Saturday, June 27, 2020

Susan M. Reverby's "Co-conspirator for Justice"

Susan M. Reverby is the Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy.

Reverby applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Co-conspirator for Justice: The Revolutionary Life of Dr. Alan Berkman, and reported the following:
In 1978, William Morales was being held in New York’s Bellevue Hospital prison ward. He was accused of being the master bomber for a group of Puerto Rican revolutionaries, and had been caught when a bomb he was making blew up, taking out several fingers in his hands and causing severe facial damage. Morales’ lawyer and supporters called in Dr. Alan Berkman to make sure Morales was cared for properly, and Berkman was horrified by his mistreatment. Eventually Morales’ comrades concocted plans for an escape. He was freed from his hospital cell by being given wire cutters to cut the window bars, lowering himself out and shimming down several stories on bandages and bed sheets to make his escape, eventually arriving in Cuba where he still lives.

On page 99, the reader learns:
After this, the FBI began to realize that Alan might be important. Alan noticed an FBI van nearby as he worked at Betances, the Lower East Side health clinic where Dylcia Pagan, Morales’ partner, was a patient. The police could never determine if Alan had anything to do with the escape. The FBI agent in charge of the case alleged that Alan told Morales about the layout in the Bellevue ward and provided extra bandages. This was never proved, and Alan was never charged. "There was a grand jury," he remembered, "and I was not called." But the FBI van became more ubiquitous in his life. Other Bellevue prison guards were thought to have been bribed, or merely asleep and incompetent, and lost their positions.
Page 99 captures the paradoxes of Alan Berkman’s political and personal journey. Three years after Morales’ escape, Berkman treated a woman who had a gun shot wound after she participated in a robbery/murder action to raise funds for the militant Black Liberation Army, but he did not report the wound as required by law. This time a Grand Jury did go after him for accessory to murder after the fact. Sure he could not get a fair trial in the hysteria around the case, he went into the political underground, joining comrades who did non-lethal bombings of government sites (including an FBI office and a U.S. Senate anteroom.) Caught, and barely surviving two bouts of serious cancers in prison, he would go on to become an important global health activist around HIV/AIDS.

The page shows Berkman’s willingness to use his doctor skills to help those who called upon him. It demonstrates that he worked with those whose principles of anti-racism and anti-colonialism he shared, even when he personally opposed lethal armed struggle they were willing to undertake. What the page does not show is how his principles stayed the same, but his changed tactics and ability to use his doctor position for a global population, not just individuals, would define the last years of his life.

As Americans now of every kind and in every place are in the streets over structural racism, the biography of Dr. Alan Berkman allows us to understand a man who really lived his principles of anti-racism and global solidarity at great peril to himself. Not born into politics, his religious background as a Jew in the first post Holocaust generation and from a family that thought you ought to be principled meant he brought the teachings of resistance to the world. He grew from a brilliant and arrogant man on his way to a renown career as a medical scientist into a loving and sensitive human being, with all the foibles and mistakes we might all recognize. None of us will probably be him, but his life journey is an illumination of his struggle to make solidarity across the world real, and to do so not out of guilt but with real understanding of our joint humanity.
Learn more about Co-conspirator for Justice at the University of North Carolina Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Examining Tuskegee.

--Marshal Zeringue