A. Robert Kaufman
March 8, 1931-Dec. 25, 2009
Imagine the sight of A. Robert Kaufman, a young, Jewish high-schooler, and Paul Robeson, the African-American opera singer, star of stage and screen, and social activist, demonstrating together in front of Ford's Theater on West Fayette Street. In 1947, the theater admitted blacks, but they were confined to the balcony. Kaufman believed this was wrong, so every Saturday for several years he joined a group of activists--mostly African-Americans, but a handful of whites among them--picketing in front of the movie/vaudeville house. Kaufman was a dedicated teenage activist, holding a sign that read anti-semitism is kin to jim crowism: we oppose both!
Kaufman, who died on Christmas Day at the age of 78, experienced more than his fair share of problems, medical and otherwise, during the past five years. In 2005, one of the tenants in a building he owned attacked and stabbed him, leaving him with a lingering infection and in need of a daily dialysis treatment as well as a kidney transplant ("A. Robert Kaufman," Q&A, Oct. 5, 2005). Kaufman forgave his two attackers. Rather than blaming them, he blamed a system that fails to offer drug treatment on demand.
Images of Kaufman the precocious demonstrator, or as the man willing to forgive two men who beat him nearly to death, are perhaps the kindest ways to remember a man who many allies found inflexible and argumentative to a fault. Yet these images were only the bookends of a life of tireless political agitation.
Over the course of his nearly 50 years of activism, Kaufman ran for countless elected offices: City Council, mayor of Baltimore, governor, U.S. Senate, and president of the United States. Local media tended to portray Kaufman as some crazy radical with no chance of winning, and indeed, some of his critics on the Left believe that he was used by some in the media to paint a picture of the radical as loser. But Kaufman used the media, too, never failing to turn one of his many TV and newsprint appearances into an opportunity promote his issues, whether it was decriminalizing drugs, national health insurance (years before that become a Democratic central plank), or auto-insurance reform. (To read a selection of Kaufman's recent letters to City Paper, visit citypaper.com/go/kaufmanletters.)
Ruth Keyser Lipsetts, Kaufman's sister and only surviving relative, acknowledges that her younger brother "was difficult. He was always a troublemaker." Lipsetts says that her brother attended the private Park School, "a very liberal institution, where I guess he got his ideas." As a teen, he hosted meetings in the basement of their parents' Ashburton home "with people he met in the movement," she adds. "Mother was more tolerant, father not so much." Kaufman was always holding or attending meetings--or in some cases trying to gain entrance.
"I first 'met' Bob over the phone when I called him around 1990 about the City Wide Insurance Coalition," says Maria Allwine, who has herself run for several political offices since 2004 on the Green Party ticket. "I called because I'd read about him in The Sun and offered my help. I was not too computer literate at the time, and did not own a PC. When I told him so, he hung up on me--I kid you not."
Others have even less flattering memories of personal encounters with Kaufman, yet one thing everyone seems to agree on was that he was more than just a gadfly.
"I bristle . . . at the insulting characterization," Allwine says. "It makes me angry. Calling someone a 'gadfly' relegates them to the fringe, the weirdo population, and says explicitly that they have nothing of import to offer. Bob was not a gadfly. He was a serious person whose runs for office should be applauded and whose stands on the issues should be explored and in many cases adopted by others."
"Bob had a real sense of social justice, and he devoted his life to it," says long-time friend Leah Heyn, a self-described socialist and member of Spark, an organization based "on the political heritage of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky" that publishes a newspaper of the same name.
Heyn and her then-husband, Herman, first met Kaufman in 1959 when they began going to meetings held at Kaufman's house. The Heyns attended the Community College of Baltimore on Liberty Road, and when Kaufman put a flier on their car, they decided to see what was going on. According to Heyn, "It was about a half dozen attendees, basically the Left arguing against itself." Kaufman, she says, "introduced me to socialist ideas, and for that I'll feel forever respectful."
Kaufman helped introduce other key Baltimore activists to socialist ideas. Local talk-radio host Marc Steiner, who often had Kaufman as a call-in guest on his show, says he first met Kaufman when he was 14 years old and attending a civil rights demonstration. "I had already begun to read about socialism, but Bob gave me lots of reading material . . . and recruited me into the Young Socialist Alliance. I spent many days and nights at his home in meetings," Steiner says.
"I remember as a teenager being so impressed by Bob one evening as we drove down Druid Hill Avenue when he saw a man hitting a woman over the hood of a car. He stopped the car to intervene, to stop the beating at risk to his own well being," Steiner recalls. But, like many who knew and worked with Kaufman, he acknowledges that "Bob could be a real pain in the ass. He was obstructionist to many of the groups he belonged to, even though they were fighting for the same cause."
Bill Harvey, local historian and longtime political activist, recalls a story the late educator and Catonsville Nine conspirator Bill O'Connor relayed to him about Kaufman: "O'Connor told me he once physically threw [Bob] out of an anti-Vietnam war meeting--this at the request of Phil Berrigan who, I suppose, did not want his pacifist record tarnished."
Harvey says Kaufman's attendance at a meeting was often the "kiss of death," leading to disruptions and shouting that made it nearly impossible to get anything done. "When we threw him out of the Green Party, he came to the meeting with a file of his newspaper clippings!" Harvey says. Allwine agrees, recalling how she once was picked by her peers to bar Kaufman from a meeting held to get Steiner back on the air at WYPR-FM after the host was terminated in 2008. But Harvey and Allwine agree that Kaufman was almost always on the right side of the issues.
So how exactly does one define the legacy of a man such as Bob Kaufman, who was often his own worst enemy? Who was thrown out of more meetings and organizations than most of us could ever hope to attend? Bill Harvey draws this lesson from Kaufman's life: "We do sorely need organizers who nurture people and help bring them forward to their better selves."
"For all we can say about him," Steiner says, "I want to remember him as a deeply principled man who fought for the world he believed in, and never gave into fear or doubts."
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