Gus Newport

NORMAN (“GUS”) NEWPORT

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

“ The peace movement was much the same struggle as the civil rights movement. You cannot separate the two. We were looking at the role the U.S. was playing in places like Korea, Viet Nam, and Nicaragua. If you look at American policy, it was always invading or bombing third world countries of color.”

Editor’s Note:

Gus pulled me aside while we were observing the 2014 Salvadoran Presidential elections to begin sharing his initial experience in El Salvador. “It was when I was mayor of Berkeley, California, and they asked me to go on a clandestine mission behind enemy lines during the war . . .” Now if THAT isn’t enough to tantalize me into pursuing his story, what is? Two months later we followed up with a full interview of Gus and his wife, Kathryn.

 

Gus on El Salvador’s presidential election

As I googled his name to prepare for the interview, I discovered much is already written about Gus’s lifetime involvement in community development, civil rights, and public service. During the interview Gus clarified the connection he sees in those three areas. After the interview, as I processed why someone with Gus’ background would feel called to go to El Salvador in the first place, it clicked.

Same story, different geography. Gus could strongly identify with the plight of the Salvadoran people. Gus, along with at least three generations of his minority family, grew up in oppression not unlike the Salvadorans encountered under Spanish rule and that of the oligarchy. Gus’ mother and his other close mentors were strong advocates within their communities, willing to speak and work for justice and positive change akin to the peasants, students, and clergy in Salvadoran history. The issues Gus faced during the civil rights movement and its aftermath in the U.S. runs a close parallel to the issues Salvadorans faced during their civil war and its aftermath.

Gus is not intimidated. He is fearless and courageous. When he sees a wrong, he either rectifies it himself or goes to the highest authority to report it. The person who invited Gus on this secretive, four-person trip to El Salvador in the middle of its war in 1985 knew his character well. When he returned, Gus went on a twenty-city speaking tour as well as testified at the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee in Congress, reporting the human rights violations and atrocities he witnessed. These “whistleblowing” efforts were both brave and unpopular at a time when the U.S. government was funding the Salvadoran military responsible for 70,000 deaths (mid-war figures, according to Gus’ memory) which the military denied and of which the American public was unaware. That initial trip into El Salvador forged Gus’ ongoing commitment to the country and cemented a connection with its people.

My maternal grandmother, who lived with us when I was growing up in Rochester, New York, had a great effect on me. She was quiet and staunch. She dropped out of school from embarrassment when she was in the fourth grade. Her white teacher slapped her for reporting to class late one day. She was out in the fields picking cotton in the early morning hours before school started. Her mother, my maternal great-grandmother, was a slave. We never did exactly figure out how she and her family moved north. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a Native American. Some of his physical features were evident in my grandmother’s face. He was wounded in a mining accident and died quite young.

Being the oldest of five children and born on April 5, 1935, to poor, working class parents I had the opportunity to know my parents especially my mother, better than my two brothers and two sisters did. My mom took me everywhere with her. She was a cleaning lady downtown who later became the elevator operator at City Hall. I would go meet her after work every night to walk her home. While I waited for her to get off work, I read whatever papers or notices were available in the lobby. On our walks home my mother and I had some great talks about the key issues of the day.

My mom was my first role model. Despite her needing to drop out of school after the eighth grade, my mom was committed to both our family and the community. For many years my mom served as head of the citywide PTA as well as chaired the board for the local settlement house. She credited her work in our Baptist church with teaching her competent organizational skills. Years later when I talked with one of the settlement house co-founders, Dick Bowers, from Colombia University, he asked what graduate school my mother had attended because she was so strong in running the meetings. To my mother, community meant combining family, church, and neighborhood outreach. She epitomized what Martin Luther King would later refer to as “beloved community,” which was showing care and concern for not only your immediate family but also everyone in the neighborhood. My mother was also active in the Democratic Party. She was thoroughly immersed in her efforts. She and my maternal grandmother each lived until their 98th year. My mother died in 2011.

It wasn’t until years later that I recognized the role my dad played in our lives. He supported the efforts of each of us, especially my mother. My dad was foreman at the local stockyard meat packing plant. I worked at his plant off and on. When the kids in high school began assigning nicknames, mine was “Hog Gus” since I worked at the meat plant. The “Hog Gus” got shortened to “Gus” and it stuck. My father was an avid fisherman and pinochle player; he died in 1978 at age 65.

My early life was rich in family life despite being economically poor. We had fun and were involved in our community mainly through church and sports. The group of guys I hung around with were all athletic. Our softball team, sponsored by Kodak, won championships for nine or ten years. I played basketball and was captain of the football team. I had a football scholarship to attend Syracuse University. Every summer I went camping, often through the church. My siblings are as different as night and day from me. They never became involved in their communities. My sisters are no longer living, and my brothers accepted the corporate lifestyle.

Going to church was something we had to do. My mom wanted me to be a Baptist minister, but I told her it wasn’t in the cards. Charles Brody, our minister, later became head of the North American Baptist Seminary in Atlanta. His father, who was also a well-known minister, was a close friend of Adam Clayton Powell’s dad, who was a minister. Faith to me happens in consistent action: in organizing, in strategizing, in carrying out, in not accepting the status quo. We volunteered in things we wanted to change, such as feminism and the environmental movement. I see the institutional church being more relevant in the South. In the South the church serves the entire community around its structure. In the North it seems to serve its members only on Sundays

As early as age 13 we kids were victims of police brutality; I grew up with some negative feelings about police and their practices. I was always a big kid and tended to hang out with older crowd. We were constantly trying to figure out how to deal with the police.

I was unprepared for college and dropped out. From an educational standpoint I really had no role models in my family and was the first in our family to ever attend college. I was not a good student. I ended up drafted into the Army and served from 1958-1960 in Heidelburg, Germany, where I worked in intelligence. (Years later I completed my college degrees at the Oakland campus of the Goddard College where I earned degrees in business administration.)

On our base the Army hired local German workers to do KP. Our superiors collected money from each of us soldiers to pay for their work. There were many educated guys in this unit, including several who had auditing backgrounds. They suspected that the German workers were not receiving all the funds that we soldiers were contributing to their salaries. We suspected some of the officers were skimming funds from this collection when we found out the low salaries the Germans were being paid. We agreed among us not to continue to contribute our expected monthly allotment until we got to the bottom of it. One day we had a retreat, and one of the auditors feigned that he had taken sleeping pills and was unable to be awakened. Instead he sneaked off to headquarters where he checked the records and confirmed our suspicions. Officers were indeed taking money from the fund. When the next payday came, I refused to contribute. I was the ONLY one among the 400-500 soldiers who followed through on that threat to withhold my pay. The officers took all my gear and signed the paperwork for an “early separation” which still allowed me an honorable discharge. The night before I was to leave, the guys in the military band came out playing “Hail to the Chief” and pinned a Cracker Jack medal on me. The next day officers put me in a command car and drove me all the way to the Frankfurt Airport and stayed with me until I got on the plane. They wanted to prevent my talking to any reporter for the military newspaper. When I returned to Fort Dix, I wrote my congressman and they did an investigation. Five officers at my base ended up busted. It was wrong the way they were treating the German personnel, and I don’t regret what I did.

I had married my high school sweetheart, but the marriage didn’t last long after I returned home from the military. We had a son and a daughter, and I maintain a good relationship with each of them.

After returning home I went back to work at the meat packing plant. Later I took an IBM test, and they offered me a job in the Bronx where I worked in wiring, sorting, printing. Later I was transferred to White Plains, New York, working on main frame computers. I worked with a group of engineers involved in calculations for the first Apollo moon shot. When they sent me to school to learn the skills I was already doing, they couldn’t figure out how I knew what to do already. It all made sense to me just following the step by step format.

Besides my mother, Adam Clayton Powell was one of my two other mentors in my mid-twenties growing up in Rochester. He was probably responsible for sponsoring more legislation on education than anyone else in Congress. He constantly challenged the power structure by working on social policy and affordable housing.

The other was Malcolm X. I got involved in the Rochester civil rights group with Daisy Bates, who was responsible for integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas schools. Around 1962 after the police raided the Black Muslim office in Rochester, Malcolm X called Daisy to ask who he could contact in the city. She gave him my name. We talked by phone many times, and I met him at the airport. As soon as he landed, he was surrounded by white men wearing suits and ties, and he asked, “Who is Gus Newport?” I spoke up and he responded, “Young brother, you have the best tapped phone in America. These are FBI agents.”

Malcolm X’s analytical thinking fascinated me, and I was highly influenced by him. He became involved in the Pan-African international movement and was a friend of Nehru. We continued to relate, and when he was put out of the Black Muslims, we founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The state legislature changed its laws that would not allow someone like Malcolm X to speak at any institution having nonprofit status. After that he spoke at universities. He recognized the intellect within Harlem where he saw so many talented blacks with no opportunities. He was concerned that blacks were considered second-class American citizens without rights. He felt that America doesn’t reflect history but creates propaganda. (It tells the story it wants translated.) Malcolm X was being considered as a possible replacement for Adam Clayton Powell. He and Martin Luther King had met once. Four days after we had been traveling together Malcolm X was assassinated. He expected it; he was getting death threats. Several family members called to tell me about his death and check on my safety. The FBI came to see me a day or two later.

I was in White Plains for three years when the Rochester race riot broke out in 1964. The assistant city manager knew me well. His background was as a newspaper reporter, and he was sensitive to the civil rights movement. He was aware of my relationship with the youth there and my knowing the police chief, so he asked if I would be willing to come intervene. I returned as a mediator for a few days. We got everything settled down between the police and youth. Because many of the stores were ransacked and there was no food source, I asked them to set up a food stamp program. I also demanded that the city establish at least 250 scholarships for kids who normally would have no opportunity to attend college.

I felt like I had performed a valuable service to my hometown community by serving as a successful negotiator. However, my employer did not see my role in a race riot in quite the same way. I gave my notice. My co-workers questioned if I really wanted to give up a secure job and good salary. I responded to my co-workers with “Security is a state of mind.” I asked them if they really liked their lives. They had no time for family life, no recreational life. IBM told you how to dress, what kind of people to date. They had their own country club. I didn’t like the workplace atmosphere. I left IBM in 1966.

Once again I returned to Rochester to live. This time I did marketing and payroll for a pharmaceutical company. From 1968 to1974 I had a job as a consultant with the Department of Labor. We developed planning modules for a national program to write a job-training grant for job development that sent us to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and later to the Bay area. In Puerto Rico it created a whole economy. The island was already rich in fishing and coffee but was lacking in refrigeration and roads to get the coffee beans out. We saw those needs and acted on them by bringing people together to create the sum of the whole. In the Bay Area we worked with restaurant workers and junior colleges.

By 1974 a distant cousin in Berkeley invited me first to do a wage comparability analysis in Oakland and then to set up a summer youth employment service in Berkeley. Jobs ranged from electrical to carpentry kinds of skills. When Mary Brown said women should receive 25% of all non-traditional jobs, it broke down the laws of the “good ole boys” and allowed more women in the workforce. Working in many NGOs was a learning experience for me.

I initially ran for a seat on Berkeley City Council in 1977 but then dropped out of the race when I discovered I knew and liked the opponent’s policies. In 1978 a group of people drafted me to run for mayor. Initially I was uninterested but agreed and got elected. I took a leave of absence from the Department of Labor and remained mayor for eight years.

Living in California during that time period, I became active in the peace movement; it was much the same struggle as the civil rights movement. You cannot separate the two. We were looking at the role the U.S. was playing in places like Korea, Viet Nam, and Nicaragua. If you look at American policy, it was always invading or bombing third world countries of color. After WW II we don’t invade any white countries.

Berkeley comprised largely a coalition of progressive whites, Black Americans, and Central Americans evaluating these international policies. We gave orders to our police not to arrest any immigrants. Early in my mayoral term a woman visited me and requested to start a group, “The New El Salvador Today”{NEST}, which was very successful. {Note: NEST and SHARE- Salvadoran Humanitarian Aid, Research and Education merged in 1992 into SHARE Foundation. (http://www.embracingelsalvador.org/jose-artiga/ } NEST became an impetus for the Sister City Program, established in 1983, linking communities across geographical borders. Lutheran churches led by their pastors including advocates like Pastor Will Herzfeld took leadership roles.

Pastor Gus Schultz was another Lutheran pastor who helped establish the Sanctuary Movement where churches assisted war refugees and others seeking political asylum by offering them homes, education, health care, and legal aid. We created this in 1983 largely as a result of El Salvador’s civil war and the need to keep Salvadoran citizens that were able to escape to the U.S. safe.

As a board member of NEST, I was approved to travel anywhere within the country I chose. An FMLN member {associated with the guerrilla movement in opposition to the Salvadoran military} approached me with the idea of accompanying a Jesuit priest from UCA {University of Central America} into the war zone of the country to witness firsthand what was happening there due to high casualties, many of whom were innocent villagers. We were told that over 70,000 Salvadorans were killed already. I agreed to make the trip in 1985. We made our congressional office aware that if we weren’t out of the country in ten days, they should conduct an investigation. The ambassador had approached me telling how they were planning to do a full blitz of the area but were concerned how to get the women and children out. The other members of our group were a photographer, translator with CISPIS {Committee in Solidarity with People in El Salvador}, and member of NEST.

Fighting between the military and guerrilla forces was heavy in the Chalatenango department in the northwestern part of the country on the Honduran border. {As early as 1980 numerous massacres in small rural villages in this area were reported.}

Our group checked into the El Camino Hotel, and I was immediately recognized because just before the trip, Newsweek magazine ran an article on “the mayor of Berkeley in the gourmet ghetto.” They asked why I was there, and I answered “on vacation.” We needed better cover stories in the event we would be questioned at military checkpoints. At the time El Salvador was undergoing a vaccine program which both the military and guerrillas endorsed. Therefore, my story was that I was in the country to observe this great humanitarian campaign between two warring factions.

On our second day we were taken to a very dark restaurant, and someone gave us an overview on dropping off our clothes at a monastery and directions about driving up to a specific area in a Jeep. We were told if we ever bumped into this person again, we could not act like we recognized him. He was Salvadoran Secret Service.

When our Jeep dropped us off, we were told it would be an hour’s walk to our destination; it turned out to be six hours. There was a big sign welcoming, “the mayor of Berkeley, California.” Maria Chichilco (her guerrilla name), former religious worker, was the administrator of this area. She was in charge of the alternative government organizing food, medications, etc. {See “Maria’s Story” on-line for more information on her.} She gave us an overview of the situation. There were no roofs on any buildings, no water, no electricity. I asked where to use the toilet and was told, “If you have to go pee pee, go 100 yards; if you have to poo poo, go 200 yards.” We were going on a march to find Berkeley’s sister city when the young guerrilla leader, our point person, suddenly told us we would need to return quickly to a certain house with a roof because there was a bombing attack coming. Sure enough a well-marked AMERICAN plane strafed the area with bombs. Our photographer got some good photos of it. The folks in our sister city apologized for not being able to meet us. The people we spoke with shared stories of human rights abuses and atrocities. There were people whose body parts were being chopped off, pregnant women whose fetuses were cut out of their bellies by military bayonets, all by U.S. backed military. These were the most horrid stories I had heard in my life.

 

Maria Chichilco Serrano at her Arcatao home near the Honduran border.

We continued on a forced march to the Honduran border. At night you could see all the hills burning in what they referred to as “the burning torch.” It was like they described in Viet Nam. The agricultural areas were largely owned and operated by big fruit companies such as Dole and others who were corrupt and controlling. They did not pay their workers a fair wage, which is why the U.S. often wants to keep a right wing government in control to take advantage of capital investments.

I couldn’t react to what I saw and heard at the time. Our lives were in the hands of those leading us. It was after I returned from that ten-day trip that the impact hit me. The press interviewed me, and I began to react. I just cried knowing I would never see most of those people again. I would be driving on the way to Monterrey and see a helicopter overhead and have to pull off the side of the road because my thoughts would return to the Salvadoran school children trying to learn in makeshift schools with no roofs. They would draw pictures of helicopters with penciled dot, dot, dot dropping bombs in the sky.

I testified at the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee in Congress with Eliot Abrams and his staff standing behind me ridiculing and denying my every statement. A couple of times I turned around and angrily told him to shut up; I was there and saw what was happening, and we had photos to prove it. Then I went on a twenty-city speaking engagement. People had to know what was happening. Our media were not telling the truth, and someone had to do it.

That trip was the first of many trips to El Salvador. When their war ended, I returned to take part in some of the negotiations for the 1992 Peace Accords. I returned to witness the digging up of bodies. I have served as an election monitor many times. We hope to make it for their Presidential inauguration.

 

Gus shares his knowledge with a first-time election monitor

Cathryn was exposed to civil rights for some time. Her dad was educated at Stanford University in the 1960’s and set up his medical practice in Cleveland, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement. She did her undergraduate work at Smith College and her graduate work at Rutgers. Kathryn was invited to Nicaragua by Daniel Ortega. Jerry Rubin was also on that trip. After the 1989 hurricane, she returned to Nicaragua to spend three months to help re-build its Atlantic Coast. Kathryn lived in Boston. I moved to Boston in 1986 when I was invited by the University of Massachusetts (Boston) to teach a course on alternative economics. Three of us did panel discussions on municipal government at different universities. I had the good fortune to work with black and Latino legislators on special neighborhood policy. I was exposed to and later ran the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. {This is a neighborhood revitalization NGO formed in 1984 by residents in the Roxbury, North Dorchester area two miles from downtown Boston. It organizes and empowers the diverse residents to create a shared vision in programming including housing, safety, outreach to children, culture, and workforce collaboratives. See their impressive website for more information.} The documentary video “Holding Ground” was a tool that was useful in teaching at places such as MIT and University of California (Santa Cruz) to illustrate neighborhood re-vitalization.

Working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is one of my proudest accomplishments. The enduring love between the people of El Salvador and me is another one at the top of my list. Of course, my personal relationship with my son and daughter is at the top of my list.

Kathryn on El Salvador’s election day

Kathryn and I had a mock wedding in Nicaragua and then married in December, 1989. She was involved in the U.S. Peace Council before we met. I was nominated to be president of that organization the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but I turned down the nomination. Berkeley was the first American city to divest in South Africa.

Kathryn enjoys gardening and reading. There are still places in the world she would like to see including South America, South Africa, Guatemala, and some of the Caribbean islands.

If I were to change things in my life I would give more to education. I have been told that I should write my own story; however, my current mental focus is on an upcoming knee replacement. The military service provides for my medical needs.

When Barak Obama was elected president, my mom was so happy and proud. She called saying, “We did it; we did it!” And yet you look at Afghanistan and at both the state of domestic and international policies all these years later and wonder what happened to our hopeful direction. If President Obama had stood up with principal and challenged more; if he had reached across the aisle when he initially got into office and shown more respect, would it have changed the course of events? Or is the system itself so corrupt that it would not have made any difference? What kind of person does it take for leadership? I see nothing that points to great hope for our country. It would be nice to see a new movement come along that sweeps the country in hope.

Compared to the first time I visited it, I am hopeful in terms of El Salvador’s future. The community and family structures are strong. The electoral process continues to improve. Their pursuit of education is showing positive growth. My biggest concern remains the role of the U.S. intervening. Now we are going in and buying up all their banks in order to control their economy. That doesn’t raise the quality of their lives. Again, our media do not write about these things. Some of the positive movements from the past seem to have fallen off the radar screen. What happened to liberation theology, for example? You no longer hear about this inter-denominational school of thought that guided so many social reforms for justice and activism during the 1950s and 1960s.

I’m 79 years old and know that with age one is supposed to be more gentle and forgive and forget. I choose not to acquiesce to forgetting nor will I totally forgive based on anything I’ve seen happen. I have not had to live in a developing third world country, but I do try to remain connected with El Salvador and support the Salvadoran people in solidarity however I can for as long as I can. I want to enjoy a happy life while continuing to work on the issues I feel make a difference in the global community that Martin Luther King spoke of and which my mother practiced.

 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King

 

Contributions

    Afflicted with Hope / embracingelsalvador.org is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.