Joffre Stewart in his winter garb, a stocking cap and old Army coat.
went out last month a Joffre Stewart,
perhaps the quintessential outsider poet,
died in Chicago. He was 93 years old. If you were not from the Windy
City or active in tax/war resistors,
pacifist, anarchist/Wobbly, Black
poetry/performance art circles you probably have never heard
of him. Yet he was a familiar fixture on
the streets of the city and at
demonstrations and actions for
almost 7 decades, his prodigious body of
lettered poetry and polemics dug
out of bulging bags and freely
passed to anyone who take them. A life
time of work as ephemeral as last
year’s dried leaves. And no human being
I have ever known so steadfastly lived
his values not matter the cost.
closest Joffre ever came to fame was a mention by Allen Ginsberg in Howl. Joffre was involved in the Beat scene and the two met at a San Francisco gathering. He wrote that he was, a man “with big
pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing / out incomprehensible leaflets.”
the best of my recollection, I first met Joffre one steamy summer night at the
foot of the wide staircase to Roosevelt University
in the Auditorium Building. I was there attending a Free University class with Staunton
Lynd just before Democratic
Convention of 1968. Joffre was a Roosevelt graduate and often
returned there for various events. He
was a striking character. He was dressed
in a well-used and dingy un-tucked short
sleeve shirt, baggy khaki shorts,
and flip flops.
His hair and bear untamed.
From a bulging newsboy delivery
bag slung from his shoulder he dug out and handed me a hand-lettered
leaflet/poem. He engaged me, this
strange kid in a battered white cowboy
hat from the suburbs, in earnest
conversation about the upcoming big events.
Later I caught glimpses of his several times during the tumultuous demonstrations,
always calmly sharing his leaflets with whoever would take them no matter what
chaos surrounded him.
paths would regularly cross from then on, especially at the old anarchist Solidarity Bookstore on Armitage Avenue, Industrial Workers of the World (Wobbly) events and socials, College
of Complexes sessions at the Mark
Twain Hotel, and every major anti-war event I attended. We often just ran into one another on the
street. And always he had a freshly
written screed to share.
those leaflets—Joffre never owned a typewriter. Each one was hand lettered with plenty of
words in bold, creative layout, and often including collage elements including newspaper
clippings, illustrations, and other snippets. He always signed them with “Joffre Stewart Advocate
of the ANTI-Christ” and his home address upside down at the bottom of the page.
earliest leaflets, dating to the 1950’s may have been produced by multiple carbon paper or run off by the
mimeograph of the War Resistor’s League. Later
the anarchist/Wobblies of the J.S.
Jordon Memorial Press printed some on their decrepit old Multilith offset press. I even produced a few for him the Columbia College print shop where I
worked in 1970. Eventually he would cage
sheets from copiers where ever he
could find them.
of those leaflets over all of those years plus his private correspondence and materials from the organization and
demonstrations he was associated with are now in an unsorted archive in the Black
Metropolis Research Consortium at the
University of Illinois at Chicago—an astonishing 91 linear feet of it. That’s a
treasure trove for some future scholar
which is good because so little of his work, survives elsewhere.
was born in Chicago on April 17, 1925.
He was drafted into the Army during World War. He began to formulate
his pacifism and aversion to authority in the service. He went AWOL
several times but managed to
avoid a dishonorable discharge. By 1947 he had joined Peacemakers and was influenced by the non-violent resistance advocated by Bayard Rustin and particularly with his anti-draft activities. He
was arrested several times for protesting the Draft and racial discrimination in the military.
June 1948 he was arrested in downtown Chicago for attempting to get a haircut at a barbershop in downtown Chicago which would not serve African-Americans.
in Chicago Joffre enrolled in the new Roosevelt University, an experiment in urban, multi-racial education. From
the beginning it was an activist campus
and Joffre was in the thick of things.
He graduated in 1952 but returned regularly to use their library and at the invitation of
various student groups. A campus IWW
group was banned after Joffre
began a meeting burning miniature U.S. and United Nations flags.
flag burnings, symbolic of his rejection of all state power were a regular feature of many of his readings and
presentations and not surprisingly frequently got him into trouble. Gwendolyn
Brooks once threw him out of a gathering of Black poets at her home for
it. Reportedly, she was less concerned
with flag burning than the fact that it was done in her crowded home. Other times the display caused his arrest.
the early 50’s Joffre had fully developed his philosophy of total non-compliance with the
State. That included refusal to pay taxes or even to accept employment that would lead to taxes to
support war being taken from his pay
checks. He lived by barter and trade and by the kindness of family members, friends, and
supporters. Frequently homeless, he couch surfed before that became a
The longest term war tax resisters (l to r)
Joffre Stewart, Juanita Nelson, Karl Meyer and Brad Lyttle at the 2005 WTR
strategy conference in New York City. Photo by Ed Hedemann.
was active in the War Resistor League
and it the War Tax Resistance Coordinating
Committee. He contributed long
articles and essays that displayed a brilliant and original mind to
publications of those groups, other anti-war organizations, and the Bulletin of the Social Revolutionary
Anarchist Federation (SRAF). In all
forums he advocated total resistance to government in all of its forms while
advocating strict non-violent disobedience.
frequently traveled long distances, usually by Greyhound or hitching with friends to attend meeting and
conferences of these groups as well as to some national peace and civil rights actions. He continued to
do so until infirmity finally caught up with him at age 91.
the meantime he also became a fixture at every poetry reading and open mic he
could find and was one of the few Chicago poets to present regularly at African
American events on the South and West Sides as well as the largely white
events on the North Side. Some found his work startling and
alarming, others were charmed by his complete sincerity and dedication to his
Joffre at a poetry event.
ideals made him, in the words of one acquaintance, “the most arrested man in Chicago.” While that claim may be impossible
to document Joffre was not only collared
at demonstrations, but was rousted on sight by some cops who would
charge him with everything from loitering
and vagrancy, to littering if someone threw away one of
his leaflets, to trespassing and the
old reliable disorderly conduct. At demonstrations he often “went limp” and had to be carried away leading to charges of resisting arrest. Since he refused to be “complicit in my own oppression” he refused to pay fines or even sign discharge
documents that could get him out of jail resulting in several days-long
stretches at Cook County Jail.
1994 despite being well known in poetry circles Joffre was mistaken for a homeless person while attempting to
attend a modern poetry reading by Paul
Hoover and Amiri Baraka at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in north suburban
Evanston and was arrested by an off
duty cop acting as a security guard,
Frank Conklin. He was accused of being aggressive and belligerent, which witnesses denied. After an outpouring of protests the book
store, much embarrassed, announce that neither it or the security guard would press charges. But Joffre refused attend court hearings
where the case would have been dismissed.
He was charged and arrested for being a fugitive. He was referred
twice for psychological evaluation. In total he spent 11 days in jail and lost
more than 20 pounds due to a hunger
strike. Refused to sign an I Bond that would have allowed his
release on personal recognizance . As the case became an embarrassment he was
finally released when he agreed to initial
a note on the discharge that said judgement
was “refused.” The clothes he was arrested in, the $4.37
in his pocket, and his bag of leaflets were never returned and he had to borrow
a dollar form a cop to get home.
1980 Joffre was treated and cured of stomach
cancer at a Veterans Administration
hospital and he was regularly treated there for the rest of his life. He also eventually got a small disabled
veteran stipend which provided his sole cash income for the rest of his
life. This was surely his greatest
compromise with his principles.
last saw Joffre a couple of years later before my move to Crystal Lake. Subsequently I
began to hear from old friends that he had “gone off the deep end” in
anti-Semitism in his Anti-Zionist writings. He had long been a supporter of Palestinian rights and had condemned Israel for colonialism and settler
oppression, but he was also a fierce critic of all colonialism and the
oppression of all indigenous groups including Native Americans.
one account, after Joffre was attacked and beaten by members of Meir Kahane’s far right vigilantes, the Jewish Defense League while leafleting outside a major Jewish
organization’s annual meeting, his attacks on Israel became more and more
tinged with the language of anti-Semitism.
In leaflets he superimposed a swastika
on a Star of David and began to
advance conspiracy theories that
sounded uncomfortably like the canards
Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
always denied any personal anti-Semitism and pointed out that he railed against
all cabals and conspiracies including those of WASPS as well a Jews. Because I did not see most of his later
work, it is hard for me to judge how much true anti-Semitism was. Suffice it to say, many thought it was and he
was repudiated by several old friends and supporters. He was reportedly banned from several poetry venues, including North Side poetry slams celebrating just the style
of in-your-face performance art the
Stewart pioneered. Even his oldest
comrades in the War Resistance movement professed discomfort and ambivalence. Feelings about him became so bitter that
vicious attacks were made against anyone that spoke fondly of him after his
death. I expect I will receive the same
for posting this.
this Joffre remained defiant to the end,
always declaiming the truth as he understood it despite the consequences. And on the balance of his long and eventful
life we were richer for it.
his work was vast, examples are hard to find.
His only book, Poems and Poetry was published by
the Every Now and Then Publishing
Cooperative in 1982 and is nearly impossible to find. Daniel
X. O’Neil on his web page
derivativeworks.com reproduced portions of photocopies of several of Joffre’s
pieces. The two below are just a sample
of his style.
also want to thank Bernie Farber for
his reminiscence of our mutual friend and an old account in the Reader by Ben Joravsky of Joffre’s Evanston arrest.
of the few complete poems available on-line
is a reaction to the self-immolation in
Chicago of Malachi Ritscher in 2006
to protest the War in Iraq. Joffre got the news of his death while
attending a War Tax Resister’s conference in Las Vegas. They posted the
poem he wrote as a response on their webpage.
He wrote poetry
Obituary by Malachi Ritscher
42 lumpen 102
People who don’t
may not be
People who don’t
come up with all
kinds of interpretation
of those who do:
HE WILL BURN IN
HELL because he
Church his donations
She was mentally
h/er/is right mind
sacrifice own life
for anybody or
He was a
despicable terrorist -- serves him right
wait for medical science
to come up with
cure for the ills of the world
He had to right
to escape from slavery:
Property Loss is ROBBERY!
She didn’t have
to shame Law Orders:
she could have
to have courage
to of one’s convictions
He was just selfish
She was a damn
sneaking out on
brave people like us*
He’s a poet.
That’s what poets do.
People who don’t
squirm to find
every kind of reason
not to value the
of the person
On May 3, while
I was anti-nuking it
national War Tax Resistance coördinating committee
in Las Vegas
flaming man of the Millennium (so far)
by burning like
near Ohio ramp
to Kennedy Expressway
19 days before
to have been under orders
THOU SHALT NOT
that illibertarian aspect
of his just
we get to the
where he says:
Here is the
statement I wasn’t to make: if I
am required to
pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in you
world. I refuse
to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who
did nothing to
threaten our country. I will not participate in your
charade — my
conscience will not allow me to be a part of your
might be some who say “it’s a coward’s way out” —
that opinion is
so idiotic that it requires no response.
So while I was
resistance into mass movement
committed the ultimate act
Out of the
Infernal Revenue System
Had he known
he might be
letting his little light shine
smothered, hidden, suppressed
patriotically polluted overflow
Malachi was too
much like Socrates for me
with the laws &; orders
(? our? country)
impossible to live with
taking up the post-Socratics
who dumped the
and the World
Malachi was a
Will the 28th
Annual Chicago Jazz Fest
“Star Spangled Banner”
do away with the
flagand give him a
respectful moment of silence?
And if suicide
that poets do
and this poem is
known by poets
then we should
see a drastic thinning out
who don’t know
hot to get with
national War Tax
Resistance coördinating committee**
Pulling at heart
Does a plucky
* Bill Maher is
the coward when he apologized for saying the Arab 19 (-6) were not