A very good friend and an inspiration to thousands of activists, radicals, revolutionaries and thinkers died last week.
He was a teacher and a student in life, in the classroom and in the streets. He was anathema to those who disagreed with him and had very little tolerance for bigotry and injustice, or the people who perpetrate such sores on the flesh of humanity.
Will Miller was an encyclopedia of history, thought and living off the land. I am not alone when I say that he was a brother. My heart goes out to those who were closest to him. My mind wonders how the radical community in Vermont, and anywhere else he touched down, will fill the huge hole he has left in our collective histories.
Will's hero was John Brown. Like Brown, he had long hair and his beard was often unkempt. Also like Brown, Will believed in the propaganda of the deed. An example that comes to mind occurred soon after Bill Clinton and his band of killers launched the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Will, other activists and I spent many hours tabling in front of the University of Vermont library distributing literature against the bombing and arguing with so-called leftists who supported that "humanitarian" assault. It wasn't long before we decided that something more agitative needed to be done. We were joined in our opinion by folksinger Jim Page -- who happened to be on tour in Vermont -- and activists Dave Dellinger, Orin Langelle, Anne Peterman, Jay Moore, among others.
Given that all of Vermont's congressional delegation supported the killing, we decided to stage protests at each of their offices and a sit-in at the last one on our tour. That happened to be the office of Bernie Sanders. After making it clear to the folks working there that we intended to stay until they threw us out, Will fumbled with his wife's cell phone (something new to us older folks back then) and called the local media. They showed up soon afterwards and recorded our thoughts and the arrests that followed the office's closing.
Some on the Left didn't understand why we chose Bernie's office, but the reasons became clearer when the congressman told Will and Jay that they should just leave the room if they didn't agree with what he was saying during a town meeting on the war. Our job wasn't to support Bernie no matter what; it was to point out the imperialist nature of the war and the hypocrisy of the "humanitarian" warmongers.
I only met Will around 10 years ago when I moved to Vermont. I had heard of him before, however. His name came up in conversations on the West Coast, usually from a former student of Will's, whenever there were student protests at UVM. His students are like the followers of Jerry Garcia; you can find them in every part of the planet and in almost every profession -- although I doubt you'd find too many in the military.
It wasn't just the subject matter of Will's courses that inspired his students; it was his presentation, the nonjudgmental seminars in which those ideas were discussed, and Will himself. He didn't demand respect; he commanded it. That is, Will didn't want respect just because he was the teacher. He hoped to gain your respect because he helped you teach yourself.
He was the remaining radical philosopher in a department that had been purged in 1970 after he, Michael Parenti and several others began to do more than just teach philosophical ideas. They put those ideas to use, challenging the war in Vietnam, the racism of the U.S. and the very nature of the university. Although Will wasn't purged, he rarely got a raise or a sabbatical until a friendlier chair took over the department in the late 1990s.
A few years ago, the UVM faculty began a successful drive to unionize. Will was an essential part of that campaign, just as he had been in every union campaign at the school since his hiring. Only four or five years before, he and I were celebrating the victory in a staff union drive at UVM that heralded the second union in the university's history. Will's presence, organizing ability and fervor, and his historical knowledge were instrumental in the success of this campaign -- one that provided a voice to the most exploited segment of the university's workforce.
Will is going to be sorely missed in Vermont. However, when I go about my daily life, working, writing, speaking, organizing, enjoying a beer or something sweeter, I'm going to do so with Will's spirit in my soul. I'll have a smile on my face, a chuckle in my walk and a revolutionary's love in my heart.
Will Miller, live like him!
Ron Jacobs is a Burlington activist and a UVM library professional.