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Avakian was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Berkeley, California. His father, Spurgeon Avakian, was an Armenian American lawyer, civil rights activist, and judge on the Alameda County, California superior court.
As a young man, Avakian became involved with the Students for a Democratic Society at Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party. In 1968, he wrote articles for the Peace and Freedom Party's publications and in July 1969, he attended the Black Panther conference in Oakland, California. By the time that SDS split into three factions in summer 1969, Avakian was a leading member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction, and was their candidate for National Secretary. Although defeated for the top position by Mark Rudd of the faction soon known as Weatherman, Avakian was elected to the National Interim Committee. During that period, Avakian was a leading member of the Bay Area Revolutionary Union.
In the early 1970s, Avakian served time in jail for "desecrating the American flag" during a demonstration. He was charged with assaulting a police officer in January 1979 at a demonstration in Washington DC to protest Deng Xiaoping's meeting with Jimmy Carter. After receiving an arrest warrant, Avakian "jumped bail" and fled to France. In 1980, he gave a speech to 200 protestors in downtown Oakland and his police assault charges were dropped a few years later.
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- Baum, Richard (2010). China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom (1st ed.). University of Washington Press. p. 241. ISBN 9780295800219.
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- Athan G. Theoharis, "FBI Surveillance: Past and Present", Cornell Law Review, Vol. 69 (April 1984); and Peter Erlinder with Doug Cassel, “Bazooka Justice: The Case of the Mao Tse Tung Defendants – Overreaction Or Foreshadowing?”, Public Eye, Vol. II, No. 3&4 (1980), pp. 40--43.
- "Scores arrested, Injured In May Day Violence". Logansport Pharos-Tribune. UPI. May 2, 1980.
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- Unknown (December 6, 1979). "Communists get year sentence for disruption". The Daily Tar Heel. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. p. 2.
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- "Free Bob Avakian!". Retrieved March 20, 2016.
- Jay Kinney (March 2016). "Reds and Feds". Retrieved March 20, 2016.
- "The Last Maoists of Cambridge". Harvard Political Review. Retrieved March 20, 2016.