Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Dave Axelrod, presente!
By Sue Davis
Published Feb 21, 2011 5:27 PM
Dave Axelrod devoted his entire life to the fight for socialism.
Everywhere he went, he wore progressive buttons, gave out leaflets and Workers World newspapers, and talked to whomever he could find about the pressing issues of the day. He expressed his enthusiasm for political action through Workers World Party, which he joined in the early 1960s, and at work, in unions, with his neighbors and in the communities where he lived.
Axelrod believed wholeheartedly in the working class and its power to overturn capitalism. He unwaveringly supported self-determination for the world’s oppressed peoples. How excited he would be about the unfolding Egyptian revolution!
Born to left-wing political parents in 1938, Axelrod organized one of his first political activities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. Inspired by the student-led, lunch-counter sit-ins in North Carolina to end Jim Crow segregation, he organized demonstrations at Walgreens in 1960 and 1961 to stop de facto segregation and demand that Black workers be hired.
After he moved to New York City a few years later to help grow WWP, Axelrod worked tirelessly to help build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-war movement through its youth group, Youth Against War and Fascism. In 1965, he contributed a Black leader’s eyewitness account of the Los Angeles Watts rebellion to YAWF’s magazine, The Partisan.
As a YAWF spokesperson, Axelrod participated in Alternate U meetings attended by anarchist and left-leaning youth beginning in 1966. There he met draft-age men looking for ways to resist the Vietnam War. However, when he raised the need to include draft resistance as part of anti-war organizing at a Student Mobilization Committee meeting in May 1967, members of other parties shot down his proposal, although the Black students supported it.
Axelrod’s vision was verified later that year during Stop the Draft Week, when hundreds of youth marched daily from the draft board in lower Manhattan to Times Square. Draft-card burning soon became routine at U.S. anti-war demonstrations.
Driven by Axelrod’s leadership, YAWF founded the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist Movement early in 1968. Co-AIM called its first action in April, after Mayor John Lindsay, who had just instituted a racist stop-and-frisk law designed to stop Black protest, was invited to speak at a peace rally in Central Park. Co-AIM’s feeder march protested Lindsay’s declaration of war against the Black community and his nonexistent anti-Vietnam war credentials.
As several hundred Co-AIM protesters started to march out of Washington Square Park, undercover cops ambushed and assaulted them. About 150 protesters were arrested, though dozens made their way to the peace rally.
Not to be intimidated, Co-AIM organized a follow-up, “The Streets Belong to the People” demonstration, which successfully marched from the park through the East Village. It was the first major U.S. anti-imperialist, anti-war march. It attracted militant activists to YAWF and WWP.
YAWF became famous for its mobile street tactics. Axelrod made “a unique contribution by engineering mobile sound systems,” remembers YAWF member Hillel Cohen. “Because the movement couldn’t afford professional bullhorns, Dave rigged together batteries that you get at hardware stores with surplus amplification and microphones to create a device that could be assembled quickly and that you could run with to avoid the police on a mobile demonstration.”
Axelrod worked on sound through the ensuing decades, marking countless international anti-imperialist struggles. “Even though he was struggling with cancer on May Day 2010, Dave was still at the controls of the sound system,” notes Cohen.
When gentrification of Manhattan’s Lower East Side began in the mid-1970s, Axelrod, like many of his Puerto Rican neighbors, moved to Hoboken, N.J., a working-class town that was more than 50 percent Latino/a. However, gentrification began there in the early 1980s, and arsonist fires were set to drive out Latino/a families.
Moreover, landlords sought to renovate apartments and raise rents, so they tried to change the rent control law, won through struggle in 1973, to include vacancy decontrol. Axelrod and neighbor Dan Tumpson swung into action. They found that the city charter included the right to mount a referendum that could be used to try to stop vacancy decontrol.
“We needed to get 25 percent of the registered voters, which would have been 4,500, but we got 2,800 signatures, which was amazing in just five days,” recounts Tumpson. When they presented the petition, the city council meeting turned into a community revolt.
After a speaker was thrown out, Axelrod took the microphone. “Dave was asked to take his hat off, but he refused, so they just shut down the meeting,” reports Tumpson. Though the activists didn’t defeat vacancy decontrol, defending rent control continued for years; it is up again this year. “We stopped them with petitions every time,” notes Tumpson. “Dave was always great on strategy.”
Activist on the job
Not wanting a job as a corporate war industry engineer, Axelrod took unskilled jobs, which freed him to do political organizing. Nevertheless, he made a statement by choosing to work in the 1960s and 1970s as a stock clerk at the Margaret Sanger Clinic, which provided vital women’s health care. By the 1990s, he worked on the library’s technical services staff at the New York City Technical College, now called the NYC College of Technology.
A member of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Axelrod met students and faculty at work. He posted flyers about International Action Center activities and left WW newspapers in prominent places. He proofread and wrote articles for the student newspaper, including a series on the struggle to free death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Axelrod was so liked that the college declared an all-day open house in the library so that people could wish him well when he retired in 2004. Black Students Union and Haitian Club members were well represented among other students, staff and faculty.
Petra Johnson, a Trinidad native who worked with Axelrod at NYCCT, valued his friendship. “Dave was such an amazing guy. He was so warm and loving. He would reach out and have conversations with everybody. He genuinely cared about people. He often made copies of articles from Workers World to share with me, and I became aware of various issues because of him. “
Karuna Madal valued Axelrod, her neighbor, as a close friend. “David was a very caring person. We used to sit and have good discussions about politics even though we were on two different sides of the coin. We agreed to disagree. Dave was also knowledgeable about natural remedies, and I’m into homeopathy, so we talked about that too. I was glad to go with him on doctor appointments after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008.”
Marsha Goldberg, a WWP member who often walked home with Axelrod after Friday meetings, valued him as a teacher and mentor as well as a comrade. “Dave had such a strong understanding of the class struggle and of the importance of the national question. I always learned so much every time we talked. He was such a tough, dedicated fighter for the working class and for self-determination for oppressed people.”
Axelrod was so well known and liked in all parts of his life that scores of people showed up at a Hoboken funeral home to pay their respects after his death on Jan. 22. The local newspaper’s obituary noted that he was “a well-known local activist. He will be remembered for enthusiastically voicing his opinions at City Council meetings, especially for maintaining rent control. ... David was a lifelong fighter for human rights throughout the world.”
A Workers World Party memorial for Dave Axelrod is being organized. More detailed information will be announced in WW.