Friday, January 21, 2011

John Ross, 1938-2011, Beat Poet, Revolutionary Journalist

This Sunday on KHSU at Sista's Place 2:30-4:pm, Sista Soul rebroadcast parts of a 1993 show that she did with John Ross as guest host. It is John exactly as we know and love him.
You can listen online at :

There will be a memorial for John Ross in Humboldt County sometime in March. A notice will go out on the Redwood Progressive listserve, if you are not already, you can become a subscriber here:


All the Right Enemies
A Farewell to the Utterly Unique John Ross
Jan 17th 2011

John’s gone. John Ross. I doubt that we will ever see anyone remotely like him again.

The bare bones, as he would say, are remarkable enough. Born to show business Communists in New York City in 1938, he had minded Billie Holliday’s dog, sold dope to Dizzy Gillespie, and vigiled at the hour of the Rosenberg execution, all before he was sixteen years old. An aspiring beat poet, driven by D.H. Lawrence’s images of Mexico, he arrived at the Tarascan highlands of Michoacan at the age of twenty, returning to the U.S. six years later in 1964, there to be thrown in the Federal Penitentiary at San Pedro, for refusing induction into the army.

Back on the streets of San Francisco eighteen months later, he joined the Progressive Labor Movement, then a combination of old ex-CPers fleeing the debased party and young poets and artists looking for revolutionary action. For a few years he called the hip, crazy, Latino 24th and Mission his “bio-region,” as he ran from the San Francisco police and threw dead rats at slumlords during street rallies of the once powerful Mission Coalition.

When the not so ex-Stalinists drove him and others out of P.L. (“break the poets’ pencils” was the slogan of the purge) he moved up north to Arcata where he became an early defender of the forest and the self-described town clown and poet in residence. From there it was Tangier and the Maghreb, the Basque country, anti-nuke rallies in Ireland, and then back to San Francisco, where he finally found his calling as a journalist. “Investigative poet” was the title he preferred, and in 1984, he was dispatched by Pacific News Service to Latin America, where he walked with the Sendero Luminoso, broke bread with the Tupac Amaru, and hung out with cadres of the M-19.

In 1985, after the earthquake, he moved into the Hotel Isabela in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, where for the next 25 years he wrote the very best accounts in English (no one is even a close second) of the tumultuous adventures of Mexican politics.

During the Mexican years, he managed to write nine books in English, a couple more in Spanish, and a batch of poetry chapbooks, all the while he was often on the road, taking a bus to the scene of a peasant rebellion or visiting San Francisco or becoming a human shield in Baghdad, or protecting a Palestinian olive harvest from marauding Israeli settlers.

He died this morning, a victim of liver cancer, at the age of 73, just where he wanted to, in the village of Tepizo, Michoacan, in the care of his dear friends, Kevin and Arminda.

That’s the outline of the story. Then there was John. Even in his seventies, a tall imposing figure with a narrow face, a scruffy goatee and mustache, a Che T-shirt covered by a Mexican vest, a Palestinian battle scarf thrown around his neck, bags of misery and compassion under his eyes, offset by his wonderful toothless smile and the cackling laugh that punctuated his comical riffs on the miserable state of the universe.

He was among the last of the beats, master of the poetic rant, committed to the exemplary public act, always on the side of the poor and defeated. His tormentors defined him. A sadistic prison dentist pulled six of his teeth. The San Francisco Tac Squad twice bludgeoned his head, ruining one eye and damaging the other. The guards of Mexico’s vain, poet-potentate Octavio Paz beat him to the ground in a Mexico City airport, and continued to kick him while he was down. Israeli settlers pummeled him with clubs until he bled, and wrecked his back forever.

He had his prickly side. He hated pretense, pomposity and unchecked power wherever he found it. Losing was important to him. Whatever is the dictionary opposite of an opportunist—that’s what John was. He never got along with an editor, and made it a matter of principle to bite the hand that fed him. It got so bad, he left so few bridges unburnt, that in order to read his wonderful weekly dispatches in the pre-internet years, I had to subscribe to an obscure newsletter, a compilation of Latin American news, and then send more money to get the editors to send along John’s column. [John had a relationship lasting many years with CounterPunch, publishing hundreds of dispatches, with only trifling hiccups with the editors. AC/JSC.]

He had his sweet side, too. He was intensely loyal to his friends, generous with all he had, proud of his children, grateful for Elizabeth’s support and collaboration, and wonderful, warm company at an evening meal. When my son, Ted, arrived in Mexico in 1990, John helped him get a job, find a place to live, introduced him around, and became his Sunday companion and confidant, as they huddled in front of John’s 11-inch TV watching the weekly broadcasts of NBA games.

He was a great, true sports fan, especially of basketball. One of the last times I saw him was at a friend’s house in San Francisco, in between radiation treatments, watching a Warriors game on a big screen TV, smoking what he still called the “killer weed.” Joe and I listened to him recount NY Knicks history, the origin of the jump shot, and Kareem’s last game, which somehow led to a long complaint about kidneys for sale in Mexico that had been harvested in China out of the still warm body of some poor, rural immigrant who had been legally executed for jaywalking in Beijing.

The very last time I had the pleasure of his company was at breakfast in Los Angeles when Ted and I saw him off on his last book tour, promoting El Monstruo, his loving history of Mexico City. He was in great form. His cancer was in remission—a “cancer resister,” he called himself—and he entertained us with a preview of his trip: long, tiresome Greyhound rides, uncomfortable couches, talks to tiny groups of the marginalized, the last defenders of lost causes without the money to buy his books. It would be a losing proposition, like so many of his others, all of which secure his place among the angels.

Frank Bardacke taught at Watsonville Adult School, California’s Central Coast, for 25 years. His history of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, Trampled in the Vintage, is forthcoming from Verso. He can be reached at


The Nation
Rebel Journalist John Ross, the Master of Speaking Truth to Power, Is Dead

John Nichols | January 18, 2011

When the brave and brilliant journalist John Ross was offered official honors by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2009—for telling "stories nobody else could or would tell"—he refused the recognition. He then recalled having run unsuccessfully for the board in the "Summer of Love" year of 1967—with a perfect think globally, act locally slogan: "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!"—demanded his election filing fee back and complained about how when he had appeared before the board in the 1960s and 1970s as a tenant rights organizer "certain disgruntled board members would signal San Francisco County deputies to throw a hammerlock on me, drag me out of the chambers, and book me at the so-called Hall of Justice on charges of disturbing the peace."

As another fine reporter, San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond recalled , "Typically, when people are honored by the supervisors, they thank the board, praise the wonders of this city and politely and meekly receive their award. Not John Ross. The half-blind, half deaf rabble rouser made a short statement in which he managed to insult city government, denounce the entire process of giving out awards and demand that the board reject the Muni fare hike. Then he read a poem denouncing the "motherfuckers" who are driving poor people out of the Mission."

On a roll, Ross recounted repeated clashes with authorities, in San Francisco, Baghdad and Palestine. He put them all in the context of his practice of journalism—not the drab stenography to power practiced by so many reporters, but the vibrant speak-truth-to-power reporting and activism that saw Ross repeatedly risk his life to tell great stories and to demand that political and economic elites respond.

"Life, like reporting, is a kind of death sentence," Ross told the supervisors. "Pardon me for having lived it so fully."

As epitaphs go, that is a good one for Ross, who died this week in Mexico, where he had for five decades chronicled the struggles of indigenous people and the poor for justice. The activist author who in 1995 received the American Book Award for his groundbreaking book Rebellion from the Roots: Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas (Common Courage Press), died Monday at age 72 after a last battle with liver cancer.

In addition to the American Book Award, Ross collected the Upton Sinclair Award in 2005 for his epic tome Murdered By Capitalism: 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left (Nation Books). His editor, Carl Bromley, recalls that, "I worked with John for seven years, on three books. It was an extraordinary education for me. I took the greatest pride when Thomas Pynchon faxed the office with a huge endorsement for John's book, Murdered By Capitalism." Pynchon described the book as "a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics, which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gateway of our national narrative."

Ross also penned books of poetry and, as a child of the Beat Generation and the jazz clubs of 1950s New York, some of the most politically informed cultural writing of our time. His 2009 book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (Nation Books), was part people's history, part love letter to the city where Ross lived on and off for decades. "Of all his books, I think El Monstruo, his last, was my favorite of his, an extraordinary, phantasmagoric personal history of Mexico City, told over the last 5 million years," says Bromley. "I rate him with Galeano."

There is so much more to be said about the remarkable Ross, but he was a wordsmith. So let's give him the last word.

Here, in full, is his statement from 2009 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors:

Forty years ago when I would appear before this honorable board as an organizer for the Mission Tenants Union to protest the devastation of working class housing in our neighborhood, certain disgruntled board members would signal San Francisco County deputies to throw a hammerlock on me, drag me out of the chambers, and book me at the so-called Hall of Justice on charges of disturbing the peace.

To prevent a repeat of these painful events, I ask my companeros and companeras to join me at the podium today and watch my back.

Punishment for the commission of the crime of independent journalism can be harsh. I have danced with death throughout my checkered career—May 1st 1986, the 100th anniversary of International Workers Day on the streets of Santiago Chile when I inadvertently walked into one of Pinochet's machine guns; climbing into a guerrilla camp in the Cauca Valley of Colombia; at the end of a road to a Waste Management toxic incinerator above Playas de Tijuana where some company goon took 13 potshots at my person—when I called the Examiner for whom I then slaved, I was told to forget all about it.

Death was on our plate when we set out for Baghdad to place our bodies between Bush's bombs and the Iraqi people in March 2003 and when I went picking olives with Palestinian farmers in the Nablus Valley where Israeli settlers beat me within an inch of my life.

Life like reporting is a kind of death sentence. Pardon me for having lived it so fully.

I have mulled too long about whether or not to accept an honor from a city that has become nothing less than a sanctuary for the rich. This was once a sanctuary city for the refugees of U.S. wars in Latin America—now the indocumentados are being rousted, jailed, and sent back to their devastated home countries from right here in Sanctuary City. I have debated receiving an honor from a city where greedy landlords bleed their tenants dry, a city that pushes the poor into the street and treats the homeless like so many cockroaches, a city where the police continue to run riot in neighborhoods of color—a few weeks ago, recuperating from liver cancer chemotherapy I was slammed twice in the chest and threatened with being sent back to hospital by a Mission District cop while I witnessed a rough arrest on Valencia and 24th—you can read all about it in my citizens' complaint recently reprinted in the Bay Guardian.

How can I accept an honor from a city that cloaks itself in rampant hypocrisy and the fake green of filthy lucre?

The truth is I cannot. Thanks anyway.

Hell, I don't even live here anymore. For the past 25 years, I have been an expat holed up in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, an exile from the racist social and economic policies of the United States of North America.Instead of drawing up hollow proclamations "honoring" derelict beat poets and wild parrots, the Board of Supervisors would do well to honor the poor and working class citizens of this city who struggle daily to survive here in this lap of luxury by making San Francisco a place where they can still live. One place to start is by nullifying the outrageous Muni fare hikes that will soon come before you.

There is one more thing you can do for me today. In 1967, I ran for the Board of Supervisors under the banner of "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!" We paid our registration fee and five days later I was attacked by the SFPD after an anti-police brutality rally at the old Mission station—I eventually lost my left eye as a result of this attack. The notoriety attracted the interest of a candidate with a similar name—Tom Ross—who had me barred from the ballot after he discovered that I was an ex-felon—I was the first U.S. citizen to be sent to federal prison for refusing induction in the Vietnam-era military. When we demanded our filing fee returned the county registrar refused. On election day, people who voted for me were arrested for tampering with the voting machines.

I want my filing fee back. With interest.

As a veteran San Francisco performing poet, I am obligated to leave the Board with a poem from a recent collection "Against Amnesia."


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
They are trying to drain
This neighborhood of color
Of color
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 QR 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.

Source URL:


Village Voice
New York Legends
John Ross, 1938-2011, Beat Poet, Revolutionary Journalist
By Tom Robbins, Tue., Jan. 18 2011

John Ross -- beat-era poet and revolution-championing journalist -- died this week in Mexico of liver cancer. He was 72 --- or was it 73? The Associated Press says the former,Counterpunch's Frank Bardacke, another veteran of the Bay Area left, says the latter. Whatever, the age matters less than the life lived, and Ross got the most out of whatever years he had.

He was mainly a West Coast phenomenon these past few decades, but Ross's roots were here in the Village where he was a true child of the early beat era. But even if the name is new to you, John Ross's passing is worth noting if only to confirm that these marvelous characters once walked the earth, and their kind is not likely to pass this way again.

For starters, there were Ross's travels with Latin American revolutionaries, including the secretive Zapatistas of Chiapas province in Mexico whose story he told in "Rebellion From the Roots," which won an American Book Award in 1995.

Then there's his autobiography, "Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years on the American Left," Nation Books, 2004. Thomas Pynchon, whose praise is almost as hard to find as his picture, dubbed it "a rip-snorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gates of our national narrative."

In between there was poetry and politics, and lots of it. The poems were published in ten little chapbooks (Bomba! was his most recent), and read aloud alongside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both in Mexico City and at City Lights in San Francisco.

That was his Village roots showing through. Ross did his first public poetry reading as a teenager from the stage of the Half-Note, after Charles Mingus had finished playing. Backstage at Town Hall, he sold a joint to Dizzy Gillespie. He helped Max Gordon book Jack Kerouac into a disastrous week-long gig at the Village Vanguard, and did promo for one of the Voice's first events - a Billie Holiday concert at the old Loew's Sheraton on Seventh Avenue. Lady Day arrived hours late. Ross was thrilled because he got to hold her tiny dog.

As for the politics, it earned him a year in the federal can for refusing induction into the army in 1964,one of the first to take that ultimate stand. He later hooked up with the then pro-poet and pro-Maoist Progressive Labor Party and ran for election in 1967 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on its ticket. When police broke up a rally during that summer of love, Ross caught a nightstick in the face leaving him with an eye injury from which he never fully recovered. Years later, he caught another beating, this time from Israeli settlers when he tried to help Palestinian farmers pick olives from their own fields in Nablus.

He tried to put himself in harm's way again in 2006, when he went to Iraq on the eve of the war where he tried to serve as a "human shield." Saddam's minders considered him a threat and booted him from the country. A year ago, as John Nichols writes in The Nation, where Ross was a contributor, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors - now loaded with sympathizers - tried to honor Ross. Nothing doing. He denounced them as toadies who were throwing poor people out of the Mission.

John Ross. Live like him.


Hail & Farewell: John Ross
20 January 2011

Our friend and colleague Carl Bromley, the editorial director ofNation Books, wrote to us yesterday with the news that John Ross had died Monday the 17th. He was 72. The activist journalist, poet, and novelist, described in Tim Redmond‘s San Francisco Bay Guardian eulogy as an “uncontrollable shit disturber,” had lived in Mexico City as a self-described “exile from the racist social and economic policies of the United States of North America.”

Ross wrote his own epitaph, and that of the noisy and violent form of political life which he advocated, in Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 years of Life and Death on the American Left, “… a highly idiosyncratic account of industrial trade unionism, the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements, government repression …”

On the book’s cover is an endorsement by Thomas Pynchon, a friend from Ross’s Humboldt County days: “A ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gateways of our national narrative.”

In his July 2004 Harper’s Magazine review (subscription only), the late John Leonarddescribed the then sixty-six-year-old author as a “Huck Finn/Holden Caulfield/Dennis the Menace/Weatherman wannabe and subversive journalist … who’s been on the losing side of every cause since the Spanish Civil War.” According to Carl, who published three of Ross’s more than twenty books, Ross loved it.

Ross began writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1984 and is credited with being the first American to report the 1993 Zapatista rebellion, in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. After reporting on the deadly 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, Ross made his home there, at the Hotel Isabel. In 1995, Ross won the American Book Award forRebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas. In 2003, he volunteered as human shield in Baghdad, protecting Iraqi civilians from attack; according to Redmond in his Bay Guardian remembrance, Ross signed his emails, “John Ross, humanshield”

Redmond also reported Ross’s refusal, in 2009, to be honored by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors:

“Typically, when people are honored by the supervisors, they thank the board, praise the wonders of this city and politely and meekly receive their award. Not John Ross. The half-blind, half deaf rabble rouser made a short statement in which he managed to insult city government, denounce the entire process of giving out awards and demand that the board reject the Muni fare hike. Then he read a poem denouncing the “motherfuckers” who are driving poor people out of the Mission.”

In this Democracy Now! appearance from April 2010, Ross talks about life in his adopted city, the subject of his last book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City “a phantasmagoric retelling” of “4,000,000,000 years of history,” reviewed by Iain Sinclairas “Coruscating and necessary. Here is one of those rare books that convinces from the first sentence: a writer embedded in his writing, wholly present in the subject, leading us with savage grace to the heart of the beast.”

Ross is survived by his son, Dante A. Ross, a daughter, Carla Ross-Allen, and a granddaughter, Zoe Ross-Allen, as well as a stepdaughter, Dylan Melbourne and her daugther Honore, as well as a sister, Susan Gardner.

Let Redmond have the last word:

When John Ross left Terminal Island, the federal prison in Los Angeles, after serving a couple of years for refusing the Vietnam draft, the warden shook his head and said: “Ross, you never learned how to be a prisoner.”

I’m not writing the epitaph for whatever gravestone he has or doesn’t have, wherever it might be in the world, but that’s what I’d put on it: “John Ross, 1938-2011. Never learned how to be a prisoner.”


John Ross, author, poet, journalist, dies
John Coté, S.F. Chronicle
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

John Ross, an author, poet, liberal activist and journalist who toiled against perceived injustice from the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, to the baked streets of Baghdad, died Monday of liver cancer at Lake Patzcuaro in Mexico. He was 72.
"The word 'passionate' is overused a lot these days - but he was," said Mary Jo McConahay, a friend and former colleague of Ross' at Pacific News Service in San Francisco.

Mr. Ross was jailed for refusing to be drafted in the Vietnam War era, was the first person to chronicle in English the pending uprising of indigenous Zapatistas in Mexico's Chiapas state, and went to Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2003 to serve as a human shield, although Iraqi officials forced him and other volunteers out of country.

In refusing a commendation at San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in May 2009 because the city "has become nothing less than a sanctuary for the rich," Mr. Ross said he had faced "one of (Augusto) Pinochet's machine guns" in Chile in 1986; climbed into a guerrilla camp in the Cauca Valley of Colombia; and been shot at 13 times by "some company goon" when he went to investigate a toxic incinerator in Tijuana, Mexico.

"Life, like reporting, is a kind of death sentence," he told the board. "Pardon me for having lived it so fully."

His reporting appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, CounterPunch, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Pacific News Service, Pacifica Radio, LA Weekly and others, including the Mexico City daily La Jornada.

A young member of the Beat generation, Mr. Ross authored 10 chapbooks of poetry and 10 books of fiction and nonfiction. He received the American Book Award in 1995 for "Rebellion From the Roots: Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas" and the Upton Sinclair Award in 2005 for "Murdered By Capitalism: 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left."

Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the Bay Guardian, called him "a terribly unusual talent."

"If you sent him over to City Hall, you'd get a helluva story," Brugmann said. "It wouldn't be on some measure. He wouldn't cover the hearing. He wouldn't cover the vote. He'd have something lyrical that would get to the political point."

Born in New York City on March 11, 1938, to parents who were committed leftists, Mr. Ross grew up in Greenwich Village surrounded by jazz, Beat poetry, abstract expressionist painting and radical politics, according to his biography.

By age 18, Mr. Ross was reading his poems in Greenwich Village bars accompanied by renowned bass player Charles Mingus, according to his official biography. In 1957, he followed the trail other Beat writers had cut to Mexico City, then lived in an indigenous community in the Michoacan state.

He returned to United States in the early 1960s, was jailed for refusing to be drafted, and was sent to a federal lockup. When he was released after about two years, he went to San Francisco, where he became a community activist in the Mission District for housing, civil rights and other issues.

Mr. Ross ran for the Board of Supervisors in 1967 under the slogan "Rent Control Now! Out of Vietnam!" But five days after paying his registration fee, Mr. Ross said he was attacked by San Francisco police at an anti-police brutality rally, and suffered injuries he says resulted in him losing use of his left eye. Ross said he was then barred from the ballot over his draft-dodging conviction. The county registrar refused to refund his candidate filing fee.

"I want my filing fee back - with interest," Mr. Ross, in a good-humored tone, told the Board of Supervisors 42 years later when May 12, 2009, was declared John Ross Day. He is survived by his sister, Susan Gardner; children, Dante Ross of New York and Carla Ross-Allen of New York; and one grandchild, Zoe Ross-Allen.

Memorial services will be announced at a later date.

E-mail John Coté at