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Robin Palmer: Weatherman Yippie Right Wing Rebel Forever

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Message Carola Von Hoffmannstahl
In early February 2009, I was skimming the Drudge Report and came across a headline that went something like this: Protester Throws Shoes at Mayor of Ithaca, New York. I immediately knew the shoe-thrower was my friend Robin Palmer. Robin died this August at age 80. He was a born rebel and lived in that skin all his life. He was never without a cause. Usually multiple causes. Which sometimes seemed wildly contradictory.

Robin ran with the radical left Weathermen in the late 1960's and early '70s. He spent several years in Attica prison for trying to bomb a New York City bank. By this millennium he was sort-of right wing. Why "sort-of"? Robin never regretted his terrorist actions or ceased believing the U.S. was a villain in Vietnam. He referred to Ho Chi Minh as "the George Washington of his people" and felt warmly toward his old Weather-friends, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. When candidate Barack Obama's relationship with Ayers in Chicago became a hot topic during the 2008 presidential race, Robin wrote missives to local newspapers lauding Ayers and defending the Weatherman bombings. When election day rolled around Robin didn't vote for Obama or McCain-- he wrote in Bill Ayers.

Flip side: Robin disagreed vehemently with the standard left positions on Cuba and the Mid-East. When Robin denounced Fidel Castro at gatherings of old New Leftists, he was struck from the rad honor roll. (Attica only counted for so much.) His opinions on the Mid-East were equally heretical. Robin was always strongly pro-Israel. Not gung-ho for the PLO. By this millennium he stood 100 percent behind President Bush and the war in Iraq. The shoe hurling incident sprang from that support. The City of Ithaca had passed a resolution condemning the war. By tossing his shoes at the mayor, Robin was tearing a page from the book of Iraqi protesters who did likewise to Bush. Turning it upside down in the process.

That's so Robin.

I first met Robin in New York City in the Spring of 1968. I was a blue collar kid from New Jersey. At 16, I'd beat it out of a severely dysfunctional family and had been bouncing around the adult world in Jersey and NYC for several years. File clerking one month, go-go dancing the next. By '68, I was waitressing at Max's Kansas City, watering hole of the Andy Warhol crowd. I was drawn to leftism by my convictions about the war in Vietnam and civil rights-- and by desire for improvement in my own life.

I jumped into leftism with youthful abandon and went from peacenik to radical after a demonstration where the cops came in swinging. I first met Robin at meetings of the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist Movement (CO-AIM). CO-AIM was composed of radical groups who believed the peace movement was too limited in its political analysis and too wimpy tactically. Groups in CO-AIM included the "youth" wing of Workers World Party (a vintage Marxist-Leninist group who dug the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary) and Veterans and Reservists Against The War (V&R). Robin, a vet from the Korean War era, was a member of V&R.

The V&R guys were all older than me, some considerably so. (One was a WW1 vet.) I liked the V&R guys. A number reminded me of blue collar Jersey boys. Possibly because several were undercover cops. (V&R was always a target for cop ops. Number one operator: the New York City Bureau of Special Services, aka BOSS or the Red Squad.) I became V&R's unofficial mascot, attending their meetings and going to demonstrations under their banner. The guys gave me the kid sister treatment. On my birthday they chipped in and bought me a gift certificate for glasses. One of the undercover cops (then unknown) kidded me, saying they were tired of seeing me getting busted at demos.

Nearsightedness had nothing to do with it. I was just reckless.

According to his fellow V&R members, so was Robin. I knew Robin's rep for recklessness long before we became friends. (Point of info: Robin and I were always friends, never romantic.) The guys kidded Robin about his penchant for getting arrested. They also said he could fall asleep anywhere (a skill admired by military guys, even anti-war ones) and would drop off in jail the minute the cell door slammed.

V&R also ribbed Robin about his dogs. Robin loved dogs. He always had several. Never ever leashed. In the 60's and 70's, many radical groups operated out of low-rent industrial lofts in mid and downtown Manhattan. Few working elevators, many flights of stairs. Robin's dogs always preceded him up those stairs. They'd bound into meetings, tags jangling. Followed by Robin, who despite his rad ways, looked like an all-American boy with multiple Lassies. He appeared much younger than his age (38), wore his hair military short and had an aw-shucks grin. When Robin traveled to the massive anti-war protest at the August, 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he donned a baseball cap and flew youth fare. I went to Chicago with hippie friends from the East Village, but hung with Robin when things turned wild-in-the-streets. Robin got busted. I didn't. Maybe the glasses did help...

A year later, Robin was one of the 18 activists named as unindicted co-conspirators in the federal case against those deemed responsible for the Chicago blowout. Among those who stood trial as the Chicago Seven (originally "eight" but Black Panther Bobby Seale got bumped for bad behavior in court) were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. As well as being an anti-war vet, Robin was tight with the Youth International Party. As in-- Yippie!

Robin was all over the NYC radical scene. He participated in the takeover of administrative offices at Columbia University by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the student strike of April, 1968, and was busted when cops reclaimed the territory. He manned literature tables for the U.S. Committee to Aid the NLF (a small but ideologically influential group headed by Walter Teague III) on Greenwich Village street corners. He was more than happy to argue the Vietnam War and the righteousness of the National Liberation Front (NLF) with any passerby who called him a traitor.

Robin was fluent in leftist ideology. (Including then trendy Maoism.) But at heart, his politics were personal and non-ideological. In my opinion, Robin's political philosophy was, and continued to be throughout his life, rooted in romantic idealism, individualism, and a moral fervor akin to Calvinism in its either/or rigidity. The latter was blessedly tempered (most strongly in later years) by his generosity, sense of humor, and taste for the absurd.

Pigs' Heads & Bomb Plots

Richard Robin Palmer grew up in Ithaca in Tompkins County, New York. His parents were college professors prominent in natural science fields. Both were politically conservative. Robin fought particularly fiercely with his father, a fan of Joe McCarthy. Robin entered the military and trained as a paratrooper in the early 1950's. By the beginning of the 60's, he was living in Greenwich Village. He was active in civil rights and anti-war circles and hung on the jazz scene. He was briefly married to singer Arlene Corwin, whom he met through vibraphonist Teddy Charles. Robin worked at various occupations, including deep sea diver and tree surgeon. He also taught high school in Harlem. Subject, English. Robin lost his teaching license after being busted for moonlighting in porn films. The classic plumber-meets-housewife kind. Male performers kept their black socks on at all times. Playboy gave Robin's arrest a write-up, as did a tabloid. He did a little jail and dropped out of the porn biz when the Mafia started getting heavy. Demanding extreme subject matter. Such as bestiality. With dogs. That tore it for Robin.

I imagine Robin had been a good teacher. One night in late '68, a friend (I'll call him "Vic") and I were driving around with Robin in his old station wagon. It broke down in some borough. Possibly Queens. Vic was about my age. We'd both segued from peacenik to radical freak. Aka Yippie. We both lived hand-to-mouth in the then rundown East Village. Our cultural references were downtown small. Anyway, there we were in the middle of the night, possibly in Queens, sitting in some garage with Robin waiting for a diagnosis on his car. The possibility of repair, up in the air. Most car owners would have been climbing the walls. Instead, Robin pulled a battered paperback anthology of William Blake out of his pocket and proceeded to read aloud. Delivering a discourse on why Blake was a great poet. To this day, I never encounter Blake without thinking of Robin. By the by, his car got repaired.

As I became more Yippie, I took part in more political actions involving Robin and his partner Sharon Krebs. Sharon was around 30, had an M.A. in Russian literature, worked as a Russian translator, and in 1965, had helped launch the Free University of New York. (A hot spot of free thought that eventually turned dogma city.) Sharon's political background was hard left. By '68, she was also a Yippie. Sharon was intelligent, high-strung, and attractive. Robin and Sharon's relationship was passionate and volatile. Despite their occasional outside affairs and the prevailing pressure to "Smash Monogamy" they were an unmarried married couple. When Vic and I rode in the backseat of their car and they bickered in the front, we felt like the kids in a counterculture sitcom.

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After several years of NYC go-go dancing and wacky radical fun (including a trip to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago) Carola Von H. became a No Wave band leader and Mail Artist. Picking up change as a free lance writer. Her pen ranged (more...)
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