PHILADELPHIA—On Thursday evening, surrounded by a throng of reporters with cameras and soggy from the light rain, Joey Johnson performed the same trick he’s been performing for three decades. From a few rows back, it was briefly possible to see the flame that was licking the American flag he held in his hand, but the fire went out after just a moment or two.
A man next to Johnson at the center of the scrum shouted slogans that would be familiar to anyone who has attended a left-leaning protest in America. The flag stands for “the slavery put down on African people,” he said. “It stands for the massive deportation that has ripped apart families and disappeared people; it stands for the genocide of the native inhabitants, the wars for empire, the drone missile strikes.” Then, he said something else: “We support an actual revolution, a revolution that overthrows this system, and we in the Revolutionary Communist Party are organizing for that actual revolution at the soonest possible moment. People need to get with that revolution. They need to check out the leader of that revolution, Bob Avakian.”
Johnson, the plaintiff in the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, is the man Americans have to thank for the Constitutional right to set fire to their own country’s flag. After he was arrested for flag-burning outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, he pleaded his case up to the nation’s highest court over a period of five years and won. For that, journalists and anyone else interested in the sanctity of free speech in America owe him enormous gratitude. Along with Carl Dix, the man who shouted with him outside the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, Johnson is also a longtime member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Maoist organization whose aims include both the overthrow of the U.S. government and the promotion of the name and image of their leader, a mysterious figure frequently compared to L. Ron Hubbard.
Bob Avakian, known to his followers as Chairman Bob, founded the Revolutionary Communist Party in the Bay Area in 1975. Four years later, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer. He fled the country to France and spent the next three decades underground, in self-imposed exile, despite the charges against him having been dropped in 1982. Though party outsiders would likely not so much as recognize his name, Chairman Bob is something like a revolutionary deity to his followers, a status solidified during his long absence from the scene. Party literature distributed online, at demonstrations, and at a chain of leftist bookstores operated by the RCP presents communist revolution as the only true method for bettering the station of working people the world over, and Avakian as the only man capable of bringing this revolution about.
One RCP publication, penned by Avakian himself, advocates for the building of “a culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization around the leadership, the body of work and the method and approach of Bob Avakian” as a key facet of the party’s platform. “The possibility for revolution, right here, and for the advance of the revolution everywhere, is greatly heightened because of Bob Avakian and the leadership he is providing,” reads another page devoted to Avakian on the RCP website. “And it is up to us to get with this leadership…to find out more about Bob Avakian and the Party he heads…to learn from his scientific method and approach to changing the world…to build this revolutionary movement with our Party at the core…to defend this leadership as the precious thing it is…”
I approached Johnson after the flag-burning with mixed feelings, wanting to learn about both his story as a historic free speech defender and his apparent devotion to Avakian’s cult of personality. He spoke in vague terms when I asked him about the significance of Texas v. Johnson, but was warm and animated when talking about communism and the aims of the RCP.
“We believe in the emancipation of humanity,” he said. “We believe in getting humanity beyond class distinctions, beyond a few rich countries in the world dominating and exploiting the planet, whole continents. We believe in getting humanity beyond patriarchy, male supremacy. We believe in getting humanity beyond the division in the world between people working with their minds and people who only slave with their hands their whole lives.
“It’s essentially what Karl Marx was talking about in the Communist Manifesto, but like any real science, it develops, and that’s the project that Bob Avakian has been working on. It’s a radical project, man.”
If Avakian and his followers want a revolution, they’ll probably need a few more people than those who showed up to the Democratic National Convention this week. Johnson and Dix were joined by about a dozen other RCP members on Thursday, all of them wearing black t-shirts bearing Avakian’s initials and some carrying images of his bearded visage, looking suspiciously like Alberto Koda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara. Many attendees were clearly lifelong activists like Dix and Johnson, deep into middle age. They marched back and forth across a corner of Philly’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park before the flag-burning began, and were met with mixed support and skepticism from a crowd of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein supporters that was also assembled there.
[There was a video here]
Early on, a young, black Donald Trump supporter named Lawrence Petyon accosted the marchers. “How many people died under Mao Zedong, in just one communist regime?” he shouted. Later, he adopted the voice of an RCP member: “We about Mao! We about Joseph Stalin!”
Peyton later told that me he’d traveled from his home in New Jersey specifically to demonstrate against the RCP and Black Lives Matter protesters, and that he’d recently done the same at an RCP demonstration in New York. He also told me that he believed the RCP was funded by a network of liberal actors like the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign, and the financier George Soros, in hopes of fomenting political discontent in America. These contentions are as outlandish as the RCP’s devotion to Avakian; on the other hand, he’s on solid ground invoking the millions of famine deaths under Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the forced labor and executions in Stalin’s gulags. As Mark Oppenheimer noted in a Boston Globe editorial about the RCP in 2008, Avakian has written that China under Mao was “wondrous,” and that Stalin had an “overall positive historical role.”
Peyton and a few other anti-communist demonstrators added some drama to the evening, but overall, it was less chaotic than the RCP’s showing at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week, when a phalanx of police officers stormed into an intersection where Johnson and others were lighting a flag, arresting them and clearing the assembled crowd before the demonstration ever got off the ground. In Philly, a few dozen cops were assembled at the scene, but none intervened in the spectacle. I asked an officer who was taking drags from a thick cigar as he watched what he thought of it all. “It’s not bad. It’s peaceful,” he said. “Everything’s been peaceful so far.” Another officer admonished me to pick up the poncho I’d accidentally dropped on the ground, and nearby, a man in a green hat stood dreamily next to an alpaca he’d evidently brought along to witness the demonstration. A Green Party member, wearing a toga, led a few others in a chant of “Jill Not Hill!”
After a week of crashing the Democratic Party establishment’s big party, Bernie Sanders supporters suddenly looked like the straight crowd. On Thursday, a small group of them seemed more interested in disrupting the flag-burning than the cops were. One woman, standing a few yards away from Johnson and the thicket of media members, started to shout: “We are a socialist party! We are not a communist party! We want nothing to do with this totalitarian bullshit!” Her t-shirt made an even more explicit Guevara allusion than the RCP’s signs, superimposing her Vermont revolutionary hero’s face directly onto the Cuban’s.
I met a woman named Penny, a Bernie supporter who emigrated from Scotland to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, right around the same time that Johnson was taking his flag-burning case through the courts. “Listen, I’m a bleeding heart, and even for me, watching the flag burning is painful,” she said. “But ultimately, it’s just a flag. It’s a piece of fluff.” I agreed, I said. One of the great things the American flag stands for is our freedom of speech as Americans, but it is only a symbol, and the right to exercise that speech is more important than the sanctity of the flag itself.
Penny told me about a group of demonstrators who’d showed up to the park the night before, wearing all black and aggressively storming police barriers. “To me, that’s dodgy, like they just want us to go crazy,” she said. For a group like the RCP, whose aim is revolution in the streets, that probably is a part of what they want, I replied.
“I think that’s my aim, too,” she said. “The American dream used to be that even if you had to work two jobs, you could buy a house and get by. Now you have to have three jobs. People don’t even know what the American dream is anymore. I used to work three jobs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was mostly to support all the alcohol and cocaine,” she added with a laugh.
“I want to blow up the whole system, too,” she said. “I’m just less militant about it.”
It’s obvious that the members of the RCP, like Penny, feel passionately about their cause; in the cases of Johnson and Dix, they have gone to jail for and devoted their entire lives to it. But their singular fixation on Avakian, a man clearly as intent on furthering his own fame as he is on social uplift, is difficult to square with their collectivist ideals.
Avakian, now in his 70s, briefly came out of hiding in 2014, when he participated in a public talk on the topic of “religion and revolution” with the black scholar Cornel West. Since then, he’s slipped almost entirely out of the public eye once again, and his evasiveness and mystery seem designed to maintain what small bit of notoriety he has.
I asked a bearded RCP member in Philly where Chairman Bob was, and he continued staring past me silently, as if I hadn’t addressed him at all. I asked another, and he said, “That’s not the kind of question we’re going to answer.” I managed to get it out of Dix that Avakian was not in Philly for the convention, but Dix would not say where his leader actually was. Had he gone back underground?
“He’s leading the party. It’s not a question of exile. It’s not a question of underground. He’s leading the party, and because of the importance of his leadership, we got people like me and others, who are out here on the streets,” Dix answered.
Later, as the scattered party members got into formation to begin a second round of marching, I asked Johnson to describe Avakian as a man. Most people who know Chairman Bob at all only know him as a face on a handbill or a byline on a manifesto, but Johnson knew him personally. What was he actually like? Instead of talking about Avakian’s infectious laugh, or his strong character, Johnson zeroed in on what he saw as the chairman’s historical significance. “There’s no one else like him on the planet. He’s on the level of a Lenin or a Mao. He’s a revolutionary leader of that caliber,” he said.
As we parted ways, Johnson shook my hand, met my eyes, and urged me to do my own digging into Avakian and the RCP. I had a lot of work to do, he said, but if I kept my mind open and avoided thinking in stereotypes I might come around to his way of thinking.