In 1989, when I was a student living in a dormitory at New York University, I was assigned a new roommate. Usually, you get to choose who you live with, but I hadn’t named a preference, so the housing office assigned me a random match. Come September, we met for the first time, when a young man dressed all in black ambled into room 1206 while I was unpacking. His name was Ben and he greeted me with a big smile and an enthusiastic outstretched hand.
It was his first time in New York City – he was a transfer student from Indiana who had come all the way over on a Greyhound to save money. It had taken 16 hours. No, it wasn’t so bad, because he had had something good to read – a biography of Mao. He was a big reader. He read at least a book a week. Got them from the library when he could. Or from used book stores.
And he was a communist.
He mentioned it as small talk, the way it might come up that you play a mean trombone or that your grandmother was a bit player in old RKO movies. But it became clear very quickly that Ben’s politics weren’t some odd sidebar to who he was – they permeated through his pores, and I don’t mean figuratively.
He was literally a filthy communist
Ben was a member of something called “The Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade” and they had convinced him that personal hygiene was an unnecessary bourgeoise affectation. He didn’t wash, bathe or even brush his teeth, which were permanently stained brown as a result of his two-pack a day unfiltered cigarette habit.
He had only brought a few things with him in his small travel bag, but it didn’t matter much as he never changed his clothes. His uniform was: black shoes, black socks, black trousers and a black t-shirt with a Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade logo. The faded red and yellow RCYB logo was the only splash of colour on him. His hair, shirt, trousers and socks were all stiff as cardboard from never being cleaned. The final touch on his everyday ensemble was a frayed keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his neck, worn ‘in solidarity with the Palestinian people.’
At first – as you might expect – I was horrified both by his appearance and his political views and as Ben unpacked his bag and set up his half of the room, I thought about how virtually everyone I knew would have marched right down to the student housing office and requested a reassignment right then and there. The hygiene thing was off-putting, to say the least, but the real deal-breaker was ideological. How could I sleep in the same room as someone who advocated for the end of capitalism and democracy? What if he tried to, you know, convert me?
I was no fan of communism. The Cold War was still raging back then, but the iron curtain was starting to fray, as countries like Poland and Hungary had begun to assert their independence. In my view, communism had proven itself to be the most-thoroughly discredited system of government ever attempted. Despite all its claims to be a “people’s” movement, it wasn’t hard to see that, in practice, it was always imposed from above by ruthless dictators. It was the ideology of mass purges, gulags, government inefficiency, uni-browed female Olympic weightlifters and bare supermarket shelves. In short, I thought it sucked.
But the more I spoke to Ben that first day, the less certain I was about giving him the ditch. I had never met anyone like him before and instead of feeling threatened by his belief – I found I was fascinated. I had grown up in a politically conservative small town. If there were any communists there, they had enough sense of self-preservation to keep their affiliations well hidden. For me, hanging out with a real-life, dyed-in-the-wool commie was like meeting a time-traveling feudal bard, or a cowboy from the old west. I had so many questions I wanted to ask him: Did he support Gorbachev’s reforms? If communism was innately superior to capitalism, why were countries that practiced it always so insistent about stifling a free press? How could he be pro Mao, but anti-soap?
Over the next few days, Ben was very patient and remarkably candid about his beliefs on global events, dialectical materialism and his disdain for hygiene. He thought people should judge each other based on their ideas, not their appearances and this was a key part of his decision to ignore society’s conventions around cleanliness. He told me: “Mao never brushed his teeth. Not once. He used to say: ‘A tiger doesn’t need to brush his teeth to keep them sharp.'”
Actually, the not-washing thing wasn’t as off-putting as much as you might think, once you got used to it a little. The body odour kind of evened out after a while. And in any event, Ben made up for it by being quite a considerate person. Right away, he spoke about how we could arrange the room so we wouldn’t get in each other’s way. He took an interest in me, my background and my stories. He was easy to talk to and a good listener. Usually, when you meet someone new and different, there’s a formality to the way you get to know each other, but with Ben, it was entirely unforced. He may have smelled bad, but he was good company and it wasn’t long before I considered Ben not just my roommate, but my friend.
The communist sympathiser
Ben and I wound up having lunch together nearly every day in the school cafeteria, where we would talk politics and talk current affairs. I never once saw Ben become heated, or lose his temper in any of our frequent debates. If anything, he was always smiling. A big, black-toothed, knowing kind of grin, like he was in on the joke too, whatever the joke was.
It was a bit reassuring to me that Ben’s views, once you got to know him, were more utopian than totalitarian. He thought the world should be better and that a revolution, led by the oppressed of the world, was the only real way to improve things. He brushed off the historical horrors of the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, and Mao by saying that true communism had never been correctly implemented. A proper communist system would be in a state of near-constant revolution – regularly cleansing everyone and anything that worked against the will of the people. Dictatorship and oppression were the results of capitalist interference and their reactionary opposition to communism. Sure, Stalin was a monster – his reasoning went – but he was a beast that had been created by the west.
It wasn’t easy debating Ben. He was smart and he knew his history. He would slide from one American atrocity to another, leaving me constantly on defense. Thousands of deaths in Chile, thanks to the American-sponsored coup that installed Pinochet and his death squads. The massacres of native Americans. The horrors of the slave trade. Vietnam. Segregation. CIA interventions in Latin America. etc. These weren’t things I wanted to stand up for, so instead, I would try to make the case that America was a nation of ideals, and even though we didn’t always live up to them, we had our good moments too, especially when compared to our communist rivals. The fight against Hitler. The liberation of concentration camps. The moon landing. The eradication of polio. The beauty of the US constitution and its guarantee of core freedoms: speech, religion, the right to protest.
Ben wasn’t buying it, he saw everything in terms of good versus evil. Fascism versus communism. Left versus right. I tried to convince him that there was always a middle path, that extremism of any kind only led to trouble. Whenever I took any kind of common-sense stance like this, he would pause to take a big drag of his unfiltered cigarette, then smokily exhale through his brown teeth: “It’s people like you who will be the first to go, when the revolution begins.” He would laugh, but it was pretty clear that he wasn’t joking. He made me feel wishy-washy, like my core political approach of ‘let’s find a sensible solution to this problem, taking good examples from places that have dealt well with this kind of issue before, rejecting bad examples from places that dealt poorly with it’ was ridiculous and entirely non-committal.
Ben, and his youth brigade comrades believed that moderates, not fascists, were the primary enemies of revolution. They felt that a showdown between left and right was not just inevitable, but desirable. They didn’t want a middle path, they wanted a showdown – a conflict that would enable the poor and oppressed to finally rise up against their masters. Moderates stood in the way of this dynamic, through their willingness to compromise. In that sense, we were the real enemy to be overcome.
Maybe I should have felt threatened by these kinds of exchanges, but I was sure that the communist revolution Ben and his brigade dreamed about was never going to come to America. If anything, the country seemed to be going too far in the other direction. We had just got through eight years of Ronald Reagan, only to elect another Republican president – George Bush. There seemed to be no stopping America’s right-wing juggernaut. Invasions of Panama, Kuwait and other countries were all either recent memories or brewing in the near future. Being an “anti-imperialist” revolutionary communist in the USA appeared to be a losing proposition.
But every dog has its day, even the red ones, as I was about to discover.
One day, Ben asked me for a favour. “I was at a brigade meeting yesterday,” he said. “and they asked me if I could host one of our comrades for a few days next week. Would it be okay if I had a guest stay here?.”
Most dormitories are of course closer to open-door hostels than private apartments. It wasn’t unusual at all for people to sleep over, usually on the floor, and often on a moment’s notice. What made Ben’s request unusual, was that he had asked about it in such a formal way – more than a week in advance. Something was clearly up, and I had questions:
Who is this guy, if he’s from the brigade, I assume that means he’s another communist? Yes.
Is he a friend of yours? No, I haven’t met him yet, but my comrades have assured me he’s a good guy and very easy-going. He just needs a place to crash.
Why does he need to stay with us? Why can’t he stay in a hostel or the Y or something? He doesn’t have any money and he needs to be in New York to meet with a prominent lawyer helping him to appeal a freedom of speech case.
What kind of freedom of speech case?
At this point, Ben paused and took a long drag of his cigarette.
Well, he said, exhaling slowly, he was arrested for burning an American flag.
Joey Johnson was a young activist who, like Ben, had been raised in Indiana. At some point, he joined the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (apparently Indiana is a hot-bed for these sorts of things – who knew?) At some point in his life, he relocated to Texas. When George HW Bush was nominated at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Joey and his brigade buddies decided to stage a protest. They took a flag off a nearby pole, set it on the ground, pulled out a little bottle of kerosene and a zippo, and in full view of the local police and TV cameras, they set it on fire. Joey was promptly arrested and later convicted of violating a Texas law against the “desecration of a sacred object.”
His case had been winding its way through the legal system until famed New York City civil rights lawyer William Kuntsler got involved. Joey would need to meet with him regularly as they prepared their final appeal, to be heard by the United States Supreme Court.
As he told me this, I felt put on the spot. I liked Ben and I wanted to be agreeable, as it was just as much his room as mine, but I wasn’t sure how well I would do sharing such a small space with two communists. A theoretical commie like Ben was one thing – experience had shown me he was more interested in talking about revolutions than actually bringing them about. But co-habitating with an actual flag-burning communist was something else entirely.
Beside, burning an American flag always seemed to me to be a real asshole move. It’s stupid and provocative – somethng you do to get a rise out of people and start a fight. I was pretty sure this Joey character was going to be a loud-mouthed jerk and this whole situation was going to be nothing but trouble.
But I said yes anyway.
I met Joey for the first time a few days later, and I saw straight away that he wasn’t the aggressive blowhard I had expected. He had a lot more in common with Ben than just shared Indiana roots: he also was soft-spoken, polite, earnest and hard to dislike on a personal level. They both even sported the same uniform: black trousers, RCYB t-shirt and worn-out keffiyeh around the neck. But thankfully, Joey didn’t share Ben’s aversion to cleanliness. He showered and brushed his teeth like a normal person (I hoped that, in this regard, he would be a good influence on his comrade.) But the most important trait Joey shared with Ben was a willingness to thoughtfully debate any political issue, no matter how contentious, without ever losing his cool.
You can get to know someone pretty well sharing a room with them for a few weeks – especially if you make an effort – and I was curious to know what made Joey tick. He would come back to the dorm room every evening around 7pm, after having met with his lawyer and we would talk history and politics.
Joey, like Ben, felt that America was consistently a negative presence in the world that needed to be opposed at every opportunity. He saw himself as someone engaged in a fight for core human rights, risking his freedom to expose a government that he believed protected the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. To Joey, his arrest and prosecution was proof that the U.S. government was an oppressive force that wouldn’t tolerate any real dissent.
“They talk about freedom of speech and democracy,” he told me, “but they will put you in prison and throw away the key if they don’t like what you say or do.”
I guess he had a point. The state of Texas had been going after him pretty hard for years. His case was about to be argued before the highest court in the land. The papers had got hold of the story and there were a lot of editorials about how people like Joey were trying to destroy America, and it was widely expected that the Supreme Court would finally crack down on his ilk and rule that disrespecting the flag was indeed a jail-able offense. Joey didn’t want to go to prison, but he told me he was fully prepared to do so, if it would help reveal “the big lie” at the heart of American society – that none of us in this country were really free. Only a revolution could change things.
I treated Joey with courtesy, but unlike Ben, I never formed a personal connection with him. He didn’t really seem to have many interests outside of revolutionary politics. Maybe that’s what it’s like when you’re facing a prison sentence and you’re being criticized in all the newspapers. I shouldn’t have found it surprising that he was preoccupied to the point of not having much else going on in his life.
One evening after he had been staying with us for a couple of weeks, I worked up the nerve to ask him something I had been thinking about for a while: “Joey, what will you do if you actually win your case? What if, as unlikely as it may seem to you, the Supreme Court decides that burning an American flag is a form of protected speech and you don’t wind up going to prison? Won’t that prove that there really is freedom of speech in the USA?”
He looked at me as if I had asked the most idiotic thing he had ever heard. It wasn’t like Joey to take any time at all to respond to a question – something you can see in interviews he’s given to journalists over the years. He was someone who normally had all of his thoughts in order. But this threw him.
He collected himself and said: “That’s not going to happen. But if it did, the only reason they would let this case go, the only way they would let themselves lose, would be because they were afraid of the people. I could see them losing this case just to throw a small bone to the crowds, to keep up the pretence of free speech. This way, they would be trying to postpone the inevitable revolution that is going to sweep away their corrupt, fascist system.”
I wasn’t the most clever person back then. Maybe I’m still not, but even at the tender age of 20, I had enough life experience to recognise a bullshit circular argument when I heard one.
“So if you lose this case, as you expect you will, you think it will prove how evil and oppressive America is,” I said. “But if you win, you still think it will prove how evil and oppressive America is?”
I don’t remember the exact wording of Joey’s response. I just recall it being unsatisfying. Something about the system always rigging everything in its own favour. Basically, if America did it, then it was wrong.
Like I said, bullshit.
A few days later, Joey left New York City to relocate to Washington DC, to be there for final arguments to be made before the Supreme Court. I never saw him again.
Winning by losing and losing by winning
As you’ve probably figured out by now, Joey didn’t lose his case, he won it, when the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4 in Texas v Johnson (1989) that burning an American flag was a constitutionally-protected form of free expression. It was a completely unexpected landmark ruling which dominated American newspaper headlines and talk shows for weeks afterward.
Justice William Brennan wrote in his majority ruling: ” The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” (You can read the entire text of the decision here.) It was a remarkable moment in modern American history, with our government explicitly legalising an extreme and controversial mode of protest against itself.
Joey capitalised on the notoriety and gave interviews to a large number of news outlets, continuing to denounce America and champion the cause of revolutionary communism. I became used to seeing him on TV, repeating lines I had heard him say in person many times before, about how the American dream was, in fact, an American nightmare for the rest of the world.
It was a situation rich in irony. By winning his case, Joey had failed in his goal of demonstrating the limits of freedom of speech in America. But even in this loss, there was a secondary victory: he had been given a platform bigger than he had ever imagined, enabling him to speak out against a country which made him famous by not jailing him for speaking out against it.
Scooping up the ashes, 30 years later
A recent poll indicated that 2/3rds of Republicans would support stripping the citizenship of any American who would burn a flag– an idea floated by President Donald Trump. It may be legal, but it’s an act still considered by many Americans to be sacrilegious. Burning a flag is so, well, inflammatory, that anyone choosing to do it is practically begging for a strong counter-reaction. Which is exactly why Joey still does it. Yes, still.
Every once in a while, “Gregory ‘Joey’ Johnson” will pop up in my news feed. It’s more or less the same story. He shows up at a political event with some of his comrades and they burn an American flag, daring the police to arrest him. And the cops usually take the bait, citing a public order offense. Or breach of the peace. Or they call it an illegal demonstration. Or they just arrest him because you can always arrest a communist flag-burner and figure out a reason later. And each time it happens, they give Joey a taste of the win he was looking for, but was denied, back in 1989. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system” and all that. He hasn’t given up on trying to goad America into a response that is a lot more fascist than: ‘The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” If Trump has his way, he may still get what he’s been looking for.
Which, looking back, is why I agreed to let a flag-burning communist move into my dorm room to begin with. Yes, I wanted to support free speech, but mostly I just wanted to prove Ben wrong. Wrong about America. Wrong about the inevitability of some grand showdown between communism and fascism. Wrong about everything.
But I never got the satisfaction of rubbing my supposed victory in his face. By the time the Supreme Court decision had come out, I had graduated and lost touch with Ben. I tried to look him up a few times, but he has a common last name and I couldn’t find him. Maybe he didn’t want to be found. A couple of years later, I heard from a mutual acquaintance that he had given up his revolutionary beliefs after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I want to believe it.
I couldn’t really imagine Ben sitting in front of his TV rooting for the East German soldiers or those Chinese tanks, as they faced up against peaceful protestors. He was too much of an idealist for that. But who knows? People tend to hold onto their ideologies pretty tightly, filtering out or rationalising any contradictory information or experiences that comes their way. So maybe Ben is still out there somewhere, holding up a big red banner at one of those sad May Day gatherings you still see every year. You know the ones, where a small crew of ageing Trotskyites and Maoists march together in close formation, singing the Internationale just a little bit louder than they need to, trying to compensate for their small numbers.
History hasn’t been kind to Karl Marx and his protégés, so there’s just not as many communists as there used to be. But there’s one group still out there, keeping communism alive and relevant in America, and it’s not the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade – they disbanded ages ago. No, it’s right wing Republicans. They need communism, for the exact same reasons Ben and Joey needed fascists, real or imagined. A ying for their yang. A Batman for their Joker. An Elmer Fudd for their Bugs Bunny. The only problem is, there aren’t nearly enough communists and flag-burners to go around these days. So the right moved the bar over, declaring European-style democratic socialism to be the new red menace.
Believe in government-supported health care? Tired of the militarisation and lack of accountability in police departments? Think unions aren’t always a bad idea? Congratulations, you used to be slightly left, but now you’re Stalin.
That’s how it plays out – some people just want to push you into being their opponent. Makes them feel better being so far from the centre. Thanks to Ben and Joey, I learned not to get into these dynamics. I won’t be anyone’s Elmer Fudd if I can help it. I’m not going to burn any flags or get so worked up about flag burners that I want to beat them up, throw them in prison or take away their citizenship. I’m keeping to the good old, wishy-washy middle path. It works for me.
You should join me.
There’s room on my floor if you want to sleep over.