John Ross: Journalist and activist who became the first person to be arrested for refusing the US draft
Saturday 19 February 2011
The American reporter John Ross was a tireless fighter for social justice.
He began his career as a young activist on behalf of his fellow residents in San Francisco's Mission District, later he sought to help the indigenous people of Mexico, and latterly, in Palestine and Iraq where he went as a human shield prior to the start of the war – but was thrown out after clashing with the Iraqi regime.
Ross's journalism was unashamedly partial and his audiences were, predominantly, those on the left. He described himself as an "investigative poet"; his weapon of choice was the pen and, latterly the keyboard (he embraced technology with a delight; it made his vagabond life as a freelance writer much easier).
Born to politically aware Jewish parents in 1930s Manhattan, as a teenager Ross hung out with the main figures of the Beat generation. He read his poetry at the Half Note in Greenwich Village just after Charles Mingus had finished playing and he knew Dizzy Gillespie well enough to sell him a joint. A jack of all trades, he once minded Billie Holliday's dog while she sang at a gig he'd helped promote. Jazz remained a lifelong passion and he bequeathed a love of music to his son, Dante, with whom he later co-wrote From Be Bop to Hip Hop.
After his first foray into Mexico in the late 1950s he returned to San Francisco where, during the 1967 protests, his eyesight was badly damaged when he was beaten by police (he was also, on various occasions, set upon by Octavio Paz's bodyguards and Israeli settlers). He was then jailed for refusing to go to war in Vietnam.
After his release he returned to Mexico and lived for a while in rural Michoacán (where a son who died in infancy is buried) and where he often returned when he needed to retreat. In Mexico, when he wasn't on the road, he lived in a room at the distinctly unstarry Hotel Isabel in the heart of the capital's historic centre.
He always payed his rent, even when he was off in the US on another gruelling book tour or helping with the olive harvest in Palestine, and often joked that the owners of the Isabel, where he lived on and off for more than 25 years should have paid him to stay there given that so many of his visitors ended up taking a room themselves. A seemingly endless stream of people, readers and correspondents (including this one), came to the room, looking in vain for somewhere to sit among the heaps of books and piles of paper – he had few other possessions other than his leather vest and cane - where one of the two single beds groaned under the weight of hundreds of copies of his beloved La Jornada, the Mexican daily which has a special relationship with The Independent.
Loyal to his friends and stubborn to the core, Ross made it his business to chronicle the "other side" of Mexico. His work – thousands of articles, nine books, several volumes of poetry and a memoir, Murdered by Capitalism - had legions of fans including Thomas Pynchon, who turned out to see him at events across the country.
On 1 January 1994 a hitherto unknown movement calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took over a numberof towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. It proved a defining date for Ross. He became one of the original chroniclers of the movement and the author of the first work onthe rise of the EZLN for English-speaking audiences, Rebellion from the Roots, winner of the 1995 American Book Award. For many years he continued to cover the trajectory of the Zapatista movement and even when he broke with the leadership, he retained a huge affection for those at grassroots level, some of whom he had watched grow up.
His ambulant path meant he saw little of Dante and Carla, his son and daughter by different partners and an adopted daughter, Dylan, but he was never out of touch and in recent years he delighted in his role as abuelo [grandfather] to Zoe, using Skype to follow her progress.
He brushed off honours he thought inappropriate – the city of San Francisco tried to declare 12 May John Ross Day – but he treasured the tribute printed in La Jornada the week before he died which his old friends read to him as he fought the pain with morphine, and an additional substance grown in his beloved Humboldt County that is more commonly smuggled out of Mexico than into it. His buddy, Oscar "the Vampire", an itinerant street musician, travelled from Mexico City to play his saxophone as Ross's body lay in a candle-filled room prior to his ashes being scattered according to his instructions, in New York, San Francisco, Humboldt County and – surreptitiously – in the ashtrays at the Hotel Isabel.
In 2009 the authorities in San Francisco had sought to honour the man their predecessors once vilified but at the ceremony he refused his citation and instead turned on the Board of Supervisors saying, "Life, like reporting is a kind of death sentence. Pardon me for having lived it so fully."
John Ross, journalist and activist: born New York 11 March 1938; married Norma Melbourne (divorced); one son, one son deceased, one daughter, one adopted daughter; died Santiago Tzipijo, Mexico 17 January 2011.
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