Streetbuzz Interview

May 31, 2005

Tom Warner: Long-time Seattle revolutionary activist;
Lives in Seattle, Washington, USA.


Tom Warner

STREETBUZZ: Tom, where and when were you born?

TOM WARNER: Well, I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, March twenty-something, 1925.

STREETBUZZ: Your childhood?

TOM WARNER: I had one brother, four years younger than me, my father was a postal clerk. My folks split up when I was 12, but my dad had visitation. In 1941 I was sixteen, when we were at the Will Rogers Theater on December 7, they announced Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and we figured everything was going to change (the start of World War Two.)


TOM WARNER: Well it was the Depression, until 1941, but dad had a good job, $40 a week. My kinfolk were hard scrabble farmers, they had it tough. They were living, you know, an extended family with us, we gave them shelter, 'cuz they were dad's brothers and sisters.


TOM WARNER: The main feature of my youth was at six I practically burned myself to death, I spent two years in the hospital. So I didn't go to school during those two years, I was in the hospital. But I was reading OK at six, reading at the hospital. Then when I got out, mostly I fell back in marble shooting and things boys do growing up, but I was still a little bit of an outsider. Always my dad was a Shriner, so because of his ring, he was able to get me into the Shriner's hospital for crippled children. I always thought that wasn't fair, 'cuz other kids whose dads weren't Shriners. What do you do if you're not a Shriner? So there was a certain element of social awareness as a youngster, things were swirling around. My dad eventually became a Republican, he was always conservative, even though some of his friends became leftists.

STREETBUZZ: So then you graduated from high school?

TOM WARNER: No. World War Two came along when I was sixteen; I tried to join, but I couldn't 'cuz of my burns. But I did get into the Merchant Marine, I became a merchant seaman, that was in 1942. That was a life-changing experience. First of all I went to a boot camp on Manhattan Island, near Coney Island, at Sheep's Head Bay. You know, we learned how to march, etc. And we used to go to Coney Island, pick up girls. That's when I made the change from a boy to an adult.
Finally I got finished with training, I was dispatched to the S.S. John Lawrence. We were out at sea for three or four days, you know I had never even been out on a ship before, when some guys announced a union meeting. I didn'St know anything about unions, but there was nothing else to do, so I went. This was out in the north Atlantic, open seas. The ship was rocking back and forth, waves coming onto the deck and I was on watch. I was on the four-to-eight watch: four in the afternoon 'til eight at night, then four in the morning 'til eight in the morning, around the clock. That coincides with the dinner period. There were three of us on a watch so that left only fifteen minutes each to eat. After my night watch, I would stay up listening to the old timers, so I would sleep through the lunch period. So the main thing for me, I was hungry all the time! Breakfast was the only time really I could easily eat, 'cuz they were still serving when I got off my watch. But a couple times I asked the cook for extra biscuits, and they said no.
So anyway they had this union meeting, I went to the meeting, you know they'd get us new guys lined up with meetings, mostly so the new recruits wouldn't be a non-union force after the war. It was a good and welfare part of the meeting, they called it. So I brought up the biscuits. The Chief steward, who was a union member, he said we could save our food, in case we ran out, or else we could just eat it all; and so we voted to eat the food up. Next morning, there were three biscuits on my plate. So I ate all three biscuits, even though I was kinda stuffed, and I asked for more, 'cuz I wanted to see what would happen. Well, they gave me lots of biscuits, they had a a huge tub full of bisuits they had made, and another tub that was a huge single biscuit..
We went to Africa, Iran, you know, all over, and I saw very poor people, that's where I became an anti-imperialist. And...I found out that the communists were the ones who organized the unions.
After the war, three leftist crew members, Jewish guys, they were having this big meeting at Madison Square Garden. I went to the meeting, with the CP (Communist Party.) In Manhattan. Madison Square Garden was filled to the brim in alliance with communism. I was way in the back, there was a tiny little stage, but they had notables, you know like Dorothy Day, and various lefties. Finally the head of the Communist Party, Earl Browder, gets up to make a presentation, he says "You know what we're gonna do, the racists don't want us to do it, the southern lynchers don't want us to do it, well we're gonna dissolve the Communist Party, that'll show 'em." (It was in the interest of national unity, during the war.) There was a whole lot of people there, very enthusiastic.
The union had a leadership training school. So I was elected to go to it, you got paid; the war was over by this time. "Readin' writin' and no strikin' "was the new attitude. Some disagreements on the left; the old timers didn't like it, they had actually struck before. Earl Browder was expelled from C.P.-U.S.A. for revisionism. I wasn't a member, but I was following it. These were the formative years, for me. When I got back to St. Louis, Senator Warren Magnusson got the communists off the waterfront. Legislation.

STREETBUZZ: So anyway, you came back from the war...

TOM WARNER: Yes, so I came back, that sealed my fate on ship work. I was definitely a leftist at that point. So when I came back to St. Louis, I joined the Communist Party. Other people at the GM Fisher body plant. So I figured that's the way to work with these people. The Smith Act was being screened. They arrested the professional communist leadership, some people went underground. The Party purged its ranks; I got purged shortly after I joined. A general weaning of untrusted souls (I was too new.) So I helped organize the Progressive Party in Missouri in 1948, Henry Wallace (who was supported by the Communist Party), he was a maverick democrat, a prior Secretary of Agriculture.
So anyway, I went around, I got on the old mailing lists, met my first lady, Gloria Martin. She was unhappily married, all these kids. I had a big Frazer Manhattan with low miles, so she and her six kids and me jumped into this Manhattan and came to Washington State, 'cuz her step-sister said the schools weren't segregated like St. Louis. James Farley said "47 states and the Soviet of Washington." I was impressed by that! 'Cuz the Democratic Party had a tremendous influence, all the precinct committee officers were commies. The I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) had been very strong out here. I found a ramshackle house where Seattle Center is today. No heat. I got a job with the gas company making 85 cents an hour, and paying forty dollars a month rent. After awhile we found this place to buy, $3800 total; wasn't much of a house. Three days after we moved in, Tommy Jr. was born, my first child. And then another, that made eight kids. The house burned down; the insurance company went bankrupt.
Around those times I was organizing leagues of the unemployed. One was George Crowley, we moved in with him, shared expenses. They were ex-CPers, anarchist types. Tore down another house, added it to this so we could move back in. After three months at the gasworks, I was cooking the gas out of gunky residue from refineries. Used the gas. I was shoveling the leftover carbon, I looked like Al Jolson. Got to a point where I was supposed to join a union, but I didn't ('cuz I wasn't going to stay.) Moved to the street department, as a gas fitter's assistant with the Seattle Gas Utility. That's how I got into the plumbing trade. Then I went to the union hall went to work in the shipyards as pipe fitter. Found out that if you got a plumbers license, I became a plumber, learned it out of a book. No, I wasn't in an apprentice program. But I passed the test. To become a union plumber. Beginning of a lifetime work relationship.
During the McCarthy period, I thought this would be good place to be for the kids and we became involved in progressive movements. My daughter belonged to the N.A.A.C.P. youth council. One day the cops broke up an interracial group, took my daughter to the youth centre. I wanted to contest it. Day of our demonstration was day of Brown vs. the Board of Education. Headline: "Supreme Court voted to integrate schools." Cops said "Any time we see mixed groups like that we bust 'em up."
This was the McCarthy period. Many committees, H.U.A.C. (House Un-American Activities Committee), many Washingtonians indicted. Going after local leaders. I had been at a birthday party, the ex-secretary of CP, she was under indictment. I was tired. Barbara Hartle. Within a week she had capitulated, became a government witness, but I never got called. But the FBI went to my workplaces, asked my employers to keep an eye on me. So contractors wouldn't hire me. I only worked when they had a crunch to finish the project before the deadline. I only worked four to six months of the year, the rest I collected unemployment and worked on my kids and the house.
After all that period, witch hunts, H.U.A.C., the Cuban revolution came around. I was flirting around with the S.W.P. (Socialist Workers Party.). Some people saw the Soviet Union as some kind of an Eden. But there was trouble in paradise city. This group, with Clara Fraser, decided to capitalize on the great doubting in the CP, to join S.W.P. S.W.P. people thought they could recruit people who wanted to re-evaluate, think about things. So I joined S.W.P. in that context. But for me, the S.W.P. was too anti-Soviet. Anyway, Workers World split from S.W.P., and I agreed, so I got tangled up with Workers World. They turned out too centralist for me, so we got divorced. Yeah, that was around 1970's. One way or another, Vietnam war, draft resistance, it kept building, finally when Kent State, the Cambodia bombing happened, an active student strike. Six months before a group of young idealists from Cornell moved here. A dozen of them thought Seattle would be the place for the revolution to start: Captain Communist and the Red Avengers. But we had our own collective; we were the Martin Sostre Collective of the Seattle Liberation Front. Successful Seattle counterculture newspaper: Seattle Helix. Walt Crowley. The youth was on fire at that time. If you remember, there was a concert at Golden Gardens, supposed to stop at ten p.m. Cops closed it down at 9:45. A riot broke out, it spread to University district.
Three newspapers: Seattle / Paul dopatt. Huge fight at the Helix, they stopped publication. So we decided to take over, started the Puget Sound Partisan. Very radical Seattle newspaper. Volume one was a map of Puget Sound, with red clenched fist. Sixteen pages, twice a month for a whole summer. Finally a baby of the Berkeley Barb, put us out of business. We gave up. Quite an experience. Our philosophy: people doing the struggle would write the stories. So: the whole McCarthy witch-hunt, then building up of this movement, then the riot, student government at U.W. selected anti-Vietnam War president. The Daily had an anti-war editor. We prepared for a big rally at U.W. Yeah, about 1970, after killing of the Kent State four. Many speakers against the war, whole campus was there, tens of thousands of people. Voted to leave campus, march on the Ave. One of the signs we created here was in the front of the group at the start of the march. As the group left the campus, went up University Way. One banner, a group started whispering: "Take the freeway." The leadership headed back to campus, but the rest went to the freeway, blocked the freeway with 10,000 people. The leaders had to run to catch up and become leaders again (laughs). At Roanoke exit, about six cops were standing there to stop the flow. The group sat down. On the freeway. Such an experience for me, after all these years of repression, I thought the revolution was here. We're here, we're ready, we're in control! We blocked I-5 for three or four hours. The antiwar movement was so powerful, Workers World group grew; pretty much kicked me out (the national office was not happy with me.) So that kind of left me without anybody to work with. So I decided maybe Palestine work. So I worked on the Palestine human rights campaign. But big rift at the time of the first Gulf War. Some were also against Saddam Hussein; they demanded that protestors also denounce Saddam Hussein. Caused a big split. Two different groups. End of my relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Organization. One demonstration had 60,000 people. There was a traffic jam just to get TO the demo! Our demonstration, one week later, attracted 20,000 people.

Tom Warner

STREETBUZZ: Somewhere in there you switched over to Cuba work, right?

TOM WARNER: So after the Gulf War was over, there was still the blockade of Iraq, maintenance terror going on (by U.S. Government), well I switched over to Cuba (work). First I met Judy, she was deeply involved in the Contra Aid thing. We had a demonstration with over 200 people on two weeks notice, against the Gulf War. Now, in the Korean War, it took the Stockholm peace petition, few thousand signatures. Grenada: demonstration within a few weeks. Gulf War: within a few weeks, up to 60,000. Kosovo: Internet could organize so much more rapidly.
Oh, Judy and Contra Aid organizing. Olly North, it was illegal to support the contras. So Judy went to Nicaragua. When Judy came back she was very impressed, she became treasurer of the Fund for Engineers. You know, the Ben Linder scholarship fund. Also F.A.C.H.R.E.S. Then we went to Cuba, our daughter Tina organized it. I got a credential from a local newspaper to cover it. So we started doing things. I had been involved in the Venceramos Brigade. My ex. was secretary of Fair Trade for Cuba campaign... so we worked on Cuba stuff pretty strong. Connected with Lucius, etc. The Cuba committee has brought Cuban people up here, and along the way I did things to make the house livable, made it a solar house, etc.
Oh, and the Reverend Zimmer got the Cuba committee on as a task force of Church Council of Greater Seattle. In conjunction with Pastors for Peace. Tons of material (were taken to Cuba) in defiance of the blockade. The Cuba committee has done all these things in conjunction with the Church Council and Pastors for Peace.

STREETBUZZ: What can you say about current state of affairs in the world?

TOM WARNER: Well things went from terrible to getting a little bit better. Say what you want about the east block, but many things happened good for the world. The P.L.O. was supported, the A.N.C. was supported, many other national liberation movements got support. There was a second place to turn in the world. After that, it looked like just super-hegemony of the U.S. But even though they tried to overthrow Fidel, you don't let the National Endowment for Democracy come in and mess around in your politics. G.W. (George W. Bush) won't let them do that! Won't let the Chinese do that. Here, Clinton, the WTO, these guys in Cuba were in jail for being agents of the U.S. Now Chavez has picked up on that. All the people who tried to oust him are getting U.S. money. You'll see in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" movie, during the coup, tens of thousands gathered around the palace, right now Chavez and Fidel are trying to do a lot of things to change the world, setting up independent relationships with China, Libya, Iran, free trade agreement of the Caribbean. Chavez not only sells oil to Cuba at discount, but to the Caribbean at a discount. If the C.I.A. says "Do things for us", they ask "What do you have to offer?"

STREETBUZZ: How about the future?

TOM WARNER: This moment on the world stage? Things are looking up again. You remember one moment in Africa, before it was all colonies, all one big colony. Now through all the revolutionary movements, there was a huge tidal wave of revolution? I think it's heading back towards heady days.

Tom Warner



Tom passed away on October 24, 2011.

See Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee