Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

Recently a buddy mentioned this cool restaurant in Lower Mills, Dorchester, “Common Ground”. All organic, nice people, their restaurant is made out of whole trees! What’s not to like?

Well, I said, for one thing, it’s run by a religious cult, Twelve Tribes. As a cult enthusiast, I’d done my homework. A communalist, millenarian Christian sect, Twelve Tribes are industrious and seem honest. Not a threat to go Waco. The thing is, they beat “their” wives and children as a doctrinal matter. And they’ve been booted from England’s Reading rock festival for distributing anti-Semitic literature. They’re known to wander onto campus here at UMass.

Cults are a presence at colleges nationwide. If someone told you “Don’t join a cult”, you’d scoff, right? You’re too savvy, too street-smart. Suckers join cults. You’re no sucker.

Well, neither is my friend. She’s smart. But who knows; she could have been a step or two away from joining. I’m sure reading this she rolls her eyes, but cults hook you with the interesting and attractive. You don’t know you’re dealing with people who have designs on your mind-but soon they’re feeding you answers that make sense (saving the more outré ideas for later). The pitch is already working on you.

I didn’t think I was a sucker either, but I was-for a day or so. The first time I visited the UMass Boston campus was with a cult. Lemme tell ya a story.

My cult was not religious, but political: the Eastern Service Workers Association, also known as the National Federation of Labor, also known as the Order of Lenin. Real life, no fooling Kom-Yoo-Nists, execute-counter-revolutionaries-for-the-Dictatorship-of-the-Proletariat style.

They didn’t tell me that outright. When I got shanghaied it was by “Drew”, a well-spoken, Kenny Rogers-looking man I met on Newbury Street. He was handing out flyers. “Help the Poorest Paid Workers in Boston,” they said. Drew told me that his group pooled money and resources to help the suffering meet the necessities of life. Why don’t you come down to our office, he asks?

Sure, sounds good. I was out of work and had nothing but time-why not?

“Great”, Drew said.

I went in for “training”. They had posters of Sojourner Truth and Liz Gurley Flynn in their little left-wing waiting room. A small woman who looked like Morey Amsterdam gave me the run down on who they supposedly were and what they supposedly did.

Allegedly they solicited food from the poor to pool it for the use of the poor, but they really just consumed it themselves. Same with clothes. I observed them doing this, and they gave me a not-quite convincing explanation. Something besides the casserole smelled fishy.

The next day I was sent into the “field”. I was to help “canvass”, i.e. distribute propaganda and collect information. I was to get X amount of signatures, addresses, and phone numbers and report back to Drew, who was now my “director”, every half-hour. Precisely. Not a second before or after. Very specific.

The next day Drew drove me to UMass. I had (and have) a lot of friends who go here, and I must have seen every one as I busily embarrassed myself as the something-somthing vanguard of the ESWA something-or-other. It made for awkward conversations the next time I saw these people- “What happened to that group you were with, Dan? Why did they want my name, address, and phone number?”

Why, to record you in their extensive logs, of course. The ESWA kept meticulous records. In their office, drones filed endless paperwork. They lived at a community house in Dorchester, where they filled out more paperwork. And- plotted the revolution!

An ESWA house in Brooklyn was raided in the mid-’90s for hoarding guns. I found this out on the internet-Google Boston Stalinist Cult and see what you come up with. Also, a search on for “natlfed” yields interesting results. Ah ha, I told myself, combing through decades-old tales of demagoguery and deceit. These people were dangerous cranks. I decided to stick around, though. They were also an interesting anthropological study.

I met Drew one morning. 8:30, no sooner or later. In front of Ruggles Station, not on Ruggles Street. Very specific! Riding in his “donated” station wagon, I asked about the things I’d seen on the Internet. Lies, all lies, he told me.

Everything? Everything.

From all those different sources?

“See, that’s when you know you’re winning”, he said, evidently to instill me with revolutionary fervor. “When they attack you. The system hates us”, he gloated. An anti-cult website run by one man is part of “the system”?

He changed the subject.

I wanted to press, but, fearful of overplaying my hand, I cooled it. I passed twelve hours that day with ESWA busywork in the name of my ethnography. I noted control mechanisms, bullying and intimidation, I spoke with people who had long been separated from their families. What’s more, the group was manipulating the very poor people they said they were helping. They paraded a pair of Roxbury locals before me, in order to display just how “solid” they were with “the people”.

The speech from the locals sounded canned, coached. Capturing them outside with a free second, I got the skinny: “They haven’t given us a damn thing except promises yet”, one of them said.

Now convinced these apparatchiks were nogoodniks, I kept up my bluff and filed address after address. I got out late that night by feigning illness, mentally drained. I had to lie and manipulate to let them let me go home- I almost had to use physical force!

I called Drew the next day and let him have it. He tried to slime his way past me with sophistry. Finally, realizing the jig was up he intoned, “I have your address here in front of me”, menacingly.

Come and get me, I said, hanging up.

I never heard from them again. The average ESWA member was a sallow husk, all spirit sapped. Spirit is one thing I have in spades. I feel confident I would have been OK. They’d never have broken me, I like to think.

But I don’t know. As secure as I feel in myself, who’s to say that some day I won’t feel secure, that some day when I’m down someone won’t use me for their own shadowy ends? It can happen to anybody.

The moral of my story, folks, is “Don’t join a cult.” Don’t laugh! They’re out there. No matter how smart you think you are, groups develop sophisticated means of recruitment and elaborate spiels. By the time you find yourself in, it may be too late. Fiercely guard your freedom of thought! No one can take it from you, but you can give it away. And sometimes, quite cheaply.