Tributes to Sherrl Yanowitz (1942-2016)

We are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and comrade Sherrl Yanowitz, who passed away this week after a short battle with cancer.

Sherrl was, and will continue to be, an inspiration for all of us fighting for a better world. She was an activist, trade unionist and a fighter against all forms of oppression and injustice.

Her activism stretched from being involved in the Black Freedom Struggle in the US as a member of SNCC and CORE and a voter registrar in Oakland, through the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and the anti Vietnam war movement. She arrived in Britain in early 1969, after spending time in Paris. Here her fighting spirit continued. She was an active participant in the Womens’ Movement and helped develop the National Abortion Campaign, particularly in Central London. She was an active trade unionist building the booksellers branch of the TGWU, taking delegations to Grunwicks, co-designing the Stuff the Jubilee badge and of course providing support and solidarity during the Miners Strike and at Wapping where she was on the News of the World Clerical Chapel Strike Committee. And that activity never ended – helping organise Newington Green Stop the War, after 9/11, participation in ‘Artists Against the War’, and in her last few years as a keen activist in London Palestine Action and a member of rs21.

Our thoughts and condolences go out to Sherrl’s many friends and comrades around the world and especially to her partner Neil Rogall.

Many personal tributes to Sherrl have appeared online and we have collected a selection from them here.

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Yesterday I said goodbye to an incredible revolutionary, class warrior, feminist, pro-Palestine activist and all round defender of the oppressed and exploited.

Sherrl Yanowitz and I used to have heated conversations where I’d make sweeping statements such as “feminists in the 60s and 70s didn’t care about women of colour”.

She’d stop me, with her usual matter of fact but loving tone, and remind me of all the working class, socialist and black heroes of feminism for whom it is not the case they never existed, but were just whitewashed from history.

She knew this from living through it. From organising with the black panthers. From organising with socialist and working class feminists, from struggling against racism, the police, xenophobia, Zionism and fascism. Decades before I was even born.

In all the conversations we had she was so willing to learn about your experience, as well as offer her own.

I really regret not accepting your offer to visit your yard and look at all your magazines and books with you. I would have learnt so much, but we always think we have time.

You will be deeply missed. You bloody legend.

-Shanice

Sherrl protesting at the Elbit arms factory in 2015 (Photo: Steve Eason)

Sherrl protesting at the Elbit arms factory in 2015 (Photo: Steve Eason)

Although we’d met before, my first proper memories of Sherrl Yanowitz are in a meeting where we planned to shut down an Israeli arms factory. We discussed how to deal with police, Zionists, and angry villagers. Sherrl said she would be happy to take any of these on because they would be tricked by her appearance as a ‘little old lady’. It was clear in that meeting that she was as fierce as she was experienced. She never tricked me. When Hil told her we were starting a band, and we needed a name, she told us that she had been in a band called something like “Brazen Sluts”. She said we could have the name if we wanted.

From then on, Sherrl, and her wonderful partner Neil Rogall have been such an important part of London Palestine Action for me. Hearing about Sherrl’s incredible life – from the Black Freedom Struggle in the US, to anti- Vietnam war movement, to miners strike action, to anti-war post 9/11 activism, and Palestine solidarity work… it has just blown me away with pride to have organised with her, and inspiration to keep on fighting for the things she so passionately believed in. Over the last weeks of her illness Neil’s dedication to and love for Sherrl has been such a thing of beauty. My thoughts are with him, and with all of the people who have lost such a wonderful fighter. Rest in Power sister.

–Clare

In 1986, when the Wapping dispute kicked off, I was branch secretary of NATFHE (now UCU) at Dacorum College, Hemel Hempstead. Since the defeat of the miners the previous year, a sense of demoralisation had gripped much of the trade union movement, including the Dacorum branch. Whenever proposals for industrial action came up, there were always some who argued “If the miners couldn’t win, what hope have we?”

Although it was a defensive action, and was in essence a lockout, the Wapping dispute showed, I felt, that despite the defeat of the miners, there were key sectors who were still prepared to fight. It was a two-way process – the print workers needed solidarity, and our NATFHE branch needed to see that workers were still fighting, so through the Socialist Workers Party I made contact with print workers who were prepared to come and speak.
It was Sherrl who came up. Her speech at our branch meeting was exactly what was needed. Clear, inspiring and humorous, it proved that the assault on the trade union movement could still be resisted. Several NATFHE members were also surprised, and impressed, that a woman was an activist in such a male-dominated industry. The collection at the end raised a decent amount of money, and we began posting regular updates on the progress of the dispute on the NATFHE noticeboard.

Several of us also began travelling down to Wapping to join the Saturday night mass pickets to block the fleets of lorries from distributing Murdoch’s rags.

It was only a few months ago that Sherrl messaged me to ask if I was the same Tim Evans who had invited her to speak in 1986. I confirmed I was and was pleased when she said what a good reception she felt she had received. I was shocked, so soon afterwards, to read her posts detailing her illness and dismayed at the speed with which it overtook her. My deepest sympathies go out to her partner Neil Rogall. The movement has lost a fighter.

— Tim

Today we lost a wonderful friend and fighter against injustice everywhere, the wonderful Sherrl Yanowitz. So gutted. I first met her in the late 1980s and was rather awestruck because she’d played such an important role in the Wapping strike where I’d joined many a mass picket line in youthful enthusiasm. I didn’t know her that well in those days and we lost touch. But I was fortunate enough to become reacquainted with her in recent years and had some brilliant conversations with her. What I so loved about her was her guts to tell things as she saw them and to not be afraid to speak out. Where I and others were timid she came straight to the point. I loved her stories about the women’s liberation movement in the 70s and the way she’d pull me up if I romanticised things. I was so sad to have arrived at the hospital too late today to say goodbye. But I was pleased I got the chance to hug and to remember with her lovely partner and love of her life Neil. She was too modest to realise how many people felt inspired by her struggles but we will continue to be inspired by her even though we will miss her terribly.

–Hazel

I’ve never encountered anyone in my life who so epitomised the determined, stubborn, generous, belligerent, pugilanimous spirit of resistance, of life, as Sherrl Yanowitz. That she could pass so suddenly, seems inconceivable, like a reversal of nature. The experiences of working class struggle that she carried within her, and shared with us, are a reminder that history is made up of living people, that we are a mass of brilliant individuals. Living fighters. In the words of Neil Rogall, she was always a fighter. Her fight goes on through us. She didn’t want us to mourn her, but in her indefatigable spirit we will defy her. Goodbye comrade.

–Caliban

Demonstrations against American involvement in the Vietnam War - Anti draft protests in Oakland, California 1967. (Photo: Sherrl Yanowitz.)Demonstrations against American involvement in the Vietnam War – Anti draft protests in Oakland, California 1967. (Photo: Sherrl Yanowitz.)

It is with great sadness and sorrow that I read of the loss of Sherrl , a comrade I have known since 1963 when we both members of the Berkeley YPSL (Young Peoples Socialist League) and of Berkeley Campus CORE. It was CORE’s mobilization of students for sit-ins against racist employers that led to Clark Kerr’s attempt to ban student political action, producing the Free Speech Movement, of which Sherrl was a dedicated activist. She was then a militant in the next stage of the 1960s movement, against the Vietnam War and American imperialism. I knew Sherrl in those days as a young, uncompromising fighter against injustice. We lost track of each other, but decades after the 60s we resumed ties at Marxism in the 1990s, delighted that despite the years we were still committed to the politics of International Socialism. It is terrible to lose a comrade who always remained true to the ideals of her youth, who never gave up the struggle for working class emancipation as the road to human liberation. Sherrl Yanowitz, Presente.

–Joel

The thing that always struck me about Sherrl, apart from her wicked sense of humour, was her complete no-bullshit attitude to life, politics and people. She would cut through the crap in a conversation like a laser, she wasted no time, and everything she said came from passion and conviction. Talking to her was to be reminded of why you were a revolutionary in the first place. I was so lucky to have her as a friend and comrade, to find out about her experiences, not only in the workplace or in political organisations, but also as part of radical theatre groups in the 60s and 70s, something many people might not have known about. She shared those stories with me, came to see my plays and was always incredibly supportive of my work and of trying to combine art and politics in general. She encouraged me to push for more arty activities to be included at left events and meetings, and even when I was reluctant or thought my work wasn’t good enough, she would keep making the point again and again, never taking no for an answer.

A few months ago, at my last job, we were facing redundancies and I wrote about it and what we trying to do to organise against it on Facebook. Sherrl commented saying that what I was doing was incredible, and that people would learn from me. I was chuffed to pieces. I can’t think of a higher compliment, or a more wonderful endorsement, than from someone who was legendary for her own battles, and who I’d first heard about as being an inspirational class fighter. Rest in power Sherrl, we were so lucky to have known you, and we will miss you so much.

–Jaz

I first met Sherrl around 1990 when I was an activist in Islington Nalgo (now Unison). A fellow activist was a lodger in your house in Islington and I remember we had a number of meetings there – it was at these meetings I got to hear some of Sherrl’s stories about all the different struggles she’d been in over the years: we were all in awe of the sheer breadth of experience she had as a revolutionary – from cultural to trade union activism to feminism to anti-racism to…and how she consistently joined up the dots between them in a way that not many others around at the time did. I have a particular memory of Sherrl coming to speak at an Islington Nalgo meeting to help relaunch the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1990s and of her totally electrifying the meeting when she spoke of her family background as a Hungarian Jew, losing relatives to the Holocaust and why we had to fight against the rebirth of Nazism in the shape of the BNP. Sherrl had a way of connecting with so many different people : she never used her knowledge and experience to talk down to anyone and seemed to always be more interested in what you had to say rather than what she did. Sherrl often brought in personal anecdotes in political discussion and, I thought, put over her politics all the more powerfully as a result. It was great meeting her again during the last couple of years and learning more about the different types of activism she’d been involved in – and most importantly, what she felt needed to be done NOW. I will miss her greatly: my thoughts are with you

–Caryn

Sherrl Yanowitz, a huge inspiration. Full of energy and dedication to the struggle for Palestinian liberation and an astounding trade unionist. You’ve encouraged me and supported me so much in the most difficult times. It’s an honour to have known you and to have fought by your side.

–Nilüfur

Sherrl with her extensive badge collection in 1980

Sherrl with her extensive badge collection in 1980

This is such a sad time, but Sherrl has packed so much activism into her life, she has given so much. I remember so well the Wapping dispute where she was absolutely central in building support and at a great price to herself because her mother was very ill at the time. I was a member of Brent NUT, an incredibly bureaucratic branch in the iron grip of the CP. I proposed that we invite a speaker from the print dispute to the branch and that speaker was Sherrl. (Because the officers left it to me to convey the invitation). She arrived just before the meeting and sat at the back of the room. When the long winded and boring business of the meeting was concluded, I reminded the chair about the print worker. “You can bring him in now,” said the chair to which I replied, “She’s here already”. Audible intake of breath, but of course Sherrl spoke brilliantly and a donation was agreed. She told me afterwards that ours was the most bureaucratic union branch she had ever been to. I also remember being very cocky about my collection of badges, unaware, then of how many of the most striking badges I owned had been designed by Sherrl and what a magnificent collection she had. I believe they are now part of a museum collection. We shall miss Sherrl so much, but remember her with gratitude for her enormous contribution to the history of our time.

–Sarah

Weird how the loss of someone you only met a handful of times can have such an impact on you. Sherrl was a real inspiration to me, and for lots of other women on the left. The life she lived, and the stories she had from her decades in the struggle were simply amazing- and her ability to cut through the bullshit & say it how it is was brilliant. If I am ever half the activist and the woman she was I know I’ll be doing well. Raising a glass to her tonight in New Orleans, and sending love and solidarity to everyone at home who knew her better and loved her more than I did- none more so than her partner Neil. Rest in Power, most wonderful of comrades.

–Charlotte

My wonderful friend and comrade, whom I’ve known for 35 years, Sherrl Yanowitz passed away today. Sherrl’s partner Neil Rogall allowed me and close friends to spend her last moments with her. I’m very grateful to Neil.

It’s at this moment that it is customary to begin with eulogy of someone’s passing. But I cannot. I want to rage against a disease which has claimed the lives of some of the best people I have ever known, including Sherrl and my wife Harriet. Cancer.
It’s not fucking fair! It’s not fucking fair! It’s not fucking fair! It’s not fucking fair!

Sherrl was a warm and generous soul. She had a mischievous sense of humour which she shared with Neil. They both had an absolute fascination for the world and a love of everyone in it and shared their enthusiasms and inspired all they met.

They were, and Neil is, an utter inspiration to young and old.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have known amazingly courageous and inspirational people and Sherrl was that and much more. She was a tremendous fighter against injustice, oppression and capitalism all her life.

People like Sherrl represented all that was good in this world and gave me the confidence and determination to fight for a better world. There was and is no better ideal.

Sherrl told me that she met a comrade who was in serious financial problems. When the comrade went home she found an envelope which contained a substantial amount of money. There was a note from a fictitious revolutionary organisation explaining the money was their way of fighting back against the system. No prizes given to know who the true identity of the donor was.

I am truly grateful to have had Sherrl in my life. Her love, kindness and dogged determination to fight for the most oppressed will be with me all my life. I love you Sherrl.

–Ashok

There is one comment

  1. rs21

    Thank you for putting this up, it is wonderful. I read it and reread it and it makes me realise what a wonderful person I have lost from my life. It is so cruel the way it happened, and so swift. But what a life she had. Goodbye my love

    Like

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