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Jersey Central to the Revolt that Wasn't

by Russell Ben-Ali
Star-Ledger (NJ), 11/14/96

Their revolution would have started in New Jersey.

An arsenal of 49 weapons recently seized from an apartment building in Brooklyn led authorities to a left-wing political cult that reportedly once staked out a Princeton University seminary and planned to use the Garden State to initiate a violent overthrow of the government.

"The revolution was supposed to start in New Jersey after they set up temporary-employment agencies, paid the workers more money than they usually earn, and (won) millions of supporters," said a former volunteer of the group, known as the Provisional Party of Communists. She asked that her name not be used. "This is a plan that they didn't get to carry out because of the 1984 raid."

The same Brooklyn building was raided in 1984 after informants told the FBI that the PPC planned an armed takeover of the government. Informants also revealed that written plans for the revolution were stashed in safe houses in Princeton, Edison and Somerset.

The revolution was scheduled to begin on Feb. 18, 1984. The PPC predicted that, within 40 hours, the U.S. government would come under PPC control as the group organized a general workers strike, jammed telephone lines and carried out aggressive, nationwide military action.

Authorities were refamiliarized with the PPC Monday night when a report of child abuse at PPC headquarters in Brooklyn ended in a police seizure of the leftist group's cache of weapons. That cache included 16 handguns, 26 rifles, five shotguns, two imitation Thompson submachine guns, 13 knives, three blackjacks, eight pairs of handcuffs and five pounds of black powder -- most of them hidden in the false back of a closet, said Officer Dennis Laffin, a New York City Police Department spokesman.

Police originally rounded up 35 men and women, most in their 30s and 40s. Yesterday, five were charged with weapons possession; one with endangering the welfare of a child. The rest were to be subpoenaed as part of a grand jury investigation into the group's activities.

While their weaponry may seem impressive, some cult experts consider the PPC to be a group without a clue.

"They're a parody of a revolutionary group. . . . It's like a revolutionary group a la Central Casting," said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass, firm that tracks organizations with authoritarian political ideologies. "They know what they're supposed to do but they don't really get it."

The PPC, also known as the National Federation of Labor, has 41 affiliate organizations throughout the country, Berlet said.

In New Jersey, those include the Eastern Service Workers Association in New Brunswick, Atlantic City and Trenton; the Temporary Workers Organizing Committee in New Brunswick, and the Trenton Community Service Center in Trenton, according to a 1983 FBI report.

The cult was hurt by the 1984 FBI raid, when many members left or escaped, said a former New Jersey member and campus organizer who asked to be identified only by her nickname, Joanne.

Joanne also escaped in 1984 and successfully sued cult members who forged a $7,000 check in her name, stripping her bank account of an inheritance from her father.

Of her campus recruiting efforts she said: "We were allowed to speak in political science classes, sociology classes at Rutgers and Princeton -- any classes that would deal with labor or economic issues. We would talk about the plight of the disadvantaged workers and, afterwards, some students and even some professors would join up."

Some schools allowed students to satisfy life experience and volunteer-work course requirements by working with PPC affiliates, according to Joanne.

"Lots of schools did it: Antioch, Bennington, Rutgers," she said. "Any school that had programs with internships, we tried to get them to list us."

A Rutgers University spokeswoman said she found nothing to verify the Eastern Service Workers Association's involvement on campus.

Members, known first as volunteers and later as cadres, would organize "bucket drives" and go door-to-door filling buckets with donations of money, food and clothing.

"They would collect money and funds for the needy, which usually was used by themselves," said Mel Rheinfeld, a manager for the Cult Information Service in Teaneck.

But much of the collected money managed to find its way back to PPC founder Eugenio Perente Ramos, a former California disc jockey who ruled the extended organization from his Brooklyn headquarters, experts said. Perente died last year at age 59.

Perente, who was born Gerald Doeden, started the group in the early 1970s.

If you questioned authority, "you were given terrible jobs to do, like standing sentry for 14 hours outside in the cold," said Arnold Markowitz, director of the Cult Clinic at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in Manhattan.

Markowitz, who has counseled about a dozen former cult members and their families, called Perente's style of authority a form of paranoia.

Some former cult members recalled how Perente pistol-whipped one disobedient member and forced sex upon several female members.

"Towards the end before (Perente) died, that fear escalated," said former California PPC affiliate member Jeff Whitnack. "They have a work schedule that's exhausting, no sleep, a Marine boot camp-type of existence that breaks you down to the point that you can't sleep."