Evan Ross: My Jack Lieberman story — a life of service

Jack_Lieberman_and_his_wife_Marilyn
I’ll leave him with the same words he left me with — thank you, Jack.

Ed. note: Longtime progressive Miami-Dade activist Jack Lieberman died this weekend from complications of COVID-19.

___

If you have been around politics in South Florida anytime during the last fifty or so years, you probably encountered Jack Lieberman. He was a reliable presence anywhere a liberal cause existed. He was a champion for the people who needed one. He was a self-proclaimed radical, nicknamed “radical Jack” decades before I was born. He embraced the persona, challenging authority, getting himself kicked out of city commission meetings, and yelling his message the entire time.

Whether he was taking over college halls in the ’70s, fighting for immigrant children locked in cages, or campaigning for a single candidate, Jack’s activism could be felt from the 1960s all the way through 2020.

Seven decades of impact by Jack Lieberman, yet it wasn’t enough.

I first met Jack Lieberman in 2004. I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman volunteering on my first campaign — John Kerry for President.

The first time I remember seeing the towering Jack Lieberman was outside the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, where he carried a large board of political buttons for sale. I didn’t know who he was. I had no idea I’d ever see him again, let alone form a friendship that would last until his passing.

But when I heard the news that he had left us, I was reminded of what that first political button I purchased said — “Friends don’t let friends vote Republican.” It made me smile. Not because I think all Republicans are bad or unworthy of public office, but because Jack sure as hell did.

And he wasn’t afraid to tell you.

Jack and I crossed paths frequently in 2008 during the Obama campaign and regularly ever since. But it wasn’t until 2011 when I learned just how helpful his vast liberal network could be, and how far he would go to use it to stand for justice and the oppressed.

I was a few years removed from high school, but still regularly attended my alma matter’s basketball games to support a fantastic team and great coach. Krop High was an overwhelming favorite to win its first state championship that year. When it came to my attention that the Florida High School Athletic Association was on the verge of forcing the team to forfeit their entire season over a student-athlete’s immigration status, I couldn’t sit quiet.

As I organized politicians and community activists around the cause of these kids and this team, I quickly reached out to my friend Jack. Within a few days, I had organized a news conference that now (thanks to Jack) included the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and countless activists prepared to take the fight to those who were mistreating these kids. We garnered national media coverage. We drove the story into the leading spot in local news.

I got the credit, but it wouldn’t have happened without Jack Lieberman.

Throughout the years since, Jack became a go-to T-shirt vendor for my clients and anyone else who asked for a recommendation. Jack was the first call of young, progressive candidates often running for office for the first time. Not just for shirts, but for everything.

He was the guy the statewide Democratic campaigns would often use to make and distribute their own materials.

In 2018, I was at his office picking up some T-shirts and having one of our usual socialism vs capitalism debates when Jack finally jokingly admitted he was a communist. We laughed. We argued.

At some point, I took my box of T-shirts, gave Jack a hug, and looked forward to our next debate. We disagreed about a lot, but we never made it personal. And though Israel was one of our places of disagreement, I always appreciated Jack’s prideful Zionism and how he never hid it, even when he worked on other causes with people who were radically anti-Israel. He brought his Judaism and his dedication to the Jewish state with him even when those around him didn’t share it. We spoke regularly about that.

He always made sure to remind me of how much he missed the days of Israel’s more liberal governments and how he couldn’t wait for Bibi Netanyahu to be gone as Prime Minister. I always reminded him that we couldn’t condition our support for Israel on which political party was in power. After all, we weren’t anti-American just because Donald Trump was President.

“Not my President,” Jack responded.

It is hard to believe this is real, but in January of 2019, Jack and I worked together for the last time. I think it is fitting that two Jews with different political views came together to combat Islamophobia.

In Hallandale Beach, Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub had said that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib might “blow up Capitol Hill.” Her comments were intended to perpetuate the idea that all Muslims have the potential to become murderous terrorists was disgusting and out of line.

I’ve been clear that I believe Tlaib is an anti-Semite, but that doesn’t justify targeting her with hate or using her to perpetuate hate against Muslims.

As the story of Lima-Taub’s comments grew, so did the public outrage. It culminated on January 23, 2019, when the Hallandale Beach Commission was set to vote on Commissioner Michele Lazarow’s agenda item to censure Lima-Taub not only for her comments, but her decision to double down on them rather than apologize or rephrase.

I was handling press for Commissioner Lazarow and one of her colleagues while Jack was organizing the crowd that was rallying outside of city hall.

On one side, Jack Lieberman and countless liberal activists and groups. On the other, Lima-Taub had organized a mix of white supremacists, Trump supporters, and Jews who she had managed to convince she was the target of anti-Semitism.

I didn’t get to stand out there with Jack. But a rally or protest left in the hands of Jack Lieberman was much like a basketball left in the hands of Michael Jordan — there wasn’t much to worry about.

On July 31, I texted Jack after learning he had been hospitalized with COVID-19. I wished him a full a speedy recovery. He thanked me. I’m looking at that text exchange as I write this and tearing up as I think of him being gone. There are no words fit to express the gratitude of so many lives Jack touched.

Truth be told, most of the people he helped, he likely never met.

On August 30, 2020, Jack Lieberman took what I imagine was a light-speed trip to whatever heaven is. I imagine him standing tall at the gates of heaven as God says, “I normally would ask what you did to warrant entry here, but in your case, the list is too long and I don’t want to sit here all day while you yell it at me through that bullhorn.” To which Jack responds: “I don’t need this stuff. Just send me back to my friends so I can keep fighting and so I can vote Trump’s ass out of office in November.”

We can’t bring Jack back. He’s one of the tens of thousands of preventable deaths brought on by the epic mishandling of the COVID-19 by the Trump administration and failures of Ron DeSantis as Governor. It didn’t have to be this way.

Jack Lieberman should be fighting for justice, equality, and dignity for those who most need a fighter for decades to come. But he leaves that work to us.

In Judaism, we are taught that our mission in life is tikkun olam, to improve or heal the world. Jack lived that. He screamed it through a bullhorn. He undoubtedly continues to scream it from the heavens. I know if he has God’s ear, he’s using it to demand intervention for those who are suffering and struggling. He’s using it to demand an end to the Trump presidency. He’s using it to demand peace, rather than pray for it.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friend Jack. But I felt compelled to tell my Jack Lieberman story. There are thousands of people who have their own, many undoubtedly more interesting than mine. Knowing I won’t get to argue with him anymore hurts. Knowing I won’t get to call him anymore hurts.

Knowing I don’t get to say goodbye hurts.

But on the chance that Jack can read these words, I’ll leave him with the same words he left me with — thank you, Jack.

___

Evan Ross is principal of Public Communicators Group, a public affairs firm that engages in lobbying, public relations, and business development.

Guest Author


10 comments

  • Rucy Jason-Kurau

    August 31, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you Evan. That was as beautiful tribute to a very special and unique man.
    I knew Jack in the 1980 & 1990’s… while working with the South Florida Peace Coalition and the Miami Peace Coalition. Then I moved to Ft. Lauderdale.
    Whenever I’d go to a Bernie Sanders meeting or other liberal events, even up here in Ft. Lauderdale, Jack was always there.
    I wanted to ask him “how he continues to keep on going, especially with such horrendous things in the way, like Donald Trump”. I think I did ask him once, and if I remember correctly, and in between selling T-Shirts, he just shrugged his shoulders and said something like: you just keep going.
    He was like the ever-ready bunny; just kept on fighting for peace & sanity, when so many of us slowly drifted away for some R&R (rest. & relaxation). He was always so humble, authentic and genuinely a true Prince of peace, love and sanity; and anyone who ever knew him feels a deep, deep sense of loss and sadness. We lost a great one.

  • allen siegal

    September 1, 2020 at 3:17 am

    30 years ago Jack and his amazing wife Marylin were my friends and for short spell I even worked for him in his warehouse that had a little of everything. He was directly involved in introducing me to the Haitian community of Miami at a critical time in its history. Subsequently I served on the board of the Haitian Refugee Center … all my actions were a direct result of who I call the Gentle Giant..always fast to give to progressive need in money and especially in spirit.
    To the Lieberman Family
    Marylin Mathew And Mara
    G-d should console you and keep You at your time of such profound loss
    Jack was a precious soul
    And I know that he has special place in the Shamayiim
    You had such an affect on so many
    Thank you Radical Jack for being a giant body and more importantly giant heart
    My heart is broken

  • Palmer Tom

    September 1, 2020 at 9:36 am

    I met him in the 1970s when we were opposing the Vietnam War. The thing I remember was his humor and cleverness, sporting a Sherman-Williams Paint baseball cap. SWP also was the initials for Socialist Workers Party and the logo depicted a flood of red paint flowing over the globe. How many people would make that connection and have a little fun with it?

  • Bob Rackleff

    September 1, 2020 at 9:46 am

    I knew Jack during grad school in the late 60s and 70s and greatly admired his commitment and energy. One of my last memories was a chance meeting in Greenwich Village; at his request I carried his box of LP records back to Tallahassee for him. Reading the occasional news story about his activism in the years since then was comforting and helped keep me going.

  • Alan K

    September 1, 2020 at 10:22 am

    In the article, the author acknowledges that Rep. Rashida Tlaib is an antisemite, but Tlaib should not be targeted with hate????

    The author is saying we should accept Tlaib’s hatred of Israel and the Jewish people, and if we are really nice to her and don’t say anything negative, she may like us for being so lovely.

    It is this worldview of the authors that renders his joyful eulogy and commentary on the state of the world useless and that of an appeaser.

    Appeasing your adversaries is shameful and cowardly. Thank you.

  • Lynn Meyer

    September 1, 2020 at 7:06 pm

    Thank you. Jack was a force of nature. And we always knew where the far edge was because Jack was unafraid of standing alone, if necessary.

  • Jishushika

    September 1, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    Very beautiful tribute for a hero among men. Unfortunately, I haven’t met Jack. At least, I don’t think I have while attending UCF in Orlando, 4-H events in Tallahassee and Gainesville and Stetson Law in Gulfport, but he sounds like my kind of person (I also find Republicans unworthy) and the best kind of friend.

    I’m sorry for your – our – loss but I hope the author -and the Florida progressive community – can use his life, character, mannerisms and wishes to further his life’s work.

  • Terri Lieberman Spector

    September 2, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Jack

  • Yvonne Terri Spector

    September 3, 2020 at 12:58 am

    Jack was my Big Brother and played a huge role in my life. I looked up to him from as long as I could remember.
    I even got my name from him. Before I was born he watched a television show with a little girl named “Little Ms.Terri”. My mother was convinced that she was having a girl and told him,”I’m bringing you home a little miss Terri.” When she brought me home he was filled with joy until she told him my name was Yvonne. Well he wasn’t going to have any of it. “Take her back and bring me a Terry, he roared!” My poor mother was beside herself and finally gave into him and told him that I was his little miss Terri. My whole life, he as well as my family, called me Terri.
    When I was a rebellious teen my brother invited me to come up to Tallahassee to take care of me. What 19 year old brother takes on the responsibility of a 15 year old out of control sister? Jack Lieberman did. He was always there for me. When I was a divorced mother with three children and living on a teacher’s salary he made sure that I was ok. He was the best brother anyone could ever imagine.
    My heart is broken 💔 and I will miss him everyday for the rest of my life.

  • Kenneth Newman

    September 11, 2020 at 1:27 am

    Jack, RIP….strong fighter for a LOT of good in South Florida

Comments are closed.


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