The Last Communist
Bob Grier Photography
(page 1 of 2)
In theory at least, it would seem Joelle Fishman of New Haven has spent the past 40 years chasing a dream as impossible as the Man of La Mancha’s.
As a member of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) since the late 1960s and longtime chair of Connecticut’s chapter of the Party, Fishman seems to have cornered the market on quixotic quests. Though the Cold War has long since ended, the mere mention of the word “communist” still sends shivers down the spines of many Americans. The word is, in effect, toxic. And yet there it is: Joelle Fishman of New Haven is brave and perhaps stubborn enough to unflinchingly embrace it.
Communist, to Fishman, is a good word—still—and one from which she refuses to hide.
“I personally like the word ‘communist’ because its root is ‘community’,” she explains calmly, accustomed after four decades to disabusing the notions of friend and foe alike. “When you have to compete against each other, it’s hard to build community.”
If “community” is her steed—her Rocinante—then corporate capitalism is her windmill, and on her shield is embossed her coat of arms: People Before Profits. Though from the sidelines Fishman would seem to be as lonely as the Maytag repairman, that’s not at all how she sees it, or how friends, family and colleagues in the New Haven community characterize her. She has never hidden her political stripes and, as a member of the New Haven Peace Commission and executive board of the Alliance of Retired Americans in Connecticut and a four-time candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives as well as a New Haven mayoral candidate, she’s never shied away from the public arena either.
In fact, if you’re looking for Joelle Fishman, all you have to do is go to 37 Howe Street, the address of the New Haven People’s Center, where she serves as coordinator. “I call myself the coordinator but it’s a made-up title,” she says, laughing. “We have no full-time staff here, only me.”
In person, the 66-year-old Fishman has the calming presence and gentle manner of a children’s librarian or a social worker. She’s cordial, open and pleasant. She enjoys taking walks around New Haven, sometimes with her 91-year-old mother, and traveling with her husband of 36 years, Arthur Perlo. She reads biographies, historical fiction and mystery novels for pleasure, particularly the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. In short, Fishman is about as far from the stereotype of the fire-breathing radical as one can be.
She even laughs good-naturedly when asked if Communists really are “card-carrying.”
“We used to have cards, like union cards, showing that dues were paid, but we haven’t had cards in a long time,” she says.
The People’s Center has no avowed political agenda other than to serve, according to its website, as a “meeting place of labor, community, peace and social justice groups.”
“I see the center as a coalition-building place for groups, any groups, that don’t have any other place to go,” Fishman says, walking through its main activity room.
Though it is a sweltering summer day, the center is “cooled” only by an old-school institutional fan that blows a lukewarm breeze across some lunchroom-style tables. On the walls are posters of Rosa Parks, a quilt depicting great moments in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a square from a larger quilt depicting the stops on the African-American Freedom Trail—the historic building that houses the center is a stop on the trail. Pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Castro, et al., are nowhere to be seen. Off to one side sits a weathered upright piano almost begging to be played. All in all, the place looks like any other Connecticut community center that’s barely hanging on in an era of widespread budget cuts.
Founded in 1937 by a group of Jewish immigrants who bought the building on Howe Street, the center has in its 75 years provided safe haven against racism, and organizational space for youth, community and labor groups. In its earliest days, the center housed the Unity Players, the first integrated drama troupe in New Haven, and it was here that the city’s first integrated basketball team, the New Haven Redwings, got their start. The city’s first celebration of International Women’s Day took place here, as did the organizing of the Connecticut CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), an effort for which Woody Guthrie played a benefit concert.
Not only is this handsome but deteriorating structure awash in history, its present is just as busy. Today, the People’s Center is home to the Greater New Haven Citywide Youth Council and the New Elm City Dream, a youth group that uses jobs programs to help fight violence. The building itself, a brick Italianate structure built in 1851 and in need of a new roof, heating system upgrade and masonry and woodwork repairs, recently put Fishman in the crosshairs of a Connecticut-style Cold War, one that illustrates how far-reaching the animus toward “communists” still remains. Last spring, a state grant of $300,000 for the building’s restoration was denied because some state officials turned Fishman’s memberships in CPUSA into a political tempest.
The campaign against the funding—a small piece of a much larger state bonding package—was led by state Sen. Len Suzio (R-Meriden) and radio host Tom Scott. On June 1, a small group of protesters stood on the sidewalk in front of the center. Suzio and Scott made speeches denouncing Fishman as “an ideological misfit” and invoking the specter of North Korea as the logical end result of communism.
Though Suzio and Scott led the charge, the campaign against Fishman was instigated by a retired state grants manager named Mary Plaskonka from Wethersfield. She emailed state officials, bond commission members and their staffs, alerting them to Fishman’s affiliation with the People’s Center. “I am requesting that you review and deny this item,” wrote Plaskonka. “Is the state in a position to use public funds to support the renovations of a Communist Party Political Center in the amount of $300,000?”
“None of the people on the sidewalk were from New Haven,” says Fishman. “It reminded me of the 1950s. The goal was to isolate any progressive thinking with the fear tactic that, ‘If the coordinator is a communist, they must all be communists in there. Who else would come here?’”
Caught in the crossfire was state Sen. Toni Harp (D-New Haven), who wanted the grant because the center helps people in her community. Harp told the New Haven Register, “If we were in the middle of the Cold War, it might be different. Communism isn’t a threat to the U.S. or the people of New Haven. The center has done things to bring people together here.”
But all state officials needed to hear was the word “communist” and their knees went wobbly. Because the issue had become a political hot potato, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pulled the request for the building’s funding from the overall bond package, which then passed.
Fishman issued a statement on June 5 calling the action “a shameful and sad day in Connecticut.” Many people and organizations in New Haven and around the state came to her defense, including the New Haven Board of Aldermen, whose statement read in part, “We have very few places like this in our city and are in desperate need of more. . . . Without the state bonding funds, we risk losing this facility as well.”
“I wrote a letter on the center’s behalf because it’s a pipeline for jobs for the city youth,” says John Olson, president of the Connecticut chapter of the AFL-CIO. “The whole controversy is bogus. It’s stuck in an old mindset. The state gives tax incentives to companies that ship American jobs overseas. You can’t pick and choose like this—you can’t have it both ways.”
Fishman was moved by some of the firsthand testimonials that were made in Hartford before the Bond Commission.
“One city alderman, Dolores Colon, told the legislators that if it wasn’t for the People’s Center she would have been homeless when she was young in New Haven. This just makes me want to do more, not less, for my community,” she says.