5 Lessons on Repression and Resistance on the 60th Anniversary of the Rosenberg Executions

by Will Potter on June 19, 2013

in Terrorism Prisoners

rosenberg-execution-protest-fearA few days ago, I traveled to New York City for a fundraiser benefitting the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization that supports the children of political prisoners and also supports young people who have been targeted because of their activism. I write about these issues every day — and I’m also on the advisory board of the RFC — which often makes me feel numb to what I am witnessing, out of necessity.

The event had a timeliness that made those kinds of coping mechanisms impossible. It came just a few days before the 60th anniversary of the U.S. government’s execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, during the height of the Red Scare, and the event took place on Father’s Day. As families across the country gathered together for this holiday, Robert and Michael Meeropol reflected on the murder of their parents, Jenn and Rachel Meeropol reflected on growing up with that legacy, and cast members read letters from children and parents who, at this moment, are separated by prison walls.

As I listened to their words, surrounded by generations of people who have been directly affected by government repression — through McCarthyism, through the movements of the 1960s, and the families of today’s targets — I was overcome. Overcome with a mix of sadness and rage, but also of awe. The people in the room, and the families the RFC benefits, are not “victims” of state repression. They are fighters. For many, they have continued that fight their entire lives, and their children continue in the same struggle.

The most common question I am asked about my work is also the most difficult: How do we respond to government repression? What do we do?

I think we need to answer that question honestly and humbly, because the truth is we don’t know. I don’t know what the right answer is; I don’t know what will win. We have to push forward in the best way we can, with an eye to what has come before us, and how we can learn from the past.

The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a powerful example of how to do that. In that spirit, here are 5 lessons on repression and resistance on the 60th anniversary of the Rosenberg executions:

1) Naming names will not protect you.

The government’s manufactured case against the Rosenberg’s was based on the cooperation of David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and sister-in-law, who were threatened with a similar fate unless they turned on their family.

“We rededicate ourselves to fight our government’s war-making abroad and repression at home. We will not name names. We will not keep quiet. Like Ethel and Julius we believe a better world is possible. We will nurture future generations who will carry it forward and pass it on.”– Angela Davis reading from the script by Ellen Meeropol

They responded by helping corroborate the government’s allegations that the Rosenbergs stole atomic secrets, which was untrue. The Rosenbergs’ execution was possible because others named names out of fear. They weren’t alone. Many others provided information about their friends and colleagues during the Red Scare in the hope that doing so would protect them from the witch hunt. It didn’t work. It only gave more ammunition to the McCarthyists, and ruined more lives.

Robert Meeropol’s parents stood by their beliefs and by each other, and for it they paid the ultimate price. He says he could not be more any more proud of them for their decision, and asked: Could David and Ruth Greenglass’ family say the same?

2) Build alliances and learn from other movements.

It’s easy to pay lip service to this, and toss around words like “solidarity” and “diversity.” Putting it into practice is incredibly difficult. At the RFC benefit, I was struck by how many social movements were represented: black liberation prisoners, Puerto Rican independence prisoners, antiwar prisoners, and many others.

Robert Meeropol has consistently spoken out in support of animal rights activists and environmentalists, even though some more traditional “Old Left” activists have resisted the inclusion. As Meeropol says, they are part of the same struggle:

I know there are RFC supporters who feel that fighting for animal rights is a somewhat trivial pursuit compared to trying to prevent the horrific crimes against humanity carried out by multi-national corporations and the many governments they influence or control. But the behavior against which these activists are organizing is part of the same culture that permeates the military industrial complex, the energy companies, the private prison corporations, and so on. These are the same foes we all face every day. The rights the corporations and their political flunkies seek to curtail belong to us all. And the sensibilities these heroic young militants seek to spread are the same values to which other progressives aspire.

Let’s not look down our noses at a new generation of activists whose causes vary from our own and who are doing things a little differently from what our generation did. Instead, let’s emphasize our points of convergence. We need as much solidarity as we can get in taking on the corporate juggernaut.

3) Don’t turn your back on those seen as “too militant.”

As I document in my Green Is the New Red, politicians and corporate lobbyists sent letters to national environmental groups, pressuring them to condemn “radical” groups and their tactics. If they refused, members of Congress said, they would be investigated as “eco-terrorists” as well.

Many organizations went along with this. Now, years later, some of those same organizations are being called “terrorists” as well.

As Meeropol wrote:

When people turn their backs on those they feel have been imprisoned for being too militant, it reminds me of my parents’ case. Few alive today remember that A.J. Muste, the pacifist mainstay of the War Resisters’ League, refused to get involved in the effort to save my parents’ lives because they had been accused of aiding the Soviet military. Fellow pacifist, Dave Dellinger, disagreed. He argued that regardless of what my parents might have done, all progressives should stand in solidarity with them because they were being subjected to violent, right-wing political repression.

Dellinger foresaw the long-term negative consequences of the split between leftists and liberals generated by McCarthy-era charges of communist subversion. The military industrial complex took this lesson to heart and has repeatedly driven a wedge between mainstream and militant progressive movements ever since. Those on the Left who turn their backs on Green Scare defendants, fail to see that this round of repression is another iteration of the divide and conquer strategy.

… The successful, big business-driven legislative effort to redefine terrorism as anything that hurts commodities or profits, should set off alarm bells among all people on the Left. This is part of a larger corporate strategy to have law enforcement treat all progressive activism as a form of terrorism.

4) Support political prisoners.

The target of the Rosenberg case was not just Julius and Ethel. It was the broader movement. And the target of today’s political prosecutions and disproportionate sentences are not just people like Bradley Manning, Jeremy Hammond, and Marie Mason: it’s everyone who is paying attention, and can be intimidated into silence and submission.

Standing behind political prisoners doesn’t mean you necessarily support the crimes they have been convicted of, or even that you completely agree with the social movements that they represent. It means that you recognize their politically-motivated prosecution as a tactic of repression intended to instill fear.

“I hope that some day babies won’t be separated from their mothers because of politically motivated persecution,” says Asantewa Sunni-Ali, daughter of Black Panther Fulani Sunni Ali. But in the meantime, prisoner support “helps us understand that even though our families are targeted, and our situations may be difficult, we are not alone.”

5) Carry out “constructive revenge.”

Experiencing government repression, or witnessing others experience it, is traumatic. But too often, we act as if acknowledging pain and fear is a reflection of weakness.

I would argue the opposite. Those emotions are most debilitating when we experience them alone. But when we acknowledge them together, in our communities and in our movements, they can be made into something empowering.

The Rosenberg Fund for Children grew out of that trauma, and is a form of “constructive revenge” by Robert Meeropol against those who murdered his parents The work is vital in and of itself, but it’s also an example of how to carry on histories of resistance.

As Angela Davis, RFC advisory board member, read from the script written by Ellen Meeropol:

“We rededicate ourselves to fight our government’s war-making abroad and repression at home. We will not name names. We will not keep quiet. Like Ethel and Julius we believe a better world is possible. We will nurture future generations who will carry it forward and pass it on.”

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