Commie Fiends of Brooklyn

The Village Voice/November 26, 1996
By Alisa Solomon

A complete list of the weapons stashed away by the Provisional Communist Party in its Brooklyn headquarters, and a map detailing their hiding places, has been in the hands of the FBI for more than a decade. Nonetheless, the police professed shock at finding the pile of dusty armaments in their raid last week, and Mayor Giuliani fulminated at a press conference, warning that the group's "enormous cache of weapons . . . can be used for mass destruction."

Cult experts and ex-members of the group (commonly known as the National Labor Federation, or NATLFED) have pointed out that the weapons, which have not been fired for decades, served merely as props to impress recruits. The mayor and the tabloids fell for the charade--and then tried to top it by waving their catch before the public as anti-terrorism trophies. "It's all theater," says Jeff Whitnack, who donated his own legally acquired AR-15 to the group when he was a member in the '80s. "Guns are widely available and easy to obtain in this culture. If they didn't have an arsenal and wanted to commit violence, they could go out and get one in no time."

Indeed, ex-members of NATLFED, parents of current and recent members, and experts on cults say that the PCP poses the greatest danger to its own devoted followers, and they can't understand why only guns make a story. "We've been passing information to the press for years, trying to get them to expose the various fronts the group uses to suck people in and the techniques it uses to get them to stay," says Irene Davidson, whose teenage daughter lived at the Carroll Street headquarters for three years, until fleeing last fall. "We've set up lots of interviews between reporters and ex-members, but nothing ever came of it."

Though some former members say they neither saw nor heard about the arsenal, they did see the late charismatic leader of the group, Eugenio (Gino) Perente, flash a pistol tucked into his waistband. "It was part of his costume, just like his beaded turquoise collar and his cowboy boots," explains one woman who was drawn into the PCP through its latest front, the Women's Press Collective. (She requested anonymity, fearing that NATLFED would harass her with menacing phone calls, as they had after she resisted their entreaties to leave her husband and move in with them.)

Though Perente declared war on the state of California in the early '70s, and was arrested on illegal gun possession charges in Long Island a few years later (the charges were dropped because the weapons were found in an illegal search), his group has never committed any acts of violence--at least not outside its own residence. According to Janja Lalich, a West Coast expert on political cults, "We have collected many allegations of physical abuse from members who left, such as people being beaten and assaulted by Gino. But we haven't heard of any in recent years, though of course the verbal and psychological violence has continued."

Since Perente's death in March 1995, Margaret Ribar--a two-decade veteran of NATLFED and leader of its West Coast division--has taken over and instituted some reforms. After arriving unannounced from California last year, and barreling into the Carroll Street headquarters flanked by a pair of bodyguards, she loosened some of the restrictions that prevent members from visiting their families. According to Davidson, who saw her daughter at Carroll Street every few weeks under Perente's rule, signs posted in the headquarters instructed members, "Your feelings have no significance. Keep them to yourself." Ribar has taken them down.

Still, Lalich believes that many of Ribar's reforms are merely tactical responses to outside criticism. After Perente's death, for instance, his grandiose fabrications of a glorious past in the left were exposed, and some members and their relatives began to press for answers. "Letting kids go home a couple of times a year keeps parents quiet as well as helping to convince some wavering members that they're not really in a cult," Lalich says.

A high proportion of the group's most devoted members (including the three arrested on weapons charges last week) are women, but feminist principles don't seem to have infused its identity. "It's a particular kind of cult formation," says Chip Berlet, a well-known expert on totalitarian groups. "You have this strong alpha male surrounded by women. With Perente in particular, you have a guy who had trouble making a distinction between sexuality and armed revolution: he sought sex from women to prove, along with his fantastical history, that he was the most potent political leader in America. Those were penis weapons in the closet."

Once caught like flies in the amber of such a charismatic male, women in cults have the hardest time escaping. The structure plays upon the socially ingrained notion that women's importance is rendered through the male to whom they're attached. Such women have little confidence that they can--or should--function independently. And if they can muster such hopes, they are quickly dashed by fears of failure. "How are you going to get a job?" asks one woman, who tore herself away from the group. "How do you explain that 15-year gap in your resume?"

Some critics suggest that the Women's Press Collective was so named precisely to attract women, though its work had nothing to do with women's issues. Josh Karpf, an editor who wanted to put his book skills to progressive purposes, volunteered at the WPC for more than a year in the early '90s. He recalls printing flyers for the group and, most of all, helping to produce Invest Yourself, a listing of volunteer opportunities NATLFED wrested from unsuspecting church groups and used to promote its fronts.

Like Perente before her, Ribar delivers lengthy, loopy, Leninist lectures. And like any newly promoted bureaucrat, she has surrounded herself with trusted supporters, bringing in people from California to staff Carroll Street while shuffling other personnel around. Many former Brooklyn residents have been sent out to the "entities"--the satellite organizations that purport to provide services for the poor in Long Island, western Massachussetts, Rochester, and elsewhere.

It's not unheard of for a cult formed around a charismatic leader to outlive him, and if any such group could, it would certainly be a one like NATLFED, with its highly bureaucratized Marxist-Leninist structure. And last week's raid could empower the group by feeding its fantasies of being victimized by government vendettas. True, the publicity may destabilize some of the "entities," whose donors and volunteers may think twice about lending their support, but nothing eggs on revolutionaries like a mayor declaring how dangerous they are. personality cult founded by the late Gerald Doeden, a northern California con man. He assumed the name Eugene Perente-Ramos and acquired a following from the early 1970s to his death in March 1995.

A spokeswoman for the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association at 203 Oakdale Avenue in Medford declined an interview. She acknowledged that her group is not a nonprofit organization.

Cult-watchers say the group is also active in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. They say that in Oregon, besides the Rogue Valley fronts the group has an office called Friends of Seasonal and Service Workers in Portland.

But exactly what the organization does is unclear.

Irene Davidson, a New York resident and mother of a former NATLFED member, said the group controls its members with heavy workloads, little sleep and veiled threats. Davidson said the best of the goods received, and all of the money taken in, went to support the national organization.

"It's an organization that was founded as a very imaginative man's game, an elaborate and very destructive game which existed to provide absolute power, sex, drugs, everything to Perente," Davidson said.

The alleged diversion of donations to a hidden agenda didn't surprise Father Mark Cach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford.

"That fits exactly into what I had them pegged," Cach said. "We have tried in the past to do some cooperative work with them, but we have always been very cautious."

Cach said his suspicions were aroused years ago when the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association first requested help with a fund-raising drive -- but refused to let him look at its books.

"I mean, I could understand how you don't want to show your books to anyone and everyone, but come on, as a donor I should have access to your books," Cach said. "You see good stuff brought in, and you see basically that they keep the good stuff for themselves -- and I've heard that 100 percent of the money that comes in goes to the organization."

Cach said he recently was contacted by longtime Seasonal Workers spokesman Chris Day seeking free use of copiers, but he agreed only to a meeting.

"Personally, I doubt the poor are being helped that much," Cach said.

"I think also they are very deceptive."

Christian Mathisen, an outreach coordinator at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, said his church has nothing to do with the Seasonal Workers, but provides Thanksgiving baskets to them just as it does all organizations requesting them. The list of recipients includes mainstream nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul.

"We do take it on faith that they do get it to those in need," Mathisen said.

Although St. Mark's is across the street from the Seasonal Workers' Medford office, Mathisen said the church has had little contact with the organization.

That's not unusual. Although the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association has been active in the Rogue Valley since the early 1970s, other said they too know little of its inner workings.

Wanda Powell, a spokeswoman for the American Association of University Women, said the local AAUW chapter has donated clothes to the group for years.

"I had the impression that they were a nonprofit organization," Powell said. "If this isn't the case, we would probably not be donating."

Jose Arreguin, formerly head of the Convenio de Raices Mexicanas, a farmworker cooperative based in Phoenix, said that the Convenio occasionally agreed to coordinate activities with the Seasonal Workers. Members frequently invited him to meetings, but he declined.

Arreguin said, "I don't understand very well what is their status. I understand that they are not a nonprofit. They don't have a 501c(3). They have individual donors only. I know they have helped some families."

A staffer at the group's Medford office who identified herself only as "Barbara" did not deny connections with the National Labor Federation or Provisional Communist Party, but she said she had not heard of them.

She refused repeated requests by a reporter to speak to a manager, while at the same time insisting on hearing first what the questions would be. Several times, she wrote individual questions onto a piece of paper and carried them into an adjoining room. When asked again if a reporter could speak to the person in the back room, she replied, "Well, she's gone upstairs now."

Finally, she said the organization requires reporters to fill out interview forms before granting interviews, but she could not produce the form. Instead, a form asking the "general purpose" and "specific categories of fact" arrived at the Mail Tribune the next day.

Jeff Whitnack, a former NATLFED member and San Francisco Bay Area freelance investigative reporter, was among the first to document the group's activities, including a 1984 background piece in Public Eye, a publication of Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.

"They don't do formal interviews," Whitnack said. "That's just part of their policy."

Whitnack said the three Rogue Valley organizations are NATLFED fronts, and that he had been in contact with Rogue Valley members while he was briefly involved with NATLFED in Oklahoma.

Whitnack pointed to a March 20, 1995 obituary in which the New York Times was tricked into eulogizing Perente as a legitimate activist with ties to the United Farm Workers. The Times retracted the obit the next day, stating that Dan Fiske and Christopher Day, who provided much of the information for the obituary, had exaggerated Perente's UFW connections and covered up his cult activities.

Christopher Day is the same Chris Day who has long been a local spokesman for the Rogue Valley groups, Whitnack said.

Cult-watcher Irene Davidson said a group of NATLFED ex-members had identified Lon Christiansen among the handcuffed NATLFED members photographed after the raid on the organization's Brooklyn headquarters. Christiansen has been active in the Northwest Seasonal Workers Association in Medford.

Davidson said the group of NATLFED watchers maintains a Web site on the Internet to coordinate information, but parents whose adult children remain in the organization are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.

She said those reprisals can take the form of punishing assignments and social ostracism for the children, or cutting off communications to the parents, whose correspondence is censored.

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