RIP Vermont Revolutionary Roz Payne

  • Posted on: 22 May 2019
  • By: anon (not verified)

5/21/19 -Vermont lost one of our most remarkable woman today; film maker, journalist, Black Panther historian, communard, Green Mountain Red, revolutionary, and (ironically) Richmond constable Roz Payne has left this world and these Green Hills for points beyond. Roz grew up in a working class-leftist household in New Jersey. Her mother was a union organizer in Lawrence, MA during the Great Depression. Her father ran for NJ State Senate as a member of the Socialist Party. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was her sometimes babysitter.

Come the late 60s, Roz was a member of the Newsreel Collective where she worked on films dedicated to telling the truer stories of the unjust war in Vietnam, the social revolution occurring in Cuba, the struggle for Black Liberation, and the plight & struggle of the common people. As part of Newsreel she worked closely with the NYC Black Panther Party, aiding in the political education of new recruits through film showings and discussion groups.

In the early 1970s, Roz (and other members of Newsreel) moved to Putney, Vermont where they started the Red Clover commune. Red Clover, in turn, went on to be one of the founding communes in Free Vermont –a federation of Vermont communes which aimed to recreate a more cooperative anti-capitalist social framework throughout the Green Mountains.

Later in the 70s, Payne moved to the Burlington area where she co-founded the Green Mountain Red commune (also affiliated with Free Vermont). Her work in Chittenden County around this time included helping to form Burlington’s Community Health Center (recently unionized by AFT), and the Onion River Co-op (now Burlington City Market – unionized by UE Local 203).

Later, she moved to Richmond, Vermont, where she was elected to the office of First Constable on a lark, and spent much of her time researching and archiving materials on the Black Panther Party. Roz continued to live in Richmond for the years to come.

I had the pleasure of meeting Roz on a couple of occasions throughout the years, and of interviewing her for an article I wrote on Vermont’s commune days for Catamount Tavern News. While I did not know her well, I do know this.. Roz was one of the most remarkable women to call Vermont their home. She lived her principles and lived them well. While there is no painting of her hanging on the Statehouse walls, there damn well should be. But perhaps a more meaningful memorial already exists in the social framework that now exists around us… From the Community Health Centers in Chittenden County, to the co-ops in every town worth its weight in salt, to the farmers markets (which were reinvigorated by the commune movement of the 70s), to the body of knowledge that has been preserved in regards to the Black Panther Party, Roz played a role in all of it. Roz, in short, was on our side. She will be missed, but she will not be forgotten. Rest In Peace.

-David Van Deusen, District Vice President of the Vermont AFL-CIO

What follows is an article on Roz Payne which was published in Vermont Women in 2007:

Born of a Red Flame, Documenting the History
of the Black Panthers - Filmmaker Roz Payne

By Margaret Michniewicz,

When Black Panther Party (BPP) member Dr. Curtis Powell was about to be arrested on April 2, 1969, it wasn't an attorney or a family member that he called. Roz Payne and her colleague in the Newsreel film collective, both white, accompanied Powell to his apartment where he prepared to turn himself in to the NYPD. As the trio entered the apartment, police in bullet-proof vests with rifles rose from behind furniture while Payne and her colleague went in shooting - with cameras.

Powell - one of the so-called Panther 21 indicted and subsequently cleared on charges of conspiracy, arson, and attempted murder in New York City in 1969 - feared that when he turned himself in to police he might never get to a courtroom - that instead, he would be shot while supposedly "trying to resist arrest." Just one year before, fellow Panther Bobby Hutton had exited a building surrounded by police in Oakland, California with his hands in the air, and was shot twelve times, fatally. Powell believed that if he was accompanied by white photographers he would stand a better chance of getting to the courthouse. And so, Roz Payne was the second person to enter that apartment, right behind Powell. She shot; fortunately the police didn't.

That was nearly 40 years ago, at the zenith of the BPP's power and prominence. By the early 1970s, Payne had settled in Vermont. Through deaths, imprisonment, rifts, and changing leadership the Panthers continued on, as has Payne's involvement with them. "For the past 40 years, I have collected and maintained an archive of Newsreel films and materials related to the Black Panther Party. Both of those groups are part of me," Payne says. The culmination of their relationship is Payne's DVD tour de force, What We Want, What We Believe: the Black Panther Party Library, released last fall by the Roz Payne Archives and Newsreel Films. The four-disc collection features 12 hours of footage, including three Newsreel films (Off the Pig; Mayday; Repression) and other archival material. It's a fascinating and compelling look at a critical point in United States history, not to mention a cautionary tale for 21st century PATRIOT ACTive America.

From Muscle Beach to Harlem

"I was always chicken," Payne tells me at her Richmond home, an unconvincing characterization following the Powell story. She's recalling an incident in which fellow Newsreel members got arrested when they staged a protest at a TV station. "My theory was that you don't get arrested, you escape. My mother told me that - escape!"

Not that her mother followed her own advice, however. Edith Berkman - described by one Catholic priest as a "red flame straight from hell" - was an organizer for the textile union in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and in 1932 at the age of 28 she was trying to persuade all of the mills' workers to go on strike at the same time. "The owners of the mills [had gotten together and] decided to cut the wages by five cents - when you're making thirty-five cents an hour that's a lot," notes Payne. Years later, one of Payne's aunts gave her two newspaper articles about her mother from this time. "Before I saw this picture," Payne says, pointing to a news clipping, "I visualized [the police] dragging her off - but she looks really proud there. It says 'A Socialist agitator arrested in Lawrence, Mass. last Thursday while speaking on behalf of textile workers protesting ten percent wage decrease. She's now in Boston facing deportation as an undesirable alien.' That's one picture. And I've got another picture but it's totally different. They're twisting her arms, her face is in pain, they're taking her away - she was held because she wasn't a US citizen - held for deportation back to Poland. Another organizer, Anne Burlak, came to take her place and the newspapers said 'Another Red Flame Has Appeared.'"

Fortunately, Berkman was not deported, and Roz was subsequently born in Paterson, New Jersey, where her father, James Cristiano, ran for the state Senate on the Socialist Party ticket; in the liner notes of the DVDs, it's mentioned that Allen Ginsberg was an occasional babysitter. "I came from a very political home, and had a Leftist background, let's say. My parents were really activists against racial discrimination; they talked a lot about equality as part of our day-to-day life," Payne explains. "It was the fifties and schools were being desegregated, and friends of mine were doing Freedom Rides, going to Mississippi to work in the summer. I didn't do that but it was part of my background."

Her family moved to Hollywood, where Roz grew up, graduated from high school and UCLA and, in 1962, married her high school sweetheart, Arnold Payne ("Mr. Muscle Beach, Jr." as Payne dryly refers to her husband of five years). The couple moved east and Payne began teaching in New Jersey after earning her masters degree at City College New York. By 1967, her marriage broken up, she was already moving toward a life of activism. As she recalls in the What We Want liner notes: "I left a little house on the Palisades cliffs in Jersey, overlooking the boats on the Hudson River. As the sun set, I would look out at the burning windows of the NYC skyline. That fire and the fire from a GI's Zippo lighter on the straw of a Vietnamese hut helped ignite me."

Anyone from her generation, Payne explains, recalls the "appalling" images of US soldiers in Vietnam burning down villages and cutting up bags of rice to dump on the ground.

Meanwhile, Payne's career as a teacher wasn't going smoothly. "I was having a hard time teaching. I got sent home by the principal one day because - mini skirts had come out - and he said my skirt was too short and I had to go home and change. Luckily," Payne comments in her characteristically wry tone, "I lived close by."

She was ready to make concessions on fashion, perhaps, but it became increasingly impossible for Payne to toe the educational establishment line. Her students made a mural that incorporated newspaper articles, one of which showed the resulting carnage from an accidental bombing of a Vietnamese village by the US. When Payne was not present, the principal asked students about the mural's content and they told the principal it was the result of a Vietcong bombing, so that he wouldn't get angry at Payne. She quit teaching and became a filmmaker.

Newsreel was a collective of independent filmmakers, photographers, and media workers formed to make politically relevant films. "The only news we saw was on TV and we knew who owned the stations. We decided to make films that would show another side to the news. It was clear to us that the established forms of media were not going to approach those subjects which threaten their very existence," writes Payne on her Web site about the group. "Our films tried to analyze, not just cover, the realities that the media, as part of the system, always ignores. We didn't like to just send our films out; we would go out and speak with our films. We saw them as weapons. We hoped to serve as part of the catalyst for revolutionary social change." Sometimes, Payne recalls, they would park a van in front of a "fancy" restaurant and project a film on the side of the vehicle as a movie screen.

Black Panther member Zayd Shakur asked her to show Newsreel films to the new BPP recruits and young BPP party members on Monday nights at their Harlem branch, as part of their political education class. "I would take one of our projectors in a case - projectors are pretty heavy, by the way - and maybe two films under my arms and my purse and I'd take the subway up to Harlem, get out and walk a number of blocks to the Panther office. I'd set up the projector and show films and lead discussion. I'd show films on the Panthers, or the war in Vietnam, maybe some other issue happening in the US, and we'd have a discussion. And then, I'd pack up my stuff and go back [downtown]. We let the Panthers use our dark room, taught them photography techniques. We considered them comrades. They always treated me with great respect and we had a lovely relationship. We were in partnership in our struggle.

"The Panthers - a lot of people don't know this - were not racist against white people," Payne continues. "They cooperated and worked with white people; white people supported them" (among those who attended the funeral of the murdered Panther Bobby Hutton was actor Marlon Brando) - as did Asian Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans. "That was another reason why I loved the Panthers was because of their relationship to other people in the community."

Panthers Emerge

Founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, the BPP began as a response to police and Klan violence routinely directed at African-Americans. Payne explains that the commonly accepted origin of the name was because the black panther is an animal that will not attack, and if it is attacked it will back up until it has no more room to back up. Then, it will strike out at its assailant.

At the time, it was legal in California to carry loaded guns in public, but not concealed weapons. The Panthers began forming armed patrols that followed the Oakland police to deter them from brutalizing African American citizens, which was a frequent occurrence. They came to worldwide attention when they went to the state Legislature and surrounded the building, wearing their signature black berets and leather jackets, standing at attention - and prominently holding guns. It was legal, and a powerful message was sent out that perhaps there was no longer any room to back up.

The media relished these types of Panther activities, which were more sensational to portray than the widespread social programs that the Panthers instituted in each city as BPP chapters flourished throughout the US. "The world over, the image of the Panther is tied to standing up for your rights," Billy Jennings told a local paper on the occasion of the BPP's 35th anniversary, pointing to law enforcement's establishment of Miranda rights, a federal feeding program for needy students and a national focus on the impact of sickle cell anemia in the Black community as issues first introduced by the Panthers. The Panthers also started the Free Breakfast for Children Program; they would cook and serve food to poor children in the cities. Soon they were feeding over 10,000 school children in the morning before they went to school, and some believe it may have been a major influence on President Lyndon Johnson enacting the federally funded School Breakfast Program.

Among the thousands of still photos that Payne shot of Panther activities are scenes from the "Free Huey!" protests in California, when Newton was on trial in 1969 for murder, a conviction that was later overturned. Also in 1969, Bobby Seale and nine other Panthers were charged with murder in New Haven, Connecticut; during the proceedings, a young woman named Hillary Rodham was one the Yale law students who volunteered with the ACLU to monitor the trial for civil rights violations.

Concurrently, Payne photographed the widespread protests around the New York Panther 21 trial, which would be the longest-running political trial in New York history - eight months - and resulted in acquittal for all 21 defendants after just 45 minutes of jury deliberation. Among the defendants was Afeni Shakur, pregnant at the time with the future rap artist, Tupac Shakur. She was the only Panther defendant released on bail, so, many days after the court proceedings, Payne joined Shakur in her hotel room near the courthouse to review the day's events. Payne also testified on behalf of Powell, relating how he had turned himself in to the police.

Dhoruba Bin Wahad was also among the Panther 21 and within a month of that trial ending he was arrested again for attempted murder on dubious grounds, was found guilty, and began his 25-year sentence in prison.

Richmond by Way of Putney

Payne eventually settled in Richmond in the 1970s, but her first Vermont home was on a Putney commune - a "political collective" as Payne prefers to call it. She can point to a number of currently thriving mainstream establishments that have their roots in the idealistic efforts of Payne and her hippie colleagues. For example, her Burlington-area political collective would buy oregano in bulk and divvy it up; the practice eventually evolved into the Onion River Co-op which is now Burlington's City Market. And the traveling medical teams they formed to serve low-income individuals in the far reaches of the Northeast Kingdom were predecessors of the Queen City's Community Health Center.

Payne was also involved in the founding of the Vermont Women's Health Center (VWHC). VWHC intended to provide abortions in addition to other reproductive health care services to women and, when it came time to open their doors, the staff anticipated opposition. As a result, Payne was VWHC's first patient, "treated" with a blood test on a Sunday evening. "We decided it would be harder to close us down on Monday if we had already [started serving patients]," Payne explains.

In 1981 she began to work as a legal investigator and law clerk in the office of Burlington attorney Sandy Baird, and from 1985-89 completed the Vermont Law Clerk Program. Today, she is on the faculty of Burlington College and continues to live in Richmond.

Back on the Panther Beat

In the mid-1950s, the FBI began its counterintelligence program, commonly known as COINTELPRO, aimed at investigating - and disrupting - what it deemed "dissident" political organizations in the US. Targets ranged from Native American groups to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; up until 1971, COINTELPRO was secret. By 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the BPP "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

COINTELPRO's stated methods included infiltration and exterior psychological warfare - as well as harassment through the legal system and extralegal force and violence. The latter could and did mean political assassination.

On September 1, 2001 a report entitled "COINTELPRO: The Untold American Story" was presented to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. According to this lengthy document,

In 1980, the FBI and NYPD were ordered by the Court to produce their massive files on Mr. Dhoruba Bin Wahad and the BPP, that they had claimed did not exist. The FBI and NYPD documents revealed that Mr. Bin Wahad was indeed a target of FBI/NYPD covert operations…. The "Newkill" file, which was finally produced in unredacted form in 1987, after 12 years of litigation, contains numerous reports which should have been provided to Dhoruba Bin Wahad during his trial.

It was just by coincidence that Roz Payne happened to be in NY visiting at the law office of her friend, Liz Fink - the day when Fink received word that she had won a suit and the FBI had to turn over documents relating to the case of Fink's client, Dhoruba Bin Wahad. "He had been in jail for 17 years and there had been real problems in his case - material withheld, information about ballistics that was wrong that was withheld; they really wanted him to remain in jail. Liz got it released. She put all this material together and brought it to the offices of the judge, who happened to be a black woman (Mary Johnson Lowe). At the end of the day, when the judge went into her office to have her cigarette she began reading it and she couldn't leave her office because she couldn't believe what she was reading - that the FBI had actually done all of this. She called Liz Fink and said, 'if this is true, there's going to be some heads rolling here.' And so the next day in court she ordered all the material on Dhoruba Bin Wahad and the Black Panthers released - which turned out to be 350,000 documents.

"When I read them I couldn't believe that the FBI actually released this material. I was used to seeing things blacked out and they didn't black out stuff because it was what's called 'discovery material,' it wasn't Freedom of Information material [which can be redacted]," Payne explains.

Release of these documents eventually led to the release of Wahad from prison. In addition to their value in clearing his name, Payne discovered the extent of the dirty tricks directed at the Panthers, many of whom were people she knew personally. Or, material that showed how even the BPP breakfast programs were sabotaged by COINTELPRO. Payne spent the next eight years painstakingly indexing all of the material, working out of Baird's Burlington law office on Main Street.

Of Pigs and Harrington Hams

From the mountain of documents, "I started to compile my own special file called 'WAC,'" Payne says of material signed with these initials. She would subsequently find out that her Agent WAC was FBI agent William A. Cohendet who was not part of COINTELPRO, but responsible for summarizing field reports submitted by agents throughout the country, in all the cities with BPP activity, and submitting them to FBI headquarters.

"In the law office, going through these hundreds of thousands of documents, all of a sudden somebody would call out 'Agent WAC report!' and the whole office - lawyers and paralegals would gather around and we'd read it out loud," Payne grins. "He was a great writer, he was gossipy, he was racist, he was sexist, he liked to make jokes - and he wrote it so well. We'd say, 'Can you imagine that he said this, that he wrote it on paper?!'"

Through what can only be described as a bizarre twist of fate, a photocopied list of San Francisco FBI agents from the time, with their home addresses and phone numbers, was part of the package of documents that the Bureau released, and Payne was ultimately able to contact Cohendet. They became pen pals of a sort, over the course of a number of years, with the retired FBI agent, then in his late 70s, knowing only of Payne that she was a history teacher who taught her classes about him. Cohendet was interested in seeing some of the things he had written and Payne accommodated his desire, in increments. "I teased him a little," Payne smiles conspiratorially. "I didn't send him anything interesting to start off. I never told him a lie, by the way. I never lied to him - I never told him the truth, particularly, but I never lied to him."

In 1989, Payne was elected constable in Richmond (the result of a joke, when friends wrote her name in on the ballot - and she won) and in this capacity, she was sent to the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford - yet another intriguing nugget to woo the confidence of Agent WAC. He noted that he had heard of Payne's small Vermont village out of fond familiarity with Harrington Hams.)

After a couple of years of their relationship by correspondence, Cohendet informed Payne that he was going to be coming East for a school reunion and to visit his in-laws in the area, suggesting that maybe they could finally meet in person. And that they did, with Payne going so far as to buy a new dress and have her hair done so as to look "proper" for their dinner engagement at the Radisson Hotel, joined by Agent WAC's wife and another couple. When she met him, Payne said, politely but in all seriousness, "You did a very good job of helping to destroy the Black Panther Party," to which he thanked her. "His wife then patted me on the shoulder and said, 'You appreciate him more than his own children.' And then we had dinner, and I enjoyed myself immensely," Payne smiles.

Cohendet must have, too, for he agreed the following year to have Payne come to his Burlingame, California home to interview him on video about his work with the FBI. The interview, on his 80th birthday, is included in the What We Want. The unsuspecting Agent WAC, with a disarmingly kindly face and smiling eyes, is ultimately pressed more and more by Payne as she interrogates him on his complicity in the dirty tricks of COINTELPRO.
After some time, he concedes that it was a "shame" about what happened to "that actress," referring to Jean Seberg, whom Hoover [said] should be "neutralized" because of the financial support she had been giving the BPP. According to the "Untold Story" COINTELPRO report, this was achieved by planting the false story with a Hollywood gossip columnist that Seberg was pregnant by a Panther and not her husband. The report continues: "Seberg responded to the 'disclosure' by attempting suicide... This in turn precipitated the premature delivery of her fetus; it died two days later. Seberg held a press conference, and brought the fetus in a glass jar, to prove that it was white." Eventually, she did take her own life.

America's Untold Story is Told

By the beginning of the 1970s, the Black Panther Party was in disarray through a mixture of internal turmoil and strife, and external interference by the US government. Factions emerged between Huey P. Newton's supporters and the followers of Eldridge Cleaver (who by then was living in exile in Algeria). Payne refers to it as the West Coast/East Coast split, herself aligning with the latter. "When you have a relationship with somebody it's not necessarily that one's right and one's wrong - but [that] you care about your friends. [It's] kind of like the Sunni and the Shia - not everyone's necessarily bad. I supported the East Coast Panthers because I knew them," Payne acknowledges.

"The Panthers helped destroy themselves because they're just human. Whatever group you're dealing with, people leave, there are arguments. But at the same time, COINTELPRO did all sorts of stuff to really push this," Payne explains. "The COINTELPRO program did everything they possibly could to destroy the Panthers," she asserts soberly.

Life has gone on, though, for many BPP members. Kathleen Cleaver, herself a prominent leader of the BPP in its heyday (she was the first woman in the Party's decision-making body, the Central Committee) went on to graduate summa cum laude from Yale University, and then Yale Law School. She now teaches law at Emory University, outliving Eldridge, whom she divorced in 1987. In one of the segments showing the 35th Reunion of the Black Panthers, Kathleen Cleaver smiles warmly at the audience and notes "There are now more children and grandchildren of Panthers than there ever were original Panthers!"

Payne has been faithfully on hand to record even these recent Panther activities, including bringing the Panthers' 20th "birthday" cake all the way to California from Burlington's Doughboy's Bakery. She had asked that it say "Power to the People" on top of the cake and when she went to pick it up, asked the cashier what she thought that meant. "You're taking it to a party for the electric company?" the young woman ventured.

The release of the DVD set has brought invitations for Payne to speak about the Panthers and show excerpts from the series. She enthusiastically describes the energy and diversity of the audience at Brooklyn's Afro-Punk Festival at which she spoke in early July, where a significant number of young people expressed keen interest in learning about this era of US history.

According to Dr. James Turner, former president of the African Heritage Studies Association, quoted in "The Untold Story" report: "The F.B.I. set out to break the momentum developed in black communities in the late fifties and early sixties… [it was necessary] to put together organizational mechanisms to deliver services [but instead] our ability to influence things that happen to us internally and externally was killed." He assessed COINTELPRO programs as having "serious long-term consequences for black Americans."

The United States is not quite a democracy, write the authors of "The Untold Story," and one of the things that makes it not quite a democracy "is the existence of outfits like the FBI and the CIA. Democracy is based on openness, and the existence of a secret policy, secret lists of dissident citizens, violates the spirit of democracy."

And this was presented on Sept.1, 2001 - before the enactment of measures taken during the war on terror.

Remember, warns Payne: "What our government did to the Black Panthers could happen to you."

*Margaret Michniewicz is editor of Vermont Woman newspaper.

Comments

Supporting the Black Panthers, documenting US imperialism by film, founding the commune movement in VT. Wow. She lived an amazing life and needs to be celebrated as one of our remembered fallen heros. RIP Roz.

RIP Leftist heroine

Add new comment