John Ross, 1938-2011, Beat Poet, Revolutionary Journalist

John Ross.jpg
John Ross -- beat-era poet and revolution-championing journalist -- died this week in Mexico of liver cancer. He was 72 --- or was it 73? The Associated Press says the former, Counterpunch's Frank Bardacke, another veteran of the Bay Area left, says the latter. Whatever, the age matters less than the life lived, and Ross got the most out of whatever years he had.

He was mainly a West Coast phenomenon these past few decades, but Ross's roots were here in the Village where he was a true child of the early beat era. But even if the name is new to you, John Ross's passing is worth noting if only to confirm that these marvelous characters once walked the earth, and their kind is not likely to pass this way again.

For starters, there were Ross's travels with Latin American revolutionaries, including the secretive Zapatistas of Chiapas province in Mexico whose story he told in "Rebellion From the Roots," which won an American Book Award in 1995.

Then there's his autobiography, "Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years on the American Left," Nation Books, 2004. Thomas Pynchon, whose praise is almost as hard to find as his picture, dubbed it "a rip-snorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gates of our national narrative."

In between there was poetry and politics, and lots of it. The poems were published in ten little chapbooks (Bomba! was his most recent), and read aloud alongside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both in Mexico City and at City Lights in San Francisco.

That was his Village roots showing through. Ross did his first public poetry reading as a teenager from the stage of the Half-Note, after Charles Mingus had finished playing. Backstage at Town Hall, he sold a joint to Dizzy Gillespie. He helped Max Gordon book Jack Kerouac into a disastrous week-long gig at the Village Vanguard, and did promo for one of the Voice's first events - a Billie Holiday concert at the old Loew's Sheraton on Seventh Avenue. Lady Day arrived hours late. Ross was thrilled because he got to hold her tiny dog.

As for the politics, it earned him a year in the federal can for refusing induction into the army in 1964,one of the first to take that ultimate stand. He later hooked up with the then pro-poet and pro-Maoist Progressive Labor Party and ran for election in 1967 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on its ticket. When police broke up a rally during that summer of love, Ross caught a nightstick in the face leaving him with an eye injury from which he never fully recovered. Years later, he caught another beating, this time from Israeli settlers when he tried to help Palestinian farmers pick olives from their own fields in Nablus.

He tried to put himself in harm's way again in 2006, when he went to Iraq on the eve of the war where he tried to serve as a "human shield." Saddam's minders considered him a threat and booted him from the country. A year ago, as John Nichols writes in The Nation, where Ross was a contributor, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors - now loaded with sympathizers - tried to honor Ross. Nothing doing. He denounced them as toadies who were throwing poor people out of the Mission.

John Ross. Live like him.


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11 comments
Fennell3
Fennell3

Last night, April 29, 2011, Northtown Books in Arcata California,was jam packed with friends and acquaintances of John Ross. The book store was filled to the max! Some of us read our favorite Ross poems and then there was a set of poetry set to music...all Johns words. He would have dug this event. It was a fantastic celebration. It was topped off with two amazing cakes baked by Monica Zerzan whose mom, Laura Zerzan was once wed to John...to be continued.Sista SoulKHSU, KHSU.org

Claudio
Claudio

Dante, I remember when U were born, U share a birthdate with our daughter, same hospital. Your father shared an appartment with the rest of us on Julian Street in the Mission District off an on between 1965-66. I remember when your mother brought bottle of cockroaches to the SF Health Dept. and let them loose as a protest against their lack of enforcement of health laws. I have pictures of your dad facing off with landlords and police officers, he was the driving force behind the Mission Tenants Union. I worked with your dad on some Mexico stories and I consider it a privilege to have known him, in the memory of your dad, a great human being, Claudio Beagarie.

Skippy
Skippy

Finding a quiet place to study in Nelson Hall at Humboldt State University in the early 80′s, yours truly was nearly booted out by an out-of-the-area special interest group coming in to lecture– but allowed to stay “as long as I was quiet.”

The group encompassed a small gathering of 40-50 year olds, looking very conservative in their attire and outlook. This national group, Accuracy in Media (AIM), led by chief-fat-cat Reed Irvine suspiciously dressed in a tailored three piece suit and looking rather out of place, was here not only to collect his hefty salary and per diem expenses but to present their premise: setting the record straight on important news and media issues that have received biased, slanted coverage. Mr. Irvine and AIM called onto citizens to contact newsmakers, reporters and news corporations to end perceived and deliberate liberal media bias, giving a few examples.

A voice from the back of the room immediately questioned their intent and agenda.

“Who are you, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed asked.

“I’m John Ross,” the voice answered.

“And, Pilgrim, what do you do?”

“I’m an Investigative Poet and Journalist!” came the reply.

“Oh, do you write Letters to the Editor, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed condescendingly asked.

John Ross boldly stood up. He wasn’t about to take this sitting down. Nor be referred to as ‘pilgrim.’ His voice thundering, John laid down his qualifications. Without missing a beat, he then thoroughly peppered AIMs connections to its own bias and slants in the media, questioned their funding from right wing conservative groups ranging from the Republican Party to John Birchers, having unfavorable editors fired and forced retractions made, and AIMs deliberate role in massacre cover-ups in El Salvador and other incidents leading all the way up the ranks to the Reagan Administration. John Ross knew his details, facts, and questions… and his direction.

Like a train wreck, AIMs meeting came to a grinding halt. Mr. Irvine was at a flabbergasting loss to shut Mr. Ross, Investigative Journalist, up. John continued until Mr. Irvine threw down his ace card in final exasperation.

“I’ll have you arrested!” Mr. Irvine roared, “for disturbing the peace! Call the police! Call the police now!”

Mr. Ross roared back, “Call the police. I’ll have you arrested– for violating civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press, and of assembly! AIM is a sham, a front group for propaganda, and you’re deceptively telling lies to everyone! You’re not revealing your right wing ties and agenda to our citizens here, even when asked! AIM won’t– and doesn’t– allow free speech! What kind of fairness and accuracy in media is this? Go ahead, call the police and have me arrested!”

The campus police came. They refused to arrest Mr. Ross once both sides were explained, or, vociferously argued and yelled over. AIM and Mr. Reed, his three piece suit and his supporters, promptly packed up and left town unceremoniously. They’ve never returned. After that kind of welcome, would you?

Pleasantly amazed and shocked over this drama unfolding before my very eyes and ears, Mr. Ross stood up for a righteous and just cause; he wasn’t merely a journalist, he was a complete fire-breathing tiger– as thin and diminutive as he initially appeared.

At that moment I knew Arcata was a very special and unique place– and this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of Mr. John Ross.

Rest in peace, my friend. Many owe much to you.

Skippy
Skippy

Dante, it was good to hear from you. Sista Soul, that was a nice tribute, I caught it. Frank Bardacke, your words were thoughtfully spot-on, John would've appreciated them.

John Ross was a great man. Many owe so much to him. A few running comments and a piece of his earlier 1982 work on Racism in Humboldt, can be found at the Humboldt Herald website here

peace, skipshumboldt county

Sista Soul
Sista Soul

Today I aired a radio show John did with me in 1993. It was a music show, soul, R@B, and politics like only Ross could deliver. I have one other show of music that we did together..I just have to find it!I love John. He changed me, just a little and just enough.If you want to hear the show, please contact KHSU at 707 826 4807 and ask Katie to please put it on KHSU's web site.I will truly miss this man.Peace and LoveSista Soul

Dante Ross
Dante Ross

I have and I will. John Ross was and is my father. Thank you for your article next time recognize his off spring maybe though.

Dante Ross

NYC

Josehblum
Josehblum

john was born march 11, 1938

Russell Smith
Russell Smith

Tony Ortega: where are you going to find a dude like writer Robbins anywhere else in the universe of New York journalism? My suggestion, book him at least once a month as a freelance memoirist.---Or sign him up for one and another of the fine art of the obituary like the one just written. Doug (Martin) and Margalit (Fox) of the New York Times? Can you put out there the way Robbins' John Ross obit does?

Eddie Stack
Eddie Stack

Condolences, Dante. I met you many years ago when I lived on Bartlett St, SF with John. He was very proud of you and I remember how excited he was when you came to visit.

eddie stack,

Ireland

Buck
Buck

Condolences. There was no man like your father.

BuckArcata

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