Cult of Boredom
By Axel Stanovsky
Nestled away in a beige, masonry building on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley, the corpse of a cold-war “cult” limps into the future long after the death of its founder. Their name is the National Labor Federation (NATLFED), although they front as the Bay Area Alternative Press (BAAP) in Berkeley, the Western Service Workers Association (WSWA) in Oakland, and various other community organizations in cities around the country.
Though they keep an intentionally low profile, the following can be pieced together from resources provided by the Cult Education Institute, a declassified FBI file, and a relatively exhaustive piece by SF Weekly from 2009.
NATLFED is a communist network that grew up in New York in the 70’s. Rumors and allegations of abuse swirled around the group, until the mid 1990’s, when their founder died and an illegal police raid uncovered $42,000 cash, and 49 antique firearms. Ultimately no charges were filed, and NATLFED went quietly back to work.
Oakland resident and substance abuse counselor, Mikhaëla Beaudet-Debois, told me about a friend who started off volunteering part-time at WSWA, but was quickly convinced to live at their West Oakland Headquarters and volunteer 40 hours per week. Then, Beaudet-Debois lost touch with her friend, “We were doing a multiple stage tattoo but she just never showed up for the third session.”
Months later, Beaudet-DeBus saw her friend at First Friday in Oakland, recruiting for WSWA. “She looked insane. It looked like she hadn’t slept in days. She had big bags under her eyes and seemed frantic,” Beaudet-Debus recalled. “It just made me really sad, because she had just graduated from nursing school, and now she didn’t even believe that if she became a nurse, she would be doing any good.” Later on, another friend had joined a similar organization: the BAAP, but had quit after Beaudet-DeBois, looked them up on the Internet and discovered a link to NATLFED.
The Heart of Drabness *
On a gloomy Halloween night, BCC Voice writer Sabrina Sellers and I scheduled to volunteer at the BAAP. Ignoring the accusations of brainwashing and bumfuzzlery, we entered their nondescript headquarters as storm clouds descended on streets full of costumed children, eagerly hustling for their candy.
Once inside we were greeted by Kathy, the volunteer coordinator. She gave us our orientation. Sellers and I took turns reading page after typo-ridden page of antique labor union doctrine. I tried to stay alert, to guard my subconscious, but there were no pictures, or breaks and the room was warm. My attention wandered to the left-wing propaganda on the walls.
“Absolutely nothing we do here is illegal,” Kathy cheerily snapped me out of my daze.
When orientation was over, Kathy introduced us to the handful of other elderly people busily shuffling around the building. Hal, a quiet man and one of the founders of the press, guided us around a complex of narrow hallways. In each room, yellowing office furniture, supported stacks of unfiled papers, books, and archaic computers.
Hal set up their 120-year-old offset press to perforate fliers he was preparing for BAAP’s holiday party. We watched, and handed him things, following him back and forth through aisles of broken printing machines. We moved clutter from one surface to another as needed to access the tools for the job. After nearly an hour, we had proudly perforated eight sheets of blank white paper.
As Sellers and I prepared to leave, I thanked Hal for showing us the press. He perked up and asked a strange question, “Do you know why bees make their combs with hexagons?”
I fumbled with the question, until he eventually bailed me out, “It’s because they fit together. Like a…”
“Like a grid?” I asked.
“Like a grid,” he smiled, nodded and folded his hands on his belly.
With that, we left, emerging back into the crisp sprinkles of the evening. We were confused. The BAAP seemed harmless. The bizarrely slow experience sort of made us feel sorry for Hal, Kathy, and the others. It was a little bit like, if they just had our help, they could be something. That’s when I remembered a warning from the East Bay Express’ 1982 article, “Shadow Politics,” “Don’t ever underestimate them. That’s the worst mistake a person could make.”
*Names of private citizens were changed for this article.