Richard Reilly as a Street Medic at a 2015 Chicago May Day March.
When news of the passing of Richard Reilly hit Facebook on Tuesday the internet exploded with messages of grief, condolences, and memories of one of the most devoted and enduring activists for social justice and international solidarity. And they have not stopped flowing in since from occupied Palestine, Free Derry, militant liberationists from around the world, and from hundreds whose lives he touched and inspired.
His death was not unexpected. Dick had been battling lung cancer for three years and shortly before the end of last year announced to his friends and followers that he would not “complete another orbit.” But despite pain and weakness he soldiered on to the end. On Sunday he posted his final reports on depredations in Palestine, keeping up a self-imposed more than 40-year-long mission of sharing the news of the world that the mainstream media never seemed to carry.
Dick Reilly, right, and Michael Hargis on UFW lettuce and grape boycott duty with the IWW in Orono, Main in early 1974, The photo appeared in the Industrial Worker, Shortly after both arrived in Chicago to join a lively and active Chicago Branch.
I first met Dick back in 1974. He was just 21 years old then, but already a veteran activist. Dick was born November 21, 1952 in Los Angeles to Scott Reilly an Irish-American and Catherine Freeman who was Jewish. He grew up in many places around the US, attending schools in California, Maine, and grew up in many places around the US, attending schools in California, Maine, and Alaska. He attended the University of Main at Orono. He had already volunteered in California with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and was active in the campus anti-Vietnam War movement. He ran afoul of the Selective Service System and served a three month prison sentence for draft resistance.
In Maine also found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the legendary revolutionary industrial union which was active on campus and looking for ways to connect to the state’s blue collar workers. He teamed with another radical student, Mike Hargis and together organized local grape and lettuce boycotts in support of the United Farm Worker Union. Shortly after a photo of the pair bundled up for Maine’s harsh winter appeared in the Industrial Worker both came to Chicago.
The early ‘70’s was a time when several young Wobblies from around the nation came to Chicago. That was where the action was—not only as the union’s General Headquarters and home of the Industrial Worker—but as a hot bed of action by the Chicago General Membership Branch. In addition to Reilly and Hargis Dean Nolan and came from Portland, Oregon, Penny Pixler from Iowa, John Hodgson from Long Beach, California, Richard Christopher and Rita Bakunin from Boston, and Craig Ledford from Milwaukee.
I was on the staff collective of the IW, and Chicago Branch Secretary. Reilly and Hargis came specifically for an ambitious Metal and Machinery Workers I.U. 440 drive in small machine and metal casting shops. Meanwhile there were organizing drives at a manufacturer of plastic parsons tables, print shops, fast food restaurants, and in health care.
Dick Reilly quickly found his niche in solidarity work. The Chicago Branch was a leader of a local labor support committee for the UFW and Dick was key in organizing weekly pickets at supermarkets across the city and suburbs. During a strike by private waste haulers, he organized flying squads to shadow scab Browning and Ferris drivers as they tried to make deliveries to suburban landfills. He was especially active in support of a 36 day-long strike by nurses at Cook County Hospital in 1976 not only joining picket lines, but helping organize relief for the nurses and their families and throwing a Christmas party for their children.
International solidarity also drew his attention. He organized pickets at the British Consulate in support Irish Republican prisoners and actions against apartheid in South Africa. Ireland became a particular focus. With other Wobblies Dick organized leafletting of the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade under the name The James Connolly Combination, urging revelers to support Northern Irish rebels.
Dick Reilly at a Chicago monument to James Connolly, his inspiration as a Marxist and liberation activist.
Dick made a special study of the work of James Connolly, the Irish socialist and labor leader who spent time in America as an IWW organizer before returning to Dublin and organizing the working class Citizen Army which was a key part of the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Connolly was wounded in the fighting and subsequently executed by firing squad by the British. While many others of his cohort of young Wobblies were anarchists or anarcho-syndicalist, Connolly’s writing moved Dick to embrace Marxism.
His was a non-doctrinaire Marxism steeped in the principles of solidarity. He avoided the doctrinaire struggles that often prevented effective action seeking instead to build broad, effective, and inclusive movements. Like Connolly he envisioned an anti-colonialist working class movement for self-determination and national liberation. Through the late ‘70’s Reilly shifted more and more of his time and attention to his Irish Republican support work.
He was also developing a deepening sympathy for the Palestinians. This was quite controversial even on the left. There was deep and abiding sympathy for Israel as a haven and refuge following the Holocaust than went far beyond the Jewish community. And there was revulsion at acts of international terrorism like the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But Reilly knew that the Irgun introduced terrorism to the Middle East when they blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem during the Jewish insurgency in Mandatory Palestine in 1946. He also saw a rising left-wing Palestinian movement gathering momentum to press for a homeland on the ground. Many old friends and comrades turned against him when he became committed to the Palestrina cause. He tried to answer them with programs of information on campuses and in the communities. Slowly, he made headway.
Within hours of the news of his death, Dick Reilly was saluted by his friends at Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others from the international movements he supported,
He was one of the founders and the Midwest coordinator of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in the 1980s. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he was involved in launching widespread media, political and popular campaigns to defend Beirut in the U.S. He frequently visited occupied Palestine and in 1988, during the first Intifada, he led a solidarity delegation that joined a march in Ramallah organized by Palestinian women’s organizations on the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. He was one of the Ramallah Seven seized by occupation troops and taken to the infamous Moskobiyeh detention center before deportation. He has been permanently banned from entering Israel or the Palestinian territories ever since.
But he encouraged hundreds of other to make the trip and make abiding connections to the Palestinian cause just as he encouraged others to visit Ireland and Free Derry. In fact he helped facilitate the remarkable mutual support of Irish Republicans and Palestinians and brought those connections back to the U.S.
During the First Intifada Dick began his personal solidarity education project, first as a rapidly growing e-mail group and later on social media, especially Facebook. Despite working full time as a psychiatric social worker specializing in helping those in acute crisis and a busy schedule of meetings, programs, and street actions, he posted bulletins from around the world every night to an ever-growing audience—not only news from Palestine and Ireland, but from Puerto Rico, Central America, Greece, anti-austerity uprisings in Europe, and homegrown American movements.
Although Dick had long informally attended demonstrations with handy first aid and medical supplies, his life took a turn during the mass demonstrations and marches protesting Iraq War. He became a founding member of Chicago Action Medical Street Medics, was ever ready at protests large and small, orderly and non-violent, or the chaotic targets of police violence and repression. He inspired many to join him and conducted many of the training sessions for new volunteers.
Scott Mechanic, then a young high school activist, described those days in a Facebook memorial post:
In 2003 I was a teenage anti-war activist, on the verge of dropping out of high school I found meaning as I joined thousands of students from across Chicago in school walkouts, marches, rallies. Our tactics escalated as mainstream media and politicians fell in line to push for the disastrous war in Iraq. Finally, on March 20, the night of the invasion, a rally spilled out Federal Plaza to march upon Lake Shore Drive, paralyzing much of the Chicago's commercial districts. The successful expression of our anger was made possible by a misdirection campaign that fooled the police, lead by the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism, of which Dick Reilly was a key member. Dick Reilly was also there as the police eventually kettled the crowd, providing medical care as police beat protesters before arresting hundreds, including me.
At an event for arrestees, Dick announced a street medic training, and I found myself among dozens of Chicago area activists at Chicago Action Medical's second ever street medic training, led by Dick's friend Doc Rosen, with help from Dick and other experienced medics. Still a new medic I traveled with Dick and half a dozen other CAM members to Miami for the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) protests in 2002. Dick and I ran as buddies in the streets for a violently surreal three days of protests, Dick modeled a calm but determined medic, always determined to be on the front lines of resistance. As I was faced with the unhinged brutality of a police state, Dick found ways to create a joyful resistance. My memories of Miami that are not blood stained or sweat drenched involve rum and Cuban restaurants, stories of Latin American resistance to colonialism and empire, building support and connections with activists across the continents.
Sometimes Street Medics had little more to do than stand-by with first aid for blisters and turned ankles, sun burn and heat stroke in hot weather, frostbite and hypothermia in cold. Buy when things got hairy there were busted heads, tear gas, Taser, and Mace injuries to attend to, often on the run. And Street Medics themselves were often singled out and targeted. Dick remained unflappable.
Over the next years he had ample opportunity to be of service—at World Trade Association (WTA) protests, Occupation movement marches, May Day marches and immigration justice protests, police brutality protests and Black Lives Matter marches, and the almost daily marches during the Chicago Teachers Union strike to mention just a few of the causes. Before he died, Dick probably tallied more street protests than any other American.
Dick with his life partner and comrade Christine Geovanis.
Through it all he enjoyed the love and support of his life partner and comrade, Christine Geovanis, a significant activist herself and a photo journalist who chronicled much of the action. She is now the Communications Director for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU.)
In his long activism Dick touched and inspired many lives.
Dick will be waked at Cooney Funeral Home, 3918 W Irving Park Road, in Chicago on Sunday February 16 from 4 to 8 pm and on Monday February 17 from 8 to 9 pm. The last hour of both days will be dedicated to commemorations and remembrances. I plan to be in attendance Monday evening.
The funeral will be held at 10:30 Tuesday with burial at Forest Home Cemetery, 863 Des Plaines Avenue in Oak Park. He will be laid to rest near the Haymarket Memorial among the illustrious heroes of the anarchist, Socialist, Communist, the labor movements.
To help defray the enormous medical bills from his long battle with cancer and the cost of his final arrangements, friends have organized a Memorial Fund. Those who can come to the wake or funeral are encouraged to bring checks. Other can contribute to a GoFundMe page.
In accordance with Jewish custom Christine and friends are planning a 40 day memorial where Dick’s life can be joyously celebrated. Details, date, and venue will be announced later.