New Left Activist
August 22, 1949|
San Francisco, California
|Alma mater||University of California, Berkeley, History 1991 University of California, Santa Barbara, Psychology 1976|
|Known for||Weather Underground, 60 Minutes Interview with Dan Rather, COINTELPRO|
Matthew Landy Steen (born August 22, 1949) is a former member of Weather Underground Organization, Students for a Democratic Society and Yippies, a New Left activist and editor of Berkeley Tribe in the 1960s. In 1972 he was indicted on federal conspiracy and bank robbery charges to finance radical leftist Weatherman activities, sentenced to a ten-year federal prison term and became the first member of the Weather Underground imprisoned in the United States. He was later found to be a target of COINTELPRO's illegal federal campaign to disrupt New Left anti-war and militant black organizations, as subsequently revealed by the Watergate burglaries, the Church Committee in 1974 and the break-ins at Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offices in Media, Pennsylvania and Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1971.
After his release Steen quickly returned to community activism, was elected to the Isla Vista Municipal Advisory Council, in Santa Barbara, then sponsored the Council's resolution to place None of the Above  on the local election ballot — the first time this voting option had appeared on an election ballot in the United States, sparking renewed interest in electoral ballot alternatives such as preferential voting, ranked-choice and instant-runoff voting.
Steen was featured on the lead segment of 60 Minutes, "Fake ID", in an interview with Mike Wallace, first airing February 1, 1976. This was the first time a former Weatherman had ever appeared on national television He was queried about false identities and traveler's check fraud.
Among the many viewers were future President Jimmy Carter, who commuted Steen's convictions under his amnesty program for draft resisters, acting to "heal the nation". Another person watching was David Byrne, composer for the rock band Talking Heads, who wrote the popular song "Life During Wartime" to memorialize the 60 Minutes episode.
Steen attended Mission High School, growing up in the city's first post-World War II housing project. His father enlisted in the United States Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, serving in the Pacific Theater, and as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean hostilities. His mother served in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) auxiliary during World War II and his uncle, Sherman Block was elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County in the 1970s. His younger brother Scott Steen is a jazz trumpeter and session man with Royal Crown Revue, recording on more than 20 albums. Twice married, he has two children by adoption, Kahlio Landy and Aukhia Latisha. Steen resides in the Mission District in San Francisco working as a community organizer and policy advocate around social justice, anti-poverty, supportive housing and homelessness issues.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Early political activities
- 3 Berkeley Tribe and underground newspapers
- 4 1969 SDS convention and Weatherman
- 5 1976 60 Minutes interview
- 6 Logistical support for Weather Underground
- 7 Prison term
- 8 Federal grand juries and COINTELPRO
- 9 Legacies
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
In April 1964 Steen was caught up in the civil rights demonstrations and sit-ins organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to protest discriminatory employment practices by the many auto dealerships on Auto Row in San Francisco. His father was a manager at the Cadillac dealership, target of the protests; when questioned by his son, the elder Steen explained that he was not prejudiced because he hired blacks to wash his cars. When asked why there were no black auto salesmen, the young Steen received a derogatory response, whereupon he walked out of the dealership and joined the picket lines circling the sidewalks and four corners of the intersection. He was 13 years old at the time and later ostracized for joining the demonstrators after they invaded the dealership and held a mass sit-in. Steen returned and was arrested with 150 others, including Sterling Hayden, charged with the status offense of juvenile delinquency and remanded to the California Youth Authority.
Sunset Strip riots
Living in Hollywood after his release in 1966, he was arrested during the Sunset Strip curfew riots for a curfew violation with other underage youth, a cultural snapshot in time preserved by Stephen Stills in his song "For What It's Worth" performed by Buffalo Springfield. The Sunset Strip curfew riots, also known as the "hippie riots," were a series of clashes that took place between police and young people on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California, beginning in the summer of 1966 and continuing on and off through the early 1970s. On 12 November 1966, fliers were circulated by Steen and others along the Strip inviting people to demonstrate later that night. A protest rally was held in front of Pandora's Box, a popular club venue, on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights   The Los Angeles Times reported as many as 1,000 youthful demonstrators, including Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, being arrested and handcuffed. Steen was one of the underage protesters led away in handcuffs aboard waiting LA transit buses, along with the future co-stars of Easy Rider. Steen was later transported to a juvenile facility in Sylmar.
- "For What It's Worth," performed by Buffalo Springfield, often mistakenly identified as an antiwar protest song;
- "Plastic People," by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, a satirical commentary on the street mix and police harassment happening nightly in front of such teen club venues (or discotheques) as Troubadour, Pandora's Box and Whisky a Go-Go.
These youthful demonstrations represented the first instance in the United States of disaffected white youth rising up in force to confront police harassment and repression of counter-cultural values and lifestyles, a chapter that the early gay rights movement would later emulate to great effect during the seminal Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City, spearheaded by homeless gay youth and patrons of the historic Stonewall Inn.
Early fine arts
He interned with Rolling Stone magazine in 1968, during its infancy at the original headquarters in San Francisco but soon migrated to Berkeley Tribe as a graphic artist, photo-editor and reporter working with Robert Crumb, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin and other illustrators using photo engraving, linotype and mimeograph machines as well as primitive woodcuts and silkscreens. Two years earlier Steen worked with Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso in a Mission District printing collective, producing the photolithography for the original Fillmore Auditorium psychedelic concert posters.
Shortly after, Steen was doing layout for Allen Cohen's local version of the underground press, San Francisco Oracle, helping develop the then-revolutionary split-fountain rainbow inking technique with Michael Bowen to create op-art and psychedelic newspaper covers and center-spreads.
This procedure involved placement of makeshift wooden dams in the ink fountain and using them to feed different colored inks simultaneously into the fountain, producing a rainbow effect on the paper stock. Steen also helped pioneer the use of line screens for use in the covers of his subsequent work with Berkeley Tribe, a technique used in the avant-garde and surrealist art movements and later adopted by underground newspapers throughout the world.
Before his political involvement, Steen was described as a hippie flower child, attending the original love-ins and Gathering of the Tribes ( from which the subsequent Rainbow Gathering developed) that were held at 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park in 1966-67, hosted by Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Baba Ram Das and other new age icons.
He was friends with Augustus Owsley Stanley, who gave Steen his first LSD experience in the long-time beat generation hang-out at Vesuvio's, in North Beach, in the form of a sugar cube, before it was made illegal at the dawn of 1967. Nicholas Sand, underground chemist to the counter-culture and father of orange sunshine, introduced Steen to mescaline. Through this portal he would maintain a decades-long relationship with various guises of Brotherhood of Eternal Love. He was featured in a 1968 photo-essay volume on the Bay Area hippie and free love movements with Sondra Locke and later worked with Grateful Dead on the Death of the Hippie ceremony held in the Haight-Ashbury during the siren days of the summer of love.
Early political activities
Merritt College bookstore takeover
After his release from detainment on the heels of the Sunset Strip riots, Steen enrolled at Merritt College in Oakland, soon joining Black Student Union and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). There he met Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Angela Davis and other Black Panther Party (BPP) members. He was soon expelled for helping organize the seizure of the college bookstore, holding faculty hostage and distributing the contents of the bookstore in a free giveaway to the student body. Over the objections of Progressive Labor Party members, Steen was elected to lead the local SDS chapter, working with the BPP on rallies to free Huey Newton; in late 1970 Steen worked with Yale University student rallies to free other BPP members indicted for conspiracy and known as the New Haven Black Panther trials. In response to this action, and the college's proximity to the headquarters of the BPP on Adeline Street, college trustees decided to relocate the campus in 1969 to the Oakland foothills in order to close off access to potentially militant new students from the "black flatlands"; during grading operations at the new site Steen and other students sabotaged earthmoving equipment repeatedly during raids in the middle of the night.
Black Panther Party free meals
Steen became involved in numerous civil rights and community organizing projects including the Free Breakfast for Children program run out of a small Baptist congregation by the Black Panther Party during 1969 and 1970 in West Oakland; Assata Shakur, then known as Joanne Chesimard, also worked there alongside Bobby Seale and the Merritt college students, including Steen. From that experience, he helped establish the first Berkeley Soup Kitchen in 1969 with members of the Diggers and interfaith church leaders, evolving into what is now known as Quarter Meal, Berkeley's largest homeless feeding program.
People's Park riots
Steen became involved with the People's Park struggles as a reporter with Berkeley Tribe  with Frank Bardacke, Stew Albert, Judy Gumbo, Art Goldberg and Michael Delacour. These efforts culminated in the planting of People's Park on nearby vacant university property. This expropriation of property was a counterpoint to the earlier eminent domain process the university had initiated in 1967 as part of its Long Range Development Plan for expansion. During violent confrontations with local police over the next few days, Steen and 120 other students were shot by police, one student, James Rector, killed, and another blinded by a shotgun blast. The entire leadership of the organizing committee, including Steen, were arrested several times and, at one point, helicopters flew over the campus dispensing airborne tear gas. The local sheriff, Frank Madigan, admitted that some of his deputies (many of whom were Vietnam War veterans) had been overly aggressive in their pursuit of the protesters, acting "as though they were Viet Cong."
Political activism at Berkeley
Steen returned to Berkeley after the national SDS convention in Chicago organizing, with Tom Hayden, the Community Control of Police election campaign speaking at Berkeley rallies, resulting in a novel voter initiative on the local ballot that, if passed, would have required police officers to reside in Berkeley as a condition of employment. This was the first time such a ballot measure had ever appeared in the United States; it was defeated at the polls by a margin of 54% to 46%.
In another political campaign he marshalled the resources of Berkeley Tribe in support of fellow staffer and Yippies co-founder Stew Albert’s campaign for election as Sheriff of Alameda County; Albert garnered 65,000 votes but failed to unseat the incumbent sheriff Frank Madigan. Steen had also worked to elect Robert Scheer, editor of Ramparts magazine, to a local congressional seat, later won by a new Congressional candidate Ron Dellums in the next election two years later, wresting control from the interests of the McClatchey newspaper empire and the political machine of William Knowland, ushering in an era of progressive liberal politics in the San Francisco Bay Area, which lasts to this day.
He was also busy with developing public support for the student strikes at San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley. During the longest student strike in American history (1968-69 academic year), Steen was present when the college president, semanticist and later United States Senator, S.I. Hayakawa, gained international notoriety after ripping the mounted amplified speaker from the roof of Steen's Volkswagen micro-bus, parked at the college's entrance. The strike produced a water-downed version of a Third World Studies department at the school but would serve as a prelude to and model for the Third World Liberation Front student strike the next year at University of California, Berkeley.
Steen helped initiate the beginning the Third World Liberation Front student strike at Cal Berkeley in 1969-1970, when he organized the first contingent of white students from Merritt College to form picket lines in the first weeks of the strike, actions leading to campus closure and creation of a Third World Studies (Ethnic Studies) Department, first at Berkeley, then system wide. Using lessons learned earlier in the compromising strike at SF State, this strike crippled the academic year, leading to student takeovers of campus buildings (Sproul and Dwinelle Halls) and violent confrontations with campus police. During the bitter strike Steen was injured protecting the president of the campus Chicano Student Union, Jaime Soliz, who was permanently paralyzed during the police attack. At the end of the Berkeley strike Steen went underground after being arrested for possessing tear gas canisters during the San Francisco trial of Los Siete de la Raza and firebombing a Berkeley draft board located opposite Berkeley City Hall. Later that year 20 police vehicles were destroyed in the police parking lot next to City Hall. Twenty years later, Steen was admitted to the same University campus, where he majored in ethnic studies and history.
Draft boards and Venceremos Brigades
After accompanying Bernadette Devlin, a leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, on her Bay Area fundraising tour at the Winterland Ballroom for Berkeley Tribe, Steen covered the 1970 police murder trial of Los Siete de la Raza (the La Raza Seven), then an international cause celebre. Steen was arrested for possession of tear-gas bombs in the courtroom during the trial in the Hall of Justice, and became a fugitive, disappearing as a member of the Weather Underground. Steen was concurrently under indictment for possession of Molotov cocktails in Alameda County, suspected of firebombing the local draft board in Berkeley soon after the Kent State shootings. Two years before, with members of War Resisters' League, he had broken into the same draft board and poured cow's blood into Selective Service System file cabinets containing more than 2500 pending draft files of young men waiting for the draft lottery to learn whether Vietnam was the next stop. The day before Steen had burned his draft card at an anti-draft rally organized by Vietnam Day Committee, along with 50 other students and workers.
Earlier that year he was invited to join the second contingent of the Venceremos Brigade to assist Cuba in meeting its quota for sugar cane production and in defiance of the American ban on travel to the Marxist nation; he traveled to Mexico City but was rejected by staff from the Cuban Embassy for being "too counter-cultural", having long hair and "looking like a hippie drug user". The Cuban government was adamant in its opposition to use of illegal drugs, one aspect of the Weatherman agenda Cuban officials vehemently objected to.
Berkeley Tribe and underground newspapers
Berkeley Tribe was organized by former staff members of the Berkeley Barb, who had gone on strike against the Barb's owner Max Scherr over the issue of "pornography" and sleazy ads that Scherr accepted to pay the printing bills. The staff walkout resulted in the corporate formation of Red Mountain Tribe and the first issue of the new weekly Berkeley Tribe. Steen worked as advertising manager, photo-editor, reporter and co-editor in chief from 1969-1971. He worked with Stew Albert, Marge Piercy, Diane di Prima, Art Goldberg, staff photographers Stephen Shames and Jeannie Raisler, Phineas Israeli, Judy Gumbo, Lee Felsenstein, Hank Dankowski and others writing, editing and developing a political direction and distribution network for the underground newspaper.
Early in Tribe's history, staff voted to remove the staff masthead for security reasons but not until after the paper's contributors became known to the FBI and local police. Berkeley Tribe's two editorial and production offices, located on old Grove Street, were firebombed and subjected to sniper fire on several occasions during its publication heyday. During the People's Park civil unrest Steen and most of the paper's staff were arrested and the offices were attacked by local police using pepper gas, injuring staff and halting production temporarily. The offices of other members of the underground press in Seattle, Austin, New Orleans and Atlanta including Helix, Austin Rag and The Great Speckled Bird were similarly attacked.
Radical feminism and male chauvinism
In early 1970 the first of several staff splits happened, when the paper's female staff objected to the placement of sexist, offensive advertising to raise revenue to pay the printing bills. The issue was a full-page ad by Jovan that portrayed women in a subservient role. It was at this point that many of the more chauvinist male staff resigned. Advertising was restricted and revenue began shrinking. From then on, New Leftists controlled the direction of Berkeley Tribe. The Jovan ad was rejected. Similar struggles were occurring in underground newspapers around the country, including Chicago Seed, New York's Subterranean Rat and East Village Other, created by a similar staff walkout from Village Voice, and Sabot in Seattle.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), Berkeley Tribe had a weekly circulation of 45,000 in 1969, which grew to a high point of 60,000 copies, the largest-circulating underground newspaper in the country. The printer was a stolid Republican who said he "firmly believes in freedom of speech, no matter the political content."
Red Mountain Tribe commune
Steen lived in the Berkeley Tribe commune on Ashby Avenue, with other production and editorial staff. During his two years with Berkeley Tribe, the commune hosted numerous fellow travelers, bands, fugitives, film directors, and actresses including Jean-Luc Godard, Jane Fonda, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Sondra Locke, members of the Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, the MC5, Love, Moby Grape, Sly and the Family Stone, Grateful Dead, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, numerous members of the Black Panther Party and Hunter S. Thompson. He worked with Hunter, showing him some of tools of participatory journalism during the People's Park riots in Berkeley; this style of news reporting, along with the Yippie approach to social change, would profoundly affect Hunter's future approach to media sensibilities, with his invention of gonzo journalism.
The commune was a leased two-story residence above College Avenue, with a secluded backyard where the cover photo of Tribe's well-known Call to Arms issue was staged. The commune served as a way station for leftist political fugitives and the base of operations for International Liberation School, a self-defense weapons training center that had a gun range in the Berkeley Hills.
Berkeley Tribe served as one of the cultural incubators and underground social hubs where art, politics, revolution, music, sex and drugs intersected in the late 1960s, fertilizing the seeds of change first sown by returning veterans during the post-war years.
Radicalization of underground newspapers
During the spring and summer of 1970 Berkeley Tribe became more radicalized, as the war in Vietnam and the assassination of black leaders both continued. The paper first published a quote from Governor Ronald Reagan on its cover, "If It Takes A Bloodbath", expressing his sentiment toward student radicals. Then the newspaper published the entire "Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla" by Tupamaros revolutionary Carlos Marighella, in its first English-language North American edition.
After this the paper published a centerfold expose on FBI infiltrator Larry Grathwohl, supplied by Weather Underground.
Staff split of Berkeley Tribe and feminist takeover
At this point Berkeley Tribe published on its cover a photograph of a murdered Berkeley police officer with the heading "Blood of a Pig". In protest of this cover, more than half the staff and editorial board resigned, and the underground newspaper was taken over by the radical feminist faction. According to Steen, this cover was one of his editorial regrets; he was responsible for producing these newspaper covers and for the earlier "Call to Arms" issue. Subsequently Berkeley Tribe began publishing original communiques from the underground, including the Declaration of War written by Bernardine Dohrn and others claiming responsibility for the numerous bombings and arson attacks around the Bay Area. One of the last issues Steen produced was the special Black Panther Party issue promoting the United Front Against Fascism Conference in Oakland. Steen, sought for firebombing a Berkeley draft board office and possessing tear gas bombs in a San Francisco courtroom, soon went underground. The Berkeley Tribe disbanded within two years.
Other newspaper activity
Steen worked with the Ann Arbor Argus and Rat Subterranean News, publishing poetry and prose while underground, including Ode to Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, How Does It Feel to Be Inside An Explosion and Airports. He was also a correspondent with Liberation News Service and worked with the Underground Press Syndicate in Chicago, the SDS Radical Education Project and North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). With NACLA he co-wrote Every Soldier a Shitworker, Every Shitworker A Soldier, widely distributed within the New Left student community
Steen was also a guest editor at Dock of the Bay in San Francisco. He briefly joined the staff of The Leviathan, a monthly socialist publication edited by Todd Gitlin, from which Steen was fired for writing a non-Marxist review of Oh! Calcutta at its West Coast premiere in North Beach, the first off-Broadway show with an all-nude cast.
While with the Yippies he contributed a chapter on phone hacking to Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book and contributed to development of the Blue box, the original "hacking" device; Ramparts magazine later published the schematics which caused the entire print run to be seized under court order by the local telephone company.
Steen contributed original content to William Powell's first edition of The Anarchist Cookbook, with a recipe for Molotov cocktails mixed with ivory soap flakes, another for postering with special glue that lasts forever and another for free telephony, all reprinted from Tribe'. At the time of its publication, one FBI memo described The Anarchist Cookbook as "one of the crudest, low-brow, paranoiac writing efforts ever attempted."
Participatory journalism offered an opportunity for journalists to cross over from the objective to the subjective, being directly engaged with "making the news". Steen and other writers, journalists and academicians took up participatory journalism. Some others included Jane Alpert and Robin Morgan (briefly) in New York City with The Rat; Tom Forcade in Chicago with Underground Press Syndicate; Susan Stern in Seattle with Sabot and Weatherman; Marilyn Buck with Third World Newsreel in San Francisco and Black Liberation Army; Ulrike Meinhof in Germany with konkret and Red Army Faction; French philosopher and Marxist theoretician Régis Debray in Bolivia with Che Guevara; Robert Comeau, history professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal with Front de libération du Québec; and Carlos Marighella in Brazil and Uruguay with publication of Minimanual of the Urban Guerilla and Tupamaros. Hunter Thompson, whom Steen had worked with in Berkeley and Los Angeles, would take this in a different Yippie-inflected direction with gonzo journalism, reporting on and partaking in capitalist, bourgeois excess as a form of political theater and cultural hijinks.
1969 SDS convention and Weatherman
Steen attended the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) convention in Chicago as a West Coast delegate, voting to elect the Revolutionary Youth Movement praxis slate and form Weatherman, along with over 600 other delegates. When he arrived on the leased 727 jet at O'Hare Airport, passengers were greeted by a disguised Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) van with agents filming them. While there, he attended plenary sessions of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) who were gathered several hundred strong in caucus, keeping Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) leadership, including Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, Mike Klonsky, John Jacobs, Jim Mellen and others apprised of PLP tactics prior to the dissolution of SDS on the final day of their last national convention. In the afternoon, RYM 1[clarification needed] members held a sudden rump session on the floor then seized the platform and dais with the help of some local Black Panthers, announcing a mass walkout to an adjacent hall for the election of new SDS officers. The new interorganizational secretary was just the day before vetting journalists entrance to the convention on the sidewalk in front of the center. Members of PLP, Young Socialist Alliance, Socialist Workers Party and an opposition RYM 2[clarification needed] faction loudly protested and there were some fistfights; but the new Weather leadership did not allow the organization to be usurped by outsiders.
The RYM factions were the largest and most activist by far, being composed of long-term members of SDS, some with the student group since its inception in 1962 with publication of the Port Huron Statement. The political schism within RYM was fueled by a myopic false dichotomy in organizing strategies on what best practices were most effective in creating a revolutionary vanguard : traditional Marxist–Leninist approaches to awaken the working classes or a more proactive Maoist method of praxis to facilitate the emergence of a collaborative neo-vanguard of youth and workers. Ultimately, both strategies were proven ineffective, although it was Weatherman who captured the public imagination, accelerating an end to the war then becoming irrelevant as a vanguard in the post-draft era. The action faction RYM 1 slate of officers were elected by voice acclamation, but the nascent Weather leadership announced an adjournment to a nearby African-American church basement that night to start planning for the future and a new day for "bringing the war home". SDS remained the largest national student organization in name only, having reached a zenith of nearly 200,000 members in a seven-year span. Since then, no national student group has reached the size of SDS.
One of the pivotal events at the convention was the bravatura performance of members of the Illinois and Chicago BPP one morning. Several dozen armed, bandoliered members marched down the aisles to center stage informing the more than 1400 students present that "the only place for women in the revolution was on their backs." Then the assembled Panthers led a chant, "pussy power", among themselves to, at first, stunned disbelief. They repeated this chant over and over. Pandemonium erupted with a mass of booing voices, many in anger, some of those crying in abject disappointment at their icons in the flesh. This faux pas male-chauvinist stance had two direct results on subsequent Weatherman gender relations. First, the male-dominated movement had imposed a false ceiling on student feminists forcing a reexamination of the validity of gender roles; this open and hostile public display of overt chauvinism from "heroic figures" was like cold salt water in the face of the young female students gathered; militant feminism was awakened in the radical left as a result. This stance of black militants belied the official party line of BPP and later Fred Hampton would criticize the planned Days of Rage as "custeristic".
Secondly, this event spurred many young women to develop new feminist theory consonant with revolutionary ideals and underground life. In popular song, this egregious male conduct led to the cynical lyrics in "Woman Is the Nigger of the World", written by John Lennon in New York City in 1972, words that Steen himself penned and published in Ann Arbor Argus; the Argus was an underground newspaper run by the White Panther Party (WPP). One of his partners was the national Minister of Culture of the WPP who earlier was arrested for assaulting police officers in the Gold Coast during the Days of Rage and sentenced to 90 days in Cook County Jail  for which Steen composed Airports, published in Berkeley Tribe and reprinted in underground newspapers nationally.
His collective included a member of the Ohio Weather collective, which earlier lost a Kent State member in the Manhattan tragedy, Terry Robbins; she had traveled to Cuba with the first contingent of the Venceremos Brigade to harvest sugar cane, participated in the infamous high school "topless jailbreaks" in Pennsylvania and Michigan by "Weatherwomen" and later moved to San Francisco as part of the Weather collective in that city. While in Chicago, Steen had also come to know John Jacobs and Diana Oughton, who died prematurely in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion a few months later. That explosion was a watershed event in the development of militant tactics; from now on they would abjure the use of human violence, kidnappings and anti-personnel actions - as adopted by underground student organizations in Europe, Canada and Japan - in favor of inflicting property damage to symbolic national political targets and police agencies, one because of the war and the other because of assassinations of black leaders. Working out these political contradictions consumed nearly a year of intense underground discussion amongst various Weather collectives resulting in the eventual ejection of John Jacobs and other extremists from Weather Underground Organization in the spring of 1970 at the Weather Bureau summit in Mendocino.
1976 60 Minutes interview
Interviewed in Beverly Hills in mid-1975 by Mike Wallace, Steen responded to questions about identity theft (he possessed ID of at least 150 people) and how he purchased and reported stolen some $50,000 to $100,000 in traveler's checks, while still being able to cash the originals. This was the first time an ex-Weatherman had ever appeared on the CBS news show. Within nine months of this interview, Mark Rudd surrendered to authorities, although he was unaware of Steen's appearance. Over the several years the entire Weather leadership resurfaced to face a variety of charges, in two separate highly-publicized group surrenders. At the end of 1977, Weatherman actions on the West Coast ended with the indictment of several Weather members for conspiracy to bomb the offices State Senator John Briggs His conviction was commuted by President Jimmy Carter in late 1977, over one year after appearing on CBS's 60 Minutes.
Transcript of Steen's portion of the segment: [From the Congressional Record. May 24, 1977] "60 MINUTES" MAY 16, 1977—"FALSE ID" (Note: the episode first aired February 1, 1976 and re-aired on May 16, 1976. It never aired in 1977 and the actual title is "Fake ID")
. . . MIKE WALLACE: Walking proof that the process really does work is this young man, Matthew Steen, alias Eric Gilbert Dietz, alias T. Swingle Frick, III, alias Romez Tormey. In 1970, while a student at Berkeley, Steen went underground as a member of the militant Weathermen organization. Before he was arrested in 1971, Steen says he had obtained a hundred-fifty different identities—almost all of them courtesy of various Government agencies.
What kind of documents are we talking about?
MATTHEW STEEN: Birth certificates, notarized birth certificates, driver's licenses from various states, occasionally Social Security cards, and other superficial types of identification, like librarv cards, et cetera.
WALLACE: And you had no real difficulty in doing this?
WALLACE: By the time the FBI got to him in 1971, Steen acknowledges he had used various fake ID's to rip off the Bank of America. He'd buy a set of Travellers' Checks; then, a couple of weeks later, claim they'd been lost or stolen—and get replacements. He had doubled his money.
How much did you make this way?
STEEN: Somewhere between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars.
WALLACE: Among the official documents Matt Steen obtained under assumed names was a U.S. passport. Well, for decades, the head of the passport office in Washington has been keenly aware of the fake ID problem—Frances Knight.
Ms. FRANCES KNIGHT: This has been going on for years. Identify fraud is nothing that—that is new in this Administration or in this decade. And yet, nobody—including the—the brains of the Department of Justice—have been able to come up with anything to stop it. It's been increasing. . . .
Logistical support for Weather Underground
Steen's primary role with Weatherman was the establishment of a network of "safe houses" for the underground and raising more than $1 million in bail funds to pay off bonds for those arrested during Days of Rage and the earlier The Day After protests over the guilty verdicts reached in the trial of the Chicago Seven. Steen and Nancy Rudd provided valuable logistical support for the underground with training classes in the acquisition of bulletproof false identifications, driver's licenses, vehicle registrations, official passports and manipulation of bank funds to finance underground activities while avoiding detection.
None of the identity papers were obtained from graveyards (an urban legend) but rather from newspaper microfilm records and society page announcements providing information used to obtain birth certificates from government offices around the country. From these certificates, social security cards and voter registration papers were obtained to apply for driver's licenses and, ultimately, passports. False identification was used by Marilyn Buck and members of Black Liberation Army to effect the prison break of Assata Shakur years later. He was responsible for the acquisition of new vehicles later used by members of the Black Panther Party Harlem chapter for unknown purposes; all vehicles were purposely acquired through Hertz Corporation to spite the presence of J. Edgar Hoover on the company's Board of Directors. One such vehicle was used in the raid on the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971.
These actions sustained Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army members underground for many years. after his own arrest on federal bank robbery and conspiracy charges. During Steen's time underground, his collective stayed with housewives, civil engineers, sorority sisters, defense industry workers, well-known musicians and the common people. He was one of the few Weathermen ever captured over the twelve-year period members of Weather Underground Organization (WUO) were fugitives. During that time WUO claimed more than 34 bombings of government and corporate offices throughout the United States; only a handful of these "urban guerrilla war" actions were ever solved by the FBI. Together with other underground collectives, nearly 2,000 domestic acts of arsons and bombings around the nation still remain unsolved to this day. These included campus ROTC offices, banks, police stations, corporate offices, state and federal buildings, embassies and other symbols of institutional power.
Cambridge Women's Center
Steen and Rudd provided the initial seed funding for one of the first Women's Centers in the United States, in Cambridge, Massachusetts in early 1971. Cambridge Women's Center represented what is now called Second-wave feminism. Steen used funding sources to help fund the Isla Vista Women's Center in the late 1970s
His financing proved to be instrumental in the use of New York state water bonds to free numerous political prisoners, including imprisoned members of the Panther 21 and, in particular, Afeni Shakur, the mother of Tupac Shakur, who was pregnant with her baby when arrested on bombing conspiracy charges and being held on $1 million bail Steen was the conduit, along with a small Catholic church in Greenwich Village that he posted funds with in order to leverage state water bonds and meet her bail requirements.
Financial contributions to Steen were made by the John Lennon backup band Elephant's Memory to provide bail for members of the Piggybank Six, who earlier planted milk cans filled with benzene in entrances to several First National City Bank branches in 1970 in Manhattan. One of the people Steen could not bail out was Sam Melville, later convicted and sentenced to Attica State Prison then murdered by prison guards during the Attica prison uprising in 1972. Steen was able to assist in providing bail funds for the release of Jane Alpert who had been arrested with Sam Melville and others in several bombings of corporate headquarters including ITT, Anaconda Copper and United Fruit Company.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, John Lennon was investigated for his association with and support of New Left radicals, including Steen, in New York City in 1971 and 1972 by the FBI as part of the ongoing deportation proceedings pending in Lennon's case.
Death of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark
The killing of Fred Hampton, Chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his deputy, Mark Clark during a raid of the apartment by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police galvanized many Weatherman to seek armed struggle as the only solution remaining to battle the American government and its local police counterparts. Steen was deeply affected by this event, having met with Hampton and Clark in Chicago earlier at the SDS convention and shortly after at a black student conference at UCLA. There was a palpable change in attitude in the antiwar and black power movements after the killings. "A new tilt to Weatherman ways and means, away from anti-Vietnam actions and more exclusively toward black liberation objectives occurred with these murders. A more subtle but intense social anomie with authority, structure and postwar values had developed among white, educated middle-class students with invested empathy and altruism tempered by a strong dollop of disillusionment," according to Steen.
Steen became a major proponent of the new Weatherman theory of white privilege, or "white-skin privilege", and the emerging school in radical psychology that considered racism as a form of mental illness unfairly excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual by the self-interest of white professionals in control of repressive institutions that utilized psychology as a mechanism of social control over minority groups to preserve privileges of race and class. Weather Underground strongly felt that white-skin privilege oppressed and objectified American blacks and other ethnic minorities. These ideas were derived from the writings of Frantz Fanon, a radical black Algerian psychiatrist, who posited that mental illness in black Algerians was the result of internalized racial stereotypes from the French colonialist as a form of racial and class conditioning that preserved the white-skin privileges of the colonial bourgeoisie.
Armed struggle and direct action
While underground, Steen was investigated for several federal conspiracies including an attempted 1971 triple bombing of the embassies of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in Washington, D.C.; sabotaging the I-395 beltway during the 1971 May Day demonstrations in D.C. organized by Student Mobilization Committee; the earlier bombing of the U.S. Capitol building; the break-ins at FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania; the San Francisco Police Department Park Station bombing; and throwing a tear gas bomb at Vice-President Spiro Agnew's motorcade during his visit to Boston in March 1971. For this last action, Steen was placed on the U.S. Secret Service watch list, where he remained throughout the 1980s. Steen had resided in Santa Barbara, less than 20 miles from the home of the Western White House during President Ronald Reagan's two terms of office from 1980 to 1988.
Bank robberies and conspiracy
In late 1971 Steen was arrested in a bank in Tukwila, Washington and charged with several dozen counts of bank robbery and conspiracy in multiple indictments issued in Seattle, Portland, Denver, Boston, New York, Detroit, Chicago and other cities. Coincidentally, this was the same bank branch that members of the Seattle Weather Collective, which grew out of Seattle Liberation Front and the local underground newspaper Sabot (short for sabotage), attempted to rob three years later, resulting in a police gun battle that killed Weatherman Bruce Seidel and snared remaining Weather collective members. Steen had worked with former staff of Sabot including radical feminist Susan Stern, whom he met earlier at the Chicago SDS convention, prior to his own capture in Seattle.
He was then shuttled by federal marshals between Seattle and Portland, subpoenaed by special federal grand juries, which operated as "fishing expeditions" to trawl for information regarding the whereabouts of Weather Underground political fugitives, based upon leads developed from illegal sources under the nefarious and unconstitutional domestic spying apparatus, revealed by the ineptitude of Watergate burglaries, as what has since become widely known as COINTELPRO.
In federal court he was represented by lawyers from National Lawyers Guild, including Irving Paul, lead counsel, who had himself been imprisoned some years earlier for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify in front of HUAC during the infamous McCarthy hearings.
Steen was implicated in operating a massive national financial fraud with travelers' checks that was estimated by the FBI to exceed $1 million. He later plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges and sentenced for two consecutive five-year terms, as a result of his non-cooperation with the U.S. Justice Department and federal grand juries. He had obtained funds from hundreds of banks from around the country, using a staggering number of aliases including William Hollis Coquillette, William Talbot, James Bombardier, Tariq Aziz and many others, but was never convicted of bank robbery.
While in prison Steen was cellmates with Alvin Glatowski, who was convicted in 1969 of the only peacetime mutiny in American history after he and Claude McKay hijacked a loaded military ammunition ship at gunpoint, in what is known as the SS Columbia Eagle incident, off the coast of South Vietnam in early 1970. The merchant marine ship (loaded with more than 100,000 tons of munitions) was taken to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The following day Central Intelligence Agency operatives sponsored a coup d'état deposing Lon Nol as head of state, installing Prince Norodom Sihanouk, retrieving the ship and rescuing 13 merchant seamen held in a Phnom Penh prison. His partner Claude McKay escaped, joining the Khmer Rouge. Steen defended Glatowski on a charge of attempted escape from a federal prison, losing in a split 2-1 decision in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals One of the panel members, Judge Shirley Hufstedler, voted to reverse based on Steen's arguments in the appellate brief. He was thrown into solitary confinement after the court's decision.
While in Lompoc federal prison, Steen also received death threats from members of Hells Angels. The notorious motorcycle gang had publicly vowed to "kill any Weatherman" they found "as a favor to the police because they were communist". Similar death threats had earlier been issued to anti-draft protestors and the Vietnam Day Committee in 1967 in response to Stop the Draft Week demonstrations in downtown Oakland which blockaded the region's military induction center.
Steen organized an Inmate Advisory Council and led work stoppages in the prison industry electronics assembly plant in coordination with Women Strike for Peace. The federal prison manufactured wiring and electronic components for military use in its missile launches from Vandenberg AFB, adjacent to the prison complex. Soon afterward the Inmate Council was disbanded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and its members transferred to other prisons in far-flung locations. Again, Steen was thrown into solitary confinement and threatened with transfer to the federal psychiatric facility in Springfield, Missouri.
While at the Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc he ran the law library, working as a paralegal and freeing more than a dozen marijuana and hashish smugglers under the 1969 United States Supreme Court decision in United States vs Timothy Leary, which declared the federal Marijuana Tax Act unconstitutional. In 1973 Steen was adopted by Amnesty International as one of the first political prisoners in the United States, sponsored by Robert Langenfelder, the only person ever convicted in the infamous burning of a branch of Bank of America in Isla Vista, California in 1969, one of the more famous chronicles in the annals of American student activism in the latter 20th century.
Steen became the first member of Weather Underground apprehended and one of a handful of youthful white student revolutionaries, many of them feminists, to be imprisoned in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Others included Sam Melville, Jane Alpert, Judith Alice Clark, David Gilbert, Alan Berkman, Kathy Boudin, Linda Sue Evans, Cathlyn Platt Wilkerson, David Fine, Dwight Armstrong, Karleton Armstrong, Susan Saxe, Katherine Ann Power, Laura Whitehorn and Marilyn Buck.
Federal grand juries and COINTELPRO
After Steen's capture, twin special federal grand juries were empaneled in Portland and Seattle by Nixon appointees Robert Mardian (head of the Internal Security Division of the U.S. Department of Justice) and Guy Goodwin (special prosecutor from Washington, D.C.) to investigate:
- his activities with the International Liberation School in Berkeley (as a weapons' instructor);
- the whereabouts of Weather Underground leadership (Weather Bureau), safe houses and plots to free him in Portland, Oregon;
- conspiracy to bomb the embassies of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in Washington, D.C.
- break-ins at FBI offices in Elizabeth, New Jersey and Media, Pennsylvania (the latter burglary resulting in the release of more than 1000 secret files detailing internal agency operating procedures to implement a massive and illegal Nixon-era COINTELPRO domestic spying apparatus to later be more fully revealed to the American public by the ineptitude of the Watergate burglaries);
- the U.S. Capitol bombing in 1971 (along with Leslie Bacon and others);
- throwing a tear gas canister at the motorcade of Vice-President Spiro Agnew and
- attacks on police, national guard and military facilities by Weather Underground and other radical leftist underground groups.
These grand juries became widely referred to as "fishing expeditions", trawling for information about radical leftists with legal tools of dubious constitutional means. Steen was held in contempt several times as were numerous friends and family members who were subpoenaed to testify about Steen as part of a then-still-vaguely-understood illegal federal COINTELPRO domestic spying program used to neutralize white and black radicals in the 1960s and 1970s. Federal grand juries operated as one of the retributive arms of this federal effort to disrupt and demoralize the anti-war and civil rights movements in the postwar era in America.
Many witnesses were forcibly escorted and sequestered by the U.S. Marshal's Office from as far away as New York City but all refused to testify and were held in federal contempt, sentenced to the 18 month life of the special federal grand juries. The contempt charges were appealed by the National Lawyers' Guild to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; charges were vacated and the case remanded to the federal district court in Portland, forcing the U.S. Justice Department to drop its investigations. The FBI had refused to divulge its sources of information about Steen and Weather Underground. These sources were subsequently determined to be illegal "black back operations", including wiretaps, mail openings and residential burglaries by FBI field agents.
This court decision eventually became the basis for federal charges being dropped against Bernardine Dohrn and other most-wanted Weatherman leaders as well as the U.S. Senate to later convene the Church Committee investigations into illegal domestic counterintelligence activities throughout the 1960s and 1970s by the CIA and the FBI
Steen was serving his ten-year term at the Federal Bureau of Prisons U.S. Penitentiary in Lompoc, California when the first of several convicted Watergate Seven defendants arrived at the prison "Honor Camp" in 1974 to begin their own sentences.
Steen was released from federal prison in Santa Barbara, was twice elected to the Isla Vista Municipal Advisory Council, and later became Executive Director. Steen founded the Isla Vista Legal Defense Center, still in operation in 2013 as part of University of California, Santa Barbara. He also spearheaded efforts to spur community reinvestment by banking institutitions, leading to the State of California adopting the Community Reinvestment Act allowing government agencies to make deposits into credit unions. Steen served as a vice-president on the Board of Directors of the first community federal credit union in the country. He coordinated grant proposals to fund a variety of local service organizations, including the Free Medical Clinic, Women's Center, Youth Projects and Children's Center and worked with numerous political campaigns in judicial and legislative races
None of the Above ballot
In Isla Vista, Steen worked on an effort to place a new voting option, None of the Above (NOTA), on the election ballot, the first example in the United States of this electoral ballot alternative, in what Steen described as an "anti-institutional Yippie up-yours." Steen and fellow council member Walt Wilson introduced this motion which was adopted unanimously by the municipal council
This action proved to have a ripple effect, with the State of Nevada adding this option to the state ballot in 1986. In 2000, a citizen initiative to place None of the Above on the state ballot in California was certified by the Secretary of State; however, the proposition was voted down 62% to 38% in a $1 million political campaign in the general election.
This electoral approach since has been adopted by several countries internationally, with the latest entry being the Supreme Court of India in 2013 ordering the inclusion of NOTA on EVMs (electronic voting machines) in national and state elections.
Incorporation of the City of Isla Vista
During his time with the Council, Steen authored the second proposal for the incorporation of a new City of Isla Vista, submitted to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for placement on the local ballot; the agency refused, on the basis of Isla Vista's "transient" student population and lack of a commercial tax base. He then became involved with a county split proposal, to cut Santa Barbara County in half. Soon he was involved with a new incorporation proposal to form a City of Dos Pueblos out of Goleta Valley, and was appointed to the Goleta Valley Planning Council. This was the largest unincorporated urban enclave in southern California; in 2003 it became the newest city in the county, though with Isla Vista outside its boundaries.
Continuing the war on poverty
Steen became an anti-poverty official for many years in Santa Barbara County operating countywide full-service energy conservation, solar, housing and employment training programs for low-income residents with Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County, the local Community Action Program. He also implemented the initial federal pilot Access California program, removing architectural barriers to the disabled in public places throughout the County. Steen initiated a low-income solar energy program in the county that was replicated by Community Action Programs throughout the State; for this he was elected vice-president of the Association of Southern California Energy Programs, appointed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Southern California Gas Company and Southern California Edison to their respective state-mandated residential services advisory committees; before returning to San Francisco he was selected to operate the City of Santa Barbara's initial homeless shelter program in conjunction with Coalition on Homelessness.
Aboveground public service
Steen worked with Mensa, becoming Vice-Local Secretary of the Central California chapter and Chair of its Scholarship Committee. In 1980 Steen also went into the vinyl record business, starting Audiophilia Records in southern California, winning national awards from Goldmine magazine and contributing to several international price books. The Federal Communications Commission granted Steen a lifetime first-class radiotelephone (broadcaster's) license which he used to work at KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara and an early pirate radio station.
He then attended law school, registering with the State Bar; questions of "moral turpitude" arose over Steen's past affiliations with the Weather Underground and he did not take the bar exam. This occupational disability also plagued Bernardine Dohrn in Illinois and David Fine in Oregon. During this time Steen was the recipient of several "poison pen letters" published in the local mainstream press under pseudonyms, including actress Gretchen Corbett, attacking his earlier Weatherman affiliations. Poison pen letters were one of the tactics utilized by the FBI in its COINTELPRO campaign to discredit and marginalize black and white student radicals, well into the late 1970s. These continuing problems with federal law enforcement stemmed from his earlier involvement with the burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 with the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI resulting in the release of 1,000 secret files outlining the COINTELPRO campaign, and cascading into the indictment of senior FBI officials, nullification of many federal grand jury contempt citations and dismissal of charges against Weather leadership in 1973.
Steen was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to a seat on a State Energy Conservation committee with oversight of federal Residential Conservation Service (RCS) funds in the 1980s; he was a founding member of that RCS Advisory Committee. In his earlier post-prison days, Steen had been treasurer of Students for Jerry Brown for President in 1976. He was then elected to the board of trustees of a community college district in Santa Barbara. Later, Steen was picked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy National Center for Appropriate Technology, training low-income CAP staff throughout California in developing low-income solar service programs in partnership with the State Office of Economic Opportunity.
Steen returned to Berkeley, attending the University of California, twenty years after he first applied. In Berkeley he was involved with Copwatch, contributed to the student anarchist publication, Slingshot! , and led anti-Iraq invasion marches taking over Highway 101 and the Bay Bridge in 1992. He then worked in executive management as a legal administrator for a major New York Stock Exchange corporation, Zenith Insurance Company, for several years. This prominent company had no knowledge of his former notoriety or ties to Weather Underground Organization; among his co-workers were a number of retired FBI special agents. The Director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, was also serving on the Board of Directors of the same corporation at the same time. That same year, Steen was attacked and beaten, during an attempted robbery, with baseball bats at his residence, suffering severe head trauma, speech and vision problems.
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