My friend and comrade Sherrl Yanowitz has died this evening. She became a socialist at Berkeley in the mid-1960s, joining SNCC and Core and hearing Hal Draper speak. She was part of a generation that sat down on train tracks to stop military trains and marched on the Bay Area docks to stop ships loaded with weapons for the war. She came to London in 1969 and was a part of the women’s and anti-racist movements, I remember finding an archive photograph of her and her partner Neil Rogall, both with giant hair, on a protest against the NF’s racist landlord Robert Relf in 1975. She joined the International Socialists, later the SWP and was amongst many other things a member of that party’s unofficial AgitProp committee, whose launch statement declared, “This first national AgitProp meeting wants an end to drab socials, colourless meetings, boring education, unconvincing propaganda and bad jokes…”
In 1977, Sherrl had the idea for a Stuff the Jubilee badge: the printer laughed at her when she took him the design, but so popular did it prove that in the end 40,000 of them were stamped, and the slogan took a life of its own, inspiring other leaflets and events. She was a woman in the male-dominated printing industry, and on strike at Wapping, and toured the country speaking on behalf of the strikers.
In 1991, when I was in central London and under-employed on a gap year, Sherrl made me an honorary member of the SOAS SWSS group, and persuaded me to give my first political talk (the title, “What’s wrong with British Justice?” turned out to be a larger part of my life than I could have guessed). She was comfortable in a diverse left which included anarchists and orthodox Trotskyists (Paul Mason was standing behind another SOAS table), academics, both Marxist and otherwise. She shared the memories of her working life: speaking with Paul Foot about Wapping, sharing an elevator once with the hulking, sweating evil that was Robert Maxwell.
She found her own path in the 1990s and patiently for her friends to join her, telling me on my first departure in 2003, “Welcome to the biggest political party on the left in Britain, ex-members of the SWP”. She left and she never stopped being an activist. In 2003 she was taking photographs against the war and helping build the movement. She did not hide her view that the leaders of Stop the War were failing the movement but few things gave her (as an anti-zionist Jew) more pleasure than watching the sudden dialogue that emerged between the socialist left and British Muslims. Where people were in the wrong she could be as hard on them as nails, but when people (sometimes the same people who were otherwise at fault) got something right, she did not stint in her praise of them.
When the crisis happened in the SWP in 2013, Sherrl knew immediately what side she was on and behind the scenes gave the most support she could to the people who fought. When a new organisation, RS21, was launched, it felt to her that here was a chance – at last – of creating the principled left that for years she had missed. I can’t promise that we are, or ever will be, quite what she wanted. But thanks in part to Sherrl we’re still trying. My love to her and my love to her partner Neil.
One day we’ll win and when we do, I’ll be thinking of Sherrl.