Walking down Commonwealth Avenue past Marsh Plaza or Warren Towers, it’s hard to miss the political organizers holding signs and handing out literature to passersby.
They are often the supporters of a man named Lyndon LaRouche, and despite their presence at Boston University and on other college campuses as part of the LaRouche Youth Movement, many students remain unaware of who LaRouche is and what he stands for.
His supporters describe him as a visionary leader whose movement seeks to liberate minds from the oppressive constraints of society. Much of LaRouche’s current literature fiercely opposes the Bush administration.
His opponents denounce him as a cult leader and conspiracy theorist with strongly anti-Semitic tendencies.
After decades of political involvement, LaRouche, now 84 years old, remains a figure shrouded in mystery, much like the organization he created and continues to lead.
THE MAN AND HIS MOVEMENT
The LaRouche movement casts its leader as an influential political and economic thinker with a tremendous gift for forecasting world crises.
The website of the LaRouche Political Action Committee claims that LaRouche ranks “among the most controversial international political figures of his time,” and that his ability as a forecaster “has placed him at the center of the presently erupting, global systemic crisis of the world’s economy.”
According to the website, LaRouche was born in 1922 in Rochester, NH. He attended Northeastern University in the 1940s and served in the military in Asia before returning to the United States to begin his political work. LaRouche’s many campaigns for president over the past three decades have been well documented.
LaRouche’s latest press release, dated Sept. 30, describes him as a “leading Democrat” and states the following about the United States’ intentions in Iran:
“At the present moment, the Anglo-American interest expressed in part by Vice-President Cheney and his wife’s long-standing connections to British intelligence circles associated with the like [sic] of British Baroness Liz Symons, is committed to either a medium-term (e.g., February 2007) or an earlier, mid-October 2006 heavy aerial assault on Iran.”
At the heart of the LaRouche movement today are the student activists, though it is uncertain how many members belong to the LaRouche Youth Movement, which began in 1999.
Barbara Boyd, treasurer of the LaRouche Political Action Committee, said students are attracted to the LYM because of its unique approach to education.
“The growing interest of college students to the LaRouche Youth Movement stems from the LYM’s focus on a classical educational program that centers on recreating the original discoveries in science and art from the original sources, rather than the conventional classroom approach of merely learning to repeat what is reported in secondary text book sources,” Boyd said in an email.
Boyd said the typical classroom approach leads to “sophistry” among students and does not allow them to seek the truth.
“These trends in sophistry are a degeneration from the higher levels of education typical of universities several generations ago, which itself fell short of the levels of classical self-education which produced great scientists from Kepler to Einstein,” she continued. “If the United States is going to reverse the current collapse of its intellectual capabilities, a return to this classical form of education is necessary.”
Boyd declined to comment on specific aspects of the LYM’s recruiting practices and the connection between the LYM and the main LaRouche PAC.
“The mechanics of how people get in contact or maintain contact with the LaRouche Youth Movement are pretty obvious and uninteresting – telephones, e-mails, etc.,” she said.
Members of the LYM interviewed for this article said they became involved because they were attracted to what LaRouche had to say.
Marcus Gilmore, 23, who was distributing LaRouche literature outside Warren Towers last week, said he joined the LaRouche movement in June 2005.
Gilmore first became interested in LaRouche when he saw the activists out on the streets in Boston, especially during the wintertime.
“I really wanted to figure out what the hell was going on,” he said.
Gilmore’s goal with the LYM is to create leaders who can change the direction of the country’s politics, he said.
“People are just so existential. They don’t really care what happens in politics,” he explained. “We’re trying to create some leadership, particularly in our generation … Are we going to make America worse, or are we going to try to improve the direction that we’re headed in right now?”
THE MAKINGS OF A CULT?
Many experts believe the LaRouche movement displays the traditional structure and methodology of a cult.
Steve Hassan, director of the Somerville-based Freedom of Mind Center, said he thinks the movement is a cult because it is an “authoritarian, pyramid-structure group, with a charismatic figure at the top who has all the answers [and] dictatorial control.”
Hassan said the LaRouche movement follows what he calls the “BITE” model of mind control, standing for behavior, information, thought and emotion.
“They are not allowed to think negative thoughts about LaRouche; that’s behavior,” he said. “They’re not allowed to talk to ex-members or critics; that’s information. You pretty much go through the BITE model and you see that it fits.”
Priscilla Coates, a former director of the Cult Awareness Network who has dealt extensively with LaRouche, also said the movement fits the mold of a cult.
“Cult-like groups in my experience need the fear of the outside world to keep their members within the fold,” she said. “It’s that kind of a fear that these groups seem to instill in people, so that they can twist whatever the outside world says, and say, ‘See? I told you.'”
She noted that cults demand of their volunteers more than they can reasonably provide.
“Sleep deprivation is one of the hallmarks of cult-like existence,” she said. “There’s always a crucial, crucial deadline … and the LaRouchies seem to do that with getting out their newspaper articles.”
Rick Ross, founder and executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute, an educational nonprofit on controversial groups, agreed with this assessment of the movement.
“Other than sleeping, they spend 24/7 with the organization,” Ross said. “And in a situation like that, how can you get another perspective? You can’t … Everyone you talk to, you communicate with, is another follower of LaRouche.”
In response, Boyd said the “lying” cult accusations are “promoted by LaRouche’s political enemies, solely in order to scare people … LaRouche’s opponents would prefer students adhere to the types of ‘thought-control’ prevailing in most university education, which emphasizes stating what is popular rather than what is true.”
A March 2002 press release by the LaRouche presidential campaign made similar counter-accusations.
“[Opponents] say things like LaRouche is a leader of a cult, or that he is anti-Semitic, or some other vile epithet. Invariably, those repeating these lies, when challenged, can never back up what they say.”
COMM. AVE. ENCOUNTERS
According to Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, only groups approved by BU are allowed to solicit students on Marsh Plaza, but any group, including the LaRouche supporters, can solicit on the public sidewalk between the plaza and Comm. Ave.
Elmore said political discourse — especially in public and in a university setting — is essential, but should be conducted civilly, and should not impede students trying to go about their business.
“I think students have been very good in distinguishing the ideas from the tactics [with which they are approached by LaRouche volunteers],” Elmore said.
Elmore advised students to make sure they understand the background of any organization they come across.
“With any organization you would join, even a student group, do your homework,” he said. “Try and find out what they’re all about, what their values are, to try and see if those values mesh with what your personal values might be.”
Randy Cohen, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he started a Facebook group entitled “Students For LaRouche To Leave Us Alone” because LaRouche supporters were becoming too much of an annoyance.
“They’re just rude,” he said. “They try to get up in my face. They say things like, ‘Don’t you want to get a dick and a bush out of office?’ And it’s just not cool. I just want to get to class. I don’t really care.”
Jay Penman, a CAS junior, said he tries to beware of the LaRouche supporters when he sees them on Comm. Ave.
“I think it’s very cult-like, and I’m a little afraid of the implications of that,” he said. “Though I feel they do have the right to hand out their literature on campus, I do think that seemingly liberal freshmen need to be aware that that’s probably not something they want to get involved in.”
DIGGING INTO THE PAST
In addition to the cult accusations, critics of LaRouche have also focused on what they see as questionable aspects of his past.
In 1988 LaRouche was found guilty of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax code violations. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released in 1994 on parole.
Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at the Political Research Associates think tank who has covered LaRouche for thirty years, said he interviewed “scores of people who … told the same stories over and over again about a systematic fundraising mechanism that clearly was violating the law,” he said.
Dennis King, who has written a biography of LaRouche, said after LaRouche was released from prison, it seemed his movement was demoralized. But with a loyal group of followers, LaRouche rebuilt his organization and decided to create an instrument to continue his legacy after he died.
“[LaRouche decided] the way to keep his movement going and keep his name out there after he dies, is to go back to his roots, the roots of his movement in the radical campus movement in the late 1960s,” King said.
King called the LYM’s current recruitment drive “quite successful,” but said it is uncertain whether this new LaRouche boom will last.
“When LaRouche does this, it’s not clear he’s going to be able to keep them like he’s done with his dead-enders — the people that have been with him for 30 years,” King said. “So I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
But according to Boyd, neither of these critics can be trusted. In her words, both Berlet and King are “political hacks … who have made careers of defaming LaRouche.”
Staff writer Andrew Shapira contributed reporting for this story.