Palling Around with Ray the Plumber
By RICHARD RHAMES
November 14 / 16, 2008
" 'The guy's 57 years old. He's a grandfather. He's not a threat to
society,' (Doug) Sneed said. 'At 57, what's he going to do, go out
and rob banks? What revolution? There is no more revolution. Those
times are gone.' " --Grant Street neighbor, Portland, Maine, 2004
Flushed with contradictions, American society has a new political
leader. It was a squalid campaign, conducted against the backdrop of
two wars of aggression, continuing military attacks against other
sovereign nation-states, and the systematic looting of banks and
other financial institutions by a criminal cabal of crony
capitalists. Few, if any of the brutish sociopaths responsible for
these vast debaucheries will ever be prosecuted for their greedy and
blood-soaked work. Some may even be given coveted spots in a new and
One of the more laughable themes of the campaign featured "Joe The
(alleged) Plumber," a pipewrencher and would-be plumbing business
owner. Candidate McCain trotted out JTP repeatedly as an example of
someone from the working class who might get their taxes raised by
candidate Obama --- if that is, JTP were able to buy a plumbing
company and start pulling down more than $250,000 each year. The
press showered its attention on "Joe" ---actually Samuel Joseph
Wurzelbacher --- who characterized Obama's simpering income tax
proposal as lurching "one step closer to socialism." The AP reported
that JTP actually didn't have a plumber's license and, though he'd
worked for Toledo's Newell Plumbing and Heating for 6 years, still
hadn't completed an apprentice training program he'd started in 2003.
The JTP boomlet spawned national TV appearances and a move by College
Republicans and others to draft Wurzlebacher to run against Democrat
Marcy Kaptur in Ohio's 9th congressional district next time. He's
reputedly "up for it."
The pathetic irony of it all got me thinking about a soft-spoken guy
I met back in 2004, a year after Joe started his leisurely
apprenticeship. Ray Luc Levasseur had just been released from federal
prison and returned to Maine. For 20 years he'd been subject to
routinized solitary confinement, torture, and assorted other
bestialities later exported and made infamous at Abu Ghraib/ Gitmo.
I remembered "Luc Levasseur" from his 70s era photo on (my hometown)
Biddeford's post office wall. He was a wanted man in those days ---
officially "Most Wanted." For years he lived underground and
functioned as a member of the United Freedom Front, an armed wing in
the diffuse popular struggle against America's collaboration with
African apartheid and this nation's routine imperial plunder. As he
would remind people, Nelson Manilla also spent many years behind bars
as leader of the ANC's armed wing. But upon release, Ray's and
Nelson's prospects differed greatly.
Ray grew up in Sanford, briefly worked in the mills like his parents
and grandparents, and wound up in Vietnam after, as he pointed out
later, being trained to kill by the US government. What he saw in
Vietnam gave his life focus.
Returning Stateside and organizing for societal change he could
believe in, he ran afoul of the law and was sent to prison. Later,
back in Maine, he helped run a Portland book store (Red Star North)
and did prisoner solidarity work (S.C.A.R.).
He and his cohorts attracted massive heat from the local police and
its paramilitary element. The man that Portland Police Chief, Mike
Chitwood described as "truly a revolutionary" went underground with
his wife, family, and friends. Through the 1970s, the United Freedom
Front was charged with destruction of corporate and government
property. In November 1984, Ray, his wife, and other members of the
UFF, then referred to as the Ohio 7, were arrested and, in time,
convicted on conspiracy charges.
Released in 2004, Ray needed a job. He got work with Master Plumber
Barbara West. But in Maine (apparently unlike Ohio), to work in this
trade and make $11 an hour, he needed a "plumber's trainee license."
He applied and was rejected. He appealed to fellow plumbers on the
state's Plumbers' Examining Board. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon
reported the proceedings as Ray and his attorney Jim Buschell argued
their case in April, 2005.
Jim Buschell : "April 29, 1986 Mr. Levasseur was convicted of several
federal offenses all of which involved damage to property. These were
not offenses in which anyone was even killed or even harmed in any way."
Buschell went on to say that Levasseur had been a model inmate, had
received dozens of letters of support during his lengthy parole
hearings and was determined not to jeopardize public welfare or
likely to promote disrespect for the law. Buschell says even
Levasseur's probation office has found him to be motivated and law
abiding...compliant with all terms of his supervised release. Despite
these findings, Assistant Attorney General Dennis Smith argued that a
person like Levasseur may need a longer track record to prove he is
rehabilitated...even though there is no definition of rehabilitation
in Maine statute. Smith is the legal advisor to the Plumbers' Examining Board.
Dennis Smith: "I'm trying to figure out how long Mr. Levasseur has
actually been legitimately in society...understand what I'm saying?
Out and about in society on a legitimate basis...so....so I want to
(Levasseur interrupts..."I can answer that: 58 years! I'm not illegitimate!)
Assistant Attorney General Smith continued to spar with Ray
Levasseur...at one point calling him a "domestic terrorist" and
asking whether Levasseur considered his acts of 20 years ago crimes
against the government.
Ray Levasseur: "I admit to violating the law but in all honesty I
can't tell you that I feel that I'm a criminal. I'm not a thief. I'm
not a robber. I'm not an arsonist. A rapist. I'm not gonna break into
your house...and just as importantly I've never done anything out of
greed or for personal gain. My intent was to expose the criminal
conduct of others."
Speaking on behalf of Levasseur...Master Plumber Barbara West said he
was a good employee...thorough, careful and kind and respectful to
her and her clients. But attorney Smith wanted to know whether she
shared Levasseur's political views.
Dennis Smith: "His position I think, still to this day, is that he's
a political prisoner, that he hasn't committed a crime. If she's of a
like mind and she's here to support his rehabilitation I'm going to
argue that because of their, I guess, like mindedness, this person
might be biased as to whether this person is rehabilitated...why
isn't that appropriate?"
Barbara West: "I don't have opinions about his life or his
convictions. I have opinions about whether he's an effective plumber.
If he were convicted of breaking and entering, for example, I don't
think he should go into people's houses. If he were convicted as a
child molester, I don't think he should work in houses with small children..."
Dennis Smith: "Well, she didn't answer the question but I'll
certainly take that as her answer."
The Plumbers' Examining Board is made up of five members...four with
plumbing experience. Their proceedings aren't normally monitored by
police officers or covered by the media. And they don't normally hear
from people like Ray Levasseur...a man, who at one time, was on the
FBI's most wanted list. Percy Brown, Jr. the board's chair, GRILLED
LEVASSEUR ON HIS PAST.
Percy Brown: "When you look back on this, do you feel that you would
have done it differently? Would you have done these bombings?"
Ray Levasseur : "Looking back at everything that was
involved...having gone through that entire course of action and made
the sacrifice...then I wouldn't do it again. And I can also say I
wouldn't go back to Viet Nam again too."
Levasseur EXPLAINED TO THE BOARD THAT he was born and raised in
Sanford, dropped out of high school to work in the mills...where his
parents and grandparents worked before him. He said the low pay and
the exploitive conditions helped shape his politics. And he said he
wants to be a plumber because it's a skilled trade that he likes..and
that puts him on course for a normal life. In the end, the board
accepted the motion of Master Plumber John Tyler by a vote of three to one.
John Tyler: "I fully feel that he has been rehabilitated. I have a
daughter graduating from liberal college and you ought to hear her
talk about the country. But you know there are different ways to get
your political views out there. He chose his. I think that we
consider the time, age and all the factors. I think we should grant
his training license with the supervision testified to."
Ray Levasseur says the board's decision has helped restore his faith
in humanity. He went back to work as a plumber this morning.
Assistant Attorney General Dennis Smith says he will not appeal the
Ray Levasseur lives in Maine today, and struggles with others on
behalf of political prisoners and for national liberation. Sadly,
(unlike JTP) he is unlikely to run for congress. He still disdains
the criminal element.
(Thanks to Susan Sharon)
Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of
the Kennebunkport town line).