I believe our stories are important, even as I’ve believed that my particular story wasn’t really all that important. But, I thought I’d share anyway.
I joined the International Socialist Organization in 1992, when I was still a junior at Dixie Heights High School in northern Kentucky.
Built by the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration, my high school was a disturbing, racist homage to the Confederacy. Aside from the Confederate flag that adorned the school’s main entrance, the school’s fight song romanticized the “land of cotton.” Yet, for some of us that understood there were no “good times” to be forgotten, we could not simply “look away, look way.” Dixieland—for me and my teenage friends—was a suffocating atmosphere. The privileged children of Proctor & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank, and General Electric executives had fancy cars, expensive Guess jeans, and swimming pools at their luxury homes. Their parents had money, expensive college educations, and social connections that promised bright futures as business professionals with the upper-class lifestyles they would inherit.
My dad was a car mechanic and veteran. His hands were huge, hard, and always covered in grease. I never heard him curse and rarely saw him drink. My mother was a high school dropout who landed a poverty-wage job as a teacher’s aide for children with disabilities. Despite her own undereducation, she devoted everything to teaching “problem children” how to read. Her guiding principle was, “The child who gives you the most trouble is the one who needs you most.” She brought us to volunteer each year at the Special Olympics. Together, they instilled a stubborn sense of self-reliance and human compassion in me. Their humanism was not based in any strict religious conviction, but in the fundamental understanding of shared humanity, struggle, and survival in a world that devalued all of those things.
The water in our home was delivered by rusty, diesel trucks with hulking tanks every few weeks. To save water and money, we abided by the old-time Kentucky rule, “If its brown, flush it down. If its yellow, let it mellow,” before it was funneled into a tank buried in our back yard. We washed our clothes in a banged-up, used “warshin’ machine” and hung them outside to dry. When something was wrong with our home, we did the repairs ourselves; shingles, floors, toilets, water tanks. Our family cars were a constantly rotating cast of hoopties and bangers, like a 1978 Plymouth Volare, retired from a fleet of Orkin Pest Control and spruced up with patches of dark grey primer. The junkyards that dotted the hills of rural Kentucky were my playgrounds; I still carry the scars.
My notion of a wealthy family was a paved driveway and “city water.” While my mom’s teaching job provided us with some healthcare, we knew that dental care was only for rich people. Growing up poor in a world that seemed to only value material things caused me tremendous shame. When friends would drop me off from soccer practice, I often told them to drop me off in the neighborhood next door. My parents had no experience with college, and so I always assumed I would never go. I learned that my people were not valuable, not educated, and our opinions didn’t count. I was called a hillbilly. I was called white trash.
Luckily, my parents made me stubborn. And I became an extremely angry teenager. Anything that smacked of the smug, privileged, pretentious, self-entitled world that denigrated my family’s reality quickly became a legitimate target for my anger.
As I witnessed the horrific cheerleading of the penny-loafer and khaki-clad crowd for George Bush’s invasion of Iraq during Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, and what became known as the Gulf War, I realized something. While my family was poor and denigrated, the people of Iraq were literally being bombed to death. I was livid. Along with several friends, we put together a protest in downtown Cincinnati against the war. We were all high school students, we were pissed, and we found solidarity in each other.
And then, in 1992, the Black, brown, and poor people of Los Angeles erupted in open rebellion against the police. It was everything I dreamed of. It vindicated every sense of belittlement I had experienced in my young life. It showed me that a real fightback was possible and it was incredibly inspiring.
My radicalization was visceral and angry. In every resistance and rebellion—whether in Iraq or in Los Angeles—I deeply felt the righteous indignation and stubborn self-reliance of my people. It was that summer, of 1992, that I met ISO members tabling in an area frequented by punx near the University of Cincinnati. I was intrigued, mailed in the contact form from Socialist Worker, received a phone call, and was invited to a house party.
I went to my first ISO meeting at UofC. These people seemed very smart. Their analysis far exceeded, but supplemented my anger. I was intimidated and didn’t speak in a meeting for nearly a year. My socialization weighed heavy on me; my family wasn’t educated, there were no discussions of theory in my house. Shit, my parents never even voted. The university setting was totally alien to me. I didn’t really belong there, but I had grown comfortable with trespassing. Why would I say anything in this meeting; I clearly had very little to contribute.
But, I learned a lot. I eventually enrolled in a trade school. But, it was in ISO meetings that I studied history, political theory, and even economic theory. ISO meetings were the single-most valuable part of my education; an education I never would have had the opportunity for any other way.
In 1993, I travelled to Coschocton, Ohio with several other friends and comrades to oppose a Ku Klux Klan organizing rally. By this time, I had gained lots of experience in anti-Klan organizing. I’m from a family with KKK members. I’ve worked at jobs with more open Klansman than anyone should have to. I’ve known these people and I hate them. In Coschocton, the police force was tiny. The Klan presence was also relatively small. The anti-racists, however, numbered several hundred. And while police had routinely erected giant fences and “protest zones” in other cities, Coshcocton police barely mustered a miserable line of caution tape between themselves, the Klan, and our side.
The protesters were an array of Anti-Racist Action, a large, interracial contingent of Motor City Skinheads (SHARP) from Detroit, anarchists, socialists, and others. As soon as the Klan leader spoke into his PA system, I remember a brick sailing over the head of the crowd, over the Klansman, and crashing through the glass door of Coschocton’s town hall building. The fight was on.
Police freaked out and hurriedly ushered the Klan contingent through the side of the town square onto the street where they had a permit for a parade. Protesters were having none of it. A barrage of rocks, sticks, bricks, and abuse rained down indiscriminately on the Klan and police. One cop was hit in the head and knocked off his horse. The cops and the Klan, hand in hand, literally ran for their lives for the last half of their parade and disappeared into the basement of the town hall. Then, police on horseback waded into the throngs of protesters, swinging batons. My collar bone was smashed by one of them and I had painful trouble just turning my head for weeks afterward. But that experience, of literally chasing racists off the streets, has stuck with me ever since. Those victories haven’t come often enough.
Seven years later, in the midst of the Global Justice movement, I was part of an ISO contingent that occupied and shut down a key intersection in the capital of the United States. Activists from around the world had descended onto Washington, DC to shut down meetings of the International Monetary Fund. We formed human and physical barricades throughout the city in an attempt to stop IMF bureaucrats from reaching their meetings. I remember a cordon of 20-30 cops on motorcycles turning the corner, seeing our occupation, pausing, and then turning around and leaving. I felt a sense of collective power like I had never witnessed before.
In 2001, the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine exploded against yet another racist police murder. I didn’t sleep for several nights in a row—I was in the streets with my comrades, fighting. We took over a police station. We set shit on fire. We threw shit at cops. We held forums. We made friends with Black Panthers and Nation of Islam militants. We transformed our ISO branch into one that represented the demographics of the city. I am a veteran of that rebellion and will forever be proud of that.
There were similar experiences in the following years. The occupation of the capital building in Madison, WI, the massive May Day general strike for immigrant rights, the epochal Chicago Teachers Union strike, the boldness of the movement for Black lives. Far from the awkward, teenage Kentucky kid who felt isolated and undervalued, these struggles gave me personal confidence and filled me with faith in our collective, shared humanity.
I have infinite gratitude for the comrades who were patient with me, taught me, and struggled alongside me. I hope that I have returned that favor with others. I will always remain committed to the self-emancipation of the working-class, the fight against all oppressions anywhere, and the righteous indignation that fuels our shared humanity and struggle. My people have never had any other options.