College Idealism Was Fertile Soil for Fringe Group

The New York Times/November 15, 1996
By Jonathan Rabinovitz

Williamstown, Massachusetts -- Jennifer Kling left Williams College here to join the National Labor Federation in Brooklyn with dreams of organizing the poor to create a more just world.

Instead, Ms. Kling found herself trapped in a cramped, tense apartment building, unable to walk outside. Every second was charted.

During the day, she filed papers, wrote articles and worked a phone bank, selling advertisements in the organization's publications. In the evenings, she was required to attend political lectures that would often go until 4:30 a.m., when she was finally allowed to collapse into a deep slumber in a small room with five other women.

Six hours later, at 10:30, the wake-up call would come over the loudspeaker, and Ms. Kling and about 50 other members of the group, which some have called a cult, would start the cycle all over again.

"They didn't encourage idle chatter," she said. "Time was precious. Every minute was pre-scheduled. They kept you so busy that you didn't have time to think about leaving."

It took a terrified Ms. Kling weeks to build up the courage to sneak out of the building one morning last year and take a bus home to her family in Missouri.

This was the odd world of a fringe group that had remained relatively unknown and hidden until Monday night, when police entered their Brooklyn headquarters, a cluster of buildings that group members called "the Cave," and discovered a small arsenal of guns and explosives.

The group, which at different times called itself the National Labor Federation and the Provisional Communist Party, was established by Eugenio Perente-Ramos, who billed himself as a radical labor organizer, though police and experts on cults have called him a cult leader.

Experts familiar with the group say Perente-Ramos, who died last year, had a following of several hundred in the Brooklyn complex and around the nation in rigidly organized satellite groups, known in his jargon as "entities."

While the group's stated aim was to mobilize the poorest workers to challenge the fundamental economic system, it appears to have achieved little in that arena. What has perhaps drawn the greatest attention to the group is its recruiting efforts among a very different target group: idealistic college students.

Ms. Kling, now 21, was one of many Williams College students who were approached by a front group, Western Massachusetts Labor Action, that had strong ties to the Brooklyn office. And while the group has recruited at other schools in Massachusetts and Vermont, its efforts have come under particular scrutiny at this elite private school of 2,000 students in this small Berkshires town.

For about 20 years, the local group, based nearby in Pittsfield, relied on volunteers from Williams. Although only three students, including Ms. Kling, joined the federation as full-time volunteers, a steady stream of Williams students helped canvass surrounding towns for new members, chopped firewood for the poor and attended meetings, among other tasks.

Indeed, Western Massachusetts Labor Action became almost an institution on campus and enjoyed a reputation as a sort of Salvation Army with a political edge, a place where socially conscious students could go to work with the poor. Its connection to Perente-Ramos was not readily apparent, and the local group's lead organizer was invited to economics and political science classes to lecture on the region's social conditions.

When the school would hold its annual community volunteer fair, Western Massachusetts Labor Action had a table there. One former student, Michelle Kang, noted that a class that involved doing community service included the group as one of the ways to meet the requirement.

"I remember getting phone calls all the time from them, even in my senior year, trying to get me to help," said Ms. Kang, who graduated two years ago. She got on the group's phone list after taking the community service class as a sophomore.

Yet, what the group was doing with this help is unclear.

Dr. Kurt P. Tauber, a retired political science professor who sponsored the group on campus and helped it raise money, said its organizing work had been a disappointment to him. He said the group was obsessed with forms and bureaucratic detail -- with precise instructions about where to put pencils and erasers.

While Dr. Tauber described the group as having a muddled, almost nonexistent political ideology, he noted that its bible was an organizing handbook that gave precise instructions on how to do everything from knock on a door to set up a desk. Dr. Tauber, who met Perente-Ramos in Brooklyn 13 years ago, said he was not impressed by him and did not like how he barked orders at people.

Yet Dr. Tauber, like others at Williams, saw the goals of the organization as admirable and continued to support it. And he admired the dedication of the unpaid organizers, who worked seven days a week, had no homes of their own and appeared to survive on a diet of doughnuts and coffee.

The group's standing, however, plummeted last year when Ms. Kling's experience became known and an expose in the campus newspaper, The Williams Record, publicized the local group's connections to the Brooklyn office, suggesting it was more cult than political group.

Since then, the college has moved to discourage the group from coming onto campus and tried to educate faculty members and students about its questionable background. In the last few months, the group's lead organizer has left, and its presence on campus has diminished.

On campus Wednesday night, a random survey of a dozen people revealed that most had not even heard of the group. Those who were familiar with it regarded it as something of a joke.

"They were a pretty weird bunch," said Yamelin Castillo, who graduated in June and is working here. "No one took them seriously."

The group continues to work from its storefront office in Pittsfield, occasionally distributing leaflets here. A man who answered the group's office phone Thursday denied any connection with the Brooklyn group. "We have nothing to do with that, and have no comment," he said, hanging up the phone when questioned further.

Yet there appears to be little doubt that the groups are linked. Peggy Uman, who started working with Perente-Ramos in the early 1970s, said she moved here in 1975 to establish the group, having first cleared it with him. Then, until she left the group seven years later, she filed daily reports about her activities, she said.

Ms. Kling, despite her experience, remains ambivalent about her break with the group and was upset to read that five of her former comrades hand been arrested on weapons charges, including Diane Garrett, her sponsor. "She's a compassionate, caring person," Ms. Kling said. "She really cares about the poor. She would never use a gun."

Ms. Kling objected to the characterization of the group as a cult, and said that no physical force was ever used to keep her there. But, she said, she does not want to go back.

In the first three months of 1995, Ms. Kling said, she was cloistered in Brooklyn. When her father was visiting from Missouri and wanted to spend the day with her, the group told her that she should not leave. Instead, he came to visit, and they were never left alone, she said.

The building was filled with bright people -- including a number of lawyers -- but it was also a tense place. Some recruits were clearly mentally ill, she said, and screaming arguments erupted regularly.

Dissatisfied with the life she was leading, Ms. Kling spent weeks plotting her escape. On that dark morning in March, alone in New York for the first time in her life, she wandered the streets of Brooklyn and tried to find a subway station.

"It was scary," she said, "but it felt wonderful to breathe the air of New York."

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