Attack robs activist of health, but not passion

May 03, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Thousands of people, news reports say, gathered Sunday in the nation's capital to protest the government of Sudan's genocidal war against the people of Darfur.

Some of the protesters came from synagogues in the Baltimore area. But one Jewish Baltimorean who really wanted to be there wasn't.

"It killed me that I couldn't be there," said A. Robert Kaufman, perhaps Baltimore's most persistent and curmudgeonly activist. At 75, Kaufman may not be the world's oldest Trotskyist, but he's sure as heck in the running. It's not health problems related to his age that kept Kaufman from the Darfur rally. It's health problems that are the result of the attack last June when a man beat and stabbed him in his Hilton Street apartment.

The first thing you notice about Kaufman when you walk into his apartment is the weight loss. He appears frail, almost gaunt. The gray sweat shirt and khaki pants droop on his frame.

"I've lost over 80 pounds," Kaufman said. "I'm down to 140. I want to gain about 30 more. My legs are like sticks."

The weight loss isn't the worst of Kaufman's health woes. He spends three days a week -- 3 1/2 hours each day -- on a dialysis machine. Both his kidneys have failed him, the result of blood poisoning he suffered after his attacker stabbed him in the neck.

"The knife he used wasn't sterilized," Kaufman said of his attacker. The unclean knife led to the blood poisoning, which led to the kidney failure, Kaufman said.

"When your body is severely attacked, the first line of defense is your kidneys," Kaufman explained. "My kidneys did an admirable job of defending my heart and brain but died in the process. I'm in the process of trying to get transplants for both kidneys. I'd like people to put in their wills that they will donate their kidneys for organ transplants. Even if they don't match mine, they may match someone else in need."

The blood poisoning and kidney failure led, Kaufman said, to four major operations. At one point, he was unconscious for 5 1/2 weeks.

"The surgeons didn't expect me to survive," Kaufman said. "I thank Dr. Rhonda Fishel at Sinai Hospital for saving my life."

Throughout his ordeal, Kaufman said, his sister "pretty much took control, like my mom used to do. We haven't had the best of relationships for the past three decades."

It's a different Kaufman these days -- the one who can't make the Darfur rallies, the one who needs his sister to take control -- from the one who, only two years ago, was among the demonstrators urging our government to take action about the crisis in Darfur.

"We met at Republican headquarters on Charles Street," Kaufman said of the demonstrators. They urged Maryland Republicans to get President Bush to act more forcefully in getting food, shelter and medical supplies to the people of Darfur. Then they marched to the offices of Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who represents the 7th Congressional District. The goal was to get Democrats to make ending the crisis in Darfur a campaign issue.

"We did that religiously for eight to 10 weeks," Kaufman said. "We got little media coverage. We got zilch from The Sun [except for one column by Michael Olesker]. No television coverage. The Afro and the Baltimore Times had stories."

Kaufman said the demonstrations ceased after that eight-to-10-week period. But if the demonstrators felt they had no impact, they were no doubt gladly mistaken. Judging from Sunday's rally -- which included "several busloads from the synagogues and churches of Baltimore" according to an article by Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown -- many folks got the message.

"When I saw the article in The Sun when all those Jewish congregations for the first time did the right thing [about Darfur], it made me feel tremendously proud and sorry I wasn't able to make that."

I sat across from Kaufman at his kitchen table and felt his pain with him. Here's a guy who picketed for civil rights for black folks when it wasn't just unpopular, it was downright dangerous. Walk into Kaufman's apartment and look immediately to the wall at your left, and you'll see a photo he's still proud of.

The photo shows people demonstrating at Ford's Theatre in Baltimore during the late 1940s. Second from the front is Paul Robeson, several years before he would go before the House Un-American Activities Committee and call its members "fascist-minded." Robeson is holding a sign that reads, "Ford's Discriminates Against American Citizens."

There are five people behind Robeson visible in the photograph. The third one behind him is 16-year-old A. Robert Kaufman holding a sign that reads, "This Theater Discriminates Against Your Fellow Americans."

It's a shame that nearly 60 years of dedicated, conscientious and selfless activism are virtually ended with one act of brutal insanity last June.

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