Before the meeting, SWP members and supporters campaigned at a rally protesting the U.S. government’s immigration policies. They knocked on workers’ doors to talk about the demonstration and what working people can do to fight against the effects of today’s deepening capitalist economic and political crisis. A dozen books written by party leaders were sold, along with a similar number of subscriptions to the Militant.
The meeting was chaired by Ted Leonard, a supporter of the SWP in Boston, who worked with Cohen for years. Panel displays were mounted on the wall to showcase key political struggles that took place during Cohen’s life and that he and the party were part of.
“We are celebrating Gary’s six decades of dedication to the SWP,” Margaret Trowe, SWP candidate for mayor of Albany, New York, told the meeting. She was in the SWP branch in Boston in the early 2000s. Cohen was affected by the big developments in the world that shaped an entire generation, Trowe said, from the victory and development of the Cuban Revolution, to the fight against the Vietnam War, to the struggle against Jim Crow segregation.
Cohen became involved in protests and sit-ins against racist segregation in the 1950s. He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan in the early 1960s, where his experiences deepened his opposition to imperialist militarism and war. “On his return he joined the Socialist Workers Party,” Trowe said, “convinced of its perspective of organizing the working class to overthrow capitalism.”
“Gary had confidence in the party and was a party patriot throughout his life. He was optimistic, with a wicked sense of humor,” she said.
Paul Mailhot, a member of the Boston branch in the 1970s, spoke about the battle to desegregate the Boston schools that he and Cohen participated in. “It was a proud chapter in Gary’s and all of our political lives,” he said. “It taught us that a revolutionary party, such as the one we are working to build, is indispensible.”
Mailhot said the racist opposition to busing and violent attacks against the Black children on those buses were organized by top politicians of the Democratic Party. Boston’s liberals responded by urging people to “keep calm,” and not to antagonize racist forces.
“The SWP understood the importance for the working class of mobilizing against racism and took the lead in demanding the U.S. government send federal troops to Boston to protect schoolchildren and to keep the buses rolling,” he said.
“In 1974, one week after racist goons nearly lynched Haitian immigrant André Yvon Jean-Louis in South Boston, the branch decided to sell 3,500 copies of the next issue of the Militant,” Mailhot said. “And that’s what we sold.
“The party was instrumental in the desegregation battle here,” he said, “and party members became mass leaders in the struggle.”
“Today the party has new political openings. We are going deeper into the working class,” said Trowe. “We have the opposite view of the meritocrats, Democratic Party liberals and middle-class radicals who look at the working class as ‘losers.’ We see the working class as the only force capable of changing society.”
“Gary was a lifer, who joined the party as a young man and remained committed to the SWP and the fight for a better world,” said Mailhot. “He didn’t participate in the party’s turn to industry in the late 1970s through the 1990s, when all members of the party were getting jobs in union mines, mills, factories and railroads. He wasn’t in the center of the party’s work then. Later, in 2001, he dropped out of the party and became a supporter.”
Gale Shangold, who helps lead supporters’ efforts to raise regular monthly contributions for the party — efforts she had worked with Cohen on — told the meeting how he put the party’s politics front and center in raising funds.
Eric Brabham, who carpooled to the meeting with party members from Albany, New York, said he hadn’t known anything about the busing fight in Boston, so he learned a lot. “And I learned a lot about the SWP,” he said.