The Outlook Interview: Sammie Abbott Talks to Henry Allen; At 77, Mayor Sammie Abdullah Abbott of Takoma Park remains the enfant terrible of local politicians. A scourge of the mighty since the Depression, he has picketed and petitioned, stood before bulldozers and the House Un-American Activities Committee, defied not only FBI harassment but the Montgomery County School Board, and won for his city the nickname of the "People's Republic of Takoma."At the same time, he has figured large in sprucing up the seedy, landlord-ridden suburb long known as "Tacky Park," though he has little use for much of the upscale crowd that this transfiguration has attracted -- he describes his new constitutents as "those people whose wives use their maiden names." As for the hippies who preceded them, he calls their flower-power radicalism "a crock." He is the grandson of Arab Christian immigrants named Abud. They fled Turkish persecution in Syria, settling as merchants in Ithaca, N.Y. Early in the Depression, Abbott became radicalized and turned to union organizing. He has been a steelworker, a hod carrier and a staff sergeant in the Army Air Corps. In recent decades he has supported himself as a free-lance commercial artist. He moved to Takoma Park in 1940. Somewhere along the line, gadfly became folk hero and Abbott was elected mayor in 1980. He has turned this job into a bully pulpit indeed, leading the fight to declare Takoma Park a nuclear-free zone, urging that the town become a sanctuary for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees and traveling to Japan to observe the 40th anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He believes Takoma Park is setting an example for all America: "If we can't do it here, there's no hope for the nation." He has three children, and lives with his wife Ruth in a house full of books and artwork he executes in an accomplished social-realist style. Henry Allen is an editor of Outlook and a resident of Takoma Park.
Q: You once told a reporter from The Post, "I'm a perpetually mad person. I hate injustice. As far as I'm concerned I'm living to fight injustice, I'm living to fight the goddamn thing, I'm too mad to sleep." Why are you so angry?
A: If you had been born in the Depression, if you had history from the 4th grade on up through high school, if you had been involved in the struggles that took place during the '30s for the establishment of Social Security and unemployment insurance, for the establishment of a newspaper guild -- .
Q: But you didn't grow up in the Depression. You were 21 when the Depression hit.
A: What the hell are you talking about? I had to leave school. I was six hours short of a degree, (studying) architecture and arts at Cornell. I never went back.
Q: Were you angry before 1929?
A: I was subjective. I figured I was an artist. Introvert.
Q: Are any of your brothers and sisters angrier than you are?
A: I'm the only one. We have a family trait, which is to stick to what the hell you are doing. As a result, one sister and two brothers are extremely successful business people.
Q: But they are not political.
A: Everybody's political. One of them, George, is a supporter of Reagan, personal friend and a money raiser for him, multimillionaire, retired. We respect each other. He knows what my motivation and interests are.
Q: It seems remarkable to me that here we have Sam Abbott who has spent his whole life union organizing, standing in front of bulldozers at the Three Sisters Bridge, blocking the North Central Freeway, being investigated by the FBI and the D.C. Police, fighting zoning, one fight after another. You are consistently called caustic, acerbic, confrontational and all in the newspapers. How does a family develop one Abbott like this and another Abbott who is a conservative pillar of the establishment, a friend of Reagan?
A: All of us were brought up in the same family, same father and mother, very committed to and absorbed the teachings. All of us have a dedication to whatever we are doing. The attitude towards what our involvement is is the same. The differences (are) to what we put that to.
Q: What were your mother's politics?
A: None. Her politics were bringing up the family. She was extremely religious. There wasn't a meal or we ever ate that didn't have a long liturgy attached to it.
Q: Moslem liturgy?
A: No, Christian, Christian Arab, Greek Catholic. It was a close-knit family. Always had something to do. We lived in a big 15-room house. I swept the sidewalk. That was my job every day, three times a day. Another one did something else so that my mother would bake two or three times a week. I did the ironing, flat pieces, you know. All of us were brought up with a task to do and, religiously, did it.
Q: Is anyone in the family more radical or left-wing than you?
Q: Where does this come from?
A: It came from my own observation. A history teacher drilled in our heads the Constitution, the 10 reasons why the United States, the colonies, had to fight for independence. I took the Declaration of Independence literally. I memorized The Gettysburg Address when I was in school. I took seriously that all men are created equal. I remember as a kid stating that to the teacher. She kept me after school and we argued for two hours. She never convinced me that that was not the case, that all men are created equal. I started from that viewpoint. I took the teachings of Christ, etc. as being guidelines for how a person lives.
Q: But it's possible to have strongly-held beliefs as you do without being as endlessly confrontational as you are. There's incident after incident.
A: That's right. I'm not a believer in pragmatic politics. I'm not a politician. I believe in crystallizing issues. My whole life's been spent on that. I'm not going to change. I think there's too much subterfuge and indirectness in our lives. I'm a believer in dialectical materialism.
Q: Are you a Marxist?
A: I believe I am. I'm not a Communist. I believe in the philosophy. What's the lineup of forces? What's the relationship of forces? Everything happens within the general framework of constant change and flux. There's nothing absolute in life, nothing. I don't believe I've been on very many losing issues. I got patience. I'm a believer in what we're fighting today, really guerrilla warfare. I mean social warfare, different class interests involved in our society and I'm in no more hurry than they are. There are no definite victories or defeats as long as you keep plugging away. You build up support and eventually you win.
Q: Were you in the army?
A: I put in right after Pearl Harbor. I wanted in the Marines. They wouldn't take me on account of my eyes. Finally got in the Air Force, I was in intelligence in a fighter squadron.
Q: How'd you get along with your sergeants when you were in boot camp?
A: I had no problem. In fact, I was constantly being put in for officer, which I did not want. I met, down in Mississippi, officers who were in the movement, (the) building of the CIO before the war. The movement for collective security, trying to get the United States to involve itself with other countries, to gang up and have economic sanctions against Hitler and rising fascism. I was a premature anti-fascist. Some of the officers (had) fought in Spain. American brigades with that experience were ostracized -- put into KP duty and things like that.
Q: So, you did not find yourself practicing confrontation in the army?
A: Hell, no, because I was a believer in the cause, which was the defeat of Hitler and fascism. I thought that was a just war and I still think it was a just war. I was a perpetual volunteer. If there was any gung-ho man, it was me. The struggle, the fight against the fascists cut across race, class, no other example like that in the country. I have no problem working with people that are marching in the same direction.
Q: But the practice of democratic politics involves getting along with people you disagree with.
A: I don't believe in mutual backscratching. I don't give a damn about anybody agreeing. My wife doesn't agree with me. We have constant discussions.
Q: Does she ever tell you to take it easy, stop fighting, relax for a while?
A: She never said stop fighting. Hell, no! She comes from a father who was a steelworker and a bricklayer. For six goddamned years, he didn't have a nickel coming in. He was blacklisted for organizing. Died of silicosis. She couldn't even go to her high school graduation because she had a dress and glasses which identified her as getting help from whatever welfare they had at that time. She couldn't do it. A kid 16- years-old is very sensitive about peer pressure. Everybody that needed glasses and got help -- welfare -- had the same wire-rimmed glasses. You could tell right away that they're on welfare.
She was the first person hired by the NMU, National Maritime Union. She's got a working class background.
Q: What did your father do for a living?
A: My father had a grocery store and dry goods store, merchant.
Q: And he got hurt in 1929?
A: He got hurt financially as did everybody.
Q: What did you do after you left Cornell?
A: I organized the unemployed right away.
Q: Who was employing you to do this?
A: Nobody. Myself. I never got a nickel even when I organized the unions -- steel, chemical -- .
Q: How did you eat?
A: I sold watercolors. They had a category (called) voluntary organizing. The state had no money, the city had no money. They had no welfare really in those days, no social security, unemployment. I saw a scuffle and this man got thrown out of this building and I knew him. I asked him what the matter was and he said that he'd lost his railroad job. He went there asking for some help, his family. So I said I'll come down to your house and talk to you. I went down that night and he had like 50 people. And they told me they all had a mutual problem -- no help of any kind. So I said let me see what the hell I can do. I made an appointment with the mayor and he said sure, Sam, come on up. I went to him. I came out of city hall and there must have been 500 people waiting to see what the result was. I came out and I spoke; first time in my life.
I heard that New York demonstrations on the unemployed were taking place -- big, huge demonstrations. So I told the people, "Let's get together this weekend at the fairgrounds to see what the hell we can do." We had 1,000 people at the fairgrounds. I said, "We can do what they did in New York, get together and organize and ask the congressman to help the city and the state overcome this impasse." From that (we) organized the unemployed councils. From that I went to farmers. I helped organize farmers.
Q: For no pay?
A: No pay. I never got a goddammed nickel out of the movement, ever. I was able to get by.
Q: Why do it at all?
A: Who the hell knows why? Because I felt something goddammed wrong with the country when, for instance, my father lost his business and house for $6,000. He had a loan with the bank. All business people deal with short term loans. We're sitting around the table, all seven of us. We had another two or three kids with us, you know, friends. We all had a huge table and plenty to eat and the phone rings, day before the goddammed demonstration, first one ever in the city of Ithaca, N. Y. The bank called me and said "Sam, I want you to come down tomorrow morning. I've got a job for you."
I knew the man who owned First National Bank. I said, "I didn't apply for any job. I don't want be a banker."
He said, "Yeah, but we like you, we want you." So I paused and I said, "Look, you're trying to buy me off."
They foreclosed on my old man. They talked to him to get him to dissuade me. I left home. I used to go through when I was organizing Elmira which is 35 miles away or riding a train. I got to ride trains under the rails, on top of the boxcars. That's how I traveled. Canandaigua, Rochester, Geneva, I organized unemployed councils, WPA workers. I used to go home and peek in my window, see my family at night.
Q: Did your father feel you'd ruined him?
A: Of course that was the feeling. Later on, just before the war occurred and he was already retired, he said he agreed with what the hell I did and the necessity of the people to organize. He saw that.
Q: Did you ever think, gee, maybe I shouldn't be doing this?
A: Of course. It was like a Rubicon. And my decision was that I had to leave.
Q: How did your brothers and sisters feel when your father sat there at the dinner table saying, Sam, you've ruined my business, you've taken away my livelihood?
A: I told them I didn't take it. The bank did it. I said what they're doing, which I thought was the height of depravity, unethical and every damn thing else I could think of, was to blackmail, to try to give me a favor to divert me from what I felt was the right thing to do.
Q: You were riding freight trains around upstate New York. And you then got into the CIO?
A: The beginning of the CIO. First committee for industrial organization. I helped. Volunteer organizer. I lived with a Scotch-Irish steelworker who became the regular area organizer in steel and later vice president of the chemical workers international. I was involved in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Q: Did you go to Spain?
A No, but I had a role to play in helping them get to Spain.
Q: And what brought you to Takoma Park in 1940?
A: I was married, had a child who was 2 months old. I needed an income. I came here to become a bricklayer and I was an apprentice hod carrier and bricklayer.
Q: Why did you stop being an artist?
A: I didn't stop. I didn't do it primarily. Couldn't make a living at it. I won prizes and everything but I couldn't make a living without teaching and I didn't want to teach. I worked as a hod carrier on construction jobs. (After the war) I started construction again and it got so hot one day -- hods were 165 pounds, lugging them up scaffolds. I figured it was awful hot and humid. Well, I'll try to get a job in advertising. And I finally got one for a few bucks a week. And then I went from one small firm to the largest in the city.
Q: How long did you work there?
A: Eight years. Got fired during the McCarthy period. I was the area D.C. and Maryland coordinator for the Bertrand Russell peace petition, called Stockholm peace petition. Circulated all over the world. Asked the United States to pledge to the world it wouldn't use the bomb again. That was the object of the harassment.
Q: So what did you do after that to support yourself?
A: A couple of years I didn't have any work. People contributed to the house. And then I got a job free- lancing.
Q: How many children do you have?
A: Three. Two boys and a girl. My son's about 40. He's a doctor in California. One daughter is a self-supporting artist which is unusual. The other one works as a writer.
Q: Do they share your politics?
A: I never take votes on sharing politics. On the question of peace, what constitutes justice and injustice, all of us (agree) which I think is unusual. The involvement of one's relatives and family in any given cause is absolutely essential.