An Interactive Memoir
Jerry Ross, the Painter

Ch 2: The Activist Years


I had a full New York Regents Scholarship to attend The University of Buffalo.  An “A” student out of high school, in hindsight I should have applied for a better school but my brother Ronnie was already going there and it was sort of expected that I go there as well.


My high school had guidance counselors but it seemed like they spent all their time with the rich kids whose parents were hip to different colleges and who had the money to send their children there.  There was no career guidance then. It was “assumed” in my family, since I was good and math and science, that I would go into pre-med.  So I went along with the game.  The summer before starting at UB, I remember Rick Sugarman, stopping by and telling me he was going to Yale!  His grades were maybe just a bit better than mine but his parents owned a golf club. The class divide was always apparent to me.

When I started in at UB it was the year before it became "State University of New York at Buffalo."  It was still a private school then (fall of 1962) and as an incoming “frosh”, I was required to wear a little blue beanie (cap).  I at the time I thought it stupid bit in retrospect, in light of the result of the school going public, it was kind of neat.  I really enjoyed my first year attaining the Dean’s List in grades, good professors and relatively small classes.

The next year, when UB went from private to State,  was a disaster.  The school suddenly became SUNYAB (State University of New york at Buffalo) and seemed to be flooded with more students.  Classes were huge ones held in big auditoriums.  I had to declare a major and chose math because I had always been good at math and enjoyed it.

I thought I was on the road to pre-med and it seemed like a good idea.  But whereas I had aced calculus, in the fall term I had to take advanced math which seemed very abstract to me. I didn’t do too well.  In those days there was no real assistance or tutors available if you got into trouble academically.  The term also turned out to be a disaster academically.  I was growing increasingly alienated from the school, my professors, and my declared major.  I had some “D”s and lost a sense of certainty in what I was doing.  I decided to drop out a term. 

I had wanted to visit the author Eric Fromm in Mexico City after receiving a letter from him.  My alienation and sense of "ferblungency" was at at extreme. My high school friend Bruce Marshall was already living in Tucson where his family had moved after the death of his younger sister from Leukemia.  I wrote Bruce and told him I would be coming.  I went to Sidney who had never bothered to have any event surrounding my Bar Mitzvah.  Whereas Ronnie had a large party with relatives arriving from New York (and the gifts of cash associated with such events) I had nothing at all.  This was typical.  Sydney had a way of treating me at times  as if I were not his son (and perhaps I wasn’t, who knows?!).

He paid for braces for Ronnie but not for me when, in fact, my teeth were more crooked and really needed treatment.  So I went to the Fur Store and asked for several hundred dollars for my trip to Mexico.  To my surprise he forked it over!  Soon I was on a greyhound bus headed to Tuscon.  This was the beginning of other trips to Mexico that would happen down the road.

I found Bruce Marshall in Tucson but he was preoccupied with a girlfriend.  Plans were for the two of us to travel together in Mexico.  I was antsy and wanted to take off so we made new plans to meet in San Miguel de Allende, a small art colony.  I took off for the border by greyhound.  But when I got to the border I found out I needed a birth certificate.  I had to call home for the document but cannot remember if I had to return to Tucson or just hang out at the border. 

Anyway, after a short delay I was on a bus headed for San Miguel.  Arriving there I found it to be a very fancy and expensive colonial town. I stayed one night in a very beautiful colonial era hotel but it was way too expensive so I decided to rent a room for a week in poor section of town, trying to stretch my money out.  I waited several days for Bruce to show up but he never did.  I decided to get back on the bus and head for Mexico City.  I knew my money was running out so I climbed on a bus heading for Mexico City and went to the very back of the bus not sitting in a seat but just sitting on my suitcase. The driver discovered me back there and threw me off the bus.  I had to buy a ticket.  To save money I bought a ticket on a Mexican bus which was slower and crowded with peasants, chickens and all. 

Off we went headed for Mexico City.  After a very long trip I remember seeing the lights of Mexico City emerge in the distance as we descended into what seemed like a valley.  We arrived and I was amazed to see before me a city of short, brown people (to me, they looked like indians).  I had no plan other than to head for the University.  I somehow found the right bus and jumped on (the buses didn’t seem to actually come to a complete stop. You had to jump on and off as the bus kept rolling forward!).  On the bus a blind boy and girl were singing for pesos. Arriving at the University I jumped off and made my way to the student union. 

On a bulletin board I found, In English, a note of someone looking for a roommate.  I wanted to stay for around a month or more, so I wrote down the address and gradually found my way to the apartment.  When I got there I found four or five people were sharing a large apartment.  I cannot remember their names but there was a British guy who played the guitar and sang and his girlfriend.  There were two priests from Princeton University who were engaged in a project of translating the works of Karl Marx into Spanish!  There was a playboy type of guy from Chicago. I joined this disparate group of ex-patriots. 


Photo of Mexico City 1963 by Fred Herzog

Now that I had an HQ in Mexico city I settled into a routine of going to the American Library and reading philosophy books.  I discovered the works of F.S.C. Northrop, especially the book “The Meeting of East and West.”  This book had a good section on Mexico and Latin America but also set forward an expansive philosophy of epistemology and metaphysics based on the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.”  I liked what I was reading.


We usually had dinner together in the apartment.  On one evening a young Mexican was our guest. He was white and of Spanish origin and talked like an upper bourgeois jerk.  He liked to brag that he would drive around in his sorts car and when poor Mexicans approached or got too close to the car, he would take out his pistol and point it at them to scare them away.

On another occasion, our guest was an “American explorer” who looked like a savage in that several of his front teeth seemed pointed rather than flat.  He told of exploring Latin American countries like Peru and wandering into indian villages starving to death.  He said the people all fled thinking he was a “white devil.”  He said he fainted inside a hut after eating a handful of food and, when he awoke, was surrounded by indians straring at him.  Somehow he escaped only to wander into other indian villages with similar results.  Here he was now in Mexico city planning his next trip to south American.  He seemed quite insane.

One day I discovered a Kosher, Jewish restaurant on the street near our apartment house. I went in and ordered a breakfast expecting some bland Jewish food.  I took one bite of the eggs and suddenly my mouth was on fire like never before.  No matter how much water I drank, the burning continued.  I learned that one must beware of Mexican food no matter what what the context.  Always carry a fire extinguisher for your throat, if possible.

On another occasion I decided to attend a Mexican bull fight.  I sat in the stadium and watched the spectacle unfold in the arena.  It was more of a torture butchering process than a "fair"  bull fight (an oxymoron, no pun intended).  After a few passes of the cape the bull was stabbed with lances by riders on horses.  Then on several additional passes, the bullfighter jabbed long pointe sticks into the bull’s neck to lower its head.  Finally it stabbed the bull directly in the neck or head with a sword.  The bull collapsed in agony and blood and then it was dragged from the stadium by horses.  Not a pretty sight.  I had remembered the term “sans culloutes” (“without pants” in French to describe the class of poor people) but saw this in the bullfight stadium myself.  A young boy appeared dressed in rags begging for pesos.  He actually was naked sans pants, even underpants, only a shirt barely covered his parts as he moved around the stadium begging.


This was my first introduction to a “Third world country.” It was 1964.  I also remember seeing dead bodies of the poor on the streets every morning.  Mexico City was at a high altitude and it got very cold overnight.  The bodies of homeless were often sprawled on the pavement quite dead.

After several months in Mexico my money was gone and I was ready to return.  I called home for enough money to fly home to Buffalo.  I got a ticket and landed back at home in Kenmore to prepare for my junior year and re-entry into college life.  The experience had affected me in good ways.  I was a bit wiser about the political realities of the world, Marxism, and the existence of abject poverty on a large scale just on our own southern borders.

During my junior  (64-65)  year the anti-war movement was really starting to ramp up.  There was the very beginnings of an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). I remember a small demonstration against the war held at the fountain just behind the student union.  It was supposed to be a “sleepout” against the war.  In no time at all, fraternity and jock types showed up to harass and kick the protesting students sprawled out in their sleeping bags. As a YAWFer, I was always skeptical regarding “peacenik” tactics of pacifism in the face of hecklers and attacks by the right.  In this case, my worse fears were realized. 

Soon a small group of bikers showed up (Buffalo Road Vultures, its version of Hell's Angels) to harass the protest.  After jeering and kicking the students in their sleeping bags an interesting thing happened.  The bikers picked a fight with the football team members who were among the frat boys.  Suddenly the frat kids were beating the crap out of the bikers.

Buffalo Road Vultures

At the end of it a much bloodied biker was heard to say  its amazing how the head and the body are interconnected man, I mean a punch to the face really makes your hip dislocate…”  All this while blood was pouring out of his head.

Then came the various occupations of administration buildings like Hayes Hall and subsequent invasions of campus by Buffalo cops.  I remember things getting out of hand at one point when working class kids in SDS fired rocks at Buffalo cops who were on campus, seriously injuring a few.  This was at night and the SDSers were attempting to provoke a larger response from the police.

Buffalo’s Finest

Well they got everything going. They retreated to the student union where I jut happened to be at the time, attempting to reserve a room from Bess Feldman who took care of room scheduling. I was on the first floor about to it the south door when I saw one of the SDS kids run into the union all excited (he had probably just pelted a cop with a rock) and running into the student lounge shouting he began overturning coaches and breaking off their legs for clubs.  “The pigs are coming!”  he yelled and began running to the north exit.  I took this as a cue to make tracks and ran in the same direction just in time to see a crowd of police rush the doors and enter the student lounge with their clubs in the air.  I escaped out the (north?) door and into the night as fast as I could run.

The next day the tear gas and smoke had cleared but the progression of that night’s events unfolded with its own dialectic. Many students were seriously injured by the police and in the backlash hundreds of students in the dorms were seriously politicized overnight.  The campus unrest spread with a total police occupation of the campus  Eventually  mass teach-ins were conducted with classes as such suspended. 

 The anti-war movement was joined with an attempt to reform the university and alternative classes were held by  “free university.”  It was a period of mass democracy and student engagement on a large scale. The ROTC building was burned down by art students.  Project Themis as attacked.  My own efforts were involved in pasting huge posters ("dazibao") on the outside of buildings urging students to boycott classes and denounce certain professors who were suspected of war crimes during WWII.  It was the beginning of anarchistic behaviors on my part as I got caught up in the “festival of revolution.”

“Wikipedia:    Following high school Ross studied at State University of New York at Buffalo. He became an activist opposed to the Vietnam War (he was one of "the Buffalo Nine" group of defendants), and worked on behalf of the political prisoner Martin Sostre (Heineman 1993, p. 163). He was granted a B.A. in philosophy in 1968. (McQuiddy 2006, p. 76)

Described as "the big one that got away," the conservative press in Buffalo portrayed Ross as a Maoist and atheist who was "scurrilously critical of U.S. policies in Vietnam." The media indicated that the government may have deliberately targeted him and other anti-war leaders. According to the Buffalo media, Ross was a go-between for the Buffalo Nine and Martin Sostre, an important political prisoner in New York State whose case was of personal interest to J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the FBI. FBI efforts to draft Ross had failed because he had so many arrests for his anti-war activities that his court dockets never cleared long enough for the draft board to act. Also of interest to the FBI was the fact that Ross had been expelled from a Marxist-Leninist group, the Workers World Party (WWP), for "Kautskyism." (Cardinale 1998, p. 6)

Ross's unabashedly leftist and at times strident political position may seem at odds with his paintings, which are imbued with a sense of poetry and calm. Yet, his lifetime of opposing political systems that he believes deny basic human rights is deeply integrated into an artistic approach that expresses nobility in the human being and value in a nurturing environment. In life, Ross works for the utopia he creates in his work. Upon reflection, even his style may be seen to express a political statement. In his own words, "Only the elite have time to 'finish' paintings."

Note:  I am not sure of the total number of arrests I accumulated in Buffalo fighting the war and the draft  but it must have been a considerable number.  Many of those making the arrests were rather shady characters from the Buffalo Police Department. Names like Joey Giambra (Joey G.), Mike Amico, and Joe Tuttolomondo.  The latter, Amico’s deputy sheriff, received 7 years for taking bribes (1977).  Giambra himself made a movie promoting himself and admitting he was friends with certain mob figures.  Amico used the drug bust of Leslie Fiedler, UB English professor and his wife, to launch his political career as Sheriff.