Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost

Bob McGlynn holding a copy of local underground newspaper The Shadow at the memorial for anarchist gardener Adam Purple at La Plaza Cultural community garden last September. Photo by Chris Flash / The Shadow
Bob McGlynn holding a copy of local underground newspaper The Shadow at the memorial for anarchist gardener Adam Purple at La Plaza Cultural community garden last September. Photo by Chris Flash / The Shadow

BY BILL WEINBERG | Bob McGlynn, a longtime figure in New York City’s anarchist scene who linked the Tompkins Square Park protests of the 1980s to pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe, died of a heart attack on Aug. 23 at his home in Yonkers. He was 60.

With his long hair, army boots, sleeveless denim jacket and prizefighter’s build, McGlynn could be taken for a biker. But he was motivated by an intense idealism.

McGlynn’s activist career began in the early 1980s with Brooklyn Anti-Nuclear Group (BANG), which was organizing to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. His artistically crude but politically sophisticated cartoons gave the BANG newsletter a punk aesthetic.

In this same period, he began working as a bicycle messenger — which also thrust him into political activity. Faced with police harassment and city government attempts to oppressively regulate cyclists, in 1982 he organized the first bike messengers’ union in New York, the Independent Couriers Association. In 1987, when Mayor Ed Koch issued an order banning bicycles from three Midtown avenues during working hours, the messengers repeatedly rode in a large group in defiance. McGlynn was on the frontlines of this successful struggle — the ban was overturned as unenforceable. McGlynn proudly called himself the “King of All Bicycle Messengers.”

McGlynn was again facing off with police in the streets when the city attempted to impose a curfew on Tompkins Square Park in 1988. That set off three years of conflict on the gentrifying Lower East Side, with squatters, anarchists and the homeless fighting the cops in an endless series of angry protests and riots. McGlynn, although living in Brooklyn, biked across the river to join in the action.

But McGlynn’s special passion was building ties of solidarity with anti-nuclear, anti-militarist and ecological activists in the Eastern Bloc — challenging work in the paranoid and polarized atmosphere of the Reagan Cold War.

This work began when McGlynn and friends formed a New York sister organization to the Moscow Trust Group in 1983. The Trust Group, with its unassuming name, had been formed by Moscow activists as an “acceptable” cover to advocate for nuclear disarmament. Now linked with a New York group, the Moscow activists had greater visibility, and were less vulnerable to being imprisoned or “disappeared” by Soviet authorities.

In 1986, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, McGlynn and his NY Trust Group collaborator Ann-Marie Hendrickson joined with two activists from the U.K. to travel to Moscow — smuggling in Russian-language fliers about the dangers of radiation and a banner reading, “No More Hiroshimas, No More Chernobyls — Peace and Environmental Safety for All.” The action took place in early August, timed for the Hiroshima anniversary. They promptly headed to Moscow’s Gorky Park, where they unfurled the banner, began distributing the leaflets — and were of course quickly arrested by the K.G.B. After a few days in custody, they were deported. The action won international media coverage.

Back in New York after this escapade, McGlynn helped transform the local Trust Group into Neither East Nor West (NENW) — dedicated to supporting anti-authoritarian forces throughout Eastern Europe. As the Cold War entered its endgame, such groups were fast gaining ground, and NENW organized campaigns and demonstrations to support Eastern Bloc activists faced with imprisonment or persecution.

NENW gave special emphasis to linking activist struggles in the Eastern Bloc and the U.S. — for instance, getting activists in Moscow, Minsk and Warsaw to protest at their local U.S. embassies to demand freedom for Kenny Toglia, a New York activist facing charges in the Tompkins Square riots.

During this period, McGlynn saved up his money that he worked hard for as a bike messenger to travel to Eastern Europe, meeting and networking with activists in Poland and Slovenia, the latter then part of Yugoslavia.

NENW’s newsletter was an important networking tool in those pre-Internet days. It was called On Gogol Boulevard, for Moscow’s artistic and alternative scene hangout, and was mailed to contacts around the world. It later morphed into an insert that appeared in anarchist publications, including The Shadow, organ of the Tompkins Square uprising.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s, NENW shared an office with sibling anarchist groups at the famous, and recently closed, “Peace Pentagon” at 339 Lafayette St., run by the pacifist War Resisters’ League and its affiliated AJ Muste Foundation. McGlynn put in countless hours stuffing envelopes there.

The Cold War came to an end, but NENW remained active for several more years — especially doing support work for antiwar activists in all the ex-Yugoslav republics.

In the late ’90s, McGlynn retreated from Brooklyn to his childhood home of Yonkers and withdrew from the activist scene to deal with health problems. He had long been on painkillers after throwing out his back as a messenger. Accustomed to an extremely active lifestyle, adjusting to physical limitations also posed psychological challenges for McGlynn.

However, he had recently begun to emerge from his period of withdrawal. In February 2015, a NENW reunion party was held in Manhattan, and McGlynn spoke enthusiastically of reviving the group in light of the war in Ukraine and renewed U.S.-Russia rivalry. The group later that year issued its first public statement in years — in support of Syria’s revolutionary Kurds.

McGlynn, is survived by his longtime partner, Joanna Pizzo. He will be remembered for his boundless love of freedom, and intransigent hostility to all dictatorships and superpowers.