Bucking the trend

First they came for the Arab-Americans, but I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t Arab.

Then they came for the Muslims, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Muslim.

Then they came for those who opposed the president’s perpetual war, and I didn’t speak up because I didn’t want the neighbors to know.

Then they came for the liberals and I didn’t speak up because no one wants to be called a liberal.

Then they came for me, but by that time, there was no one left to speak up at all.

—With apologies to Pastor Martin Niemöller.


Len Grossman is deeply worried about civil liberties in this country, thinks the coming USA Patriot Act II is frightening, and is strongly opposed to what seems an inevitable war against Iraq. His personal record of patriotism can’t, however, be compared to that of President Bush. When he was a young soldier, Grossman had a Nazi shell land in his foxhole; he endured five or six operations.

Today he walks with a limp and a leg full of shrapnel. Our commander in chief, as we know, had strings pulled (having a congressman for a daddy helps!) to get into the Texas National Guard, where he showed up some of the time.

Ismael Ahmed can’t be compared to the president either. He enlisted and was sent to Vietnam, if only briefly; two brothers did harder duty there. Men whose fathers were immigrant peddlers had limited pull. He survived, came home, and helped start ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services), a private social welfare agency that has done more to fight terrorism than all the John Ashcrofts in the world, by helping Arab immigrants acclimate to life in America and buy into the American dream.

Incidentally, Grossman is Jewish; Ahmed, Muslim.

And both will be present Saturday night at an event where people who are fighting all sorts of good fights come together once a year to socialize, network, have fun, enjoy mediocre food, see some decent-to-great entertainment … and raise money for causes ranging from the ACLU to food banks to the dinner itself.

They’ve been doing this since 1929, when Maurice Sugar, a truly legendary labor lawyer and political activist, shot a deer. Gallantly, he decided to have a party to raise some cash for the unemployed. So he invited his friends, cooked venison on a wood stove, and 10 diners ate, sang songs and told stories, and threw in half a buck each. Half a buck ... get it?

Well, it didn’t quite solve poverty in America, or ward off the Great Depression, but it was seen as a good idea, and they did it again the next year, and the next. In those early days turnouts were tiny, and the sums collected were anything but huge; those on the left were seldom flush with cash.

When things turned ugly during the late ’40s and early ’50s, going to the Buck Dinner could conceivably be hazardous to your health. J. Edgar Hoover, a sort of early Ashcroft, sent FBI agents to spy on attendees. Cops of various badges tried to infiltrate.

Mike Miller, a teacher who chaired the Buck Dinner a few years ago, remembers throwing snowballs at FBI agents writing people’s license numbers down in the parking lot.

Ten years ago, there was some question as to how much longer the Buck Dinner would go on. After all, the Cold War was over, McCarthyism had been defeated, and the old labor radicals were getting long in the tooth.

Ken Mogill, a lawyer active in civil rights causes, remembers when he began attending Buck Dinners in the late 1970s, they were drawing 50 or 65 people or so. But then, the children of the old radicals began growing up, settling down, and discovering that the issues may have changed, but some of the causes and the problems were still the same.

Then came the age of Reagan, and suddenly they learned sweatshops weren’t ancient history at all, and neither was union-busting. Newspaper people in this town had largely lost interest in union issues, until reality whacked them upside the head with a Gannett-Ridder billy club in 1995.

These days, attendance has been climbing. Last year, Mogill said, an estimated 400 people came to the Buck Dinner. The entertainment has gotten better; Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton have performed in recent years.

“The one sad thing is that because of the growing size of the Buck Dinner, it is no longer practical to cook our food ourselves,” Mogill said.

But there is still always some venison available (not, hopefully, from that original deer) as well as a variety of standard buffet-style fare.

For years, in honor of tradition and to thwart stool pigeons, the Buck Dinner has been a highly decentralized affair that was kept out of the media spotlight. Attendance is by invitation only, and you have to be invited by a “headhunter,” someone who had earned the right to organize a table.

“Usually someone would be invited, and as time went on they would graduate to become headhunters themselves and start new tables,” Mogill said.

Frankly, I can’t think of a more fascinating group of people or a more important tradition, in an era when civil liberties, and world peace, are under severe attack. But there may be people who ought to be there who aren’t connected to one of the usual networks. If you think you might want to be matched up with a headhunter, give Len Grossman a call: 248-723-4425.


Keep hope alive: Last week I called U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ Washington office early one morning, and to my surprise his own familiar voice answered the phone. “Impeachment Committee!” he said merrily. One more proof that the dream never dies.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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