The Portland Phoenix, Dec. 17th-23rd, 2004
Activist Raymond Luc Levasseur has been labeled a terrorist by some, a martyr and hero by others. Back in Portland after 20 years in federal prison, he’s not about to drift quietly into history.
Raymond Luc Levasseur is the second most famous person from my hometown of Sanford, Maine, eclipsed in worldwide name recognition only by Vic Firth, the drumstick king of the known universe. But while many people in the Sanford of my youth had no clue who Vic Firth was, everyone in town knew at least a summary version of the Levasseur story. It went something like this: Radicalized by the racism towards French Canadians that he witnessed growing up in Sanford and Springvale, and then by both his Army service in Vietnam and by time spent in Tennessee state prisons after receiving a five-year sentence for selling seven dollars worth of marijuana in the late 1960s, Levasseur would eventually jump bail on a Connecticut gun charge in 1975, go underground and become a revolutionary. For most of the next decade he was reported to be the intellectual leader of the United Freedom Front (UFF), a group linked to the bombings of government and military facilities, weapons manufacturers, the US offices of South Africa’s apartheid government, and major corporations that did business with apartheid, like IBM. The United Freedom Front bombed the offices of Union Carbide more than once, all before that corporation would be forever linked to the atrocities of Bhopal, India, where a chemical leak killed thousands in December of 1984.
Here in Maine, Levasseur was linked to the bombing of Central Maine Power’s Augusta headquarters in May of 1976. The United Freedom Front opposed racism, apartheid, and US policy in Central America and South Africa, as well as the corporate exploitation of the environment and workers. Warning calls were always made, and nobody was ever hurt in a bombing that Levasseur would ultimately be convicted of involvement in, but a reputation for avoiding bloodshed did the UFF little good in the eyes of the FBI. They placed Levasseur on the Ten Most Wanted List in 1977.
When I was a kid and teenager in Sanford, his was an invisible but undeniable presence in town. Although we assumed that he no longer inhabited our streets, we kept an eye out for him just in case. You’d walk into the post office and there he was on the wall, staring out from the same wanted poster year after year. The face in the picture, the thick moustache and daunting eyes, never changed. Within town, a wide variety of opinion existed on Levasseur. Many in Sanford deplored the bombings and violence with which he was associated, especially after two of Levasseur’s reputed UFF associates, Thomas Manning and Richard Williams, shot and killed a New Jersey state trooper during a traffic stop. Levasseur was not there — he was never charged or tried in any way regarding the shooting — but at the end of the day a cop was killed, and he and his reputation have suffered by association ever since, which some people say is just how it should be.
Even so, plenty of people in Sanford supported him. If you were a Vietnam vet; if you knew someone fucked up by or killed in Vietnam, or if the war still tore at you; if you were even part French Canadian, which in Sanford is damn near everyone; if you thought the working man was always getting the rough end of the pineapple; if you had done time; if you didn’t trust the government — these were Levasseur’s natural constituencies. Remove all the people from Sanford who fit one of those descriptions and there would only be 20 people left. Of course, some supported him just because they liked the idea of a Sanford guy honestly trying to overthrow the government, whether or not they even vaguely understood Levasseur’s politics. Nobody was wearing "Run, Ray, Run" T-shirts, but in Sanford we root for the home team, and he was one of ours.
He was never far from our thoughts or conversation. Here’s one example: Once, when I was about 14, a Sanford cop was trying to shoo home me and some friends who were standing around talking outside Ed’s Quicklunch Truck late at night. I looked at this cop and said, "Why are you hassling us? Shouldn’t you be out looking for Ray Luc Levasseur?"
That got a laugh from the Quicklunch Truck crowd, but it wasn’t an original line. I’d heard it said in that very spot to a Sanford cop by someone else in a similar situation, and I’m pretty sure that hadn’t been the origin of the quip, either. That old joke was hurled at Sanford cops for the length of Levasseur’s tenure as a fugitive, from 1975 until 1984, when he and six others were captured in Cleveland and dubbed the "Ohio Seven."
In his first trial, in New York City, Levasseur represented himself. One of the lead prosecutors was Robert Mueller, who now heads the FBI. Levasseur was acquitted of several charges and won deadlock-induced mistrials on others, but when the government retried him, this time in Massachusetts with a 28-count indictment that included some of the same charges from the New York trial, with some sedition and RICO counts thrown in for good measure, enough of the bombing charges stuck for Levasseur to be given a 45-year sentence. It is worth noting that Levasseur never admitted membership in any group, or involvement with any bombing. When he refers to these claims against him now, he will only speak in the context of the charges that were brought against him by the government at trial.
In 1986, he was sent to the Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, which had already been under lockdown since 1983. In 1995 he was moved to ADX, in Colorado, known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, the government’s newest isolation prison, where inmates are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, a place where human contact is the rarest occurrence.
Finally he would be transferred to a penitentiary in Atlanta, where Levasseur would serve time until he was granted parole this past August, and released into a federal halfway house in Portland some 20 years after being taken into custody and nearly 30 years after going underground.
After the Portland Press Herald ran its big front-page headline story, August 7, about Levasseur’s release, many in Sanford — and in all of Maine — for that matter, were stunned to learn that Levasseur would be free. Given what he had been convicted of, and that the government always referred to him and the UFF as domestic terrorists, it seemed incredible that he would be released at all, and indeed, had he been convicted and sentenced after federal guidelines changed in 1987, Ray Levasseur would have never again seen the light of day. On August 6, the day that Levasseur finally returned to Maine, Air Force One landed at the Sanford airport, delivering President Bush to some R&R in nearby Kennebunkport, an irony not lost on many observers.
The halfway house was right around the corner from my day job, so I kept an eye out for him on the corners, and lo and behold, a few weeks after his arrival, I was standing in line in the Forest Avenue Post Office, and there he was, purchasing a money order.
There was no mistaking Ray Luc Levasseur, though the hair was not as long as the old photos, and the moustache was gray. He was startled when I introduced myself; the look on his face was not altogether welcoming, even though he shook my hand. I quickly told him that I was from Sanford, and when I named a mutual friend his expression softened considerably, and he said, "I haven’t seen him since the ’60s."
I added that I wrote for the Phoenix (he was actually carrying the latest edition) and I’d love to talk to with him for publication when and if he was ready. He nodded, and explained how he couldn’t talk to anybody until November, when he would be released from the halfway house. He would call me then, he said. I wrote down my name and phone number and we chatted only very briefly because the halfway house rules only gave him a few minutes for the postal run, and he couldn’t be late returning.
Levasseur laughed ruefully, and said, "When you first came up to me, I thought you recognized me because my face was on the wall in there for so long." I almost told him about how familiar I had been with the poster in the Sanford Post Office while growing up, but thought better of it. Just before the light changed and he headed across Park Avenue, he said, "Hey, Rick, there’s one important thing that you have to know. I’m retired from all that stuff, from anything I did underground. I’ll always hold activism in my heart, and I’ll get back into it in some other way, but as far as that stuff, I’m retired." Then he was gone.
IN THE MIDDLE of November, there he was on my answering machine, just like he had said. We met at Ruski’s to talk about the article. Levasseur is extremely media-savvy. Until 2000, when the government had given him a presumptive release date of 2004, he had written extensively about his own experiences as a revolutionary and political prisoner (as he described himself), maintaining as high a profile as a point man or spokesperson on his issues as he could manage, but after receiving the presumptive release date he dialed those efforts way down because he didn’t want to take the chance that too much political activity would give someone reason to deny his parole. The release date was presumptive, after all.
He was keenly interested in whether the article I was planning would be Q&A or a feature, how long it would be. He wanted me to know how seriously he takes his parole, and the conditions therein, because he will be on parole for the rest of his sentence, another 25 years. Sitting at the corner table at Ruski’s, he explained his parole conditions: He cannot possess firearms or use illicit drugs; he cannot leave the state without permission, although he can move freely within Maine; he has to maintain a job. It was obvious to me right away that Levasseur had given a couple hundred more interviews in the course of his career than I had ever conducted in mine. In fact, Levasseur had already sat for several hours’ worth of interviews and sat for photographs with students from the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies. (Their fall 2004 exhibit, "In This Moment . . .," which has an opening reception this Friday, December 17, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the SALT Gallery, will feature this work.)
Eventually, we met in my apartment and spoke twice for the record about many topics, including the war in Iraq, the recent election, and, more personally, his association with SCAR, an early-’70s political group in Maine that pressed for prison reforms and ran several programs for released prisoners and other related segments of the community. SCAR established a bail fund. They taught martial arts classes. In a bid to generate media exposure for their cause, they once ran a prisoner named Danny Trask for governor of Maine. This was back when Levasseur owned a bookstore on Congress Street called the Red Star North, a gathering point for much of his political community. The things Levasseur and I discussed, not all of which can be represented here, are in turn only a fraction of what the man has to say.
"WAS THE sacrifice worth it?" I asked.
While sitting on my couch, he considered carefully. "To me it was, in terms of how I view my life, both in terms of activism and in terms of fulfillment. I did make a great sacrifice. Twenty years in prison and a lot of it in the worst prisons created a tremendous burden for my family. But the way that I look at anything I’ve done political through the course of my life, whether it was underground or in a community setting, I kinda look at it in terms of . . . the analogy that I like to use is with a coral reef. Coral reefs are such that they begin with something infinitesimal, called a coral. You can barely see it. It’s no bigger than the head of a pin, and that coral by itself is relatively nothing, but what happens is, as each coral progresses, and goes through its entire life cycle, their contribution to that reef comes about through the course of that cycle, and as they die that miniscule limestone skeleton gets left behind. It drops to the bottom of the sea, followed by millions and millions of others. Gradually the base of the reef forms, and then from that base the reef develops. As you know, a reef is a living organism, and as the reef grows it sustains and nourishes all kinds of life, from fish to crustaceans to plant life. And it grows larger and larger, and it essentially develops its own ecosystem. One could say it is an affirmation of life, deep within the depths of the ocean. And when it gets to a certain size, like with the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, it has taken a form that has the power to change the course of the sea, which it does."
Does he think that his work underground did had any impact?
Levasseur smiled. "Only history can be the judge of that. When Fidel Castro was tried for the Moncada Attack in Cuba and sent to prison, he said that history will absolve him, and history has absolved him, because the Cuban Revolution followed. I’m not the one that can be the judge of what, if anything, was accomplished, but what I am saying is that I was on the right side of history. When we took action to oppose apartheid in South Africa, I think that history books as they’re currently being written attest to the fact that we were on the right side of that struggle, and the United States government and various corporations and European countries were on the wrong side.
That’s kind of been my basic philosophy of how I evaluate my role in political change."
He understands that question of impact, and why someone would ask it, but for him it is illustrative of thinking that clouds the larger truth. "A big part of the story is left out by focusing too much on the individual. That’s why, although my story as an individual is interesting, I think just as interesting, if not more so, is what I am a part of, the larger context. My two comrades that are still in prison are the only two people in this country, and part of a very small number left in the entire world, that are in prison for anti-apartheid activities. I’m sure Mandela got asked a number of times over the years, was his sacrifice worth it, as his imprisonment went from one decade into another, into another. But I doubt he ever questioned his own commitment. The difference in South Africa was that there was always a very significant anti-apartheid struggle based among the African people. That struggle supported him and held him close to their hearts for the entire ordeal of his imprisonment, and that goes a long way towards sustaining political prisoners. This country has not had a strong movement like that."
I asked what he would say to people who would support him and his cause were it not for the death of the New Jersey state trooper. This was the one part of his story that was cited again and again when his name came up in Sanford after his release from prison. For so many people, it was the deal-breaker.
"I was never charged or tried for that," Ray said. "And the two that were, their defense was that it was self-defense. Tom Manning’s defense was that he shot the police in self-defense. The policeman tried to kill him. Richard Williams’s defense was that he was never there. He wasn’t there at all. I believe them, and Rich Williams’s first trial resulted in a mistrial because the jury locked in favor of acquittal. They couldn’t decide the case, couldn’t render a verdict. When he was retried he was convicted under a completely different jury. Tom Manning’s position was that he shot the police in self-defense and what came out at trial was that that police emptied his entire gun, a .357 revolver. They also found that he had what you called a drop gun, a little .25 automatic, unlicensed as I remember, which he wasn’t authorized to carry. What was he doing with that? We call it a drop gun because it’s not uncommon for police to plant a weapon, be it a gun or a knife or whatever, on somebody that they have killed.
"It was never the practice or the policy of the group that I was charged with being a member of in the trials, the UFF, it was never the practice to specifically target police officers. If you got one that’s trying to kill you, you got to defend yourself, but that’s a tough defense to win on because of people like you’re saying who are on the jury. They tend to believe cops even though they do what we call testi-lying. They lie while they testify. It’s a real common practice in New York City. I also think that, people that take the position of, ‘Oh, I could support these people if not for this,’ those same people don’t seem to show the same concern for all those people . . . I mean, you can go to New York, you can go to LA, you can go to Chicago, you can go to New Orleans, and you’re going to see time and time again who the police kill. Unarmed citizens. Or look at the 41 shots in New York. They killed that African immigrant, shot 41 times."
"Abner Louima," I said, confusing the name of another police victim from the same era with Amadou Diallo, the young immigrant shot 41 times by NYC police, but Levasseur had it straight.
"Abner Louima, the police tortured him. Abner Louima was the Haitian man sodomized in a police station. The Rodney King beating. These things, they’re the exception in the sense that there’s been some kind of video or witness or something that prevented a full-blown cover up. But take New York as an example; it’s just far too common that the police kill people and the people that they kill are primarily black and brown. Or poor whites, and it’s just documented. It’s there. I don’t understand why the people that you’re talking about will get so upset about a policeman who was killed in a shootout in which my comrade says he just defended himself, but yet they’ll pick up the newspaper and they’ll see these cops killing people, but they don’t get upset about that. What makes black and brown life less valuable? What makes a poor person’s life less valuable? What makes some homeless person or mentally ill person’s life less valuable?
"Some of the UFF communiqués that came out specifically cited the police killings in New York. One example was Michael Stewart, who was a graffiti artist who was choked to death."
I told Levasseur that I’m on the left end of the political spectrum, and I’ve given a lot of lip service to lots of the things he felt passionately about, but I’ve never done anything except pontificate and vote Democratic. I wondered how that made him feel. Did he see the millions of people like me as part of the problem, or as an untapped resource?
"People tend to be apolitical in this society. It hasn’t always been that way, but that’s the way the corporate media groom people, it’s the way the educational institutions bring people up, it’s the way that religious institutions try to spin people. We live in a society that prioritizes consumerism, and individualism in the sense of me first. I got to get mine. For someone that grows up in that kind of environment, some pretty fundamental changes need to take place within their own head and in their heart before they’re going to step into the world of activism where you’re more than opposition, and not part of the two-party system. I think that someone like you is an untapped resource because you have a particular skill. Whenever I’ve done community organizing, the idea is to get people involved, to get them to contribute, so that from what you build comes a sense of empowerment, of what can be accomplished by people working together. From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, and writing, since communication is such a essential part of political activism, anybody who can speak well, write well, use their artistic talents well, there is always something for that person to do."
Who are some political prisoners that more people should be aware of?
"The first one I always start with is Mumia Abu Jamal because he’s on death row in Pennsylvania, and currently, I believe that he’s the only political prisoner on death row, and because he’s facing execution, we always cite his case as the most important. Another is Leonard Peltier, the Native American prisoner, who is in his third decade of prison for offenses that he did not commit. Because of his age and the length of time he’s been in prison, and because Native Americans in this country have been so thoroughly repressed and exploited, his is another case that people should be aware of."
He also cited the people he called his comrades: Thomas Manning, Richard Williams, Pam Buck, and David Gilbert, as well as the Puerto Rican Independistas, the Black Panthers, or members of the Black Liberation Army who are still in jail, or people like Jeff Luers, whom the government calls an eco-terrorist, but whom Levasseur calls the next generation of activist.
"There’s no shortage of people who are obviously political prisoners in this country. We have literature on all of these prisoners, and as we get out and around and start to have some events, the focus will be on political prisoners. Books by and about political prisoners, as well as pamphlets and leaflets will be available. I mean, you can’t do anything about a problem if you aren’t aware the problem exists. You have to bring the fact that they exist to people’s attention, along with their names and the particulars of their cases. Then you need to make your case as to why they should be supported, why they should be freed."
Thinking about Leonard Peltier popped an aside into my head, and I told Levasseur how much it bothered me that the teams at our high school were still called the Sanford Redskins.
He totally agreed, but added, "The fact was, that when I played for the Sanford Redskins, that thought never really entered my mind. I think that it will probably get changed eventually, but someone is going to have to press it, and they’re going to have to sustain that pressure until the change is made. The big target is the Washington Redskins. One day, I hope, every non-white Washington player is going to refuse to take the field until that name and logo are changed."
That’ll be the day, I said, because I know Sanford.
"Yeah," Levasseur said, "they call it a tradition. They don’t understand the history." He knows Sanford, too.
He doesn’t blame people for being slow to react and grasp the larger problems that he has dedicated his life to opposing. "It’s a very unpleasant, horrific reality that a lot of people don’t want to face up to, the criminal acts of their own government and the corporate elite in this country."
Does he still have hope? He had a look in his eye that reminded me of the ant in the song that has high hopes of moving the rubber tree plant, and said, "I’m cautiously optimistic. I’d rather see the glass as half full than half empty. If anything will make someone a cynic, prison will. I see that as a good thing to avoid in prison, and I don’t think that I succumbed to it. A political activist can’t be tainted by cynicism, or motivated by a guilty conscience."