When the brave and brilliant journalist John Ross was offered official honors by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2009—for telling "stories nobody else could or would tell"—he refused the recognition. He then recalled having run unsuccessfully for the board in the "Summer of Love" year of 1967—with a perfect think globally, act locally slogan: "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!"—demanded his election filing fee back and complained about how when he had appeared before the board in the 1960s and 1970s as a tenant rights organizer "certain disgruntled board members would signal San Francisco County deputies to throw a hammerlock on me, drag me out of the chambers, and book me at the so-called Hall of Justice on charges of disturbing the peace."
As another fine reporter, San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond recalled, "Typically, when people are honored by the supervisors, they thank the board, praise the wonders of this city and politely and meekly receive their award. Not John Ross. The half-blind, half deaf rabble rouser made a short statement in which he managed to insult city government, denounce the entire process of giving out awards and demand that the board reject the Muni fare hike. Then he read a poem denouncing the "motherfuckers" who are driving poor people out of the Mission."
On a roll, Ross recounted repeated clashes with authorities, in San Francisco, Baghdad and Palestine. He put them all in the context of his practice of journalism—not the drab stenography to power practiced by so many reporters, but the vibrant speak-truth-to-power reporting and activism that saw Ross repeatedly risk his life to tell great stories and to demand that political and economic elites respond.
"Life, like reporting, is a kind of death sentence," Ross told the supervisors. "Pardon me for having lived it so fully."
As epitaphs go, that is a good one for Ross, who died this week in Mexico, where he had for five decades chronicled the struggles of indigenous people and the poor for justice. The activist author who in 1995 received the American Book Award for his groundbreaking book Rebellion from the Roots: Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas (Common Courage Press), died Monday at age 72 after a last battle with liver cancer.
In addition to the American Book Award, Ross collected the Upton Sinclair Award in 2005 for his epic tome Murdered By Capitalism: 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left (Nation Books). His editor, Carl Bromley, recalls that, "I worked with John for seven years, on three books. It was an extraordinary education for me. I took the greatest pride when Thomas Pynchon faxed the office with a huge endorsement for John’s book, Murdered By Capitalism." Pynchon described the book as "a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics, which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gateway of our national narrative."
Ross also penned books of poetry and, as a child of the Beat Generation and the jazz clubs of 1950s New York, some of the most politically informed cultural writing of our time. His 2009 book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (Nation Books), was part people’s history, part love letter to the city where Ross lived on and off for decades. "Of all his books, I think El Monstruo, his last, was my favorite of his, an extraordinary, phantasmagoric personal history of Mexico City, told over the last 5 million years," says Bromley. "I rate him with Galeano."