Thursday, October 22, 2020

Dr. Alan Berkman's Case Revisited: Part 1 of book review


 “…Sadly, the end of May and beginning of June were very hard times for me…Alan Berkman, not only a staunch anti-imperialist who worked and fought in solidarity with oppressed people and nations, but also one of my comrade codefendants and a very human, dedication man died from the cancers he had been battling and always winning, until June…And yet we continue to sing, remembering those who have come before and will come after…”—Resistance Conspiracy Case Co-Defendant and (now-deceased) U.S. Political Prisoner Marilyn Buck in 2009

Dr. Alan Berkman’s Case Revisited 

On the Upper West Side and in other New York City neighborhoods during the 1980’s, some members or supporters of dissident political groups (like the Republic of New Afrika [RNA], committees involved in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and the May 19th Communist Organization) were especially targeted by the U.S. government for detention without trial and/or imprisonment; and, if convicted, were treated as “common criminals” or “terrorists,” rather than as political prisoners, while incarcerated—after receiving excessively long prison sentences.

One such target of U.S. government repression during the 1980’s was a physician and May 19th group member named Alan Berkman who, after attending Columbia University’s medical school in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, spent around 8 years in various U.S. prison cells between 1982 and 1992.  So in her new University of North Carolina Press-published biography of Dr. Berkman (who died in 2009 at the age of 63), Co-Conspirator For Justice: The Revolutionary Life Of Dr. Alan Berkman, Wellesley College Professor Emerita Susan M. Reverby examines “Alan’s unique journey into differing forms of political action;” and observes that “the revolutionary movements of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans considered him a comrade who took personal risks, courted death, and repeatedly refused the FBI’s promise of freedom and witness protection if he gave information on his allies.”

Around three years after Dr. Berkman’s death, “his widow, the physician Barbara Zeller,” gave Professor Reverby “his unpublished memoir, hundreds of letters, pages of legal papers, and linked” Reverby “to friends—willing to talk.” According to Reverby, Dr. Berkman’s unpublished “memoir was built upon the letters” he “sent out during the years he was incarcerated as well as any journal notes” made in prison that “he was able to keep;” and “when he wrote” his memoir, “circa early in 2000, he asked his correspondents” during his period of incarceration “to return his letters to him.”

After parts of this unpublished memoir, titled “Brother Doc,” were given to two of his friends to provide some editing help, Dr. Berkman next “contacted a fraternity brother” (from his early 1960’s undergraduate days as a pre-med student at Cornell University) “who was now a renowned sports agent and entertainment lawyer,” who then “passed the book on to a literary agent who…pronounced Alan’s voice not dramatic enough,” according to Co-Conspirator For Justice. Reverby notes, however, that one of the friends who helped edit the manuscript “blamed the loss of the publishing opportunity on Alan’s taking the manuscript to the fraternity brother.”

Yet another reason the “Brother Doc” memoir was never finished between 2001 and 2009 by Dr. Berkman was, perhaps, because he worried that “he could not tell the whole truth about his comrades who were still in prison or could be tried on other charges” and “he had too much else to do,” according to Co-Conspirator For Justice.

Besides the unpublished “Brother Doc” manuscript and Dr. Berkman’s letters, other historical informational sources for Professor Reverby’s biography came from nearly 100 “interviews in person or by Skype, email, or telephone with Alan’s friends, lawyers, family, and comrades,” historical material contained in the San Francisco-based Freedom Archives and the material contained in the papers that Dr. Berkman’s 1980’s Resistance Conspiracy Case Co-Defendant and former U.S. political prisoner and May 19th group member, Susan Rosenberg, donated to the Archives at Smith College, “which provide an additional perspective on the legal issues and the Resistance Conspiracy Case," according Co-Conspirator For Justice’s “Note On Sources.”

By means of a Freedom of Information Act request in 2013, the Co-Conspirator For Justice author was also able to obtain a de-classified copy of Dr. Berkman’s FBI file to utilize while writing his biography; and in 2019, “right before the book went into production,” Professor Reverby was able “to obtain all of the May 19th Communist Organizations FBI files,” that have been de-classified so far. (end of part 1, to be continued. This book review was originally posted on Upper West Side Patch website)

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