Ernesto is a very pragmatic communist. “We were hungry, and it’s the only place open,” he explains, directing me to pick him up in front of the McDonald’s on Hollywood Boulevard. Tall, with a teddy bear physique, close cropped hair, and Mao cap slightly cocked, Ernesto has summoned me in the middle of a Tuesday night, warning me to bring along press credentials and enough change for one phone call.
With just a handful of days left before the weekend’s national wave of anti-war demonstrations, he and fellow-travelers Jerry and Carlos, are going on a covert operation. In hopes of beckoning the masses out to the corner of Hollywood and Vine this Saturday, they’ve brought along a bucket of wheat paste, a broad brush, and a bag full of leaflets with which to paper the Hollywood area.
After a quick logistics meeting back at party HQ, we’re packing into Carlos’ 1991 white convertible Cavalier and zooming down Vermont Avenue. “I’m a very efficient driver,” Carlos says right out of the gate, as we slam around the corner of Hollywood and Argyle and lunge onto the 101. I wonder not when we will be arrested this evening, but what for.
In Los Angeles, it is illegal to do what we are doing: affixing anti-war slogans to the big gray boxes that house traffic signal timers (My comrades claim not to mark up private property. “We don’t want to bum out any small-business owners,” they say), and activists say the Man is particularly vigilant these days, fully aware of the guerilla advertising campaign with its anti-authoritarian vibe being waged in their midst.
Another word for vandalism
For cops, wheat pasting is another word for vandalism; but more tellingly, wheat paste is also referred to as “Marxist glue,” thanks to its subversive history and proletariat-friendly ingredients (namely, flour plus water). Ernesto, Carlos, and Jerry have all had brushes with the law, and Carlos – a slim, dapper cosmetology student clad in fitted navy blazer and sporting a pierced bottom lip – came awfully close to going home with a ticket. He was in Santa Monica, he says, when caught red-handed by law enforcement. He wiggled out of what they think would have been a $250 fine by tearfully avowing he’d remove all his nefarious handiwork. Then he lets it slip that he was able to make his getaway on foot, due to the fact that his foil was riding, um, a golf cart. “Man, you cried for a golf cart cop?” Ernesto shouts incredulously from the back seat. So much for solidarity.
These raids are often executed by teams of three, commando units designed to swiftly slap up the placards before melting away. Here’s the drill: at 12:30 a.m., our first target becomes viable, and we glide onto a side street beside a desolate strip mall. Carlos saunters out first, pretending to wait for a bus, while Jerry follows, lugging the bright orange Home Depot bucket of paste, and Ernesto brings up the rear, contraband in hand. I stand conspicuously between them, as Jerry furiously coats all four sides of the signal box. A short Filipino with a lean build, Jerry wears a dark baseball cap over fine, curly black hair pulled back into a short ponytail. Blobs of paste fly off his hasty brush strokes, speckling his military fatigue shirt, worn open over a black-and-red T-shirt advertising a Mexican ska band. A tooth has gone AWOL from the upper left side of his jaw, and a wispy goatee hangs from the tip of his chin. Already, a few innocent questions have left Jerry with the impression that I’ve conflated his ilk with stylized James Bond villains. “We’re not all dashing,” he says.
No, but surprisingly meticulous, as now, when Jerry momentarily halts the operation to take issue with Ernesto’s aesthetics. There are three posters to hang, each preferably squared off neatly and in a specific order, and some color combinations are simply superior to others. As we flee the scene, Jerry turns to look back over his shoulder. “See how good the yellow looks against the gray?” he asks.
I have not yet gotten a clear sense of what life will be like after the revolution, except that high on Jerry’s list of reforms will be converting the Capitol Records building into a tortilla factory. As with many things Jerry says over the course of the evening, I choose to take this as a joke. As when he says they should send Hugo Chavez a bill for their services. Or as when he says that when the uprising comes, I will be lined up against the wall. Jerry immigrated to the U.S. just under three decades ago, but he can’t get his citizenship, he says, because he refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Still, he works for the federal government, clocking in over at the post office everyday.
The Psychedelic Furs, a Carlos favorite, croons out of the tape deck. Somewhere near the Wiltern, an attempt is made to sing “The Internationale,” but all the words are not known and everyone’s passing familiarity seems to encompass a different version.
Down with imperialism
It takes about two hours for Jerry and Ernesto to end up sticky with adhesive. By now, there is only enough paste left for one more illegal act, and we have pulled into a 7-11 parking lot just below Hollywood Boulevard to fortify ourselves for the finale. While Ernesto loads his coffee up with French vanilla-flavored Coffeemate, Carlos opts for a Slurpee. The machine identifies his choice as Mountain Dew Blue Shock, and I ask what that tastes like. “It tastes like the color blue,” he says.
Back at party HQ, where Lenin pins go for $2 and the heater is overreacting, we gather round a semicircle of folding chairs to talk shop. Carlos has been an active Communist only for the past couple of years, but his Salvadoran father raised him on the red salute. Ernesto claims he was converted as an adolescent, when he started connecting the dots between his family’s emigration from Mexico and lopsided North American economic policies. Jerry, who has over two decades of party loyalty behind him, says he saw the light early as well.
Up until this point, I had Jerry pegged for a stoner, with his irrepressible giggles, his mumbling and his loopy speech patterns, but talk turns to life under the Marcos regime and a bruised quality leaks into his voice. “I had this girlfriend once,” he says. “They strung her up by her Achilles tendons. She refused to give anybody up, and she died hanging.” Later, he adds, “Out of my 10 closest friends, only two of us are still alive.” His father was a doctor, his mother a banker, but in the face of gross inequalities, communism seemed like the self-evident conclusion.
“We don’t expect the masses to come to us,” Carlos says, laying out one rationale for the Communist Party’s vocal backing of the anti-war movement. “We have to connect with issues they care about. This is a war of imperialism, and we need to show how it plays into the struggles of daily life. Not only are housing, education, and health care needs not taken care of under imperialism, but the war takes from these issues. It’s not a matter of wrong war at the wrong time. The U.S. has a history of invading countries for its own imperialist needs.”
“We can’t think about revolution in the U.S. right now,” he continues. “But the U.S. is not operating in a vacuum. For it to continue the way it is, the country has to keep exploiting others, and people are not going to allow themselves to be exploited anymore.” For proof, he says, just look to the growing socialist movements gathering steam around the third world.
“It’s over,” Ernesto says.