By Suzy Williams
September 11, 2011. Everyone I know had a big reaction to the falling of the World Trade Towers. Paranoia. One dear friend became completely unhinged. Heightened patriotism. A lot of people put two American flags on their SUVs. And renewed commitment to peace. Having been a New Yorker for 17 years, my heart broke when I learned of all the firemen who got taken out, trying to save the day. I knew a lot of those guys; they shopped at Jefferson Market on 6th, and would ask me for cooking advice. How handsome and strapping they were! The mustaches, the humorous twinkle in their eyes. They were so heroically upbeat! And they walked right into that white bomb, with the idea of saving lives as their last thought. I hurt hard about that. But what I felt most of all was that we as Americans should not blindly retaliate. That would mean the loss of more strapping firemen in other lands!
So here I was in Venice, looking for some kind of grassroots movement that I could join and en masse, (hopefully a very large masse), we could discourage the government from taking a warlike tack. Right about then I saw a flyer somewhere that addressed my soul: a gathering was invited to discuss what peacefully to do about the fall of the towers. After a brief meeting at 5 Rose (there was a public room on the ground floor then), there was an invitation to 533 Rialto, the home of Jim Smith and Yolanda Miranda. I walked in under a canopy of bougainvillea and past an Italian Zeus head fountain into a warm, brightly hued room with a big lit fireplace and a long, sturdy wooden table. The table was laden with sumptuous Mexican dishes and it smelled wonderful. Seated around the table were a handful of all stripes of folks. They turned to smile upon me and suddenly I was in love! There was Dr. Alice Stek, a Dutch OBGYN, who specialized in delivering AIDS-free babies from AIDS-infected mothers. Short-haired and strong-bodied, she nevertheless had a vulnerability that I could instantly relate to. There was Jeff Hirsh, an artist who specialized in comic drawings published in The Nation, among other venerable right-on rags. Joe Gross, a fine playwright who writes about workers and their plights. There was the Kahlo-colorful Yolanda Miranda, long-time activist for the United Farm Workers and family friend of Cesar Chavez. And there was Jim Smith.
I should tell you that I have a pretty good lefty pedigree. My dad, Dr. David Paul Williams, is what I like to call the Zelig of the Left. He was washed down the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall during the HUAC trials. His social work office in Contra Costa became headquarters for the Black Panthers. He knew Saul Alinsky, Cesar Chavez, Ralph Nader and “Bob” Scheer. He was in Selma. He organized the West Virginia coal miners. And, while he was a professor at Dalhousie in Halifax, he fought for equal pay for the women professors, his colleagues. He organized in Guyana and in Africa. My sister Jennie had Jesse Jackson rest in her home in Brooklyn between speeches, and worked for the Barry Commoner campaign and helped ban fracking in New York State.
But those east coast family members were far away and when I got to know Jim Smith even just a little, I realized I had a political home in 533 Rialto. Jim had been a labor union organizer most of his adult life. He could answer every question I had about who were our representatives, what was going on in Bosnia, and who read poetry at Venice West. His bookshelves were filled with political art books, Greek and world history and Venice history. He was fun and funny, and gave me a whole new, non-touristy perspective on my chosen town. I found myself joyously over at 533, sitting at that beautiful strong table till the candles burned very low, working to bring back the Free Venice Beachhead, which had lain fallow for a few years. We set up meetings with Beachhead founder John Haag and illustrious Beachhead writer Carol Fondiller to get their official blessing on the restart. Thus began a five-year Beachhead collective involvement and two or three years of marching on the boardwalk on Sundays to protest the war in Iraq. I had the pleasure of working with Carol Fondiller herself, homeless activist Peggy Lee Kennedy, and the charming and handsome Professor Karl Abrams.
For me, knowing the paper is still coming out every month with an entirely different set of collective members (Jim retired two and a half years ago) and that the spirit of the paper has retained the same injustice fighting, sunset loving vibe as it had at its inception is…well it’s just very heartening. I wish to thank the current and all former Collective members. But, especially, thank you… Jim Smith.