East Village pacifist David McReynolds has been arrested at least 15 times in pursuit of his varied causes, once for organizing and leading a 1967 sit-in during the Vietnam war at the downtown Whitehall Military induction center. Arrested with him were leftwing luminaries like Allen Ginsberg, Grace Paley and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
McReynolds, who was on the editorial board of the now defunct Liberation magazine, was arrested two years earlier for burning his draft card in Union Square. Along the way, he visited Hanoi before the fall of Saigon to the communist North Vietnamese — or, as he would put it, “the liberation of Saigon” that occurred just before May Day 40 years ago.
So it wasn’t totally surprising when this tall, longtime warrior for peace, now 85, was busted on April 28 along with 21 other demonstrators for blocking an entrance to the US Mission to the United Nations during a protest against nuclear proliferation.
The demonstration was largely organized by the War Resisters League, one of the oldest pacifist groups in the country, which employed McReynolds for 39 years as a field secretary and spokesman. It operates out of a rundown three-story loft building on 339 Lafayette Street known as the Peace Pentagon. Once owned by the WRL, the rickety edifice is held together by scaffolding and is up for sale again in the pricey Noho historical district.
“It was a very easy arrest,” said McReynolds, who generally visits the the Peace Pentagon on Sunday afternoons to feed the WRL’s beloved orange tabby cat Rustie on the second floor. “I was out of the stationhouse and back home by 2 p.m.” He added: “It’s much easier to be arrested if you’re middle class and white than if you’re poor and black.”
Just another day in the life of a radical icon who ran for president twice on the Socialist Party USA ticket in 1980 and again in 2000 — the first openly gay candidate to do so.
McReynolds, who joined the party in 1951, was decidedly more disturbed earlier this year when he received a letter of censure sent by comrades in the National Committee of the SPUSA accusing him of making “potentially racist” statements on his Facebook page about the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris and on the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO.
The letter identifies SPUSA’s address as Room 303 at 339 Lafayette Street (the Peace Pentagon) and was signed Feb. 17 by Greg Pason, the party’s national secretary. Ironically, Pason told this reporter in 2012 that he became a socialist after hearing McReynolds speak.
“Specifically, this censure is in response to a comment made by you on January 7th, 2015, in which you stated that the Charlie Hebdo attacks require an examination of why Islam is violent as compared to Christianity and Judaism, a comment that many of our members perceived to be Islamophobic,” read the SPUSA letter in part to McReynolds.
“This censure is also in response to a comment on November 29, 2014, in which you identified Michael Brown as being ‘thuggish.’ In this case, many of our members felt the comment to be insensitive and potentially racist. The National Committee will not tolerate statements portending bigotry made by anyone among our membership.”
McReynolds told B+B he was “stunned” and thrown into confusion when he first read the letter, noting he has not been an active member in SPUSA for several years and had received no warning from the the national committee that his choice of words warranted an official rebuke. He said the vote of censure was 5 to 3.
“It didn’t make sense,” he said of the action. “And I thought it was wrong. I thought it was an example of young people in the party with a tendency [toward] political correctness.” He added: “It was one of those things that the kids do when they’re targeting the older generation. It’s very Freudian.”
Even so, McReynolds emailed a lengthy letter of resignation to SPUSA members, attempting to explain how he is “absolutely opposed to efforts to demonize Muslims” and noting that he did not say Michael Brown was a thug.
McReynolds could not recall his exact words on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that he wrote on his Facebook page, but told us that he considers Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS to be something new in the annals of violence because members use well orchestrated media campaigns-unlike Nazi Germany which, he said, kept its atrocities secret.
His exact words on the shooting death of Michael Brown read as follows: “The killing was not in my view justified. But the video clips of Michael Brown in his theft of minor items just before the shooting show a youth who is thuggish in how he behaved toward the store keeper. This does not justify the shooting. But neither does it justify petty theft from a small store owner.”
The censuring of McReynolds sparked intense debate among leftists and prompted several members of the SPUSA to resign, among them a Los Angeles writer and political journalist named Thomas Scott Tucker and his husband Larry Gross. Both had been members of the local chapter since 2009.
Tucker, who told B+B he first met McReynolds in 1973 and has never known him to use racist terminology, fired off an open “scarlet letter” to the party on an online socialist venue, stating, “I will say clearly and for the record that democratic socialists who take free speech and civil liberties so lightly cannot be trusted either with basic democracy or with socialism.”
Patrick C. Labbe, a registered nurse in the Charleston, SC, area, said he decided not to renew his membership mainly because of the censure of McReynolds. “I just could not stay with an organization that expects all of its members to walk in lockstep.”
Pason declined a request to discuss the matter with us, saying in an email that he regarded the censure as a “minor issue.” Asked to elaborate, he wrote back: “We don’t have a formal statement of any sort, and the action was not very public as long as you define ‘censure’ as communicating concern and strong disagreement with an action by a member of the party-we’ve moved on to other work.”
Meanwhile, McReynolds’ supporters and friends outside the SPUSA are still outraged by the national committee’s censure. “A small group of self-important people did this in private and in secret, and it shows a basic lack of human decency,” said Bruce Cronin, a political science professor at City College of New York and chairman of the department. “The level of ingratitude is astounding from a human perspective.” Cronin noted that McReynolds ran for president twice on the SPUSA ticket. “He’s been the most effective promoter of socialism is the U.S. since Norman Thomas and he’s kept it alive for 40 years. Politically, this shows a segment of the left trying to enforce a Stalinist code of orthodoxy.”
David Schaif, an officer in the party’s executive committee of the central New York local, believes the censure of McReynolds was “appropriate.” He contends that McReynolds’ comments were “indefensible” because, in his view, they portray Islam as “a violent religion” and raise the possibility that “petty theft justified the killing of Michael Brown.” However, he regards the censure itself as a “toothless expression of displeasure” and predicted it will have minimal impact on SPUSA’s membership, estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 nationwide.
Schaif also faulted the party’s national committee for being “impolite” if, as claimed by McReynolds, they failed to notify him in advance of the vote on censure. He noted that his local, based in Syracuse, adopted a motion last month to encourage McReynolds to consider rejoining the Socialist Party and to request that the party’s national committee seek out ways to “mend fences.”
Relaxing over a glass of seltzer, McReynolds, who was raised in Los Angeles by devout Baptists, made it plain he’s used to taking flack from fellow socialists. He said there was an attempt in the late 1950s to censure him for writing an article in the Village Voice supporting Republican John Lindsay when he was running for mayor of New York City.
He also remembers being censured by the SPUSA outright for having a long-ago lunch with the late Max Schactman, who had been an associate of Leon Trotsky. “Max’s group was on the Attorney General’s list of subversives at the time and you weren’t supposed to have relationships with any of those groups,” he recalled.
McReynolds is a staunch anti-authoritarian socialist and calls capitalism a “failed system” that mainly benefits the 1 percent. He remains a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
Would he ever consider voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton now that’s she running again for president? “No, I think Hillary’s record on foreign policy is very hawkish,” he said firmly. “She and her husband are very much aligned with Wall Street. I’m not fond of either one.” He added, “I don’t hate Hillary. I don’t understand that attitude. Among other things, I think the whole idea of a dynasty — whether it’s Bush or Clinton — is appalling. I can’t vote for either one under any circumstance. I would just stay home.”