The main interest during our CGCL this Winter Study will continue to be with the various sections of the Diversity Initiatives Report, as critiqued and supported by our discussants. Thanks to James and Reed for fine efforts so far. But, along with these main streams of the conversation, I and the other bloggers here will highlight side issues that have come up. (Requests from readers are also welcome.)

Today, I want to solicit information on what really happened with the Western Massachusetts Labor Action (WMLA) and Williams in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the on-line archives of the Record do not go back far enough to tell us much.

Our story starts with the scary case of Jennifer Kling ’98, sucked up into a frightening cult in Brooklyn, isolated from her family and friends. In the comments to our previous entry, Alexander Woo ’97 reported that:

I distinctly remember Jennifer saying she felt her quotes were misused in the NYTimes article, and that the general tone of the article was, to her, inaccurate. Elaborations, if any, were not concise enough for me to remember almost 8 years later.

So please read that with a few grains of salt.

Is the Times portrayal accurate? I don’t know. Perhaps the WMLA are actually a bunch of fun fellows, sort of Williams-in-New-York, version 1.0. But there is more here than the New York Times article. (The next paragraph is from a reliable source (not anyone in the Political Science department) with knowledge of that era.)

For starters, Tauber was involved with the group for many years and misled others (and perhaps himself) about their totalitarian tendencies. The WLMA was a cult in all the worst sort of ways, not just a bunch of unionists. Kling was not the only student to be entrapped. Moreover, Professor Alex Willingham also allowed the group to proseltyze in his class and, even after the worst details came to light, continued to defend it.

Much of this is supported here. See below the break for key excerpts.

Again, the purpose of this post is not to pass judgment on any of this but to ask our readers what really happened at Williams ten years ago. Please tell us. Sam Crane asserts that I am a bad person for even wanting to know what happened, for reporting what people say about those events.

When Jennifer Kling signed up last fall at a Williams College community service fair to volunteer part-time with Western Mass. Labor Action on Pittsfield’s West Side, the last place she thought she would wind up was in a cramped Brooklyn apartment house, devoting her life to an underground political group.

After accepting an offer from Western Mass. Labor Action to help the poor on a full-time basis, Kling dropped out of the prestigious school shortly before finals during her sophomore year and headed for the Brooklyn headquarters of the National Labor Federation. It is WMLA’s leftist parent organization, a group that once pushed for an armed revolution against the United States.

But instead of helping the working poor, Kling spent her “time listening to mind-numbing lectures that started as late as midnight and lasted as long as 18 hours.”

Deprived of sleep and given limited contact with her friends and family, Kling was confined to what one cult expert told The Williams Record was a “Kafka-esque hell of pointless activity.” The college newspaper did on investigative report on the situation Oct. 3.

Bored and in need of medical attention, Kling quit the organization two months later, fleeing in the middle of the night when no one could stop her.

Kling is one of three students who have left Williams in the last 10 years to dedicate their lives to WMLA or one of the National Labor Federation’s 41 affiliates across the country.

In an investigation this summer, Monica R. Martinez, assistant dean of students, learned that WMLA and the National Labor Federation are creations of the Communist Party USA, Provisional, a peculiar cadre that practices an unorthodox brand of Marxism. It is not affiliated with the regular Communist Party.

“They justified their actions with cultic practices in a way that would horrify most leftists,” said one former member who spoke to the Eagle on condition of anonymity.

While the college has no plans to prevent WMLA or its operations manager, Edward W. Coffin Jr., from coming to campus to recruit volunteers, Martinez said she has spoken to some students who are currently involved to ensure they understand the relationship between the groups.

“It’s important to provide the information we have and at that point, [the students] can make their own choice,” she said. “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t do this or don’t do that.’ My concern is that they’re not who they say they are.” In addition to recruiting members from the ivy-covered halls of Williams, WMLA has been knocking on doors of modest row houses in Adams and working supermarket entrances in North Adams and Pittsfield.

Record editor-in-chief Joshua Resnick, author of the Williams article, said the recruiters played on the students’ guilt in their efforts to extract their donations and time.

“I encountered people who said the recruiters would yell things like, ‘You don’t care anymore,’ ‘You have this unearned privilege,’ and ‘The plight of the working man is your responsibility,'” Resnick said, adding that they managed to sign up at least 20 students.

Former members and some human service providers say Coffin is dedicated to the cause of helping the poor. One ex-volunteer said he doubted that Coffin receives a paycheck and that he has to skim a portion of the money be collects from donors to eke out a living while sending funds to headquarters.

A couple of volunteers said he does not have his own home and that they think he lives in WMLA’s cluttered office.

Resnick said he could understand how students and volunteers could succumb to Coffin’s entreaties to join WMLA.

“His rhetoric is unbelievable and his tactics are aggressive. He can talk for hours,” Resnick said.

In an editorial in last week’s Record, Resnick blasted two faculty members for inviting Coffin into their classrooms to address students, many of whom are freshmen. Bringing him in lent WMLA an air of legitimacy, he argued, and allowing Coffin to pass around a sign-up sheet was “incredibly irresponsible.”

Michael Samson, an assistant professor of economics, and Alex W. Willingham, a professor of political science, said in telephone interviews this week they have both asked Coffin to talk to students in their introductory classes about the difficulties of living in the Berkshires on a minimum wage salary. In both classes he passed around sign-up sheets.

Both said they were unfamiliar with WMLA’s ties to the National Labor Federation until reading Resnick’s article.

Two mothers with students in affiliates of the National Labor Federation were so frightened about losing their daughters forever that they did not want to reveal their names or addresses. Both said they feared that if their daughters found out they spoke publicly about them, the daughter could get so upset they would never return home.

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