I took this blurry cell-phone photo at a street fair. It's the table of the Coalition for Concerned Legal Professionals, which is a front for a Stalinist political cult that I used to help many years ago when I thought it was a liberal group that helped migrants. The woman on the left is jumping out of the frame.
This is how I know about them, and learned that not all cults are religious.
Soon after I moved to Brooklyn, at another street fair, I found the booth of a group called the Women's Press Collective. I'd begun my career in mainstream publishing but hated having to work on military memoirs, so I wanted to apply my skills elsewhere. Despite its name, the WPC turned to be not a feminist group (or a place to meet wimmin), but one that said it was printing flyers and booklets for a variety of cooperative labor organizations, mostly supporting migrant workers, public-housing residents, and service workers.
Labor had never been my top cause. But I began volunteering at the WPC anyway. For a year I spent an evening a week running two small offset presses: printing flyers, booklets, newsletters, and earning the group a little money doing commercial work. I loved printing. I'd been an editor for a few years but had never seen ink. It comes in cans, thick and gooey. I wore one pair of jeans onto which I'd smear the colored ink whenever I worked there. I'll never fit into them again -- they had a 29" waist.
The WPC was weird. Its organizers never seemed to have other lives, and were cagey about where they lived. They talked about "strata organizing" as a form of labor activism. They kept inviting me to lectures about it. I went to one or two. It was droning, tedious reading from old ditto sheets about obscure political theory; I was polite but went to no more. Nor did I agree to volunteer additional nights of press work, or agree to help serve holiday dinners to the local poor, whom I was told would then have to listen to pitches on strata organizing.
Yet I wasn't bothered by the overeager organizers behaving creepily. All groups need energetic leaders. Back in high school, I had worked with anarchists who had an office next to the War Resisters League on Manhattan’s Lafayette Street. These Women's Press Collective people were older and odder, but not unsurprising. This was the early nineties, pre-Web, so when I found nothing in the public library about strata organizing, I shrugged it off.
Half a year into this, an organizer took me aside and said he'd like me to consider writing articles for the newspapers that the WPC was printing for these groups. He said that strata organizing was committed to "replacing the democratic process." So the politics were weirder and more revolutionary than I'd thought. But with my own brief anarchist past, I didn't really care.
The next week I was invited to what they called their Publications office, in another neighborhood. It was a busy townhouse floor packed with nonstop office work, even in the evening. I met maybe fifteen people, including a very nice old guy who reminded me very much of my beloved high school English teacher. A couple of people gave a long history of the group, associating them with the Catholic Worker Berrigan brothers and a Central American group called Venceremos. All lingo to me, since I still had no knowledge/little interest in labor activism, and these lectures weren’t adding any. There was a dinner break of postdated chicken nuggets that had been begged from some supermarket as a donation. Aside from that, it was a night filled with wearying interviews and lectures, plus friendly talks with the nice old guy. He showed me the group's operations manual, "The Essential Organizer," after I asked to see it. It was filled with bureaucratic procedures. He and, later, others asked me "So, when do you want to begin?", which I found rude. My ride home kept getting delayed, too. I think I finally got home at 3 a.m. that night.
Imposing order on all the work for those different groups very much appealed to me, since I was beginning my career as a managing editor. But I didn't care enough about their cause to invest more of myself in it, so I stayed at the Women's Press Collective instead of working at Publications.
A month later I meet a new fellow volunteer, and she was cute and smart -- smarter than me. "Do you think they're looking for acolytes?" was one of the first things she said to me. We started having drinks after our press evenings. But soon she started working at Publications, and succumbed to hard pressure to donate more time. "Maybe I should become a full-time organizer," she said once. Her home phone would ring off the hook till she agreed to come in for extra evenings to do what she was told was "important work," which ended up being just lectures or envelope-stuffing.
She always suspected there was something evil about the group. I maintained that they were just activist nuts, though I thought she should stop giving so much of herself. Wanting to investigate, she demanded to go to one of the nearby Long Island migrant-labor camps that this loose coalition of groups claimed to help. She was treated cruelly and evasively there, and saw nothing besides exhausted strata-organizing volunteers sleeping on a storefront floor. Sleeping on the floor was very painful for her (eventually she’d turn out to have kidney stones), yet even though she complained and they had always claimed to offer medical help as a benefit, they did nothing.
I was appalled by her treatment, quit immediately, told them to leave her alone, and begged her to stop. After a few weeks she did too. It was harder for her; she'd made social ties there.
The Women's Press Collective folks was still at street fairs a year and a half later. I was hanging out at least weekly with my friend. We didn't talk with them, but we might have waved. No big deal. We'd moved on.
Then a letter to the editor appeared in a local newspaper. It said that the WPC, which had been advertising in the same paper, was a recruitment front for a political cult. I was stunned -- it was a CONSPIRACY?! I wrote to the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), a group then known to keep tabs on cults and high-demand groups, till later they got sued and dismantled by Scientology-backed lawyers. CAN sent me a thick file of clippings.
The WPC turned out to be one of a couple of dozen fronts meant to suck people into a pseudo-communist national revolutionary group, the National Labor Federation (NATLFED), run by a gangrenous, bandage-wrapped, morphine-addicted, Shakespeare-quoting maniac who maintained a harem of women pulled from local fronts across the country. He kept his headquarters at that "Publications" building. Stalin was assigned reading. The group had absolute control over its committed inner core of members: bathroom visits and even sex had to be approved by political commissars. Yes, “political commissars.” People slept three hours a night, and worked all day at all-consuming bureaucracy when they weren't scamming the public for cash, food, or resources like cars. The group had even taken over a church-run national directory of volunteer groups, "Invest Yourself," by offering the directory free services, stuffing the directory with listings of its own fronts, and then voting out the directory's founders.
A few dozen people lived in that headquarters. There was a basement jail, and a constitution with a death penalty. Outside the core membership, there were many more clueless volunteers like I had been.
I wrote a letter to the editor myself, adding my own, now reevaluated experience. In retrospect, the strata-organizing lectures had been deliberately mind-numbing nonsense meant to soften newbies. My visit to "Publications" had been a brainwashing attempt.
There turned out to be one further conspiracy. That first letter to the editor had been planted there by the parent of a brainwashed daughter; the parent was casting a line for disaffected ex-members or ex-volunteers. Despite my peripheral experience, "Cult Dad" was ecstatic to meet me, and he introduced me to several parents of brainwashees, some ex-members (including one man who'd been manacled for two months for trying to escape), a sympathetic attorney who leaked documents to us, and exit counselors (the later generation of deprogrammers).
Eventually the leader died. The group got his obituary in New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/20/obituaries/eugenio-perente-ramos-...) , which then ran a long correction (http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/21/nyregion/c-correction-obituary-om... ) admitting that they'd been snookered. Later, the NYPD raided the HQ, claiming to be responding to a child-abuse report. In reality, the FBI, which had raided the HQ ten years before, had seen heightened activity by the group and wanted back in, so they got the NYPD to invade. The child-abuse charges were dropped (the kids were fine), and the cops returned the rusty guns that had been used as props by the leader to convince members that the revolution would be real. The FBI had claimed it couldn't find any guns when it had invaded ten years earlier. But they had. Between the FBI and NYPD raids, I had in my own files a map of the HQ office showing where the gun closet was.
When the leader died, his California second-in-command appeared at the NYC headquarters with an armed bodyguard, demoted everyone in sight (even the proofreaders had military rank), and scattered the harem across the country. She liberalized the lifestyle, allowing members to visit their families, to try to prove that the group wasn't a cult. The members would return with cash and cars and cell phones.
Cult Daughter walked out. Cult Dad wrote an op-ed about it, moved away, and I lost touch. I found other causes that interested me.
And sometimes I had brunch at the Noho Star restaurant across Lafayette Street, looking up at the radical offices I hadn’t been in since high school.
I love seeing the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Labor_Federation . Its "neutral" perspective is debatable, but it cites as references many articles that were only blurry xeroxes of clippings sent from the Cult Awareness Network till I had them transcribed and put online in the midnineties. See also http://exnatlfed.wordpress.com/ , a rambling ex-member forum.
And, finally, here is a list of the cult fronts, called "entities." From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NATLFED_entities :
Currently active NATLFED entities
* Alaska Workers Association (Anchorage, Alaska)
* Bay Area Alternative Press (Berkeley, California)
* Berkshire County Fuel Committee (Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
* California Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners (California)
* California Homemakers Association (Sacramento, California)
* Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals (Sacramento, California, New York City, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) (publishes Verdict andThe Gavel)
* Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals (Central Valley/Redding, Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, California; Bellport, Riverhead, Brooklyn, New York)
* Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party (Oakland, California) (Publishes The Commemorator)
* Commission on Voluntary Service and Action (New York City, New York) (Publishes Invest Yourself: The Catalog of Volunteer Opportunities) This entity is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
* Committee for South African Solidarity (San Francisco, Sacramento, California) (PublishesThe South Africans Beacon)
* Eastern Farm Workers Association (Bellport, Lyons, Riverhead, Sodus, Syracuse, New York)
* Eastern Service Workers Association (Boston, Roxbury, Massachusetts; Atlantic City, New Brunswick, South Amboy, Pleasantville, Somerset, Trenton, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York)
* Friends of Seasonal and Service Workers (Portland, Oregon)
* Jackson County Fuel Committee (Ashland, Oregon)
* Mid-Ohio Workers Association (Columbus, Ohio)
* Midwest Workers Association (Chicago, Illinois)
* National Equal Justice Association (San Diego, San Francisco, California; New York City, Riverhead, New York)
* Northwest Seasonal Workers Association (Medford, Oregon)
* Physicians Organizing Committee (San Francisco, California)
* Western Farm Workers Association (Stockton, Yuba City, California)
* Western Massachusetts Labor Action (Pittsfield, Massachusetts)
* Western Service Workers Association (Anaheim, Oakland, Central Valley/Redding, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Ana, Santa Cruz, Watsonville California)
* Women's Press Collective (South Brooklyn, New York) (Publishes Collective Endeavor) (distinct from the Women's Press Collective of Oakland, California)
* Workers Community Service Center (Sacramento, California)
The following names have been listed as NATLFED-run organizations in the past. Some are alternate names for active organizations and offices, others are likely defunct.
* Alianza Campesina (Modesto, CA)
* Ashland Community Service Center (Ashland, OR)
* Association of Financial Aid Students (Dayton, Shaker Heights, OH)
* Boston Committee for Community Arts (Boston, MA)
* Carroll Street Properties (New York; owner of NATLFED's Brooklyn Headquarters)
* Citizens for Migrant Workers (Northport, King's Park, NY)
* Citizens Relief Committee (Philadelphia, PA)
* Committee for Community Health and Safety (Trenton, NJ)
* Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners (Bellport, Riverhead, NY)
* Earth Shock Committee (Oakland, Watsonville, CA)
* Finger Lakes Equal Justice Association (Rochester, NY)
* National Foundation for Alternative Resources (NY)
* Gregorio Duarte Memorial Oakland Community Service and Health Center (Oakland, CA)
* Junior Eason Riverhead Community Service and Health Center (Riverhead, NY)
* Long Island Alternative Press (King's Park/Smithtown, NY)
* Long Island Equal Justice Association (Riverhead, NY)
* New Jersey Labor Defense Committee (Trenton, NJ)
* Philadelphia Committee on the Community Arts (Philadelphia, PA)
* Philadelphia Community Service Center (Philadelphia, PA)
* Shasta County Community Service Center (Central Valley/Redding, CA)
* Shasta County Food Committee (Central Valley/Redding, CA)
* South/Central Los Angeles Benefits Office (Los Angeles, CA)
* Suffolk Committee for Community Arts (Bellport, NY)
* Temporary Workers Organizing Committee (New Brunswick, NJ)
* Texas Farm Workers Union (Pharr, Hildago, TX)
* Vivian Cooper Community Service Center/Trenton Community Service Center (Trenton, NJ)
* Workers Benefit Council (Alameda County, CA; Rochester, NY)
* Writers and Scholars Institute (Princeton, NJ)
Newspapers the day after the NYPD raid
Josh, I too was once in a well-organized cult that demanded everything of its followers: Roman Catholicism. In 1957 I quit and everything in my life improved.
Wow what a story! It is good for people to see what appears to be ligit can be somthing else. Mine was called The First United Methodist Church. They are usually considered moderate, Mine consisted of extreme fundamentalist.