Class Warrior Bob Kaufman is an activist and, to many, a royal pain. His latest battle is with Morgan State University's radio station, which has refused him a talk show slot.

June 16, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Munchkin the ferret slinks onto the porch and begins climbing up the guest's trouser leg. Alan Robert Kaufman perceives signs of alarm. He plucks the critter from his guest's leg and tucks him under his own sweat shirt. The guest relaxes, the interview continues, despite the ferret's struggles to emerge again into the light.

Kaufman gazes serenely from the high porch. The sun filters into the grassy yards of his properties, three apartment houses in West Baltimore's Walbrook Junction, chocked full of renters. His own house brims with stuff bought at yard sales: TV sets, window fans, air conditioners.

That's his only vice. He doesn't drink, smoke or do drugs. Yard sales do it for him.

His eyes are big and droopy, his nose the promontory of his face. His short beard curves smoothly around his chin like the blade of a spade. He is wide and Buddha-like, monkish in his flip-flops, calmed by his certainty that he can distinguish right from wrong and knows the correct path to follow.

You might see Kaufman anywhere trying to follow that path: hoisting a protest sign outside the courthouse on Calvert Street, leafleting at Harborplace, denouncing that small coterie of capitalists he believes owns this country. He is a paladin of the poor, or tries to be; especially the black poor. He wants to incite them to political action. Too many people are asleep. Kaufman has made it his life's work to wake them up.

Considering all this, it is at least unexpected to find him in a spat with Morgan State University. Why? He wants one of their nonpaying job as a public affairs talk show host on the university-owned public radio station, WEAA. The university doesn't want to give him one. Kaufman, rejected, is outraged. Kaufman has mobilized.

He often mobilizes. He is a socialist. He is a Trotskyite. He is a democrat. He believes he can reconcile the three. He has a dossier as long as his leg in the FBI's files; he has been investigated time and again. He has run for office, maybe eight times, once for president; he lost every time. He has been arrested about a dozen times by his own count, and has occasionally spent a night in jail. He may be the only landlord in history to favor rent control.

"He's legendary," says Edgar L. Feingold, a former head of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He's been around for 40 years but hasn't changed one bit. I'd see him everywhere: during civil rights days, during Vietnam. On every issue of controversy, he's there, doing the right thing but maybe doing it the wrong way."

Some people won't talk about Kaufman at all; it's as if they are choked by their own animosity toward him. Others will -- but dismissively. Wiley Hall, the spokesman for Morgan State, said he thinks of Kaufman as "the world's last communist." But he concedes a certain respect.

Kaufman has been called a self-hating Jew because he criticized Israel. He was arrested on the steps of Beth Tfiloh synagogue for protesting Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He has also landed on the wrong side of some of his co-religionists by emphasizing that not only Jews were consumed by Hitler's Holocaust, but homosexuals and Gypsies as well.

His rabbi called him unpatriotic -- "and something else implying that I got to be nuts" -- because he declared himself a "political conscientious objector" to the Korean War.

Some people -- fine and upstanding people such as the Rev. Chester Wickwire, the civil rights activist, and former Circuit Judge Robert Watts -- admire him. Others do, too, but don't like to admit it.

Why? Perhaps he makes them feel guilty.

How? By doing the kinds of things they feel, deep down, they should be doing themselves.

"There's a class war going on," says Kaufman, "and these people are going AWOL."

To many people in Baltimore, Kaufman has been, and remains, something different: more than a gadfly, less than a revolutionary. What, then?

A friend puts it into words. These words are conveyed to Bob Kaufman as he drifts on his back-porch swing.

"Yes," Kaufman smiles approvingly. "I am. And I will be a pain in the ass until I die."

'Fun on the air'

Kaufman thinks he has things to say to the people of Baltimore, which is why he wants to go on the radio. Some people agree. Hall does, even though it is his job to convey to the public WEAA's decision to reject Kaufman's application.

"I think he would be a lot of fun on the air," says Hall. "He's got a lot of wit."

It is like Kaufman to put people at odds with themselves like this.

Kaufman brought a complaint against Morgan State and WEAA before the Maryland Human Relations Commission. He was refused, he alleges, because he is white and just about everybody else at WEAA is black. The commission ruled against him. Kaufman appealed; he lost the appeal, then declared the commission's procedures "a sham and a hoax."

He is considering other options: a discrimination complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, charges before federal human rights authorities, a lawsuit.

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