By Michael Letwin
I recently learned from Aron Kay, a movement veteran from L.A. (now living in Brooklyn), that Steve Orel died in July. I hadn’t been in touch with Steve for a long time, but the news hit hard.
In 1969-1970, during the height of the antiwar and radical movement of the Sixties, Steve, then an activist at University High School, became mentor to a group of radical students at Emerson Jr. High.
We liked Steve because he was fun, but also because — despite our age — he took us as seriously as we took ourselves. I have a particularly vivid memory of him around that time, rounding us up and driving us to the Board of Education downtown to support a high school walkout in East L.A.
By 1971, we Emerson kids were now at Uni, working with Steve, Alan Zweben and other college-age activists in projects like the Westwood Liberation Front and the Midnight Special Bookstore, then at 1335 1/2 W. Washington Blvd. (now Abbot Kinney Blvd.) in Venice. Steve and Alan staffed the L.A. office of the National Lawyers Guild in the Long March building at 715 S. Park View: It was there, in November, that we produced the first issue of our revolutionary underground high school newspaper, the Red Tide.
We first-generation Red Tiders — Karen, Cindi, Cyndi, Jack, Robin, Richard, Howard, Laurie, Molly, I and others — were pretty much inseparable from Steve and Alan. We swam at Steve’s parents’ house at 522 Warner. They drove us in their old Ford Econoline van to innumerable events including those connected with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Indochina Peace Campaign, the Pentagon Papers case, the Wounded Knee occupation and the coup in Chile.
On March 14, 1972, Steve showed up as our legal advocate when hundreds of students occupied the Uni administration building to protest suppression of the Red Tide.
In May 1972, we were protesting in front of Nixon reelection headquarters at 1670 Wilshire Blvd. when Steve, Ron Kovic, Joan Anderson and others were beaten and/or arrested. On September 27, 1972, we were marshals and legal observers together to protest Nixon’s visit to the Century Plaza hotel.
In June 1972, some right-wing nut-jobs got on TV to denounce the Red Tide as “purely Communist propaganda, interspersed with four letter words, birth control advice and a graphic description of a gynecological examination including a labeled diagram of female genitalia.” Having tracked down our mailing address at the Guild, they accused Steve and the NLG of being behind the Red Tide.
After a long fight with cancer, Alan died on May 30, 1973. Soon, we were on divergent ideological paths within the revolutionary left, though a shared orientation toward workers and people of color ultimately led some Red Tiders to Detroit, and Steve to Birmingham.
I didn’t see Steve again until a Red Tide reunion in 1993. He was the same great combination: political dead seriousness, warmth and irrepressible humor. I miss him.
[Steve’s wife, Glenda Jo, can be reached at: WeAreTheWOO@aol.com]
Some photos and momentos: http://picasaweb.google.com/mletwin/SteveOrel?authkey=zTgdxjuhR4I
More about Steve’s life and death: