Armed love

Pub date November 25, 2008
WriterErick Lyle

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REVIEW The struggle of young, white activists aspiring to the authenticity, confrontational stance, and street credibility of groups like the Black Panthers has generated some of the most enduring myths and storylines of the 1960s. Among these ’60s groups, perhaps the least documented is New York City’s mythical Motherfuckers, the "street gang with an analysis." Former Motherfucker and current Berkeley activist Osha Neumann’s colorful but uneven memoir Up Against the Wall Motherfucker (Seven Stories Press, 240 pages, $16.95) is the first book-length treatment of the so-called "group with the unspeakable name."

Much like the Diggers (members of the San Francisco Mime Troup who left the stage in 1966 to act out revolutionary change in the streets), the Motherfuckers got their start in art. In January 1967, Neumann attended a meeting for "Angry Arts Week," which called for Lower East Side artists to make politically engaged work against the war in Vietnam. There, he met anarchist painter Ben Morea. Morea and his art group Black Mask had been responsible for a series of actions that brought the heavy street vibe of the Black Panthers to the art world, including an announced "shut down" of the Museum of Modern Art that ended with riot cops ringing the museum. From Angry Arts Week evolved a new group with Morea and Neumann at its core that took its name from a poem by Leroi Jones.

A product of the tenements and rat-infested streets around Tompkins Square Park, the Motherfuckers roamed the Lower East Side in leather jackets, carrying knives and handing out manifestoes. Their political identity, worldview, and brutal tactics were all neatly encapsulated by their first action in January 1968. During a garbage strike in the Lower East Side, they gathered rotten trash from the streets and took it uptown to dump on the steps of Lincoln Center, where they handed out flyers that read, "We propose a cultural exchange: garbage for garbage." Similarly to the Diggers out west, UAW/MF operated a Free Store, and held regular free community feasts for hippies and dropouts. But the Motherfuckers also taught free karate classes; eventually, they stockpiled guns. As Neumann puts it today, "We didn’t fuck around."

Preaching "flower power but with thorns," the group’s politics of escalation anticipated today’s Black Bloc. At the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, while Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies were linking arms and chanting to "levitate the Pentagon," Morea and company tore down a chain-link fence, battled with federal marshalls, and fought their way inside. Although Neumann now mostly dismisses the Motherfuckers’ tactics as macho and ineffective, he skillfully evokes the paranoid, volatile time and place in which they made total sense. Unfortunately for the reader, the group disbands midway through the book, and the back half is devoted to deadly dull soul-searching about the meaning of the ’60s.

Assessing the Motherfuckers’ legacy, Neumann writes, "It is easy to dismiss (their) politics as nothing more than childish tantrums and to profess that a baleful acceptance of the status quo is more ‘mature.’ It is more difficult to disentangle, delicately, as one would a bird caught in a net, the genuinely radical and uncompromising elements in this politics from those which are self-defeating." Though Neumann never satisfyingly solves this challenge for readers or himself, perhaps that’s the point. The group that started out as artists ultimately ended where they began, leaving behind a myth with an irreducible riddle at its core that is perhaps best considered as art. *