At the September meeting of the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club, I sang a song I wrote about a few of the 217 murders of black citizens by white policemen in 2016, including 21 killed in Los Angeles alone; highlighting the first such case—of Michael Brown, unarmed black teen on August 9, 2014. What inspired me to write the song, above and beyond the obvious, was the unexpected involvement of 90-year old Holocaust survivor, Hedy Epstein, in the aftermath of protest in Ferguson, Missouri, a northern suburb of St. Louis. I was also thinking about the first popular blues song St. Louis Blues—written by “the father of the blues,” W.C. Handy. Hedy Epstein was a remarkable woman—a fearless political activist who figured she had already survived hell on earth—so nothing scared her. She walked into the maelstrom of the angry protest on the streets surrounding the spot where Michael Brown had lain unattended for four hours after he had bled to death from the last of six bullets he had taken on that fateful day at high noon—the one to his head—and Hedy Epstein was arrested for “failure to disperse.” She had a colorful blue T-shirt with some faint printing on the front, which was impossible to make out in the LA Times front page photo the next day. So I went on-line and found the photo, saved it, and then kept pushing “zoom in” with my mouse until I could finally read the two words Hedy Epstein chose to represent her reason for being there:
I don’t know much, but I know when I see a song staring me in the face. I picked up my guitar and got to work. That’s how I came to write Brand New St. Louis Blues.
Hedy Epstein, the song’s hero, is the “useful idiot” of whom my correspondent writes in the second of two emails I received after performing the song for the first time in public at the Folk Club last Saturday. The writer (of both emails) did not sign his name or address it to me in his responses to the song, but his name is on the email, and the emails are follow-ups to the complaints he lodged about the song in the hallway of the Santa Monica Synagogue, where the Folk Club holds forth every first Saturday of the month. So it’s no secret that I have my old Israeli-American friend Louis Richter to thank for these spirit-crushing screeds about my well-intentioned effort to recount what this Holocaust survivor had to contribute to the dialog about race in America that in fact began with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014. There are dream killers among us, as sure as there are black teen killers.
You may recall my column of last year—The First Amendment’s a Bitch, Isn’t It?—that was written in response to another email from Louis, to let me know that former UC Santa Cruz Professor Angela Davis had been invited back to speak at UC Santa Cruz in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—and how abhorrent he found her lecture title: “Racism, Militarism, Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine.”
And now, in reaction to my new song, his email comes in with the subject heading: “Ferguson to Gaza” on Calm Reflection.”
You see, the second verse of my song quotes Hedy Epstein, as interviewed on Democracy Now on the Pacifica radio network, August 20, 2014, the date of the first draft of Brand New St. Louis Blues. Here is the verse:
Hedy Epstein, 90 years old
She thought she’d seen it all
Holocaust survivor with two words on her T-shirt
“Stay Human” to the big blue wall
She came to join the protest: “You’re under arrest”
For “Failure to Disperse”
“Stop the violence,” she says, “from Ferguson to Gaza,”
Where things go from bad to worse. (Ch)
“Stay Human”—two words. But where did Hedy Epstein get them? Originally they came from a song by Michael Franti—the title song of a 2001 hip hop album that says, “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” Here is a verse that pays homage to one of my heroes, Paul Robeson:
I speak low but I’m like a lion roaring
Baritone like a Robeson recordin’
I’m givin’ thanks for bein’ human
Every morning, morning, morning
And here is the refrain:
To legalize you or give you your freedom
You want rights ask em’, they’ll read em’
But every flower got a right to be bloomin’
Because all the freaky people make the beauty of the world
We saw all the freaky people make the beauty of the world
And yet, that’s not where Hedy Epstein got them. That’s where Italian human rights activist Vittorio Arigoni got them. She got them from his book that came out ten years later: Gaza: Stay Human. The following year he was assassinated—by Israelis who resented his bleak portrayal of their occupation and attack on Gaza in 2008-9? No, dear Reader, truth is stranger than fiction. The courageous activist—who risked his own life as a human shield protecting Palestinian farmers and fishermen from the Israeli military—wound up being strangled to death by a fringe radical group of Palestinians themselves—the very people whose story he had come to tell and whose people he had given his last full measure of devotion to protect. His murder was universally condemned—by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as well as by Israel. He was 36 years old when he was killed with the same kind of cruel irony that led to the brutal murder of Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on February 1 2002 by the very Pakistani terrorists whose story and suffering he had portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Vittorio Arigoni’s book inspired Jewish peace activists with a universal conscience like Hedy Epstein. Within a month of Arigoni’s assassination she was on a flotilla heading for Gaza to lend her presence and voice on behalf of Palestinians living in Gaza—1300 of whom died in the initial onslaught of Israeli bombs and artillery. The flotilla never arrived in Gaza; it was intercepted at sea and turned back. But Hedy Epstein and many others made their point: the whole world was watching. All Hedy got for her troubles was a black T-shirt; that paid homage to Arigoni’s eyewitness masterpiece with two words: “Stay Human,” a tribute to Michael Franti’s song as well. Hedy Epstein went back to St. Louis and bided her time. In the summer of 2014, with the police murder of Michael Brown, Hedy found a new, unexpected resonance in the words on her T-shirt: now “Stay Human” also applied to Ferguson. Sometimes a song takes on a life of its own—as this one surely did.
Once again it’s her association of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri with police brutality in Gaza that arouses Louis’s ire. Louis writes:
Email from Louis Richter; subject head: “Ferguson to Gaza” on Calm Reflection
1) I am familiar with that slogan. It was embraced by the Bull(Damned)Shit [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement, and specifically by SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine]. The connection they make is that some police departments supposedly have received Israeli training. I don’t even know whether that is a fact, but the implication is that Israelis wantonly kill Arabs. This is truth stood on its head. No army in history has done what the IDF has done to minimize civilian casualties in battle, even at the loss of more Israeli lives. The adoption of that slogan by BLM [Black Lives Matter] deprives them of respectability.
Only in this case the association is not made by the most famous black campus radical of the 1960’s, Angela Davis, nor by Black Lives Matter of today, nor by singer Michael Franti; nor by me; it is made explicitly by Jewish Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. I am just reporting and quoting what she said to Amy Goodman on KPFK, on the episode that uses her quote for its title—“Stop the Violence From Ferguson to Gaza,” as I made clear to Louis in the hallway of the Folk Club when challenged about my song. The second paragraph of Louis’s letter is directed at the first verse of my song, to demolish the story of Michael Brown; here is the opening verse:
They choked Eric “I can’t breathe” Garner to death
In Baltimore they broke Freddie Gray’s spine
They shot Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina
And a year ago on August 9
Michael Brown, unarmed black teen
Was shot six times before he could run
By the judge, jury, and executioner
The white Ferguson policeman who emptied his gun.
Here then is Louis’s second paragraph:
2) I am sure that Ferguson was the case in which a young man robbed a store, then walked brazenly down the middle of the street, then went for the gun of the policeman who challenged him. That makes it a piss-poor “poster boy” for protests of police brutality, but an excellent poster boy for protests of false accusations against police. Thus, adoption of the slogan undermines BLM’s credibility.
Louis doesn’t even mention the main slogan that was called into question by various witnesses of the shooting—and regarded by many unsympathetic bystanders as an urban legend rather than a fact: “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which many insist Brown never said. So of course that’s where my chorus begins:
Hands up, don’t shoot, in Ferguson, Missouri
Where they still make yesterday’s news
Do black lives matter? Ask a Ferguson grand jury
I got the brand new St. Louis Blues.
Had Louis (who I now think may be the “Louis” in “St. Louis Blues”) not been so focused on Epstein’s modest critique of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, he would have called me to account for perpetuating this particular (possible) distortion of the facts on the ground. Another friend of mine has objected to the song on that ground alone. Once again, I have turned out to be a “useful idiot.”
Unfortunately, I am now on record as supporting W.H. Auden’s view that “nothing is beautiful—not even in poetry—that is not the case.” Had I been trying to write a beautiful song about this ugly aspect of American history I would simply shake my head, agree, and scrap the song. But no one has misinterpreted my song as beautiful—which it was never my intent to write. Others have described the song as “stellar,” “moving,” “brilliant,” “chilling and haunting.” That’s good enough for me.
As regards its relation to truth, I am content to grant Louis the high ground factually; I wasn’t writing what Louis describes in his 3rd paragraph below as “thoughtful critical analysis,” I was writing a song. But let Louis speak for himself, unfiltered:
3) I think that what I sense here is knee-jerk politics. That reflex is controlled not by the brain, but by a nerve ganglion, which is not designed for thoughtful, critical analysis. I am reminded of the people we saw in post-war Israel with numbers tattooed on their arms. When they acted strangely in public there was immediate consensus all around them that we should cut them some slack on account of the experiences which distorted their judgment and relation to society. Must we similarly cut some slack for the children of Americans who were blacklisted? Has their judgment been destroyed for life?
By “children of Americans who were blacklisted,” readers may recognize a pointed reference to the author, whose father was an unfriendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities’—and a hero for standing up to them and refusing to testify about his political beliefs, associations, and his past. As a result he lost virtually his entire legal practice (except for an honorable used-car salesman) and ability to support his family. But frankly, that was nowhere in my mind as I was writing. I wasn’t thinking about Papa, memorialized in my song, Papa Had to Start All Over.
I was thinking about John Ford’s classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Without trying to summarize its complicated plot (which I have previously done in writing) suffice to say that John Ford gives the best defense of poetic license ever made, in the voice of his newspaper editor: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That’s what I have done in Brand New St. Louis Blues—where Michael Brown becomes a symbol for 217 mostly anonymous victims of police brutality this year alone. For I wasn’t writing this song for Louis, or the privileged all-white and nearly all-Jewish folk music club in West L.A. I wrote this song—with all its “crudities, doubts and confusions” as Dylan Thomas once described his own poems—for the 217. And I wrote it in memory of that brave woman Louis dismisses as “a useful idiot,” Hedy Epstein, which brings me to his second email and fourth paragraph:
2nd email; subject heading: The Holocaust Survivor
I forgot to address that matter. The experience is well known to have addled the brains of survivors, though not always in the same way. Some believers came out more religious, many turned atheist. Most were warped in one direction or another.
Whatever forbearance we might muster for her, the fact remains that she comes to the aid of the Fascists, the anti-Semites, who are never slow to exploit useful idiots. If we echo her slogan we put ourselves in the same position — without her excuse.
That is really the point of Louis’s letter: not just to demolish the victim Michael Brown, or this unlucky troubadour (for having brought this vitriol down on my old white head), but this heroic Holocaust survivor—who stuck her neck out for those of a different race for nothing other than the Jewish principle of justice—and the American principle that she is supposed to be blind. Well Louis, if that is what a useful idiot is, this child of the blacklist is proud to stand with Hedy Epstein.
And thank you, Louis, for taking the time to write. Keep ‘em coming. And stay human.
PS: Louis’s name as the author of these emails is used by permission; when asked for it he replied: “No problem. I am not ashamed of what I wrote.” Nor am I, Louis; nor am I.
Ross Altman has a PhD in English; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org