The last place 21-year-old Linda Coleman imagined herself to be in 1974 was Portland, Maine—a city gripped with political protests at the height of the Vietnam War.
She had traded in a comfortable life with her wealthy family in Cedarhurst to move closer to her grandmother Eleanor, and found a job at a local hospital as a nurse. In her spare time, she worked at the Red Star North Bookstore, an ordinary enough shop from the outside—and anything but inside. Its employees were deeply rooted in an underground, anti-Vietnam movement, the Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform, that gained unwanted attention from the city’s police department.
Earlier that year—during the heat of the war, as it neared its end—an officer had been arrested for attempting to rally fellow officers into assassinating leftist radicals in the community and burying their bodies outside Portland.
As a young woman who opposed the Vietnam War, the fire behind the radicals’ fury, Ms. Coleman felt compelled to join the movement she discovered inside the bookstore, filled with leftist titles and labeled with a Vietnamese red star above the door.
“[The Vietnam War] made for a tremendously volatile time for those of us who were growing up,” Ms. Coleman, whose recently published memoir, “Radical Descent: The Cultivation of an American Revolutionary,” is now in its second printing—particularly poignant now, during the violent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—said last week during a telephone interview from her home in Springs. “Everything was up in the air. Everything was changing.”
Shortly after Ms. Coleman committed to the Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform, the bookstore received a letter signed by the Ku Klux Klan demanding that it close. Tensions were rising and finally broke when the store was raided by the Klan, and Ms. Coleman’s epileptic female co-worker was raped by a man, using a bottle.
It was then Ms. Coleman first felt threatened, she said, and afraid to be involved with radicals. In response, her cohorts encouraged her to carry a gun for protection.
“I never wanted to hurt anybody,” she recalled.
The movement only accelerated from there. The radicals expanded into bank robbery, in order to fund their purchase of explosives and materials for bombs. And it wasn’t long before she learned that the rape victim’s husband, who had ties to weapon manufacturers in Vietnam, was connected to a bombing and had been on the run for seven years.
While Ms. Coleman was even more hesitant to stay involved, her political ideologies kept her in place for another year and a half, she said.
Fast-forward one decade, after the group had disbanded and dispersed, and she found herself face-to-face with many of them again, as she testified against them in one of the longest sedition trials in U.S. history—United States of America vs. Raymond Luc Levasseur, Thomas Manning, Carol Soucier-Manning, Patricia Gros, Richard Williams, Jaan Laaman, Barbara Curzi, and Kazi Tour. It stretched from 1986 to 1989, and Ms. Coleman was called to testify twice before a grand jury.
Ms. Coleman said that visiting this time of her life was more challenging than she had expected. The memoir took her 15 years to write.
“It was a really difficult period of my life. I don’t know that any writer is writing for publication. For me, I had to write as intimately as possible about how I had come so close to killing another person,” she said of owning a gun. “Looking at that really deeply was a very emotional process. There was a lot that I put out there that was very difficult for me to come clean with. It was painful and it was honest.”
Ms. Coleman said it took her own experiences with violence for her to realize it wasn’t the solution she initially thought the world needed. She described herself as “very naïve” for joining the radical movement in Portland, where she poured nearly all her inheritance into the cause.
“It became a combination … of navigating what was my political responsibility [and] to stand up for what I saw as a wrongdoing, whether in our immediate community or the world,” she said. “It definitely put me on the path of investigating if violence is a tool for social change.”
In the midst all of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, along with the shootings that seem to happen at schools on a regular basis, Ms. Coleman’s book comes at a relevant time, she said. And it took her pushing herself and digging deep into her memory—into a dark, secluded part of her mind—to bring out her account of what it was like to be on one end of such an event.
Ultimately, she said she hopes people, especially the younger generation, take away the same message she did: violence is not the answer.
“As a Zen monk, I’ve definitely taken a vow of non-violence,” she said. “My feeling would be, no violence. That would be how I would try to navigate world situations. But I understand there’s a lot of people out there who don’t go that route.”