Osha Neumann, son of Franz Neumann and stepson of Herbert Marcuse, member of the Motherfuckers; lawyer, artist, and author of the book Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker. A Memoir of the ‘60s, with Notes for Next Time. Interviewed by Adrian Mengay and Maike Pricelius in 2010, first published in datacide fifteen in 2016.
AM: In the 1960s you were a member of a radical political group called “Up against the Wall Motherfuckers” based in New York City. Could you explain what the Motherfuckers were?
ON: The Motherfuckers were a small group that formed on the Lower East Side in 1967. The Lower East Side of New York was a predominantly Puerto Rican ghetto at this point. It had been the entranceway for immigrants for many, many years. It had been a Jewish ghetto before the Puerto Ricans moved in. We have been called many things. Some people called us ‘a street gang with an analysis’. Ben Morea, who was one of the key figures, was identified as an anarchist. Others of us did not particularly identify either as anarchists or as Marxists or in any of the traditional political categories. We considered our base to be what the media called hippies – dropouts, freaks, countercultural youth who swarmed into this ghetto around the time when we were forming. It had been a place where the beatniks had been before the hippies, and then the punks came afterwards. It had cheap, cheap rents. There were squatters mixed in with the Puerto Rican population. At that point our base was, as I say, these hippies primarily, although attached to us at various times were groups of young Puerto Ricans, who would come to our events and our demonstrations.
AM: How was life in the Lower East Side? And what exactly did you do as Motherfuckers aside from organizing demonstrations?
ON: We lived largely communally, in crash pads or houses we had. We put on free nights, we gave out free food, we had feasts, we had a free store where people could come and give away things for free, and various other institutions. We published lots of – at that point – mimeographed flyers and then some pages in an underground newspaper that was published in the Lower East Side. After only a couple of years, actually, the situation began to change, both internally and externally, and the Lower East Side, the counterculture, although subject to the stresses of survival and repression from the police, had been still more or less free and joyous. But it got a harder edge. The drugs changed from pretty good acid to heroin, crack and speed. Gangs moved in – biker gangs – to contest with us for the turf, and also our rhetoric changed.
MP: How was the interaction between the Motherfuckers, the black community, and the Puerto Rican community on the Lower East Side?
ON: The connection that we had with the Puerto Rican community was primarily with these dropout youths who hung out with us. And, even though the Motherfuckers were a small group, we were not monolithic and we saw – our experience was different as I found out when I was writing the memoir. Ben Morea was closer to these kids than I was, and I never quite understood where they came from. You know, did they have families there. What was their relationship to them, what did they see? – I knew they hung out with us. But as for the rest of the Puerto Rican community there, they were families, families trying to make it, with kids, and babies, and trying to get jobs, and dealing with the rats and the roaches, and everyday life, and I think we had almost no connection with them at all. I think our politics didn’t make a whole lot of sense to them I guess. There was a – at the time an organisation on the Lower East Side – Lyndon Johnson was President – there was something called the war on poverty which set up various community-organising projects, government-funded projects and there was one on the Lower East Side. The people who worked there, they probably had more connection with the Puerto Rican community than we did. I know the woman that ended up being my partner and wife helped organise a sewing coop for Puerto Rican women – we didn’t have that connection. One time we joined forces with them when there was a demonstration to get – a child had been killed by cars racing through a street to try and get to the freeway and the community wanted that street blocked off and a stop sign, and we participated with them in a demonstration. That was really about it, and with the black community likewise. There was a black community – it was not Harlem – but there was an African-American black community on the Lower East Side and probably more counter-cultural, avant-garde African-Americans involved with jazz, poetry, and the arts. We didn’t have much connection with them either. And again Ben – in talking to him – says that he had more connections directly with the Black Panthers than I did, even at that time. I think that he was the one who – he had actual street credibility. I was a middle class kid pretending, he was a real street fighter, I wasn’t, and I think that everybody – I don’t think anybody was fooled, maybe some people were fooled, but he was closer I think to the Black Panthers than I was. But to the black community at large, no we didn’t have any particular connection with them.
MP: The Motherfuckers were probably one of the first groups that consisted mostly of white people doing ghetto politics in the ghetto. What was the reason for moving to the Lower East Side and getting in contact with and organising the community in a political way with the Motherfuckers?
ON: I don’t know of any other group at the time that had the political agenda that we had – that was white people, in a ghetto, organising a ghetto base of white people. There was a group in San Francisco, called the Diggers, that had some of our politics, in the sense that they were into giving stuff out free and creating a kind of economy of exchange and freeness. But they didn’t have the willingness to resort to violence and direct confrontation – they were not confrontational in the way that we were. There was a playfulness about them, and we were the least playful of the groups that saw their base within this hippie counterculture. And then of course there were the Yippies, that came a little later with Abbie Hoffman primarily. Abbie I respected, he was a man who lived by his word, willing to take risks, had been in the South. Jerry Rubin, who worked with him, I had less respect for. They lived on the Lower East Side, but they weren’t based on the Lower East Side, and they didn’t organise on the Lower East Side, and they believed in organising through the media. Media acts of media sabotage and attracting the media so that it allowed-in their content. So our particular blend of politics and confrontation, our vocabulary, and our aesthetic, I don’t know any other group that had that at the time.
AM: Where does the name Up Against the Wall Motherfucker come from?
ON: Well, the name Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers came from a poem by LeRoy Jones (now Amiri Baraka), which he wrote, I think, just before the Newark riots. The police arrested him, and at the trial they accused him of inciting the riot through this poem, as if the people in the community needed a poet to get them going. In this poem he talks about ‘all the stores will open up to you if you say the magic words, and the magic words are “up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick up!”’, or something like that. So it comes from that poem and it’s basically telling people, you know, ‘take it’, and ‘up against the wall motherfucker’ is of course what the police would tell you when they stopped you. But it was taking back that phrase, so we took that name from there. And we chose the name also because, although it’s surprising now, since so much of politics is about trying to get the attention of the media, that we wanted a name that the media couldn’t say, that we did not want to be co-opted by the media. We felt that the media would do nothing for us. We wanted to organise outside of that media. We didn’t want to be co-opted by it, so we chose a name that we thought they would not be able to say.
And we saw ourselves as a countervailing force to those in the hippie counterculture who understood being countercultural and transgressive as simply dropping out, being peaceful, having good vibes. Timothy Leary was an exponent of this kind of view, where it was all about love, love, love. They would just propagate love and peace. They were an alternative to the aggressive, violent, dominant society, but we thought that that was insufficient. That we in fact were not going to be able to transform the society just by being peaceful and loving. For us it was clear that at any time you became a threat to the society, the society would kick you out very quickly, or co-opt you. And that’s why we wanted to add a revolutionary perspective to this countercultural lifestyle. With the counterculture we agreed on a utopian view of what society could be, a totally liberated society. Our language was not the language of traditional politics, it was the language of hallucinatory exclamations, surreal rhetoric, and violent metaphors. But our practice was a practice of confrontation with the system, and we felt that the system was going to be violent and we would be prepared to meet their violence.
MP: Did the confrontational politics bring you closer to such groups as the Black Panthers than to the hippies in your community?
ON: Yes, we were going to identify with those elements in the African-American community that were in direct militant confrontation with the dominant society and with the police – the Black Panthers in particular. But we were not going to just be supporters of the Black Panthers. That is, standing outside from a position of privilege providing moral or economic support. We felt that if they were taking risks, we would need to take the same risks. That if they were going to risk their lives, we needed to risk our lives. And we also identified with and were part of the anti-war movement – the movement against the Vietnam war and the larger student movement that was mobilised against the war. We saw our role as being in some ways a vanguard group within all these movements, or maybe avant-garde taken from the realm of art. We felt that we would demonstrate what it was like to participate in these movements, to be in the forefront of them with nothing to lose. Unlike the students who were still embedded in their universities and colleges, who were still trying to pass their classes, and graduate, and remain in some ways still connected to the institutions, we had no such connections.
We wanted to be charismatic, and mobilise, and move these movements forward. So if there was a demonstration, and there was a confrontation with the police, we took it upon ourselves to be in the forefront of those demonstrations. When on the Lower East Side we were in constant confrontation with the police over control of the streets. When the police, as they would quite often do, acted in a repressive way towards this countercultural hippie community, raiding their crash pads, busting them in the street, we would counter by calling a demonstration which was in effect a call for a riot in the streets. And so there would be rioting in the streets, and the police would come, and they would arrest us, and we would run to our office and churn out a mimeographed flyer calling for a demonstration against the arrests, and so on and so forth.
When the Columbia University students in 1968 took over the university, we went up there and squatted one of the buildings that was the most militant building – which we felt was the mathematics building – and saw our role as organising the defence of the building, the defence when the police came and attacked, and also the defence against the right wing and conservative students – the athletes and jocks who were attempting to prevent us from – in one case – getting resupplied from the outside. And we also saw ourselves as defenders of a genuine counterculture against commercialism and exploitation. In that regard we had a confrontation with Bill Graham, who was the entrepreneur who had started off with the San Francisco Mind Troupe, but then became a big rock promoter. He had – in San Francisco – a rock venue called the Fillmore, and then he opened one in the East Village called the Fillmore East, where he showed the bands of the time. And the ticket prices were beyond the reach of the dropouts who were living in the streets of the East Side, and we demanded that he turn over the theatre for at least one free night, which he denied. There was in fact violent rhetoric and then actual violence when he defended the door at one point. He was a man of some courage. He stood in the door and got his nose broken by one of the Puerto Rican kids who was with us. But we did eventually get our free night, which did not last very long. But it was total and wonderful chaos while it lasted. One night – I think the night when we took it over was the night with the Living Theatre. That is the theatre with Julian Beck and Judith Malina. They came and performed.
AM: How was this accepted by the hippy community? How did they react to this approach of radical politics in combination with social struggle and in some cases violence?
ON: Armed Love was one of the slogans that we had, right. The hippies in the Lower East Side, they appreciated us. They really saw that we were there for them, and we provided resources for them, and we were there to defend them. The counter-cultural dropouts that ended up in the Lower East Side probably came from a mix of backgrounds, some working class, some middle class, as the Motherfuckers did. But life on the streets had a hardening effect. I think where we were influential – even though we were not a student group, in the student movement, in SDS – we were a chapter in SDS. We went to SDS meetings where we railed against the talk and rhetoric, and demanded more action and more risk. I think that we were seen as charismatic by the action faction inside SDS. Mark Rudd, who was one of the leaders of the Columbia University strike, was influenced by us, and some of the people who became Weathermen, the Weather Underground, were influenced by us. So we had an influence throughout the movement. There was a time when if you presented yourself as the most willing to take risks, to move closer to armed struggle, you had a certain cache in the movement, and that was charismatic at the time. It wasn’t necessarily examined that carefully – the validity of the part. So we had some of that charisma. There was a tendency to require a gut check, you know, how far were you willing to go, what were you willing to risk as the sign of your sincerity and the realness of your politics, and so we tended to pass that test pretty well at the time. As you know if you’ve read my book, I have criticisms of this politics. But that’s I think where our influence was.
MP: What was the role of Ben Morea and the Black Mask for setting up the Motherfuckers?
ON: Well, Black Mask was a tiny grouplet with Ben Morea and two or three other people who published this – what we now call I guess a fanzine, Black Mask. They had much of the politics, and relationship between art and politics, that we came out of, they exemplified. They saw themselves I think more as engaged in confrontations with the culture and the art community, around art. They picketed the Museum of Modern Art. They disrupted a poetry reading by this poet Koch, who had at the time been arrested in favour of politics, right after LeRoy Jones (now Amari Baraka). They had a demonstration to change the name of Wall Street to War Street. But they didn’t really do organizing, and they were tiny, and so the transition from Black Mask – which I was not part of – to the Motherfuckers came during a week in early ’67/late ’66. There was an angry arts week. The organisers who ran angry arts week, which was city-wide in New York, included Ben and myself, and that’s where I met Ben for the first time. It was out of angry arts week that the Motherfuckers emerged as a group. When Ben got involved with the Motherfuckers Black Mask ceased to exist. He became a Motherfucker as opposed to a Black Masker.
AM: What were the errors and what should have been done differently from the perspective of the Motherfuckers?
ON: The error was to believe that one could simply do this expressive agitational politics of confrontation and that would be enough to build the movement. And also it was an error to believe that this youth dropout community was a sufficient base for the movement. It was an error not – in a larger way – to relate the radicalism of our demands and our vision to people’s real needs, and to figure out how to show ourselves as concerned with real needs and able to address those needs, partly by forcing reforms in the system. To disconnect sort of the ultimate radical vision from a movement that makes incremental changes in people’s lives is, I think, a mistake. But how to keep those things together, how to make the incremental changes within a context that points always towards the limitation and necessity for a more total revolution, that’s what’s really difficult to do.
And the other thing is that – this may not be true everywhere, but in the United States for many people politics is electoral politics, and we are not going to simply have a big demonstration, and march on the Pentagon, and overcome the resistance, and take over the Pentagon, and march on the White House, and move into the White House, and smoke the president’s cigars or whatever. That’s not going to happen. At some point, you’ve got to link the movement in the street – the radical movement, the confrontational movement – to politics that have an electoral wing to it – that we’ve never done. And it is made much more difficult on a national scale by the fact that we don’t have proportional representation, so you can’t get a small party that’s linked to a radical agenda represented. You have to be either a Democrat or a Republican, so that makes it very difficult to do – to figure out how to do all those things here. I have no idea how to do it. Other people do it if it’s done, but I think there has to be that linking, and there was some of that in the past. The Panthers, we know them because they carry guns, and they patrolled the police, but they also had the breakfast for children programme, which was the only place where kids got a decent meal, maybe during the whole day. And they had free clinics. [It] was the only place where you could get free healthcare. They had free legal clinics where people could get free legal advice. They did that in that context – we need that now. Children are still right now going to school hungry, can’t get any healthcare, can’t get any legal services, can’t get basic needs met. We need to be able to do that in this context of the fact that these reforms have to look towards a more total transformation of society. And point to the problem, point to the fact that you can’t have a democracy when you have an undemocratic economy, when you have the power, the wealth, all concentrated on this tiny group up on top. That just doesn’t work. I don’t know how to start that. We tried, but I don’t know where to begin that at this point. Things will change, because, you know, the United States is losing its ability to dominate the world, it can’t do it anymore, it’s failing. Everywhere it tries it’s losing control of South and Central America. It can’t control Haradh, the Middle East, it can’t win in Afghanistan; it’s losing. Its economic and social base has eroded to the point where it’s hard to know whether it can be reconstructed, so it’s a beast – at least in the way it’s been known – in its death throes. It’s very dangerous, a wounded beast is very dangerous, and so it’s a very dangerous country to the world. And internally, there’s a danger because there’s a vast amount of anger in the society. But where it’s being channelled, unfortunately a lot, is into this right wing populism that is fascistic, and the left is not channelling that anger right now, and the African-American community that has been always in that forefront of radical challenges to the system is eventually now largely demobilised, partly by the fact that the radical leaders were assassinated, and the radical movements destroyed at the end of the sixties and also by the election of Obama. Right now the political system in the United States is quite difficult. I think there’s more room, partly because the United States can’t control any more the rest of the world, than there is right now.
AM: You, as the son of Franz Neumann, the famous political theorist and lawyer, and the stepson of Herbert Marcuse, engaged in practical critical theory with the Motherfuckers. How did your family react to your kind of politics and the radical actions of the Motherfuckers?
ON: Well. If you’ve read my memoir, you know that I had a conflicted relationship with my mother and Franz Neumann. My father died when I was fourteen in a car accident, so he wasn’t around. Herbert Marcuse became in some ways the intellectual father figure of this new radicalism, the New Left. He was a father figure for a movement that had no use for fathers. But he did provide them with an intellectual legitimacy. I mean he legitimated their struggle, legitimated politics that were not traditional Marxist politics. Politics that were not based in the working class, he legitimated this politics that had its base in students and disaffected youth, and politics that had as its goal liberation. He had written Eros and Civilisation earlier, the thesis of the book was that Freud had overestimated the need for repression in order to maintain society, and that it would be possible to have a less repressive society. And he wrote various other books, One Dimensional Man, and An Essay on Liberation and so on, which were very influential in the movement. In theory he provided a justification for the kind of politics we were doing. But Herbert – that was in theory – Herbert was a wily Marxist and Hegelian, and while he supported in theory this politics, his own lifestyle was bourgeois, and he liked his comforts, and his martini in the afternoon. He would have been horrified and was, I’m sure, horrified by the practice of politics that I was doing. I mean he saw, I’m sure, that at that time (for me certainly) there was a load of anger in the politics that, as I try to talk about, was legitimate. There was a lot to be legitimately angry about in terms of society and the world and what we’re confronting, but it also had a psychological basis — my anger — around my childhood and my parents. He felt that he knew that, I’m sure. So I had very little to do. There was one incident where he came and gave a talk at a – I was teaching art history at a place called The School of Visual Arts – I think partially through that he was invited to give a lecture at The School of Visual Arts, and he went there. And afterwards he went to the apartment of Murray Bookchin, who was an anarchist theoretician, and they wanted to have a theoretical discussion. Then the Motherfuckers and I came to this discussion and burst in and disrupted it. I think I dropped my pants, which was something you know I had done at various other places. My reconciliation in some way with Herbert, and my acknowledgement of my debt to him, came later. In some ways the book that I wrote is that acknowledgement. It’s that struggle with the ideas of reason and rationality and its place in politics and its definition, which he was committed to. So it’s complex.
AM: I heard that your brother Peter Marcuse wrote you some letters. Was there some exchange between you and your family about your politics and engagement with the Motherfuckers? Did they discuss this political approach?
ON: There was no discussion between me and them. I radically separated myself from my parents when I went into this politics, and dove first into art, and then into this kind of politics in a form of rebellion. And on the one hand of course it continued their commitment to being on the left, but in another way in the sense that it was profoundly anti-intellectual and opposed action to intellect. It was a rejection of what they stood for and of their lifestyle. You have to understand that Herbert [Marcuse] and Franz [Neumann] came out of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School was not a school of intellectuals who were also engaged in practical politics. I think their basic belief was that there was not really an option, that they could commit themselves to either social democracy or the communist party. So they were outside of that, they thought they were formulating intellectually politics that did not have an exponent in the real world, did not have a vehicle. Then they came to the United States and they were exiles. They were intellectuals. Exiles, their close friends were part of this exile community, and first my father Franz, and then Herbert moved into academia. But they were never engaged directly with political activity, electoral politics and so on. So my experience for example is very different from red diaper babies as they’re called in the United States: children of communists who were members of the party who then had the trauma of the McCarthy era, and the repression, and so on. I didn’t have any of that. So no, and quite a bit later I became closer to Herbert through a series of circumstances, but by then I was no longer – I was far outside of the Motherfuckers, and had moved on.
MP: Some of the political approaches and critiques of the Motherfuckers seem for me similar to the Situationists. I read that the Situationists were in contact with Ben Morea, and there was an idea to collaborate with them. What did you think about them, and what was your and the Motherfuckers relation to them?
ON: The Situationists were always expelling each other until – I don’t know – there were little groups of one and two, and if one person could expel themselves they probably would have done that. Of all the people in the Motherfuckers my background was of intellectuals and professors, so I had probably the most education. I was in some ways the least interested in theory. I was into the action. I believed that it was the act that was important. I was not particularly interested in theoretical formulations. Ben [Morea], who was a street kid, who I think never went to college, was much more involved with theory, and therefore more involved with the theoretical battles of the Situationists. He also ended up thinking that they were ridiculous and not particularly interesting to him.
MP: So there was no approach to become a chapter of the Situationists?
ON: No, that wasn’t anything. I think Ben was more engaged with that when he was involved with Black Mask, but by the time the Motherfuckers started we were not particularly interested in dealing with them.
MP: The Motherfuckers – and Black Mask – had a certain relation between art and politics. Could you describe this relation a little bit? From my view it seems that the motherfuckers tried to find new aesthetics of resistance, new ways of expressing social struggle, and bringing art into social struggle with actions, cartoons, posters, poems.
ON: I can speak for myself. I’m not sure that Ben or the others saw the same way. I had been a painter on the Lower East Side, that’s what I was doing. I was painting. I was working in my apartment, painting pictures. Before I threw myself into the Motherfuckers and the movement and essentially stopped painting, I had come to the conclusion that the avant-garde art that I was seeing was essentially bankrupt. That it was a show at being outrageous and confrontational, but it essentially was a meaningless show for a diminishing audience. What was possible now was the kind of total liberation, a genuinely liberated existence, a world that could be made beautiful. In other words, the total imaginative transformation of reality was what the agenda was. Once that was on the agenda, art that kept the imagination stuck inside the four corners of a canvas or on a stage no longer had any interest for me. So I never thought of what we were doing as aesthetics, or as street theatre. I thought that our language was a reflection of our vision, which was this vision of a total imaginative transformation of reality. We needed a language that would express that, and the language was perhaps closer to poetry than to traditional political rhetoric. But I didn’t think we were making poems. I thought we were making manifestos that expressed this vision. That was my sense. Again at this point, I have a somewhat different view of both the possibilities of that total imaginative transformation and the role of art, but that was my view then.
MP: For me it’s very interesting if you could talk about your recent work, because you mentioned that your approach to art changed during those days, and you are an artist now?
ON: My latest work is about art. I’ve just finished a book on art, that I think of in some ways as the sequel to this book. My view of the relationship – first of all, my view of the immanence of this total imaginative transformation of reality has changed, obviously! That hope or expectation clearly is one that’s going to have to be modified! It does not seem like it’s on the agenda right now, in fact almost the opposite. If there’s going to be an apocalypse it could well be a negative apocalypse rather than a liberatory one. So I’m of two minds about art right now. On the one hand, I think it does represent, or can represent a promise. That is an image of a transformed reality and it can in theory in that sense stand against the world. But it’s not that simple because art, while on the one hand it stands against the world, in the sense that it presents an image of a liberated world in which the world is as if it were made for us. It also accommodates to the world, by remaining within the frame, and it does not directly step out of there and challenge existing circumstances. Therefore, I am not one who believes that art should be politicised. I don’t believe it can serve liberation if it is made simply a tool of the revolution. It’s not a tool. And it then becomes bad politics, and bad art generally, even though my work has been inspired a lot by my political commitment, particularly the murals that I’ve done. I also think that there’s a real risk to art right now, in the sense that it is becoming more questionable, the extent to which art can stand against the world and not simply be absorbed into this endless stream of commodified cultural artefacts which, rather than representing an alternative to the world, sort of aestheticise the world in a way. So the horrors become acceptable and hidden, and that’s the danger. For reasons that are probably complicated, that at the same time that reality becomes more totalitarian and reaches deeper into where we are. That genuine art more and more struggles to express its alienation from the world, and it does that in some way by attacking the premises of art, that is the reconciliation with the world – within the frame of transformation and reconciliation where that object that one paints is itself and also an expression of myself. That kind of reconciliation seems false. So art moves toward anti-art and I’m not sure where that can go. I think that art moves towards its own destruction, so I also think that traditional arts like painting are essentially obsolescent. I mean that technologically and so on, they cease to be relevant and I think that the whole art world of galleries is increasingly irrelevant. So while I think that I really resist that close subordination of art to politics, or politics to art in some ways, I think that ultimately the continuing vitality of art is related to the possibility of revolution. Without a revolution I’m not sure whether art can effectively resist as in some ways it has in the past.
MP: Interesting because in some of your murals I thought I saw political themes.
ON: Oh, you did, of course. The murals are very political. But again, not in this book but in the next book, I talk about the limitations of that mural movement that I was part of, and where you see the possibilities of an art that’s both popular and personal, and radical and social. It is like in the great Mexican mural paintings in that brief period of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. That was made possible – partly there happened to be three very great artists – because it happened in the wake of a revolutionary moment, and that revolutionary moment was only a moment, and gave way to a repressive reality. So where that movement could have gone we don’t know. The movement that I was part of — this community mural movement — has been partly limited by the re-pressive reality. That is the possibility of doing genuinely radical art, radical both formally and in terms of its content, but at the same time was not socially acceptable. So the art that I do now is political not in its content, but in the fact that I do outsider art. I do large sculptures out of an abandoned landfill that are not authorised, that are made of the materials that I find, the wood and the metal. That has its own radicalism that is not a specifically message art. It doesn’t have a radical message, the message is in what it is, and that it’s there.
Osha Neumann: Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker. A Memoir of the ’60s, with Notes for Next Time. Seven Stories Press, New York, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58322-849-4