Remembering John Ross

Pub date January 25, 2011
WriterTim Redmond

P>John Ross — poet, journalist, hell raiser, and iconic San Franciscan — died Jan. 16 of liver cancer, on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico. He had been writing for the Guardian fairly consistently since 1982, for the last 25 years as our Mexico City correspondent.

I wrote a fairly lengthy obituary for him that’s posted on the politics blog at There are so many stories to tell about John that it’s hard even to begin, but my favorite was his tale of the day he left Terminal Island, the federal prison near Los Angeles where he served more than two years for refusing the draft during the Vietnam War.

The warden saw him to the gates, he told me, and than shook his head and said, “Ross, you never learned how to be a prisoner.”

And that was pretty much the story of his life. He lived every day in the spirit of freedom and social justice. He was beaten by the police in the streets of San Francisco and lost an eye. He went to Baghdad to stand in the way of the bombs when George W. Bush invaded. He dodged Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s bullets in Chile. He was madly fearless and would go wherever the story was.

I wanted this page to be about his life, not his death, so I’m reprinting some of my favorite John Ross poems. They were all self-published, some in booklets photocopied and stapled together, some done at cut-rate printers, but none still available from anyone. They are all labeled “anti-copyright.” I just hope my copies aren’t the last ones on Earth.

There will be a memorial in San Francisco soon. I’ll publish the details when I have them. you can also e-mail for updates.

P.S.: John, as I expected, left very specific instructions for his remains. I quote:

I ask that my body be rendered into ashes and the ashes distributed in the following locations: Trinidad, California, both flow from the bluffs and sprinkled atop the gravesite of my old comrade, E.B. Schnaubelt, a noted anarchist.

San Francisco, strewn along the Mission 14 route between 24th and 16th streets and deposited in the planter boxes outside the Café Bohème.

Mexico, some of my ashes can be dumped in the ashtrays outside the Hotel Isabel and on the sidewalk outside the Cafe la Blanca. A handful can be spread in the zócalo plaza. Other ashes can be spread at the Zapatista caracol in Oventik, on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, and in the boneyard at Santa Cruz Tanaco, where my first-born, Tristram, is buried, both in Michoacán.

New York City, my place of birth: I ask that my ashes be strewn in Washington Square Park and other pertinent venues in the East and West Village in addition to Union Square. The remainder of my ashes should be rolled into marijuana cigarettes and smoked by participants in these scatterings. *



The big gray ships

They move so powerful slow

It almost seems We are not getting There.

This gives one hope.

(From At The Daily Planet, 1981)



Coming out of the underground On the BART escalator, The Mission sky Is washed by autumn, The old men and their garbage bags Are clustered in the battered plaza We once named for Cesar Augusto Sandino. Behind me down below in the throat of the earth A rough bracero sings Of his comings and goings In a voice as ronco y dulce As the mountains of Michoacan and Jalisco For the white zombies Careening downtown To the dot coms. They are trying to kick us Out of here Again They are trying to drain This neighborhood of color Of color Again. This time we are not moving on. We are going to stick to this barrio Like the posters so fiercely pasted To the walls of La Mision With iron glue That they will have to take them down Brick by brick To make us go away And even then our ghosts Will come home And turn those bricks Into weapons And take back our streets Brick by brick And song by song Ronco y dulce As Jalisco and Michaocan Managua, Manila, Ramallah Pine Ridge, Vietnam, and Africa. As my compa OR say We here now motherfuckers Tell the Klan and the Nazis And the Real Estate vampires To catch the next BART out of here For Hell.

(from Against Amnesia, 2002)



If the eye

inside the camera

offends thee,

pluck it out,

pluck out the eye

pluck out the film,

smash the camera,

slash the images,

pour gasoline over those

who framed the images

then strike a match.

Make sure there are

no witnesses,

that those who look

for witnesses disappear.

Silence the people,

cut out the tongues

of those who would complain

about being silenced.

Swear on blazing bibles

that none of you

will ever tell anyone

what you have seen here.

Empty out the nation.

Bury those who insist on staying

in unmarked graves.

Pretend that no one

will ever know.

Turn off the lights.

Try to sleep.

(from Heading South, 1986)



The next child I won’t father we will name

Nomathamba. We will call her Thembi for short

She will be exactly like Pharaoh drew her. She

Will smile several hours each day. Her teeth

Will come on like white Christmas. She will crawl

Into bed with us to see if we

Are fucking. She will never be scared. She will

Speak Xhosa. I will buy her a dog named Mardi Gras

And she will learn what it is to lose something

You love. She will grow up.

(Unpublished, undated)