Fear, Fortitude and the FBI

Fear, Fortitude and the FBI

by Ronni Sandroff

AS THE DAUGHTER OF TWO LABOR ORGANIZERS, my early childhood education included how to spot FBI agents (“no one else in this neighborhood keeps their shoes shined”) and how to answer their questions (“look dumb and slam the door”). So it was no problem for me to identify the stiff-jawed man in a brown suit who sat outside publisher Merle Hoffman’s office. What was unnerving was to realize that I was glad to see him; this time the FBI had only come to guard, rather than harass us. In fact, the bureau showed up only because Merle had spent days calling the government and talking tough to the media to demand protection for her clinic after the murder of Dr. John Bayard Britton in Pensacola, Florida (see “Heroism: Theory and Practice”).

Our daylong editorial meeting had been hastily moved from Manhattan to Queens, so that Merle could remain visible at the helm of Choices Women’s Medical Center amid frequent calls from 911 that yet another bomb or death threat had been received. For the editors, it meant personal exposure to the tension and danger that the doctors, staff, and patients face day by day at that clinic and those around the country.

Yes, it was scary. I couldn’t just slam the door in the face of this experience. It was a baptism of fire for our new art director, Joy Toltzis Makon, and our new book-review editor, Nina Mehta. And yes, it was disruptive. Again and again, Merle was forced to leave the editorial discussions she loves in order to deal with security issues and media interviews. (“Are you afraid? one interviewer asked. “I’m angry!” was her poised and inspiring reply.)

But I must admit, the meeting was also exhilarating and had a galvanizing effect on this issue, pushing us to dig for some new insights into women’s uneasy relationship with law and law enforcement in this country.

John Stoltenberg, whose role has now been expanded to co-executive editor, went many extra miles to bring in “Busting Mister Short Eyes,” the wrenching and finally triumphant story of activist Nikki Craft’s crusade to put a child rapist behind bars. Phyllis Chesler (“The Dead Man Is Not on Trial”) pored over trial transcripts to detail the injustice and lack of mercy shown to women who kill in self-defense. Magazine pro and veteran feminist Julia Kagan only heard about that meeting — but it didn’t stop her from joining the reinforcements and accepting the post of co-executive editor.

It’s exciting for women to discard socially-conditioned pretenses of self-doubt and timidity and find we can focus and refocus on the work at hand in the face of cowardly anonymous threateners who would love to permanently dismantle feminist efforts. The FBI may show a friendlier face at the moment, but history has shown us that Big Brother will not save us.

At On the Issues we have only ourselves and our readers to rely on. Fortunately, that’s plenty!