drove 10 hours from Austin towing a jon boat. When they couldn't get it into the city, Darby somehow harangued some Coast Guard personnel into rescuing Wilkerson. The story became part of the foundation myth for an in-your-face New Orleans relief organization called the Common Ground Collective.

It would eventually grow into a national group with a million-dollar budget. But at first Common Ground was just a bunch of pissed-off anarchists working out of the house of Malik Rahim, another former Panther. Rahim asked Darby to set up an outpost in the devastated Ninth Ward, where not even the Red Cross was allowed at first. Darby brought in a group of volunteers who fed people and cleared debris from houses while being harassed by police, right along with the locals who had refused to evacuate. "If I'd had an appropriate weapon, I would have attacked my government for what they were doing to people," he declared in a clip featured in Better This World. He said he'd since bought an AK-47 and was willing to use it:

"There are residents here who have said that you will not take my home from me over my dead body, and we have made a commitment to be in solidarity with those residents."

But Common Ground's approach soon began to grate on Darby. He bristled at its consensus-based decision making, its interminable debates over things like whether serving meat to locals was serving oppression. He idolized rugged, iconoclastic populists like Che Guevara—so, in early 2006, he jumped at a chance to go to Venezuela to solicit money for Katrina victims.

Darby was deeply impressed with what he saw, until a state oil exec asked him to go to Colombia and meet with FARC, the communist guerrilla group. "They said they wanted to help me start a guerrilla movement in the swamps of Louisiana," he told "This American Life" reporter Michael May. "And I was like, 'I don't think so.'" It turned out armed revolution wasn't really his thing.David McKay. Courtesy Loteria Films

Darby's former friends dispute the Venezuela story as they dispute much that he says. They accuse him of grandstanding, being combative, and even spying on his rivals. In his short-lived tenure as Common Ground's interim director, Darby drove out 30 volunteer coordinators and replaced them with a small band of loyalists. "He could only see what's in it for him," Crow told me. For example, Darby preempted a planned police-harassment hot line by making flyers asking victims to call his personal phone number.

The flyers led to a meeting between Darby and Major John Bryson, the New Orleans cop in charge of the Ninth Ward. In time, Bryson became a supporter of Common Ground, and Darby believed that they shared a common dream of rebuilding the city. But he was less and less sure about his peers. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, I've replicated every system that I fought against,'" he recalls. "It was fucking bizarre."

By mid-2007, Darby had left the group and become preoccupied with the conflict in Lebanon. Before long, Darby says, he was approached in Austin by a Lebanese-born schoolteacher, Riad Hamad, for help with a vague plan to launder money into the Palestinian territories. Hamad also spoke about smuggling bombs into Israel, he claims.

Darby says he discouraged Hamad at first, and then tipped off Bryson, who put him in touch with the FBI. "I talked," he told me. "And it was the fucking weirdest thing." He knew his friends would hate him for what he'd done. (The FBI raided Hamad's home, and discovered nothing incriminating; he was found dead in Austin's Lady Bird Lake two months later—an apparent suicide.)

McKay and Crowder first encountered Darby in March 2008 at Austin's Monkey Wrench Books during a recruitment drive for the St. Paul protests. Later, in a scene re-created in Better This World, they met at a café to talk strategy. "I stated that I wasn't interested in being a part of a group if we were going to sit and talk too much," Darby emailed his FBI handlers. "I stated that I was gonna shut that fucker down."

"My biggest impression from that meeting was that Brandon really dominated it," fellow activist James Clark told the filmmakers. Darby's FBI email continued: "I stated that they all looked like they ate too much tofu and that they should eat beef so that they could put on muscle mass. I stated that they weren't going to be able to fight anybody until they did so." At one point Darby took everyone out to a parking lot and threw Clark to the ground. Clark interpreted it as Darby sending the message: "Look at me, I'm badass. You can be just like me." (Darby insists that this never happened.)

"The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use" the Molotovs, Crowder told me.

When the Austin activists arrived in St. Paul, police, acting on a Darby tip, broke open the group's trailer and confiscated the sawed-off traffic barrels they'd planned to use as shields against riot police. They soon learned of similar raids all over town. "It started to feel like Darby hadn't amped these things up, and it really was as crazy and intense as he had told us it was going to be," Crowder says. Feeling that Darby's tough talk should be "in some ways, a guide of behavior," they went to Walmart to buy Molotov supplies.

"The reality is, when we woke up the next day, neither one of us wanted to use them," Crowder told me. They stored the firebombs in a basement and left for the convention center, where Crowder was swept up in a mass arrest. Darby and McKay later talked about possibly lobbing the Molotovs on a police parking lot early the next morning, though by 2:30 a.m. McKay was having serious doubts. "I'm just not feeling the vibe on the street," he texted Darby.

"You butt head," Darby shot back. "Text me when you can." He texted his friend repeatedly over the next hour, until well after McKay had turned in. At 5 a.m., police broke into McKay's room and found him in bed. He was scheduled to fly home to Austin two hours later.

Bradley Crowder. Courtesy Loteria FilmsThe feds ultimately convicted the pair for making the Molotov cocktails, but they didn't have enough evidence of intent to use them. Crowder, who pleaded guilty rather than risk trial, and a heavier sentence, got two years. McKay, who was offered seven years if he pleaded guilty, opted for a trial, arguing on the stand that Darby told him to make the Molotovs, a claim he recanted after learning that Crowder had given a conflicting account. McKay is now serving out the last of his four years in federal prison.

At South Austin's Strange Brew coffeehouse, Darby shows up to meet me on a chromed-out Yamaha with flames on the side. We sit out back, where he can chain-smoke his American Spirits. Darby is through being a leftist radical. Indeed, he's now an enthusiastic small-government conservative. He loves Sarah Palin. He opposes welfare and national health care. "The majority of things could be handled by people and by communities," he explains. Climate change is "a bandwagon" and the EPA should be "strongly limited." Abortion shouldn't be a federal issue.

He sounds a bit like his new friend, Andrew Breitbart, who made his name producing sting videos targeting NPR, ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and others. About a year after McKay and Crowder went to jail, Breitbart called Darby wanting to know why he wasn't defending himself against the left's misrepresentations. "They don't print what I say," Darby said. Breitbart offered him a regular forum on his website, Darby now socializes with Breitbart at his Los Angeles home and is among his staunchest defenders. (Breitbart's takedown of ACORN, he says, was "completely fucking fair.")

"No matter what I say, most people on the left are going to believe what reinforces their own narrative," Darby says. "And I've quit giving a shit."

Entrapment? Darby scoffs at the suggestion. He pulls up his shirt, showing me his chest hair and tattoos, as though his macho physique had somehow seduced Crowder and McKay into mixing their firebombs. "No matter what I say, most people on the left are going to believe what reinforces their own narrative," he says. "And I've quit giving a shit."

The fact is, Darby says, McKay and Crowder considered him a has-been. His tofu comment, he adds, was a jocular response after one of them had ribbed him for being fat. "I constantly felt the need to show that I was still worthy of being in their presence," he tells me. "They are complete fucking liars." As for those late-night texts to McKay, Darby insists he was just trying to dissuade him from using the Molotovs.

He still meets with FBI agents, he says, to eat barbecue and discuss his ideas for new investigations. But then, it's hard to know how much of what Darby says is true. For one, the FBI file of his former friend Scott Crow, which Crow obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request last year, suggests that Darby was talking with the FBI more than a year before he claims Bryson first put him in touch. Meanwhile, Crow and another activist, Karly Dixon, separately told me that Darby asked them, in the fall of 2006, to help him burn down an Austin bookstore affiliated with right-wing radio host Alex Jones. (Hayes, Darby's ex, says he told her of the idea too.) "The guy was trying to put me in prison," Crow says.

Such allegations, Darby claims, are simply part of a conspiracy to besmirch him and the FBI: "They get together, and they just figure out ways to attack." Believe whomever you want to believe, he says. "Either way, they walk away with scars—and so do I."

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Interview with Scott Crow or: How I Learned To Not Care About Winning Over Cops To Join Occupy Wall Street

by Nathan Diebenow
November 2011

It's not everyday that you get to hang out with a someone who toured with Trent Reznor, or someone who co-organized the largest anarchist-influenced organization in modern American history, or even someone whom the FBI labeled a "domestic terrorist." But the good folks of Occupy Denton (Texas) and I had the opportunity to interact with all three of these someones in the form of one scott crow this time last month.

You might have heard of the FBI's shenanigans against crow and his friends from the New York Times in May or from Democracy Now in June or from Rag Radio in August.

But if you haven't heard it, I highly recommend his Rag Radio interview not only because crow speaks more on alternative economic systems but also because played are clips of the political industrial dance music he co-created with his former group Lesson Seven in Dallas in the late '80s.

Had you sat in on crow's talk at Occupy Denton, you would have received a more in-depth look at the last 20 years of his experiences organizing communities—such as those at the University of North Texas (UNT) in the anti-apartheid movement to those in New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina threw the gross racial and wealth inequalities of the region in the face of the One Percent.

Because of the horrific police actions against Occupy Oakland when veteran Scott Olson received serious brain injuries on Oct. 25 following a general feeling among some occupiers that the cops are also part of the 99 Percent, I intended to speak with Crow about the Occupy movement's relation to the State. Thankfully, he also occupied the conversation toward the nature of social movements and the history of previous organizing efforts that led to the Occupy movement's structure.

Here is the fruit of our 10-minute discussion after his talk at Occupy Denton on the UNT campus off Fry Street, tents and all:
Diebenow: What do you think about the "Occupy Police" wing of Occupy movement on Facebook and Twitter? Are you skeptical about the solidarity that this group espouses? Or are you hopeful that it will break the bubble that surrounds the police?

I'm absolutely skeptical of that because one, the Occupy movement is super decentralized. There's no one voice in that. Anybody who purports to speak for all the Occupy movements going on is total bullshit. Secondly, I think one of the things we have to realize in this country is that the police, like a lot of wealthy people who may be interested in what's going on, are never going to join these movements until it effects them directly. People in upper middle class strata, like very upper middle class strata at the top of the 99 Percent who feel like they don't feel a part of it, and the police, until it effects their bottom line, until the banks are closed, until the ATMs are not working, until their checks aren't coming, their pensions are gon, then they will join the movement. But the police are never going to side with us until that happens. The police are paid to uphold private property of corporations, corporations, and the state. That's their job. I mean, that's their mandate. Given the order to shoot me, they're going to do it. Is that dramatic enough? (laughs) But it's true.

Diebenow: What you just described to me is basically like if you see any of those things happening, you'll be less skeptical. I mean, we're talking system-wide.

Absolutely. Listen, there are individual good cops. I'm not going to lie. I mean, I've dealt with lots of them over the years, but I know ultimately their job—their job—what they get paid for day-in and day-out—is to uphold the state. They have loyalty to that whether they want to or not. They have families to feed. They're on a wheel, like a gerble wheel or a hampster wheel, and they're spinning in that. They are part of the system as much as anybody is. They're not separate from that, and they have to make moral decisions based on that. So maybe that won't shoot me dead, but they might tear gas the hell out of me to make me stop what I'm doing if it's against their interests.

And that played out yesterday in Oakland. Even with the supposed "non-violent" weapon like rubber bullets.

It's less lethal. I mean, I know you're using quotation marks, but let's be clear about it. Rubber bullets are less lethal. They're not non-lethal. I know people who have been incredibly injured by them.

Diebenow: So in the way it's playing out right now nationwide, it's kind of as you'd expect it in terms of the reaction of the state with the Occupy movement.

crow: Let's really talk about what's important about the Occupy movement. You're talking about a movement that hasn't happened in the United States in a long time—a decentalized movement not controlled by any central organization or anything, where people rose up because things were wrong all over. The tea party, which was similar thing on the right-leaning spectrum, was always geared toward funnelling people into the Republican Party, or it was quickly co-opted by people that had interest in doing it, like Dick Armey who used to be at the University of North Texas here.

But the Occupy movements are totally decentralized. It's 30 years of anarchist and horizontal organizing coming to fruition, where you talk about General Assembly, where you talk about concensus decisions, where you try to hear the voices of the people who aren't normally heard.

Are there problems within that? Yeah, but that's an amazing start for something. All the Occupy movements—nobody is going around saying, "Hey, you should start an occupy movement. You should start an occupy movement." People are doing it because they have the sense of need to do that. That is what we should be talking about. Not the state repression.

Fuck the state. If we stay clear on what we are doing, it doesn't matter what the state does.

Do you know what I mean? Our will—our political will is much stronger than anything they can throw at us. They don't call it struggle for nothing, right? But we stay focused on what we're doing, and it doesn't matter what they do.
Diebenow: I liked your point about the terms long-term revolution and little revolution. It's almost like little struggles.

crow: They are.

Diebenow: So this is a big revolution in the sense that it was long time coming, but it is still in a sense little revolutions for individuals.

It is totally baby steps. Every movement that rises up, like the alternative globalization movement that I was talking about that was a decade ago, it's the same thing. But what happens is that we have no institutional memory because we don't carry it from movement to movement. So the hundreds of thousands of people that were in the alternative globalization movement left, and there's only a few of us left, and we're the ones who tell the stories so that the new people who are rising up can (learn), and in 10 years, these people can tell the stories.

I was listening to Amy Goodman talk the other night, and she was saying how she studies movements. And what was interesting was when you said you studied revolutions. Is there a difference?

crow: Revolutions are the idea that we have to overturn all of these things to make things happen. Movements are what rises up when we try to make these revolutionary situations, and the things that come out of them. I'm not talking old school like we're going to rise up one day, fight and then we take state power. That's not the kind of revolutions I'm talking about. Actually, I don't even know what they can look like. They're going to move faster in some areas and slower in other areas, but the little mini-revolutions are happening daily. First it's the wakening of each and every one of us, and then us pulling together and doing things, and then inheriting the other movements that came before us, and then building on those futures, which we don't even know what they're going to be yet. And I'm okay with that. I used to not because I wanted a plotted out plan: "We're going to do this, this and this. And then next thing there is, we're all free." But that's not going to happen.

But what's different with the Occupy movement is that nobody wants to control anything. The tea party wanted to control things. I don't want to hit them with a broad stroke because I think that's unfair, too, because there's a lot of legitimate people within the tea party movement, and there was a huge spectrum of interest within that, right? But ultimately when they got funnelled in, they wanted to control what happened in the new store. We don't want to control that. We want to create new worlds from below and from the left that we don't even know what they are. We're imagining something different, and people are waking up and trying to reimagine what those worlds are. We've all been in these cages that we can't see, and people are waking up, starting to go, "Wow. I'm not in that cage, but what is it like to be free? I knew what I could do inside the cage, but now I have to figure out . . . " And those paths are much harder. That's where I come to that thing "walking and asking." So you continue to ask questions along the way. And the thing is, these are the modern revolutions. The Zapatistas set that up, where you didn't have to have the answers because we don't have the answers, and that makes us have fallible but human revolutions on a global scale.

Diebenow: One final thought: the Occupy movement has created an alternative government.

crow: If you think about it, the Occupy movement in city after city, they are practicing democracy— direct democracy—not where you're voting your life away for somebody 3,000 miles away from you who is going to tell you what to do. You're actually practicing it. And that takes a lot of time. We've been resisting for so long, and we need to build. Our resistance arm is totally muscular and really strong, but our building arm is totally atrophied because we've ignored it. Now we're beginning to practice building it. It is like alternative governments and alternative societies. We have to re-imagine it. It's baby steps. Just because not everybody is on board with some clear agenda is beautiful to me because it shows the openness and the willingness to really think about it and let it stew. In all the movements like in Argentina and what rose up in Chiapas, Mexico, that's what's happened with people. The uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994 was 20 years in the making. Twenty years they talked about it before they decided to do that.

Diebenow: In a wider sense, is this like an Abraham Lincoln Brigade? Is that movement part of this movement's history as well?

crow: You're talking the Spanish Civil War. That's a totally different thing. That was a clear enemy. They were fighting against fascism and for anarchism and socialism. This is way different than that. I wouldn't compare it to that at all. I would compare it to Argentina in 2000, and before that, I would compare it to Central American movements in the 1970s. It's people's uprisings. The thing is, there's no leaders to telling people they should up-rise. There's no Communist Party. There's no Socialist Party. And everybody doesn't want a socialist state.

That's not what I want. I'm not trying to build a socialist state. I want to abolish the state. I want us to build grassroots power. I want to take the longest, hardest path that we can find to figure out what it's going to be. I don't want an easy answer because easy answers end up with dictators and fascists.


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“The leading passion of my life has been . . . hatred of modern civilization”

by Sasha
Earth First
November 30, 2011

Earlier this year, PM Press released another monumental work—EP Thompson’s staple of British working class literature, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Originally published in 1955 and reworked in 1976, this thoroughgoing portrait of William Morris presents every critical nuance of his eclectic thought. Raised in an affluent 19th Century British family, Morris became attached to art and radical circles from a young age, rising in intellectual and aesthetic circles to become the design guru of London who changed the face of European socialism. Unlike his contemporaries, Marx and Bakunin, Morris settled in his home country, bringing to life his love of the land and nature to dismantle Victorian society that he had grown to know so well.

First as a noteworthy writer of poems and then as  a famous designer of chintzes, wallpapers, and furniture, Morris brought the Romantic styles of the surfeited well-to-do aristocracy into a working class dynamic that reverberated with a nostalgic longing for nature and ease in a life structured by the violence of manners, class, and work. Embracing the myths, sagas, and epics of medieval Europe, Morris flew from the codes of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.

“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things,” declared Morris, “the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

So was Morris an anti-Civ primitivist? Herein lies the importance of this book today. William Morris certainly loathed civilization as it was represented by the Victorian charades of manners and charity of his day, and he associated himself with a group of people who identified with the label of “barbarians.” However, Morris also noted that the wealthy and alienated classes of his era, in their lofty circles, were also declaring themselves “barbarians” in their patronizing attempts to live free from moral codes. “’Civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ were terms which he always employed with ironic inversion,” states Thompson:

“’Civilization’ (he wrote to Georgie Burne-Jones in May 1885) ‘I know now is doomed to destruction . . .  What a joy it is to think of it! And how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. With this thought in my mind all the history of the past is lighted up and lives again to me. I used really to despair once because I thought what the idiots of our day call progress would go on perfecting itself.’”

Of paramount importance to Morris was what he deemed “morality,” which consisted of harmony in community, art, leisure, and nature.

But Morris was not against machines. “[I]t went without saying” says Thompson, “that a Socialist society would employ its scientific genius in finding means of eliminating smoke and filth, in disposing of rubbish and waste, and in preventing industry from blackening and despoiling the countryside.” Rather than casting off the importance of work entirely, Morris felt it necessary to make work easier. Most of all, he sought to bring manual laborers together with intellectuals and artists to forge a community where no single occupation could be valued over or under any other.

One of the most important causes that he involved himself in was the struggle against imperialism. With a keen insight into the people of England, Morris tore apart the jingoism of the British Empire, and spoke out at every opportunity against the imperial involvement from Eastern Europe to Africa and Asia. His lectures were popular, though unmarked by any pronounced personal affectations. “Perhaps if there is a dominant trait,” writes Thompson, “it is one of deep seriousness, combined with a total absence of affectation, a constant struggle to find the most direct honesty of expression.” In this sense, Morris found himself taking a no-compromise stance in the class struggle.

Absolutely opposing the concessions of the ruling class, Morris believed that Socialism could only come about through a violent revolution. “’Commercialism, competition, has sown the wind recklessly, and must reap the whirlwind’, he wrote in October 1883: ‘it has created the proletariat for its own interest, and its creation will and must destroy it: there is no other force which can do so.’” For Morris, Socialism would not come about at once. A gradual process of return to nature and an enjoyment of life would take place as people escaped the cities and moved into small collectives that relied on the land. Using his life as an example, Morris built up his own workshop as a simple, deliberately anachronistic brick house, producing simple, affordable, floral patterns based on medieval motifs for popular consumption. In today’s world, where patterns adorning every package and every commodity entrap the consumer’s consciousness into an endless sea of distraction and market objectification, it’s important to remember that Morris’s floral patterns were a breakthrough in their day—when every aesthetic object directed the observer to a self-conscious game of manners lodged in the game of accumulation, Morris’s patterns freed the mind to contemplate nature, liberty, and the wild refuges of the imagination.

Although his political endeavors were arguably less effective than his artistic interventions, Morris managed to garner popular support behind his various projects, from Anti-Scrape (a historic preservation society) to the foundation of the Socialist League to his personal involvement in a workers’ movement that would culminate in the Bloody Sunday police riot of 1887. Perhaps Morris’s most interesting accomplishment was the bridges of solidarity that he helped construct between his own Socialist League, Irish political movements, Anarchist Communists, and Anarchists. “On one point Morris acknowledged his sympathy with the ‘Anarchist-Communist’ position”, Thompson writes, “by temperament he was opposed to a great industrial civilization, centered on large towns, and he looked forward impatiently to the re-emergence in Communist society of a life based upon small communes and villages. But he took pains to differentiate this speculative question from more essential matters of Socialist theory: indeed, it was from this region that he drew one of his examples of the necessity for individual submission to collective decisions, as it affected his temperament.”

Particular among his concerns was that a post-revolutionary society would react to the fear of starvation by completely destroying the forests and fields of the countryside. While the Anarchists would eventually push him out of his own Socialist League and its influential journal, the Commonweal, which he had edited for the duration of its five year existence, his influence only grew as he finished his days.

So weighty is the legacy of William Morris that it is claimed today by Marixists, Anarchists, Liberals, and Conservatives alike. The brilliance of E.P. Thompson’s writing is that he exposes how Morris’s ideas were embodied in his life’s complexities, and belonged to no one but himself. Making vital insights into Morris’s character and thought on virtually every page, Thompson carefully unravels the history of a complicated person in a complicated time.

Readers from any political tendency will find familiar comforts within Morris’s broad, ranging ideology, and sympathy for his personal triumphs and defeats. At a sparing 810 pages, this penetrating and perspicuous volume stands with Joseph Frank’s biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky as among the greatest biographies of the most distinguished of thinkers. Just don’t drop it on your foot!

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Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!

By Paul Buhle
Weekend Edition November 25-27, 2011

This is a splendid time for the North American reader to meet the extraordinary Andrej Grubacic. After something of a letdown following the Seattle 1999 events– including what many of us perceived as an ideology-driven sectarian turn–anarchists are back in the news with the Occupations. No, not the anarchism of Bakunin or even Bookchin, but anarchism in a new key as well as a new generation, more practical and more open.

Grubacic, the natural citizen of an exterminated  republic (Yugoslavia) happens to be the grandson of one of Tito’s key aides and a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement that sought unsuccessfully to break the lock of the Russians and Americans over world affairs. Faced first with the break-up of Yugoslavia, then the radiation-spewing population-bombings of NATO setting the model for future “humanitarian intervention,” he found his intellectual footing in what I would call anarcho-syndicalism. He also found himself out of a job, and made his way to SUNY Binghamton, aided by Noam Chomsky and then Immanuel Wallerstein. Since then, he has emerged as a theorist and activist in several quarters, all of them vital.  If he was not in the front line with Occupation, he was in the second line of innovative thinkers; with Staughton Lynd, meanwhile, he posed (in the book Wobblies and Zapatistas) ways for the return of an IWW-style politics of labor and community that could logically be called Syndicalism (although Wobblies almost never did).

Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!  reflects one or two of his predilections less well-known than his espousal of anarchist organizational notions (mostly in Z-Net) and his running commentaries in various places on the emergence and significance of Occupations. It would be a mistake to see one subject as distant from another. He is looking for a wholesale reconstruction of politics along voluntary, collectivist lines, across all the usual borders; and behind a tough analysis, he is looking for what we now Old New Leftists used to call the beloved community, ways of linking human beings in urgent need of solidarity, making possible the solution of problems faced on the planet.

There is a backstory that does not quite emerge in these pages but deserves a mention.

Slovenians and their partners (or rivals), Croats, were once vital forces in the American working class Left, and  their cooperative movements, through ethnic halls and fraternal associations, outlasted most of the rest of the blue collar Left across a scattering of states. Until recent times, tamburitza bands played to good-sized audiences (driving in from the suburbs, most likely) in Croatian Halls that had back rooms with libraries and portraits of Karl Marx. Slovenian votes, it was said, provided the margin of victory for Richard Trumka in the United Mine Workers, and projected his rise at the moment when the AFL’s corrupt, thuggish leaders had lost their sway. Scarcely aware of this ethnic history of labor struggle and cooperative efforts, Grubacic is a descendent in many ways.

First of all, for any post-Yugoslavian radical, there is the need for refurbished collaboration among Croats, Slovenians, Serbs and others who once lived in a state together, not without resentments but without fratricide. In  Grubacic’s critique, the CIA and State Department played upon centuries of distrust, adding hundreds of millions of dollars of fuel to the flames, then sweeping down relentlessly, pitting one nationality against another.

Yugoslavia, he emphasizes, was always a dream of the Balkans, never quite a reality despite the victory over Fascism and the Tito decades to follow. The fragility of the model, a kind of market state-socialism with a bureaucratic class ruling over others, was bound to come apart, although without the global market stress and CIA operations, it would have lasted longer and perhaps evolved into something better.  The dark side of the Balkans, a kind of escape valve for the Western European imagination with rugged landscapes, pirates or the Robin Hood type (or the opposite, today’s drug-dealers and sex-traders), was the veritable opposite of Victorian England or pre-Hitler Germany. The darkness was as much cause or hope as despair, and like victims of the other kinds of colonialism, a lifting of the pre-modern shackles seemed the key task of socialists, then communists. No leftwingers in Europe, at least, faced bigger problems of ethnic rivalries and old grudges.

Grubacic offers hope for a voluntary, cooperative future for something we might (or might not) call Yugoslavia, and this is a hope for all the rest of humankind. He does so with a precision of detail that no review can capture, but with a kindliness, an openness to possibility and a resistance of dogma, that anarcho-syndicalism or anarchism of a new kind looks as promising on the page as in the Occupation. Quite an accomplishment.

Paul Buhle is a retired senior lecturer of history and American civilization at Brown University, a Distinguished Lecturer at the Organization of American Historians and American Studies Association, the founder of Radical America magazine, and the founder and former director of New York University’s Oral History of the American Left archive. He is also the recipient of the 2010 Will Eisner Award for The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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After the Occupation

by Liz Pelly
The Phoenix
November 16, 2011

From Oakland to New York, city police departments and their elected overlords are crushing lawful Occupy movements in their midst. Which moved us to think: in a worst-case scenario, if the encampments are wiped out, does Occupy have a future after the occupations?

For perspective, we turned to Ben Trott, a Berlin-based editor of What Would It Mean To Win? (PM Press, 2010), a book about defining victory for diffused grassroots struggles.

"In some ways, of course, the movement has already won," says Trott in an e-mail. "They've opened up a space for discussion about political and economic questions traditionally left to elites."

Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, agrees. "It's winning in the sense that it has altered public discourse about some of the most vital forces in our society. It's winning in the sense that it's growing.

"This movement is bigger than Zuccotti Park," he adds. "This movement is bigger than Dewey Square."

With ongoing oppression from public officials—and winter fast approaching—maintaining a permanent encampment is becoming a challenge, especially in the Northeast. Having a physical base for protest, however, might not be needed for Occupy to continue its advance.

"The expectation that the Occupy movement would physically occupy all of these public spaces forever is unrealistic, and not necessary, frankly," says McCarthy. "What matters is the persistence of some kind of presence in public spaces."

McCarthy suggests other public, permanent forms of protesting: regular general assemblies could still take place. Weekends could be devoted to marches and rallies. Lunch hours could be dedicated to occupying public space.

"We need to get in the streets if they're not going to let us in the parks. We need to march, we need to mobilize, we need to protest," says McCarthy. "There are a million different things that would be successful in the absence of a physical occupation."

Even if police continue to disassemble encampments nationwide, McCarthy says that we are witnessing the beginning of a social movement—not an end. "There is a lot of will behind this movement, a great moral purpose behind this movement. There is great suffering and alienation and anger that's driving this movement. And there are a lot of smart people who are organizing this movement. And that's a recipe for success."

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Blair Mountain and Labor's Living History

when miners marchBy Clancy Sigal
November 11, 2011

Ninety years on, the coal seams of West Virginia are a battlefield once more: for working people, the struggle goes on.

My first time in Westminister Abbey, London, I was taken inside by a coal miner friend who was down from South Wales for a brief London holiday. Suitably awed, we gawked at Poets' Corner, the Coronation Throne, the tombs and effigies of prelates, admirals, generals and prime ministers
England in all its majesty and pageantry. Gazing at the Gothic Revival columns, transepts and amazing fan-vaulted ceiling, my friend said, "Impressive, isn't it? Of course, it's their culture not ours."

Our culture
class conscious, bolshie, renegaderarely lay in plaques and statues, hardly ever in school texts, but mainly in orally transmitted memories passed down generation to generation, in songs and stories. "Labor history" has become a province of passionately committed specialists and working-class autodidacts, keepers of the flame of a human drama at least as fascinating and blood-stirring as the dead royal souls in the Abbey. It belongs to all of us who claim it.

I'm lucky because my family's secular religion is union. They include cousin Charlie (shipbuilders), cousin Davie (electrical workers), cousin Bernie (printers), my mother (ladies' garment) and father (butchers and barbers), and cousin Fred (San Quentin prisoners). Establishment history may have its Battle of Trafalgar and Gallipoli; we have Haymarket Square, Ludlow, Centralia and Cripple Creek: labor's battle sites, more often slaughtering defeats than victories.

Until recently, a lot of this history casually disappeared down Orwell's "memory hole", forgotten, censored or ignored. But with the spectacular emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and fight-backs in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, young people especially seem to be regaining and reinvigorating a living history. Memory stirs.

This contest for memory is a class struggle by other means. Half our story
the half where unions created the modern middle classis written in the pedestrian language of contracts, negotiations, wages and hours laws . . . the nuts and bolts of deals. After all, unions exist to make a deal.

But the other half is inscribed in the whizzing bullets, shootouts and pistol duels of out-and-out combat. Labor has its own Lexington and Gettysburg. And none more bloodily inscribed than in the hills and hollows of the West Virginia coal fields.

The 1921 five-day Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest domestic insurrection in the nation's post-Civil War history, pitting 15,000 armed "redneck" miners, with their fierce and family passions, against an army of imported gun-thugs, strikebreakers, federal troops and even a U.S. army bomber, hired by the coal companies who owned the state and federal governments and believed they owned the human beings who dug the raw coal.

The Blair Mountain shootout had been preceded and provoked by the "Matewan massacre" when a local sheriff and his deputies, sympathetic to the young miners' union, took on the coal company's hired gorillas who were evicting pro-union miners and their families from their shanties. (See John Sayles's film, Matewan.) Enraged miners marched on to Blair Mountain in the next county.

When the smoke cleared over Blair mountain, along an eight-mile front reminiscent of Flanders trenches, a hundred on both sides had been killed with many more wounded. Outgunned and under a presidential order, the miners, led by the fabulously named Bill Blizzard, took their squirrel-hunting rifles and went home
to face indictments for treason and murder, drawn up by the coal owners and their bought judges. Sympathetic juries freed most of them. (For further interest: Bill Blizzard's son, the late William C, has a book, When Miners March.)

The beautiful, heartbreaking thing is that today the Battle of Blair Mountain goes on. With protest hikes, films and pamphlets, the campaign to save the mountain
againsets local miners and their families and friends, including archaeologists and historians, against West Virginia coal owners like notorious Massey Energy, still being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal negligence in the deaths of twenty-nine miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster of 2010.

A billion dollars of undug coal inside the mountain is at stake. The world is in the middle of a coal rush. Dynamite is cheaper than people. Incorrigible companies like Massey aim to blow up Blair, via "mountaintop removal" (aka "strip mining on steroids"), to get at the coal and, while they're at it, destroy the people's battleground, the ecology and any inheritance of resistance.

It is a fight over memory and honor, with very practical consequences for the coal valleys, its displaced families, poisoned rivers, contaminated communities. For a while, it looked as if the miners and their union had won a great victory by getting Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. But with a Democratic state governor and a Democratic president refusing to take sides, the coal owners
who still control West Virginiaat the last minute suddenly found some landowners to object. With the connivance of Obama's departments of interior and environment and the Park Service, Blair Mountain was de-registered and thrown open to the pillagers.

Coal mining is where open class warfare is often at its sharpest, most visible and violent. Something about the job underground, and the shrewd tactical skills it takes not to get yourself killed by roof falls and methane gas explosions, binds miner to miner in what the military likes to call "unit cohesion." Historically, miners worldwide have been in the advance guard of social progress. It's one reason why coal companies in America, and Mrs Thatcher in Britain, always despised the miners and became obsessed with breaking their union.

Labor does not have its Westminister Abbey and probably shouldn't. Museums are no substitute for "talking union."

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State History Revised

when miners marchBy Michael Kline
November 30, 2011

I am amazed after visiting the State Museum at the Culture Center for the first time since its $17 million facelift. As a taxpayer, an oral historian and a former employee at the Department of Culture and History, I was curious about how a state exhibit on coal mining might read, or sound, in a state as friendly to coal as ours.

I went with my friend Wess Harris, a former coal miner and scrutinizer of public information
or lack of itrelated to the story of coal mining. Harris is a devoted member of the United Mine Workers and passionately committed to public education on rank-and-file labor history, especially the Battle of Blair Mountain. He facilitated publication of When Miners March by W.C. Blizzard, son of the legendary Bill Blizzard, leader of the march.

Harris agreed to give me a "Truth Tour" of the coal exhibit, which he offers to any interested individual or group.

But before we could get to the coal hall in the museum we had to pass a panel on slavery which was so vapid, inaccurate and poorly written that I am embarrassed for the department, embarrassed for school children who wander disinterestedly past these inconclusive interpretations of the darker chapters of our state's past. I saw no evidence of museum staff on hand to help students focus and no "hooks" in the exhibit panels to catch the imaginations of younger visitors.

Further down a hallway we found the coal exhibit characterized by static text and photos. The texts, in addition to being full of inaccuracies, are written with drab, ethically starved, yet loaded language with a dismissive, pro-industry tone. The overall sense seems to be that, although there have been difficulties over the years, especially the violence initiated by "ardently socialist" rank-and-file miners, that things had generally worked out over the long run for the coal industry, whatever the social and environmental costs.

To refer to leaders of the revered Redneck Army of West Virginia coal miners who fought at Blair Mountain as ardent radical socialists is a real stretcher. It betrays a class bias unbecoming to a public history enterprise. Nowhere, in the spirit of a balanced presentation, does the exhibit refer to coal operators as "boarish capitalists" who, like wild boars in the wood, eat your meat and suck your blood. So why drag out old socialist labels to pin on honest working people struggling for safe working conditions and decent pay?

Throughout the exhibit, recorded narrations play on speakers hanging from the ceiling. The speakers are not properly engineered so as to be heard in a small space in front of a particular panel. Instead divergent voices echo around the hall in a cacophony of competing sounds unintelligible to my seventy-one year-old ears. It's little wonder that the dozens of bored, cooped-up fourth-graders wandering the passageways were out of control, giggling and shouting. Probably just as well. Why fall prey so young to publicly funded propaganda in a state-supported and designed museum representing the interests of, and featuring narratives approved by, Big Coal?

In a little corner supposedly devoted to Blair Mountain is a glass case showing off a machine gun on a tripod like ones Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and his 300 "deputies" used against advancing miners in late August of 1921. On the wall behind the machine gun was a large photo of the sheriff, with a lengthy text. "Now we're getting somewhere," I thought. But the text was lit from above with tiny lights insufficient to illuminate the print, and try as I might, I could make nothing of it.

I've heard it said of Sheriff Chafin that he was mean enough to kick sick chickens in a creek. He's the kind of character who, if vividly portrayed, could galvanize the interest of fourth- and eighth-graders, as well as the rest of us. Like Wheeling's Big Bill Lias, who ran gambling and prostitution houses and Wheeling Island's racetrack for thirty years before he was jailed for tax evasion, Chafin's pathological brutality and intimidation were compelling.

So there we are standing in front of the Chafin panel, and I'm in a sweat to see what it says, but unable to decipher it in the dim light. "Do you suppose they don't really want us to read it?" I asked Harris.

"What do you think?" he retorted dryly.

Back in the parking lot, I asked Harris how he thought the department had managed to miss the mark by such a wide margin, given all of the resources available, both financial
$17 millionand historical: a rich diversity of primary sources. Then Harris produced a photograph he took of the commissioner's parking spot. It shows a large dark SUV with a "Friends of Coal" sticker on the bumper. "That's how," he said.

Kline, of Elkins, is a former member of the Goldenseal staff.

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Operation Marriage: Inspired by a Palo Alto Family, Fictional Kids Convinced Their Gay Parents to Get Married

by Jessica Lipsky and Carol Blitzer
Palo Alto Online
November 11, 2011

As a Chinese-American who grew up in Washington, D.C., Cynthia Chin-Lee knows what it feels like to be an outsider and to be ostracized.

So when the children's book author heard about a lesbian couple at her church, First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, whose kids were being bullied and harassed because of their parents' sexual orientation, she was inspired to write a book.

"It's really a sweet story because it's looking at it from the kids' point of view. They love their parents and want to see their families validated in society," Chin-Lee said.

The book tells how two kids, 8-year-old Alex and her younger brother, Nicky, are teased by their classmates because their parents—two moms —aren't married. The book is set in the Bay Area in the months preceding the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.

In the book, the children encourage their parents to marry, and much of the book concerns the personal story of their family.

"I think it's important to open the dialogue, the conversation. There are over 18,000 couples that got married in that short time in California when gay marriage was allowed, and lots of those marriages have children. The little boy that posed for Nicky in the book has two dads. There are celebrities . . . You see it, and there are kids that are going to wonder about it," Chin-Lee said.

The family that inspired the book told Chin-Lee that they had Mormon friends who were confused about Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, but went along with the church doctrine to support it. After the election, they "said they did the wrong thing because they liked the gay people as people."

Chin-Lee noted that children of gay marriages "are normal kids . . . (and) it's unfair to them not to have their families get the validation of society." Although some people disagree with her, "I hope that just by talking to them that they'll begin to realize that there's a different way of thinking," she said, pointing to the many ways families can be different. Some are headed by single parents; some are interracial or inter-faith.

"It's not so long ago that the Supreme Court made a decision about interracial marriage," she added.

Chin-Lee, who is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the author of Amelia to Zora, A if for Asia and Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea, among others, sees Operation Marriage as a civil-rights story.

"The book is for all kids, all families, not just kids with gay parents. I have a particular passion for social justice and celebrating diversity. . . . We grow from our shared humanity," she said.

She is currently trying to partner and donate a portion of the proceeds from her book to the Human Rights Campaign and Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Ultimately, she said, "If I just change one person's mind, that makes it worthwhile. And I feel that there's been much more support. It's been a great project."

Danville Express Online/Community Editor Jessica Lipsky can be emailed at; Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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Marriage Equality for Kids: A Review of Operation Marriage

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
The Pirate Tree
December 5, 2011

After years of struggle and frustration—including a close call in 2009—same sex couples gained the right to marry in New York State this past summer. The victory followed countless demonstrations, endless negotiating, the declared support of newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the powerful and courageous declaration of four Republican State Senators that they’d had a change of heart and would support the bill.
While many couples rushed to the altar, opponents of the marriage equality bill rushed to the courts to overturn the legislation. The suit recently passed its initial legal test, and the possibility remains that this hard won right may be taken away.

The snatching away of hard won rights—such as the right of same-sex couples to marry, the right to accessible and safe abortion, and the right to vote—is not without precedent in this country. Freedom and justice require constant vigilance. The fate of same-sex marriage in California serves as a perfect example, as depicted in the new picture book Operation Marriage, by Cynthis Chin-Lee, illustrated by Lea Lyon, and published by the northern California-based progressive publisher PM Press through its children’s imprint Reach and Teach.

When Alex’s best friend, Zach, tells her his parents won’t let him be friends anymore because her parents aren’t “married,” Alex and her younger brother, Nicky, decide that they must get married. In California in fall 2008, their Mama Kathy and Mama Lee still can marry, but with the rising fortunes of Proposition 8, the window is quickly closing. Alex and Nicky devise a series of clever ways to push their parents toward the altar, and they succeed a mere month before the proposition banning same-sex marriage passes. At school Alex shows the wedding photos to her classmates, and even Zach comes to recognize the joy of a wedding between two people who love each other.

Readers typically do not approach small-press-published “issue books” with high hopes for quality, but this picture book exposes the blind prejudice of that attitude. Operation Marriage is a well-constructed, age-appropriate story with an appealing cast of characters. Spunky Alex doesn’t let her best friend’s abandonment get her down; instead, she enlists her brother in a campaign that is filled with humor—blasting wedding music throughout the house, making a fake wedding program—things that will ring true to all children who’ve found creative ways to beg their parents to do something for them. The tactics escalate in emotional intensity, and the election serves as an effective “ticking clock.” Some of the aspects of the plot—such as the explanation for why Zach’s parents say he can’t play with Alex—will require some “reading between the lines.” The ending, when Zach and his mother bring brownies to Alex’s family after the wedding and the vote, may appear contrived but one can have an interesting discussion as to whether it is, in fact, contrived or a natural reaction of otherwise narrow-minded people who feel they can afford to be generous in victory. After all, minds can be changed, and some of the New York State legislators who voted against the 2009 bill were among its most vocal supporters in 2011.

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Palo Alto Family's Experience Depicted in Children's Book on Gay Marriage

By Aaron Kinney
San Mateo County Times
November 2, 2011

When "Yes on 8" signs began popping up on lawns in their Palo Alto neighborhood in 2008, Kathy and Lee Merkle-Raymond found themselves on the front line of the battle over gay marriage in California.

The same-sex couple, who were campaigning against Proposition 8, had to explain to their two young daughters why some of their friends' parents didn't want them to be allowed to marry. Then, with their daughters' encouragement, the couple decided to tie the knot before the ban on same-sex marriage took effect.

Their story is now the basis for Operation Marriage, a new children's book that could make its way into classrooms and school libraries now that California passed a law ensuring that children learn about the contributions of gays and lesbians. Author Cynthia Chin-Lee debuted the book Wednesday at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park before an audience of local families, educators and faith leaders.

Chin-Lee, a publications manager for Oracle, has written several well-received children's books exploring cultural diversity in her spare time. With Operation Marriage, she has taken on the subject of gay rights, mixing in broader themes of tolerance and bullying.

"I see this not only as a gay marriage issue, but opening the conversation of how all families are different," Chin-Lee said Tuesday.

Operation Marriage tells the story of a brother and sister who are disparaged at school by a boy who insists their moms aren't really married. After their parents console them, trying to explain the difference between a commitment ceremony and a traditional marriage, the siblings scheme to persuade their mothers to get legally married.

The schoolyard confrontation is a product of Chin-Lee's imagination, though it's rooted in her own experience. She was bullied due to her ethnicity while growing up in Washington, D.C.

Children of same-sex parents also are targets for bullies, who are ever on the lookout for children who are different.

"One thing I feel passionate about is that kids should be able to grow up without being bullied for any reason," Chin-Lee said.

Ayden Casey-Demirtjis, 7, has been teased for having two mothers. The Mountain View third-grader, who attended Wednesday's reading with mother Shannon, said that some kids have asked whether his father is dead. "I don't even really have a dad," he'll reply. "Nobody's dead."

The owners of Reach and Teach, the San Mateo-based publisher of Operation Marriage, anticipate that a new state law written by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, could help them get the book into school libraries and lesson plans. The Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful Education Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in July, adds lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to a list of underrepresented cultural and ethnic groups that need to be represented in school curriculums.

Reach and Teach is putting together an outline suggesting how the book could be taught. The publisher is also working with Our Family Coalition, a Bay Area LGBT group that holds regular forums on elementary education, including how to make curriculums more inclusive. A previous Reach and Teach book, "Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon," has earned a recommendation from an arm of the American Library Association that focuses on gay literature.

Craig Wiesner, co-owner of Reach and Teach, said having same-sex parents can create dilemmas for children right from the start of their education. He noted that a common task for children of kindergarten age is drawing a family portrait.

"For 2 million kids across the United States, that picture is going to include two parents of the same gender," Wiesner said.

Reach and Teach, along with Chin-Lee and illustrator Lea Lyon, aims to give schools materials to help children explore, and even celebrate, the differences between them.

The real-life story of the Merkle-Raymonds and the Proposition 8 campaign wound up with a happy end, although same-sex marriage is against the law in California. The Merkle-Raymonds reconciled with a family that had backed the gay marriage ban, and daughters Alex, 14, and Nikki, 11, came through the experience with their youthful optimism intact.

"I think the kids understand that there's an issue of justice and equity that in their lifetimes will change," Kathy Merkle-Raymond said. The girls' perspective is, "Our friends are going to marry whoever they want to marry, and no one's going to care."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357.

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