“WE PROPOSE A CULTURAL EXCHANGE”

In February 1968 the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association in New York City voted to go on strike.The 7.000 members had been working for some time without a contract, and at the time the city’s official policy was that sanitation workers had to be paid less, and to have smaller pensions, than police and firefighters. (Annual salaries pre-strike ranged from$6,424 to $7,956.) The strike lasted from February 2 to February 10. Local media continually blasted the workers for walking out and the union’s president went to jail. The city workers’ union, District Council 37, refused Mayor John Lindsay’s order to take over the sanitation workers’ duties, and when Lindsay asked Governor Nelson Rockefeller to send in the National Guard, DC 37 threatened a city-wide general strike. Rockefeller declared an unprecedented temporary state takeover of the city’s sanitation force, accepting the terms of the new contract.

“The first real action we did as The Family was to take garbage to the Lincoln Center in February 1968,” says Ben Morea in his lengthy 2006 interview.  “There was a garbage strike in New York and there was tons of refuse mounting up in the ghettos. The commercial and wealthier areas were able to hire private contractors to clean their streets so we decided to take some of the garbage from the Lower East Side up to the Lincoln Center. One of our members proposed this as a cultural exchange – garbage for garbage. Although others tended to focus on our aggression and militancy we really had some beautifully witty people.

“We put out a leaflet explaining why were doing this, but those of us involved realized that we weren’t really Black Mask anymore and so we didn’t want that name on it. There was a poem by Leroi Jones with the line ‘Up Against The Wall Mother Fucker’ in it and I suggested we put that on there. Somehow it stuck and from then on in everyone referred to us as that. It wasn’t a deliberate thing on our part. It would have been fairly pretentious to just name ourselves ‘The Motherfuckers.’ Black Mask continued as a magazine for a little longer and then U.A.W.M.F. started creating flyers and posters and doing things for papers like the Rat.”

The action, captured by the Newsreel Collective, was made into a 10 minute film presently available for (expensive) rental from Third World Newsreel.

“I don’t think we ever really planned anything really,” Morea adds, speaking to Boo-Hooray. “It just was like a thought, we should do this and just overnight, did it. It was very little planning, actually, in anything we did.”