Sunday, April 28, 2019

Chicago’s Anarco-pacifist Poet of the Streets—Joffre Stewart

Joffre Stewart in his winter garb, a stocking cap and old Army coat.

Word 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  hand 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.
The 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.”
To 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.
Our 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.
About 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.
His 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.
All 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.
Stewart 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.
In 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.
Back 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.
The 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.
By 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 thing.
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.
He 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.
Joffre 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.
In 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 ideals.
Joffre at a poetry event.
Those 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.
In 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.
In 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.
I 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.  
By 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 of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  
Joffre 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.
Despite 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.
Although 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 reproduced portions of photocopies of several of Joffre’s pieces.  The two below are just a sample of his style.

I 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.
One 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
   An Obituary by Malachi Ritscher
   42 lumpen 102


People who don’t commit suicide
may not be committed


People who don’t commit suicide 
come up with all kinds of interpretation
of those who do:

denied the Church his donations
She was mentally ill:
nobody in h/er/is right mind
would ever sacrifice own life
for anybody or anything
He was a despicable terrorist -- serves him right

She couldn’t wait for medical science
to come up with cure for the ills of the world

He had to right to escape from slavery:
Involuntary Property Loss is ROBBERY!
She didn’t have to shame Law Orders:
she could have run away:
to have courage to of one’s convictions
is unseemly
He was just selfish

She was a damn coward:
sneaking out on brave people like us*

He’s a poet. That’s what poets do.

People who don’t commit suicide
squirm to find every kind of reason
not to value the decision
of the person

On May 3, while I was anti-nuking it
with the national War Tax Resistance coördinating committee
in Las Vegas
Mark Malachi Ritscher

became the flaming man of the Millennium (so far)
by burning like a Buddhist
near Ohio ramp to Kennedy Expressway
19 days before Dallas

Ritscher seems to have been under orders
leaving behind the sign:


But overlooking that illibertarian aspect
of his just ethic
we get to the nitty-gritty
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
crusade. There 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 in Vegas
plotting with tax-resisters 
to move resistance into mass movement
Malachi committed the ultimate act 
of tax resistance:
taking himself permanently
Out of the Infernal Revenue System

Had he known about us
he might be letting his little light shine
rather than having his
Millennium Flame
doused, smothered, hidden, suppressed
by the patriotically polluted overflow
of MainStream Media


Malachi was too much like Socrates for me
overidentified with the laws &; orders
(? our? country)
he found impossible to live with
instead of taking up the post-Socratics
who dumped the Republic
and the World Historical System


Malachi was a jazz man:
Will the 28th Annual Chicago Jazz Fest
Suppress the “Star Spangled Banner”
do away with the flagand give him a respectful moment of silence?

And if suicide
is something that poets do
and this poem is known by poets
then we should see a drastic thinning out
of poetry’s ranks
especially those loners
who don’t know hot to get with
national War Tax Resistance coördinating committee**

Pulling at heart strings:
What instrument
Does a plucky man play?

—Joffre Stewart

* Bill Maher is the coward when he apologized for saying the Arab 19 (-6) were not
** 1-800-269-7464


  1. What an amazing article and tribute! I wish I had known him. Thank you for writing this piece.

  2. I knew Joffre from SRAF days. Now there was a character. I believe he even came to the Wildcat Mountain SRAF gathering that I produced with the Milwaukee SRAF chapter. Joffre could drive a person nuts at times. But he was a good person as far as I know.

    Steve Gotzler