The Last Communist
Bob Grier Photography
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.
Uphill battles and political struggles are nothing new for Fishman, or her family. Born the only child of George and Edie Fishman, a working-class couple in the working-class city of Camden, N.J., Fishman was a red diaper baby. Both parents came from Jewish immigrant families in Philadelphia and met in the 1930s through the Young Communist League.
“Camden was an industrial city, home of Campbell’s Soup and RCA. It was similar to what Bridgeport once was,” recalls Fishman. “I went to Camden High School, nicknamed ‘the Castle on the Hill,’ where I edited the high school newspaper.”
Though Fishman felt safe in her multiethnic neighborhood, her family suffered during the red-baiting days of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Her parents and their friends lost jobs and were harassed for their political beliefs.
“I am in awe at how my parents protected me in many ways,” Fishman says. “I do remember when I was about 10, walking home from a girlfriend’s house in Camden. It was getting dark and a car pulled up on the curb and pointed its headlights right at me. It was probably the FBI, and the message was clear: ‘We are watching you.’ I still remember that vividly more than 50 years later. Those sorts of things never stopped or intimidated me. I am here today, still standing up for what I believe, which is the power of collective action. I see a community as a beautiful bouquet made up of all sorts of people. We don’t want to go back to that McCarthy era as a country.”
After graduating from Douglass College—at the time, Rutgers University’s women’s college—Fishman moved to New Haven in the fall of 1968. It was a tumultuous time in the city, with the anti-war and black power movements particularly strong in the city. She found a job at a printing cooperative called Advocate Press and met Sid Taylor. The colorful Taylor, a plumber and decorated World War II veteran—he was a machine gunner on B-17 bombers flying raids over Germany—had reenergized the state chapter of the U.S. Communist Party. The two co-founded the Angela Davis Bookstore on Broadway.
She knew Arthur Perlo, a union worker at an Oregon steel mill, from various party conferences over the years. When part of the steel mill closed down in 1975, Perlo was laid off and moved to New Haven where he and Fishman were married. At an earlier job, Perlo had briefly worked as a computer programmer, an esoteric skill at the time, which helped land him a job in the science laboratory at Yale.
Perlo doesn’t recall he or his wife ever having been victims of hostility or discrimination because of their shared political beliefs. “On the contrary,” he says, “Joelle is still stopped on the street or in the supermarket by people who say ‘Aren’t you Joelle Fishman? I used to vote for you.’ This does not mean that New Haven is typical, or to deny that many react negatively to the word ‘communist.’ But when people see the human being, that we are neighbors and coworkers, that we are working with them for workers’ rights, environmental justice, equality, an end to racism—then the stereotypes break down.”
Fishman isn’t nostalgic about the past. Indeed, she’s very much grounded in present-day challenges. Just two weeks after the battle over the People’s Center grant, Fishman attended the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C., a gathering of progressive coalitions featuring guest speakers like Paul Krugman, Van Jones, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Ver.), Howard Dean, Sandra Fluke and Melissa Harris-Perry. Invigorated by the experience, she is closely following the 2012 election cycle, which she sees as “a crossroads for the country.”
“Do we want to go in the direction of caring about each other with common goals, or do we want to return to everyone for themselves, with no role for government other than doing the bidding of the corporations and fighting wars?” she asks. “I believe in a progressive arc of history, not a straight line. Karl Marx showed that history has a positive direction, examining previous social systems from slavery to feudalism to capitalism and predicting socialism and eventually communism.”
Current events have conspired, you might say, to stir more than the usual amount of interest—at least in the U.S.—in Marx’s progressive arc of history. Never before in U.S. history has the gap between the haves and have-nots been wider. Statistical evidence of this is provided by nothing more radical than the 2010 U.S. Census and a 2011 report prepared by the Congressional Budget Office. The study found that, between 1979 and 2007, the top-earning 1 percent of American households rose 275 percent in their income. The share of income for low and middle-income in that same time period actually declined.
While pointing out these facts can lead to accusations of “class war” or what Mitt Romney calls “attacking success,” the numbers seem to speak to millions of Americans. Thus, the new battle cries about the “1 percent” vs. the “99 percent.”
“Look at the forces behind the candidates,” says Fishman. “They don’t represent the 1 percent. They represent the one-tenth of 1 percent. It’s no wonder that several polls show that among youth socialism is viewed more favorably than capitalism today. This is a reflection of the unsustainable wealth gap and all of the hardships it creates. Young people want a future that is not cut short by lack of funds for college or by staggering college debt that prevents getting a home and lasts a lifetime. They want a safe and secure future in a sustainable environment. They don’t see those possibilities within the current system. The failings of the capitalist system are becoming so obvious that many people are open to alternatives.”
Perhaps what most fuels her current optimism is the reemergence of youthful activism, echoing her own experiences in the civil rights movement. “Young people came from all over the country to Washington, D.C., to the Take Back the American Dream conference this summer,” she says. “They are so bold, so clear, and the injustices are simply not acceptable to them.”
She’s dismayed by the lack of truth in most political ads, regardless of which major party sponsors them, and even in the way the media covers the election. To her, the issues are so straightforward and problems so profound, they can be broken down into factual matters without resorting to heated rhetoric.
“What we need is a national conversation, millions of people talking door-to-door about what’s at stake, what are your worries and fears, what will make your life better?” she says. “The stimulus bill should have been much larger but it barely passed as it was. Even so, it created thousands of jobs for people across America. When you create jobs you serve the community, the money earned is funneled right back into the economy.”
To those who question her patriotism, Fishman says, with rising emotion, “I don’t hate America and I have never hated America. My life is dedicated to achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, the words in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.”
John Olson has never doubted Joelle Fishman’s love of her country.
“What’s great about our nation is our tolerance and diversity,” he says. “One size doesn’t fit all. Are all communists good? Are all communists bad? Are all capitalists good? Are all capitalists bad? No, of course not. Capitalism is a tool. It can be used for good and bad. The framers didn’t say, ‘One Nation, under capitalism’. That word does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. We’re witnessing some of the same things we saw in the 1950s. The phony patriotism, the fear and the hate mongering. We ought to welcome all points of view. I always say that if we agree on 10 percent of the issues, let’s work together on those.”
If Fishman ever does wax nostalgic, it is about a single event in her past that had nothing to do with communism or, really, even politics. It was the Poor People’s March for Jobs on Washington, D.C., led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was there on the Mall in D.C. in August 1963,” she recalls. “I was in high school, 16 years old. My parents couldn’t afford for all three of us to go, so they had the wisdom and foresight to pay for me to go as the family representative. Just before the event, the media was filled with scare stories about how it was going to be a bloodbath, to spread fear about the event. But it was completely peaceful and beautiful. Everybody wore their Sunday best, held hands while they marched and sang. This was one of the events that shaped my life.”
It also shaped American history. The Poor People’s March on Washington was what today would be called a tipping point. After that, there was no going back. The sheer numbers of marchers and the sense of solidarity among many groups represented were empowering. Fishman feels the same vibe coming from those in the Occupy movement, and other, similar efforts, today.
“My hope and optimism comes from my confidence in people,” she says, “and an understanding that there is a progressive direction to history in the long term.”
The Last Communist