Sam Riddle (with microphone, of course) during U-M administration building protest in 1975.
Like Larry Gabriel, who reflects on Sam Riddle in his Stir It Up column this week, I’ve followed Sam Riddle since college days at Michigan State University, when I was student and he was a radical BMOC. Erudite, charming in a roguish way, Riddle was always quick with analysis boiled to a soundbite.
But his recent courtroom saga — the jury is still out as I write this — sent me to my basement the other day in search of something I’d written about him back then.
I dug through boxes of memorabilia to get to a 1975 issue of Grapevine Journal, a black student newspaper at MSU that I was the editor of. By that time Riddle had left MSU for law school at the University of Michigan and had become deeply involved in protests pressing for increased minority enrollment and related issues. A group named Black Action Movement II had disrupted nursing and law school classes, and when I heard hundreds of minority students had seized the administration building, I hopped in my car and drove to Ann Arbor to check it out. The cops hadn’t stopped folks from coming and leaving the occupied building, and I walked inside to find a scene of confusion. Why were demands still being hammered out after the occupation? Who was in charge? Tensions rose. Leaders were off holding discussions with administrators. Where was this headed? Some of the phone lines were cut off. There was the looming possibility of police action. And, late that night, the leaders convened a meeting to explain how this had all happened.
Riddle told of how he and two other protest leaders had intended to stage an “agitational action” — chaining themselves to the building doors — while other students were to rally in support and witness them getting hauled off to jail. It hadn’t worked out that way:
“We had been up three-and-a-half to four days. We had done more work [in the earlier disruption/demonstrations] than had been done in the last couple of years. We had less than five hours of sleep the whole time, and we had spent $50 to $80 of our own money for chains, and we were to move at quarter of seven [6:45 a.m.]. Oscar [Hearn] sat on the floor, I sat on the couch and Aubrey [Verdun] sat in a chair and the three of us went to sleep. We had the chains and the walkie-talkies with us. If people were pissed, they were rightly pissed.”
And thus, the leaders overslept for their own protest and showed up late, to find their supporters, after standing around in the cold, had started the revolution without them and streamed into the building.
After noon of the second day, the occupation was called off. Talks with the administration were to continue, but the occupation had hardly disrupted the operations of the university since office staff and administrators had continued to work despite the crowd of students clogging the building.
In the aftermath, according to my story in the Grapvine, Riddle and another leader from the takeover, were “exiled” from the Black United Front, an umbrella group for black organizations on campus. The exiles then said they had a new group, the Black Liberation Front, to take their cause and actions statewide. In his characteristic manner, Riddle vowed to up the ante: “If we don’t organize and agitate, we will be what we have historically been in times of crisis — victims.”
And it was telling the way Riddle described one of the charges that led to his exile. One of the allegations, he said, was “misuse of charisma.”
Ain’t it the truth.
The other Riddle memory that I keep coming back to of late was from a day he came through the Freep’s City Hall bureau when I worked there in the ’80s. After a stint on the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign — Riddle was in on the Rainbow Coalition’s upset win in the 1988 Michigan primary — he was off to write a novel, as I recall, about a “hypocritical black preacher who runs for the presidency.”
After many years as a political gun for hire, Riddle himself has admitted he’s taken on some questionable clients. From what we’ve seen in his trial — regardless of how the jury weighs the claims of his informant-accusers — misguided charisma and hypocrisy will be the least of the clouds on his name. And, of course, we can expect his trademark flamboyance in his own defense.