I am a man happy to exist at this moment / happy because when one puts one’s heart, reason and will / to work at the service of the people / one feels the happiness of that which begins to be reborn.
Chilean artist, activist, and folksinger
On June 27, 2016, Victor Jara’s executioner was finally found liable in a Florida court for the 1973 murder under the reign of terror of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.
When I heard the news, my first thought was “finally,” and my second thought was of Silme Domingo. Back in the ’70s I had a poster of a Victor Jara poem on my office wall; Silme often commented on the poem above and Jara’s brutal death. He could not have known that just a few years later, he, too, would be assassinated by orders from another dictator, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
It’s a sobering thought to realize that it’s been 35 years since Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were brutally murdered in their Seattle union hall. But, for those of you who did not know them, were not part of API activism of the day, or were not born yet: Other than a horrible moment in history, what does it mean today?
It’s important to remember heroes who walked the streets of the Chinatown-International District who fought the Kingdome, who struggled for justice for workers and for people of color.
I knew Silme from when he was a UW student activist, often leading study groups as well as being on the front lines of political action. I knew Gene mostly through his writing at the International Examiner. I know that they both put their “… hearts, reason and will to work at the service of the people.” Their murders had far reaching implications.
After the murders, other Local 37 reformers wore bullet proof vests, didn’t know who they could trust, and became focused on the Committee for Justice for Domingo & Viernes, a decade-long struggle for justice. They were elected to leadership positions in and beyond Local 37 … but the murders affected them all.
The ILWU International never sent the fact-finding delegation to investigate Marcos’ treatment of organized labor in the Philippines. Had they gone and found the atrocities being committed against labor unions, they might have come back and refused to load/unload cargo to/from the Philippines and the Marcos regime might have collapsed 4-5 years earlier. That would have saved countless lives in the Philippines. And, there would have been no exile in Hawai‘i for the Marcos family; even his friend President Ronald Reagan could not have offered him refuge here in the United States.
Guns & the Death Penalty
The United States is part of a shrinking number of countries that still allow the death penalty. The Domingo and Viernes families did not ask for the death penalty. In fact, they consistently argued against the death penalty—not even when it was their loved ones murdered. It is a matter of conscience.
You don’t have to be a gun expert to know that a semi-automatic sub-machine gun has nothing to do with recreational game hunting or Second Amendment rights. Certain models of guns should not be manufactured for public use. And, certain people should not be able to buy guns, period.
The two gunmen who killed Silme and Gene were known thugs. No background check or waiting period would have kept them from getting the guns—which were later proven to be legally purchased by Tony Baruso, the then-president of Local 37. But, with a smaller caliber hand gun, survival might have been possible.
Tony Baruso, who organized the plot to kill Silme and Gene at the behest of his pal, Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, died of natural causes alone in his prison cell in 2008.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that these two local activists had a national and global reach. The loss of young lives taken too soon is devastating to loved ones, the loss of natural leaders who could have changed the lives of many is incalculable. It’s impossible to know what Silme and Gene might have done. But, its not hard to assume some things.
Had Silme and Gene lived, both would have continued to “… serve the people.” Gene might have continued working for justice in labor. By now, he would probably have influenced a generation of young activists and written a number of books, including on U.S. involvement with the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. After becoming a national labor leader and recognized labor historian, he might have come home to Seattle to finish his career holding the Harry Bridges chair at the UW Center for Labor Studies.
Silme would have continued in the struggle too, but he might have gone into electoral politics. I remember teasing him about wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. We talked about needing to work across different sectors; he had that ability to talk to anyone. And he had a quirky—sometimes bawdy—sense of humor that could get hearty laughs from his ideological opponents. As I drove off to a new job in Los Angeles, I yelled out the window, “Hey, maybe you should run for mayor!” He smiled and waved. That was the last time I saw him just months before his death. He would have been a great mayor—and the first Filipino American mayor of a major U.S. city.
Whether we knew Silme or Gene or not, we can all honor them by continuing “…to work at the service of the people.”
Sharon Maeda is a frequent IE contributor who coordinated the national media coverage of the successful wrongful death case against the Marcos Regime. In November, 2011, she accompanied the Domingo and Viernes families to Quezon City for the unveiling of the first two Americans, Silme and Gene’s names being added to the Wall of Martyrs dedicated to leader victims of the Marcos dictatorship.