By MARTY GOODMAN
After suffering the ravages of COVID-19 for two weeks and then put into a medically-induced coma on a ventilator for about a month, prominent socialist activist Jack Lieberman passed away Sun., Aug. 30, 2020 in Miami at the age of 70.
Jack was my high-school buddy in Miami. He was born Jul. 11, 1950 in Philadelphia, PA. When I first met Jack in 1966, he supported the war in Vietnam yet was firmly against racism. But Jack was soon transformed into a sterling anti-war activist by 1967 and was later known as “Radical Jack” at Florida State University in Tallahassee in the late 1960s.
As a member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), he taught an on-campus class which gained him great notoriety: “How to Make a Revolution in the U.S..” He was later a YSA/Socialist Workers Party (SWP) activist at the City College of New York in the early 1970s, where he joined the fight to save free tuition at City University of New York (CUNY) schools.
In 1968, at the age of 18, he took part in the Poor People’s Campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped build “Resurrection City,” a temporary squatter community of 3,000 wooden tents, in Washington, DC.
In the mid-1970s, Jack moved back to Miami, where he resumed his all-encompassing activism. Although he supported revolutionary forces in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba (he received death threats from Cuban counter-revolutionary terrorists), most memorable was his tireless defense of Haitian refugee rights and the struggle against a bi-partisan, racist immigration policy. The struggle in Miami was led by Haitian activists of Miami’s Haitian Refugee Center (HRC), headed by the late Father Gérard Jean-Juste. Jack was an early member of the HRC Board, an elected position.
At issue was the overtly racist preferential treatment given the mostly white Cuban exiles, who received carte-blanche entry into the U.S.. In contrast, Haiti’s black “Boat People,” usually captured on the high seas by the U.S. Coast Guard and turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), underwent extended detention and/or deportation back to the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Obtaining political asylum was extremely rare for Haitians, but quite routine for Cuban exiles. In time, under the leadership of famed immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban, several important victories against these injustices were won in court, but those triumphs were always accompanied by the HRC’s mass mobilizations.
No longer a member of the YSA or its parent SWP after the late 1970s, Jack’s support for Haitian rights remained steadfast over many decades, most recently in the fight over Temporary Protected Status (TPS) rights for Haitians. In addition to immigration issues and Haiti support, Jack participated in anti-war and anti-police brutality issues in South Florida. Most recently, Jack marched in militant mass protests, which occupied major thoroughfares in Miami, against the May 25 murder in Minneapolis, MN of George Floyd by racist cops. He was also a supporter of Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a position over which we sometimes argued while remaining the best of friends.
In the 1990s, Jack ran a very successful computer business, Compubargains, which afforded him enough revenue to generously support Haitian community demonstrations, conferences, and other actions.
But in late 2005, he joined forces with Bolivarian Youth activist Michael Martinez to found Progressive Rags, a clearinghouse for liberal-to-radical political action paraphernalia, from buttons, bumper stickers, and banners to hats, T-Shirts, and campaign flyers.
“He asked me if I wouldn’t mind starting the business from his home,” Martinez recalled. “So I went to his house one morning, and he showed me a desk in his livingroom where he had a desktop computer. He gave me his credit card and said to open a Yahoo Web Store… I called the website RadicalJack.com. When I finished, I showed him my design of the site with images of Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara, and he loved it. He was so happy. I thought we’d have to haggle over the building of the website for a couple of weeks. But he said, ‘no, put it live now.’”
So Martinez published the site with an inventory of only four or five T-shirts available, sent Jack a link, and Jack sent out an email blast “just like he used to do for demonstrations and protests, and we immediately started to get orders,” said Martinez. “Wow! It was successful from the very start.”
Thriving, especially during the first Barack Obama campaign, Progressive Rags soon opened an office in a building on 163rd Street in North Miami. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the office building began to lose tenants who couldn’t keep up with the rent. In an effort to keep the building filled, the landlord rented to a doctor who had only one offering: Covid-19 tests for $150. The office was on Progressive Rags’ floor.
“So now, people with Covid-19 symptoms were flocking to our building, using the elevator, the bathroom, the soda machines, knocking on doors,” explained Martinez, who also contracted Covid-19. “They’d knock on our door asking if it was the doctor’s office…. That’s where I think we all got Covid.”
Mourning his death, Martinez concluded that “Jack was an exceptional person… He was like a father to me.”
After learning of Jack’s passing, Haitian HRC activist Abel Simon called me to say, “there is no Haitian community without Jack Lieberman.”
While perhaps overstated in a moment of grief, a similar sentiment was expressed by Tony Jean-Thénor, one of the best known leaders of the Haitian popular organization Veye Yo, which was founded by Jean-Juste and his comrades in 1985 and has been meeting weekly every since.
“Jack was pumping the oxygen of life into the Haitian community,” Tony told Haïti Liberté. “He is irreplaceable. There is such an emptiness now. Since I came to Florida in 1980, he was at the forefront of the struggle. He never stopped. Never, ever stopped, day and night. He traveled to Haiti many times. He attended Father Jean-Juste’s funeral in Haiti in 2009, traveling all the way to Cavaillon, where Jean-Juste was buried.”
Tony first met Jack in the early 1980s at a demonstration in front of the house in Coral Gables of Alexandre Paul, Baby Doc’s consul in Miami, “whom we used to portray as a vampire,” he recalled. “Jack was arrested that day because the cops didn’t want us to have that picket line in that rich, fancy neighborhood.”
Last year, when musician and former right-wing Haitian president Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly held a concert in South Florida, Veye Yo called a protest. “About 16 or 17 Haitians turned out for the picket-line, but also there was Jack,” Jean-Thénor said. “There was always one voice you could count on, and that was Jack. In fact, we have two bullhorns which are sitting in Jack’s car right now.”
“To know, to organize, to fight for human rights with Jack Lieberman for the past 38 years is to understand that God, in his infinite wisdom, has anointed and strategically placed a very limited number of extraordinary human beings on this earth, to sacrifice their entire life for the greater good of humanity,” wrote, in a note to Haïti Liberté, Marleine Bastien, the director of Miami’s Family Action Network Movement (FANM), on whose board Jack sat. “Jack was a mentor, a dear brother, an organizer, and a fighter for all of our rights. Wherever, whenever there was a cause to fight for, an unfair/racist policy to change, a march to organize, a wrong to right, money to raise, materials to donate, Jack was always, always there. He was never tired or discouraged. He did not only march after the killing of George Floyd, he donated flyers and signs to our group and to several others. To know Jack was to understand the true meaning of selflessness and unconditional love for humankind. Jack was a hero of heroes. A legendary figure that will continue to guide our struggles, our path for inclusion, equity, social justice, and peace.”
Another former colleague from the HRC, well-known lawyer Steve Forester, who now works with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), had this to say: “Jack Lieberman was a preeminent fighter for justice, dedicated to the cause of Haitian refugees and democracy in Haiti for the 41 years I knew him and before. He was a fierce champion and speaker and participated in all the meetings, marches, demonstrations, and press conferences urging justice for Haitian refugees and condemning U.S. and Haitian government human rights violations. I remember how devastated he was when Father Jean-Juste died so prematurely and horribly. Like the recently-deceased Bernard Fils-Aimé, also taken by COVID-19 and by this administration’s intentional malfeasance, racism, and incompetence in dealing with it, Jack was a stalwart champion in the struggle. His unnecessary death, like that of Bernard and so many others, is both tragic and infuriating.”
Jack Lieberman is survived by his wife, Marilyn, whom Marleine Bastien described as “his equal partner in all community struggles,” his two children, Marah and Matthew Lieberman, and by his sister, Yvonne “Terry” Spector, all living in Miami.
FANM is working on plans to hold a veye patriotik (a memorial) for Jack on Sep. 11, 2020.
We all loved you, Jack!