Roger Allen La Porte
November 9, 2019 § 2 Comments
Fifty-four years ago on the evening of November 8th, 1965, I had what turned out to be my final conversation with Roger La Porte. Early, the next morning on November 9th, Roger walked to the United Nations Plaza and at 5:20 sat down on a little cement island on First Ave in front of the UN, doused himself with gasoline and immolated himself. According to the then morning paper, The Journal American, his mumbled words to attendants and police during the ambulance ride to Bellevue Hospital were: “I am anti-war, all wars. Give me water.” When asked if he did this to protest what was going on in Vietnam, he said, “No. I did this as a religious action. Water. Give me water.” The next day, Doctor Jacob Richards pronounced Roger Allen La Porte dead at 2:50 p.m. on November 10, 1965. He was 22 years old.
This event altered the lives of those of us who worked with and knew Roger. We were all young. We had the complicated and intense relationships of youth and a commitment to non-violence and the works of mercy. We were living and working on what then was the Bowery’s skid row in NYC. Immolation was as hard for us to grasp as any of our countrymen and women Today, not many people think about or know the complex story of Roger La Porte. If November 9th, 1965 is remembered at all, it is because that evening the first great northeast blackout in the United States took place. The plug was pulled on New York City as Roger clung to life in Bellevue Hospital.
I was 23 when these events happened. I am 77 now. I know that Roger’s death was not a suicide. But, what was it? The private conversation that I had with him that last night was all about his concern for his friends: one near death and stricken with a mysterious ailment in Saint Vincent’s Hospital and other friends who were facing arrest for burning their draft cards. Our activities at the Catholic Worker were under FBI surveillance. Roger’s questions to me that night were urgent and ones I could not properly answer. Did I believe a person could take another person’s pain and did I believe in God. Not exactly light topics but typical of Roger’s personal intensity. To the first question I said, “I didn’t know; to the second I said I also didn’t know, but felt there was some energy there, something beyond our comprehension, and I remember him nodding in agreement, his face ardent and very much alive. It was not the face of a depressed and defeated human being. But to go as far as he went is hard to grasp. Certainly, it is especially baffling for the Western mind.
I’m tired of martyrdom. I wish it would go away. We have too many martyrs. They are disturbing. They make it hard for us with their inconvenient yearnings for a better world. But, maybe that is the lesson of such a terrible sacrifice. We should be uncomfortable. Some actions remain mysteries. We don’t need all the answers and even if those answers remain elusive, we should be working harder for a better world.