A Revolution in Common: A Conversation with Jody A. Forrester

December 16, 2020   •   By Bernardita García Jiménez

GUNS UNDER THE BED: Memories of a Young Revolutionary is a book, in reality, far more contemporary than what it looks. On the cover, a black-and-white photograph shows a group of young people with long hair strapped by headbands, flannels, and loose clothes, carrying tambours, whistles, and signs of protest. On the front, a young woman the author, Jody A. Forrester embodies the spirit of the original hippies, the opponents of the Vietnam War and the US government’s policies at the time. The story narrates Forresters journey, the spiral of events that led her into joining and also eventually leaving the Revolutionary Union, a communist organization that followed Mao Zedong’s ideology of class war. But from the outset, the reader may identify what feels like common threads between that story and our present, one where people are resorting once again to taking up the street to demand social justice. It is clear how history repeats itself.

Personally, Forresters book spoke to me. As a Chilean journalist, Ive been writing consistently about social justice movements worldwide, particularly in Santiago, Chile, where, in October of last year, the country’s most relevant social movement of the last 30 years came to light: the “Chile despertó” revolution. While reading Forresters account of her militancy years and the actions she participated in, it was impossible not to think about both the Black Lives Matter demonstrations spreading all over the United States in the last few months, and the Chilean people raising their voices to scold President Piñera’s right-wing policies. In both cases, we cant deny that violence has played a role. Riots and the destruction of public property appear as a way to protest against a system that has exploited people for too long.

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BERNARDITA GARCÍA JIMÉNEZ: A thread that resonates throughout the book is the issue of how to put “theory into practice,” particularly for the case of revolutionary concepts that haven’t been proved to be right or possible. But how to put theory into practice is a question that also remains for social justice movements today. We may fight for our ideals, but how do we actually attain real change? Do you have an answer to this?

JODY A. FORRESTER: Real change can be achieved when people come together and stand up for what is right. Look now to the attention paid to Black Lives Matter and their influence on public policy. Millions of young people of all persuasions, gender, and color have marched with them, and their influence is already seen in offices and industries across the country. Books like How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and Me and White Supremacy are topping best-seller lists. The most remarkable achievement of putting theory into practice were the massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The United States’s imperialistic surge into Vietnam’s civil war, done not to protect the world from communism as claimed but desire for their oil fields, wrought destruction on a level that horrified all decent people. This betrayal of human rights, revealed on the nation’s television sets, incited protests to the degree that were largely responsible for the US withdrawing its troops out of Indochina.

The theme of the body and self-image is recurrent in this memoir. The narrator feels embarrassed by her physical appearance, which she struggles with. In parallel, there are several moments throughout the book where capitalism is blamed for causing war, violence, inequity. Do you see a correlation between the legacy of capitalism and the self-loathing caused by imposed beauty standards?

Absolutely. I grew up in Hollywood where billboards along the boulevards showed women what we were supposed to look like. Most of us didn’t make the grade, but we never talked about it, not until the Women’s Liberation Movement in the ’60s. I remember feeling sorry for people that they had to suffer my presence, although ironically (and sadly), when I look at photos of my younger self, I see that I wasn’t at all the ugly person I thought myself to be. I do place the blame for this self-hatred squarely on a capitalist system that treated women as second-degree citizens. We were persuaded that the standard to measure ourselves against were white women who are small-boned, have large breasts and a narrow waist. How are women of color, women with more flesh on their bones, women with brown frizzy hair like mine, supposed to compete in a culture that values appearance more than depth?

There is a beautiful scene of a Bob Dylan concert and a mass of people chanting together and vibrating while yearning for a different paradigm. This is when the “alienated hearts” — including the protagonist’s — realize they aren't alone anymore. How important do you think it was for the Peace Movement’s raising the sense of community among its members and the feeling of belonging?

Overcoming differences, coming together with singular intent regardless of background, is very powerful. Working within a community of like-minded individuals creates a force more powerful than each of us alone could accomplish. On a personal level, what I appreciated in the community that I became a part of, nobody cared that I was too big, my hair too frizzy, my feet too large. We were all in it together for the greater purpose.

In the book, you point out that there are parallels between Donald Trump’s government policies and the ones that marked the Vietnam era in the United States. What are these parallels?

Nixon acted with impunity as though he alone knew what was best for the nation. Trump does the same, but is far more extreme. He has set himself up as the supreme commander, disregarding and denigrating public opinion with his aggressive nationalist stand. At the time, we thought Nixon evil because of his imperialistic invasion of Vietnam, but Trump with his immigration, environment, misogyny, and white supremacy policies truly defines evil.

Love is a crucial part of this book. Because of love, the protagonist ends up embracing the radicalization of her political ideas and decides to join the Revolutionary Union. But this is a story we’ve heard before. So many epic romances began in contexts of political militancy and revolution. What is it about this kind of experience that boosts love and propels the connection between two people?

When I was in high school, I deeply believed, as John Lennon said, “Love is all you need.” It made so much sense to me, that if love was the foundation from which humanity operated, how much better the world could be. But eventually I realized that “love” would not end the Vietnam War, would not feed the disadvantaged, nor keep African Americans safe. I also realized that love from parents for their children was not guaranteed. And then there’s the love between two people. Partnering with another toward a specific goal can’t help but foment attraction if the two people are already drawn to each other. My love for my comrade Joe was a strong draw into the Revolutionary Union. He had answers to questions that had long plagued me, reinforcing his allure.

In the book, we see demonstrations where public and private property is destroyed as a way to protest, specifically against capitalism. For revolutionary left-wing organized groups, this was part of their tactics too. What is it about this kind of action that it is perceived as so powerful and disruptive?

Although a minority of protesters turned to violence against property in the ’60s, ’70s, and now in 2020, they perceive their actions as a strike against the larger enemy who provides protection only for the privileged. Do I think it’s an effective way to protest? I do not; it only serves to alienate people who might otherwise align themselves with the rebellion. But while I do not condone it, I do understand what drives them. Why would they have respect for private property when landlords and the government have systematically disrespected them?

Since the beginning, the protagonist tends to lean toward nonviolence — this is partly the reason behind her aversion to guns. However, there is this scene where she’s in the middle of a protest, standing a few feet away from Richard Nixon’s car after he publicly mocked the demonstrators. At that moment, suddenly, the only thing she can do is to react violently. Violence appears as a valid response. Why? What changes? And what is it that ignites that change?

When Nixon’s limousine was forced to a stop by protesters throwing rocks, he was in front of me, separated only by a car window. In that moment, adrenaline surged, activating a deep well of anger toward his heinous policies. Somebody behind me handed me a rock. Driven by impulse, I was thrilled to strike a blow against the enemy. That is one act of violence that I don’t regret, even to this day.

The latter is relevant to the current national and international context too. In the last few months, we’ve seen the brutality with which the police are acting against peaceful demonstrators. At the same time, this brutality is awakening violent responses from unarmed citizens. It is almost as if people are losing fear. How do you explain this? What do you think has changed?

To begin with, I was very surprised at the onset of our invasion of Iraq that there was so little protest on the streets. Now, the multiple flagrant murders of people of color brings it home, and has mobilized people in a way that a faraway nation could not. Police brutality has long infected our more impoverished communities; now the atrocious and unwarranted killings of George Floyd, Anthony McClain, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and dozens more have outraged people of all colors, sending them to the streets. It’s true that people are more fearless than before. They see that it’s time to leave the comfort of their privilege. Enough, they are saying, enough.

What lesson or legacy of those years that you spent as a militant in the Revolutionary Union do you still carry with you? How has it shaped the way you see the world and social justice today?

Although I no longer believe in the ideology of communism, I am still committed to the ideals. No doubt about it, capitalism favors the white and wealthy. These times are precarious, and I root for the disenfranchised and victims of unscrupulous landlords, Wall Street, and corporate greed. While, in retrospect, I see the policies of Revolutionary Union as misguided, I really cannot condemn their basic purpose.

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Bernardita García Jiménez (Santiago, 1988) is a journalist from Diego Portales University, and she has an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside. She works as a freelance ghostwriter and editor.