Dedicated to the struggle
celebrates the life of a dedicated socialist, activist and musician.
JOSH BRIELMAIER first contacted me when he was 16 years old. He found my e-mail address online, listed as a contact for the ISO in Madison, Wis. He was in high school in a conservative suburb of Milwaukee, in Waukesha County.
He would lament how George Bush won his congressional district in 2000 by one of the highest margins in the country. That's the same district represented in Congress by James Sensenbrenner, famously responsible for provoking the largest May Day demonstrations in recent history--demonstrations that Josh would help organize--by proposing that any assistance to the undocumented be punishable as a felony.
This same place produced Josh Brielmaier, a working-class fighter until the day he died far too young. It was his 24th birthday, March 3, 2012.
I wish I still had access to that old college e-mail address Josh found online. Then, I could see exactly what he wrote me that day in 2004. He e-mailed to see what I thought he should do to organize progressives in his high school. He would start, we decided, by seeing if he could find any beside himself and a couple friends.
He liked Marx, he said, and he wanted to read whatever I had to offer. A comrade in Madison grew up near Josh and delivered some socialist literature to his home. (I would find out years later that, without much success organizing his classmates, to fill the void of political opportunities for a young radical, he would routinely liberate and sacrifice a neighbor's Confederate flag).
We e-mailed a bit back and forth after that initial contact, but lost touch for a couple years.
Early 2007, the antiwar movement was in one of its fullest swings. The University of Wisconsin was the site of a campaign against military recruiters and war profiteers, and we were busy calling out Sen. Herb Kohl for his clockwork support for funding a war that he nominally opposed.
Republicans had been run out of Congress the fall before, and in Madison, young activists were cutting their teeth organizing against "the surge" of U.S. troops into occupied Iraq. That April, dozens of antiwar activists occupied Sen. Kohl's office to demand he meet with us. It was late in the evening, right around the time we were realizing that we'd be there all night--and Josh was there.
He came up and asked me if his name sounded familiar. It did, I told him, and he reminded me about his hometown and his earnest project to organize whatever left he could find there.
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FOR THE next few years, we were close friends and collaborators. Those who knew him know what clear and simple contempt he held for injustice. With everything he had, he derided the system that he had committed himself at such a young age to understand.
In Madison, he launched himself into organizing, particularly at the Madison Area Technical College, where he was a student. He went to Washington, D.C., to confront Sen. Kohl face to face, and he became a fixture of the immigrant rights movement in town.
He provided countless students with their introduction to the history of the revolutions he loved reading about so much. And he was there in February 2011, sleeping on the marble of the Wisconsin state Capitol building, in the fight against Scott Walker.
Josh was the kind of guy that when you met him, he leaned in. He really wanted to know you. He was a great listener, and he always made you feel like the most interesting person in the room.
He was the hardest person to get angry with I ever knew. Even his mistakes were like his indignation, grown out of an innocence--not naïveté, but innocence. If you knew him, then that's probably why you first fell for him.
But remembering Josh would be incomplete without at least a mention of his music. His guitar and his voice were mainstays at our parties over the years. Josh had many heroes. His parents and three sisters are at the top of the list. Not far behind are the musicians--Jeff Buckley, John Lennon and Joe Hill, to name three favorites who, like Josh, were taken from us before their time.
But like the song--one of the many Josh taught me--says:
Joe Hill never really died.
From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize,
Says he, "You'll find Joe Hill."
You'll find Josh there, too.