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.
An affinity group of roughly 30 or 40 people grew up around Robin and Sharon. We called ourselves The Crazies. (Proudly!) We specialized in guerrilla theater actions targeting prominent liberal politicians who in our eyes, were insufficiently against the Vietnam War. Liberals who didn’t work all the live-long-day to end the war were worse than hawks– they were hypocrites. The Crazies’ signature routine involved ambushing liberal pols at public events (ceremonial dinners, speeches in auditoriums, etc.) and presenting them with a pig’s head on a platter. The presentation was often done by Robin and Sharon– in the nude. (Though Robin would sometimes sport an Uncle Sam hat.) The rest of us would pop up from the audience waving NLF flags, dropping leaflets from balconies, shouting slogans, playing kazoos, and marching down the aisles. At one event, male Crazies dressed as red-jacketed waiters gained access to an elegant dinner dais (possibly at the New York Hilton?) packed with prominent pols. The “waiters” bore platters with silver covers. With a flourish they lifted the covers, revealing the pigs’ heads beneath. Each head neatly labeled with the name of the pol receiving it.
Occasionally we disrupted events that included the non-elected. At one, actress Shelley Winters threw a glass of booze at Sharon and screamed “beat her she’s naked”. At another, an equally lit Norman Mailer, who was quixotically running for NYC mayor, accused the Crazies of being CIA agents and wanted to duke it out with Robin. (I don’t remember if Robin was nude.) We kinda liked Mailer for that.
The Crazies unfairly zapped a lot of decent liberals. But at the same time, having an event disrupted by the Crazies became a sort of status symbol. A sign of being “in”. We’d sneak into some dining room or auditorium and people in the audience would already be looking around eagerly, whispering “Are the Crazies here?” For us, being “in” took the fun out of the thing…
Our belief that liberal hypocrites (in our estimation) were more deserving of attack than hawks, was symptomatic of a widespread reductivist vortex that was sucking many radicals toward committing, or supporting, domestic terrorism. Inexorable pressure hung in the air. Ultra militant talk was being talked. Revolution had come, time to pick up the gun. Scenarios of imminent, extreme government repression were being laid out in– dare I say it?– loving detail. Behind the militant gin-up and over anticipation of repression, lay eagerness to erase the oppression and militancy gap separating “white skin privilege” radicals from the Vietnamese and other third world revolutionaries, and vanguard domestic African-American groups such as the Black Panthers.
Within much of the New Left, the old left focus on class had been supplanted by devotion to foreign revolutions (oft seen through rose tinted glasses) and belief in a racial vanguard. The jettisoning of class as central issue was in part due to the success of American organized labor. Most blue collar workers had attained a rung on the ladder or believed they soon would, and just didn’t feel all that interested in smashing the state. And yes, many were casually racist and some were actively so. They feared losing what they had to the guy on the rung right below them. Another blue collar sin: their jobs depended on the nasty smoke-belching factories that were polluting the air. (Environmentalism was starting to stir.) But the biggest sin of all was that most working class people supported the war in Vietnam. Even those who didn’t, wanted the USA to come out OK. Which in radical eyes made them “good Germans”. They were sitting back (watching TV and drinking beer) while their government perpetrated a holocaust.
Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s dictum “you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem” was a favorite radical slogan. If you didn’t commit to stopping Pig Amerika by any means necessary you WERE Pig Amerika. Man up (feminism was barely stirring) for revolutionary violence or be damned.
Like most of my friends, I was part of the damnboree. Yet when Robin asked me to help him, Sharon, and several others bomb a bank, I refused. I gave tactical reasons (for one, I suspected a member of the group was a cop) but the deeper reason was I balked at alienating myself from common humanity to that degree. Not that I would have put it in those terms. But an image of my parents doing banking popped into my head. And I’d held clerical jobs; I knew banks were places where people worked. What if a bomb meant to merely damage property blew at the wrong time and someone got killed? So I nixed my opportunity to be a terrorist. Which made Robin angry. He critiqued my lack of commitment. He also reminded me of instances where he and Sharon had gotten my back, saying I was betraying them personally. This hurt quite a bit. Afterwards our paths diverged. I continued to see Robin and Sharon at political events, but was no longer a member of their inner circle. Since they were on the scene for months after Robin made his pitch, I assumed the bomb plot had been abandoned. I assumed wrong.
While in the Crazies and afterwards, Robin and Sharon were close with Weatherman, the ultra radical spin-off from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Robin was reportedly* instrumental in convincing John Jacobs, an SDS/Weatherman leader, that average Americans weren’t just blind to the evils of their society, they were actively supportive. Inspiring Jacobs to suggest that the slogan “Serve The People” (which originated with the Panthers) be changed to “Serve The People Shit”. From inception, Weatherman advocated revolutionary violence on the home front. It was time to “Bring The War Home”.
By Spring 1970, Weatherman was whirling in the vortex; they’d started bombing targets that to them, symbolized Pig Amerika. After several members blew themselves up while building an anti-personnel bomb (intended for an army dance at Fort Dix) in the basement of a West Village townhouse, Weatherman went fully underground. Becoming the Weather Underground. Robin and Sharon continued to be kept in the loop. Their bomb plot was not an official Weather Underground action, but leadership members knew about it beforehand. The bombing was set for December 4th, 1970– in honor of Black Panther Fred Hampton, who’d been shot to death by Chicago police one year earlier.
Robin had allegedly participated in an earlier series of bombings that took place in 1969 under the aegis of Sam Melville and a group, or groups, of people loosely referred to as the New York Collective. Melville wasn’t a Weatherman. He was a middle-aged, profoundly alienated and unaffiliated radical who admired “Mad Bomber” George Metesky. Bombings ascribed by law enforcement to Sam Melville and the NY Collective were well executed. They employed dynamite and timers, and did major property damage to politically symbolic targets. (One also injured 16 office clerks working a night shift.) In conversations Robin had with me in later years, and in interviews with historian Jeremy Varon, he referred to his involvement in the Melville-connected bombings. The overall picture of Robin’s career as a bomber is murky (at least to me) but the one action of which I have clear knowledge is the bank job. Which played out like a black comedy of errors. No mission accomplished.
The cop I thought was a cop was a cop. His name was Steve. Apparently FBI. In the wee hours of December 4th, Robin and five others, including Sharon Krebs, were busted outside the First National City Bank at Madison Avenue and 91st Street. They’d just placed four, one gallon jugs of gasoline and benzene around the building when an army of cops descended. Several had been staked out on the sidewalk, convincingly posing as drunks. Robin and crew were planning to set the bank ablaze; the bomb plot was a burn plot. Other targets on their hit list including a building which housed a law firm where Richard Nixon once worked. Robin was the oldest in the group, which besides Sharon included a 19 year old man, two women in their early 20′s, and 25 year old Martin Balin (then Martin Lewis). Marty was a friend of mine. According to Robin, the night before the bust a Weather Underground leader called and said they believed Steve was a cop. Robin shared the warning with Marty, but not the rest of the group.
When the Weather Underground rang, why didn’t Robin listen? Part of the reason was Robin’s innate stubbornness, which at times made him as pigheaded as the pols he zapped. Also at play was his faith in cultural choices as indicators of character. Steve liked the right baseball team, hence he couldn’t be an “unsportsmanlike”** undercover cop. But I also gathered from later conversations with Robin (and with Marty) that he and Marty had steeled themselves to do the revolutionary thing and nothing was going to stop them. You were either part of the solution or you were part of the problem.
As I understand it, some of Robin’s co-conspirators later blamed him for their involvement in the bomb plot and for being busted. Years later, Robin expressed regret to me about not sharing the Weather Underground warning. But you didn’t need a Weatherman to know Steve was a cop. I wasn’t alone in my suspicions. A number of people had expressed doubt. When you tried to get a sense of what personally motivated Steve as a radical, there was no “there”, there. Just a check list of correct political positions. Steve had COP emblazoned on his forehead. You just had to be willing to see it.
The case against Robin et al resolved in guilty pleas. While awaiting resolution, Robin did time in assorted NYC jails (where a student from his teaching days hailed him as “Mr. Palmer”) and after sentencing, spent several years at Attica, in upstate New York near Buffalo. Sam Melville, who’d been arrested in late 1969, was already in residence. Return of the native. Melville grew up in and around Buffalo. Robin arrived at Attica just in time for the massive 1971 riot. Or “uprising”. Whichever word you prefer, it was one hell of a tragedy. Too large a topic for this article. Thumbnail:
Conditions at Attica were dismal. Administration was out to lunch. The social dynamics were a powder keg, particularly given the times. The majority of guards were white, from rural and working class northwest New York, the majority of prisoners, black or Hispanic from the NYC area. On September 9th, 1971, some 1,200 inmates took over a large section of the prison. One guard was killed in the takeover, several others were severely beaten. Three prisoners were killed by other prisoners. Thirty eight guards and other prison personnel were held hostage. After four days, negotiations between inmates and authorities broke down. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to visit Attica, despite being asked to do so by prison officials. With Rockefeller’s go-ahead, the National Guard, the State Police, and local law enforcement were unleashed. The final death count was 29 prisoners and 11 hostages. Except for the guard killed during the takeover, all hostages died from bullets fired by the State Police. Incidents of retaliatory torture of inmates took place during the take-back. Ultimately, the New York State Special Commission on Attica declared, “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”
Robin Palmer and Sam Melville took part in the Attica riot/uprising. Melville was killed during the take-back. According to Robin, Sam died in his arms.
After Robin got out of prison, I saw him a few times in the 1970′s. My dereliction of duty still lay between us. And though I continued to see life largely in leftist terms, doing so felt hollow. I was drifting philosophically. Robin and I seemed to have little in common. After the 70′s, I lost touch with him for several decades. Much of what I know about his life during that period, I learned later.
Post prison, Robin and Sharon’s relationship collapsed. Too much radical madness, too much bitterness. Robin lived in the West Village and once again worked as a deep sea diver and tree surgeon. He planted trees in his neighborhood. He traveled to Cuba. Fidel Castro looked better from afar. Seeing him up close led Robin to stop identifying himself as a communist. He’s been quoted as saying he made the mistake of thinking communism was good because “an enemy of your enemy is your friend”***. As said, Robin never ceased believing the U.S. was a villain (akin to Nazi Germany) in Vietnam, but after his disillusionment with Castro, he increasingly defined his support for the Vietnamese and Ho Chi Minh through references to the American Revolution. Despite his political sea change, Robin continued to stand by friends who were communists and to condemn the McCarthyism of the 1950s.
While Robin was in prison his father died; they never reconciled. His mother was another story. After she died in the 80′s, Robin moved back to Ithaca. Return of another native. With better outcome.
In Ithaca, Robin met and married Mimi Melegrito. They were together for more than 20 years, until Robin’s death. Mimi brought out the best in Robin. She often disagreed with him. Strongly. When she’d say his politics were lousy he’d reply “sorry my dear, you can’t do anything about it”. Politics were surface. Mimi and Robin “got” each other. They had fun together. They shared the kinds of private jokes and riffs that characterize happy marriages. Robin’s love of music resurfaced. He wrote songs for Mimi and members of their family and sang in Ithaca’s gay chorus. Describing himself as “the token”. Mimi gives occasional concerts (she has a rich soulful voice) of Filipino folk songs at colleges in Ithaca. She’s a social service professional with the city and met Robin when he asked her to appear as a guest on his public access cable show “For The Duration”. Before agreeing, Mimi checked out the show. She and a friend couldn’t believe what they saw. “This guy is crazy” exclaimed Mimi. None the less, she went on. The rest is romantic history.
In his later years, Robin was no less a rebel. (And at times, no less a pain in the ass.) But his perspective broadened. He wasn’t a left winger, but neither was he a right winger. He became what I believe was a fuller expression of what he’d always been– a Robin winger. His activities also broadened; to include not just large causes but community service. He was active in the Kiwanis club (as is Mimi) and a local veterans’ group. He fought to get Ithaca’s dogs their very own park. Robin aired community issues, large causes, and his own history on “For The Duration”, which ran for years on PEGASYS, the public access television system of Tompkins County.
Robin continued to remember Attica. He kept in touch with survivors, took part in reunions and forums, and supported Forgotten Victims of Attica (FVOA) the group formed by family members of guards who’d been slain or injured. Also on Robin’s to-do list: supporting gay marriage and nailing down Who Killed Kennedy. (Hint: it wasn’t you and me.) He was active in conspiracy theorist circles. At one point, the British filmmaker who made the notorious documentary series “The Men Who Killed Kennedy” (pulled from the History Channel in 2003 under threat of legal action by the family of Lyndon Johnson) stayed at Robin’s home. Robin also kept up his in-your-face protests. When senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton came to town to speak at a local college, Robin was there. He and his dog Junior had to be hauled from the auditorium. Robin (and seemingly Junior) disliked the Clintons deeply. Robin was particularly incensed by Bill Clinton’s alleged rape of Juanita Broaddrick when Bill was attorney general back in Arkansas. Yup, Robin raised many a ruckus in Ithaca. Saving one of his best for last.
The Great Shoe Toss of February, 2009.
When Robin threw his shoes at Ithaca’s mayor (and a Common Council member) he prefaced it with a statement protesting the city’s resolution condemning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Though the footwear missed its targets, a hubbub ensued. After the lobbing, nobody knew how to get Robin out of the room. He refused to leave. City officials didn’t want to give him the “satisfaction” of being arrested. But Robin insisted on it. Mimi, who hadn’t known what Robin was planning, was summoned. Her advice? Book him, Dan-o. Since Robin was in poor health the cops took him away in an ambulance. He didn’t have to exit in his stocking feet; the shoes he threw were extras he’d brought in a bag.
The Great Shoe Toss got local coverage and went national via the Drudge Report. Readers on both the political left and right scratched their heads. Say wha? A former radical bomber who proudly cites past ties to the Weather Underground and refers to Ho Chi Minh as “the George Washington of his people”, copycats an Iraqi anti-Bush protest and throws his shoes at the mayor of an ultra liberal city because said city has condemned the war in Iraq? What’s wrong with this picture?
Not a thing if you get Robin wing.
At the time of the shoe toss, Robin and I had been back in touch for eight years. In 2001, I’d discovered his snail mail on the Internet and dropped him a line. A week or so later my phone rang. After almost 25 years we were friends again. Among the first things he told me was that some people (meaning his old radical pals) now considered him a right winger. He said this with a mischievous chuckle. “Oh yeah?” I said “Well, I converted to Catholicism in the late 1980′s.” Darned if that didn’t one-up him. I could tell Robin found my embrace of repressive papism hard to take. But even if Robin wasn’t totally bias-free re Catholicism, he had indeed changed. He was no longer an either/or guy with his friends. We agreed on some things (Castro! The Clintons!) but agreed to disagree about others. Take the Iraq war. (Please.) And neither George Bush nor Bill Ayers excited my admiration. As for Vietnam, I still believed the war wrong but no longer saw a halo over the NLF. And no matter how many times Robin invoked the image, I couldn’t envision Ho Chi Minh in a powdered wig.
In the last few years of Robin’s life we talked a lot on the phone. Cancer and chemo were taking hard toll but Robin rarely mentioned his health. Our conversations would start with one subject and go off into sidewinders. Laughs along the way. Sadder paths were covered too. Robin didn’t do computers, so I passed along Internet and email news of friends with whom he’d lost touch. I had to tell him several (including Marty and Sharon) were dead. I also picked up, but didn’t pass along, the impression that some (not all) of his old radical pals wanted nothing to do with Robin, the wild card “right winger”.
Couldn’t help but wonder how they’d have done at Attica…
Whatever. Robin had gazillion friends from many walks of life. He was widely loved. In late July, about a month before Robin died, my husband and I went to visit him and Mimi. I knew it was the last time I’d see Robin on earth. I’d missed his birthday party in April, which he’d dubbed an “I Ain’t Dead Yet” party. The crowd was huge and Robin was presented with a pair of bronzed shoes– the very ones he’d tossed at the mayor and Common Council a little over a year earlier.
When visiting in August my husband and I spent time at Robin and Mimi’s home. One of Robin’s oldest friends dropped by. A life long Ithacan, he’d gone to first grade with Robin. I asked him what Robin was like at age six. He answered “Just the same. He was always…different.”
Fly Robin fly…
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
*Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, The Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, Jeremy Varon, University of California Press, 2004
**Killing the Field of Dreams, Jeremy Varon, Fast Capitalism, 2005
Note re a source: One of the most significant events in Robin Palmer’s life was the death of his good friend Sam Melville at Attica. A detailed account of Melville’s life, and events at Attica, can be found in Leslie James Pickering’s Mad Bomber Melville, (Arissa Media Group, 2007). Despite its sensational title and partisan tone, “Mad Bomber” is well researched and insightful.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
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