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."
There is so much more to be said about the remarkable Ross, but he was a wordsmith. So let’s give him the last word.
Here, in full, is his statement from 2009 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors:
Forty years ago when I would appear before this honorable board as an organizer for the Mission Tenants Union to protest the devastation of working class housing in our neighborhood, 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.
To prevent a repeat of these painful events, I ask my companeros and companeras to join me at the podium today and watch my back.
Punishment for the commission of the crime of independent journalism can be harsh. I have danced with death throughout my checkered career—May 1st 1986, the 100th anniversary of International Workers Day on the streets of Santiago Chile when I inadvertently walked into one of Pinochet’s machine guns; climbing into a guerrilla camp in the Cauca Valley of Colombia; at the end of a road to a Waste Management toxic incinerator above Playas de Tijuana where some company goon took 13 potshots at my person—when I called the Examiner for whom I then slaved, I was told to forget all about it.
Death was on our plate when we set out for Baghdad to place our bodies between Bush’s bombs and the Iraqi people in March 2003 and when I went picking olives with Palestinian farmers in the Nablus Valley where Israeli settlers beat me within an inch of my life.
Life like reporting is a kind of death sentence. Pardon me for having lived it so fully.
I have mulled too long about whether or not to accept an honor from a city that has become nothing less than a sanctuary for the rich. This was once a sanctuary city for the refugees of U.S. wars in Latin America—now the indocumentados are being rousted, jailed, and sent back to their devastated home countries from right here in Sanctuary City. I have debated receiving an honor from a city where greedy landlords bleed their tenants dry, a city that pushes the poor into the street and treats the homeless like so many cockroaches, a city where the police continue to run riot in neighborhoods of color—a few weeks ago, recuperating from liver cancer chemotherapy I was slammed twice in the chest and threatened with being sent back to hospital by a Mission District cop while I witnessed a rough arrest on Valencia and 24th—you can read all about it in my citizens’ complaint recently reprinted in the Bay Guardian.
How can I accept an honor from a city that cloaks itself in rampant hypocrisy and the fake green of filthy lucre?
The truth is I cannot. Thanks anyway.
Hell, I don’t even live here anymore. For the past 25 years, I have been an expat holed up in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, an exile from the racist social and economic policies of the United States of North America.Instead of drawing up hollow proclamations "honoring" derelict beat poets and wild parrots, the Board of Supervisors would do well to honor the poor and working class citizens of this city who struggle daily to survive here in this lap of luxury by making San Francisco a place where they can still live. One place to start is by nullifying the outrageous Muni fare hikes that will soon come before you.
There is one more thing you can do for me today. In 1967, I ran for the Board of Supervisors under the banner of "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!" We paid our registration fee and five days later I was attacked by the SFPD after an anti-police brutality rally at the old Mission station—I eventually lost my left eye as a result of this attack. The notoriety attracted the interest of a candidate with a similar name—Tom Ross—who had me barred from the ballot after he discovered that I was an ex-felon—I was the first U.S. citizen to be sent to federal prison for refusing induction in the Vietnam-era military. When we demanded our filing fee returned the county registrar refused. On election day, people who voted for me were arrested for tampering with the voting machines.
I want my filing fee back. With interest.
As a veteran San Francisco performing poet, I am obligated to leave the Board with a poem from a recent collection "Against Amnesia."
RONCO Y DULCE
Coming out of the underground
On the BART escalator,
The Mission sky
Is washed by autumn,
The old men and their garbage bags
Are clustered in the battered plaza
We once named for Cesar Augusto Sandino.
Behind me down below
In the throat of the earth
A rough bracero sings
Of his comings and goings
In a voice as ronco y dulce
As the mountains of Michoacan and Jalisco
For the white zombies
To the dot coms.
They are trying to kick us
Out of here
They are trying to drain
This neighborhood of color
This time we are not moving on.
We are going to stick to this barrio
Like the posters so fiercely pasted
To the walls of La Mision
With iron glue
That they will have to take them down
Brick by brick
To make us go away
And even then our ghosts
Will come home
And turn those bricks
And take back our streets
Brick by brick
And song by song
Ronco y dulce
As Jalisco and Michaocan
Managua, Manila, Ramallah
Pine Ridge, Vietnam, and Africa.
As my compa QR say
We here now motherfuckers
Tell the Klan and the Nazis
And the Real Estate vampires
To catch the next BART out of here