His blue eyes blazing from under the visor of his Baltimore Orioles cap, Bernie Demczuk stands amid a circle of striking prison guards in the shadow of D.C. Jail.
The 32-year-old union shop steward has masterfully brought the group of 100 to silence. He grips them, leads them. Demczuk is the organizer, the man who led the first guard strike in the city's history.
A court order forbidding the two-day-old walkout names Demczuk the defendant, and many say it is his strike.
For Demczuk, life has been a series of rough-and-tumbe causes. The first son of factory worker parents in a gritty row house area of Dundalk, Md., he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) when he was 15.
He beat up Ku Klux Klansmen at 16 and joined the left wing at 19 during the heyday years of the Vietnam protests. Since then he has championed causes ranging from the Wilmington 10 case in North Carolina to the antiapartheid movement South Africa.
Most recently, his cause has been the guards at D.C. Jail.
"I can't keep my mouth shut when I see people being hurt, no matter who it is," says Demszuk. "I just speak, write a leaflet, call a meeting, call the newspapers . . . I have no real political affiliation anymore. I just hate seeing people taken advantage of. I guess I'm a radical humanitarian."
Growing up in and around Baltimore, his father, a General Motors assembly line worker, his mother a union organizer on the line at Westinghouse, Demczuk got his training. "There were lots of strikes and a lot of family turmoil, drinking and anger. I learned that sometimes, even when everything is going against you, when you're right, you have to make tremendous sacrifices and go through pain."
He added, "I guess I learned that sometimes you have to break the law to maintain a higher one."
While he grappled with social and political issues, he was also playing football. Scholarships got him to the University of Maryland in 1965, where he starred as a wide receiver.
He became involved with the SDS through a close friend. "He taught me everything about U.S. politics, imperialism and the Vietnam War," Demczuk says. "I taught him how to catch a football."
Demczuk spent a year with a Philadelphia Eagles football farm team, the Pottstown (Pa.) Firebirds. From there, he came to Washington and was hired as recreation director of St. Elizabeths Hospital's maximum security section for the criminally insane.
There, he says, he became really "radicalized."
"It was the height of the Vietnam era protests, and I couldn't get money for any supplies for the patients. The government was spending all that money to kill people in Vietnam and none to help the people over here."
He tried to organize a union at St. Elizabeths and failed. A year later he says he was forced to resign, he thinks because he had been bringing Black Panther literature into the hospital.
He went back to school and obtained a master's degress in sociology at American University.
Efforts to become a police officer failed, and he worked for a time as a brick stacker in a factory in Beltsville. In 1976 he became a prison guard.