When Susan Got Busted, Philadelphia 1975
by Barbara Ruth
I’m not sure when the air began to change, to vibrate differently. I know the molecules screamed alarm the day Bryna and Val were walking down the street holding hands and a cop pulled them over. Routine harassment. Except the cop had been flipping through the FBI Most Wanted files just that morning at the Roundhouse. He looked at Val. She matched an updated photo, a possible ID of a woman who had eluded the Feds for seven years.
“You’re Susan Saxby.”
Bryna tells the story this way: ‘No, you fool,’ she thought at the cop, ‘she’s Susan Saxe.’ Bryna maintains she didn’t know Val was one of the two women who’d gone underground after expropriating funds from banks and giving the money to the Black Panthers. Who had broken into an armory and found plans for a detention camp in case of a Boston insurrection. Susan and her comrades mailed the plans to a radical newspaper they knew would publish them.
In the six months they had been lovers, Bryna says she never guessed Val was Susan until there in that squad car. I say: if Susan had to get busted, it was incredibly good luck she was with her lover at the time – who just happened to be a paralegal at ACLU.
Susan’s bust terrified us, not just for her but for ourselves as well. The other woman who took part in the actions with Susan back in the sixties was named Kathy Power. She was still free. Grand Juries had been convened in cities across the country in an attempt to capture members of the Underground. Dykes in Kentucky and Oregon were doing time because they refused to tell the Grand Juries who had been lovers with whom, who attended what meetings, who might have “sympathies.” The FBI collected names of candidates for Grand Jury inquisitions in Lexington, Kentucky, New Haven, Connecticut. Now they were here in Philly. They disguised themselves poorly – it was obvious which woman at the lesbian concert did not attend because she loved the music. Mostly they didn’t try disguises. Mostly they were men in suits who flashed their badges and said we had to answer any questions they asked us. They flashed those badges at our workplaces, at our bars, to our parents and neighbors. Pamphlets signed by “Lezzie Fair” began appearing in radical bookstores and gay bars, telling us it was against the law to lie to them, but it was our right, it was duty to the movement and our sisters, not to talk to the Feds. Nobody knew what the FBI would do next. I wore buttons that read “We harbor fugitives” and “Kathy Power to the Kathy People.” But I knew neither my buttons nor my mace would make them go away.
Meanwhile, a media extravaganza upped the ante. The Philadelphia Inquirer printed a picture of Susan and Bryna’s bed on page 1, with the heading “Self-Styled Revolutionary Lesbian Love Nest!” The paper said the incriminating evidence the cops collected at their apartment included Susan’s poetry.
That got to me. I was becoming a moderately well-known poet and I was guilty of writing poems against the state.
Susan’s post-capture press release said, “I continue to fight on, as a lesbian, a feminist, an amazon.” Of course I had to love her.
Yes, I knew a guard was killed during one of the bank robberies. Surveillance tape showed one of Susan’s accomplices – who had been caught long ago and died at Attica – pulled the trigger. But it happened in Massachusetts and that made Susan guilty of felony-murder. And writing poems against the state.
I thought the felony-murder law was an outrage. I thought what Susan had done was heroic – especially the part about not getting caught all those years.
The newspaper had used the words to belittle Susan, but “self-styled revolutionary” was exactly what I was becoming. And I was not the only one.