Marilyn Katz received her formal training in sociology and political science at Tulane University and Northwestern University. She provided “security” for the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who participated in the Chicago street riots during the Democratic Party's 1968 national convention in that city. During the Days of Rage riots (also in Chicago) in October 1969, Katz introduced protesters to a new weapon they could use against the police: a cluster of nails that were sharpened at both ends and fastened in the center. Police later reported being hit by golf balls with nails through them, as well as by excrement. Years later, Katz would insist that her “guerrilla nails” were merely “a defensive weapon” to prevent “possible bad behavior by the police.”
When SDS imploded in 1969, Bill Ayers – whom Katz has known since the former was 17 – helped create the terrorist Weather Underground from its ranks. In 1971-72, Katz would lead another SDS remnant to form the New American Movement (NAM), a combined Old Left-New Left organization that included Communist Party USA members from the 1930s. Rabbi Michael Lerner was among its early founders, though he soon left to start his own organization. NAM’s primary political text, entitled Basic Marxism: What It Is & How to Use It, revealed the group’s devotion to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.
For most of the 1970s, NAM's local chapters ran socialist “schools” open to the public with little national structure. The L.A. school listed as the first point in NAM’s “basic perspective,” its belief “that a socialist revolution will be necessary to solve the problems of the U.S.” NAM declared that its “solidarity with the Third World grew out of a correct reaction to United States chauvinism.” A 1973 NAM manifesto stated:
“We admire, and draw inspiration from, many accomplishments from the Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions…as representing, on balance, very positive steps forward in human history…we deeply value Lenin’s contributions to revolutionary theory and practice…We identify with Lenin’s revolutionary spirit and determination; we agree with his critique of mechanistic determinism and economism, his writings on the nature of the state, his approach to creating a ‘revolutionary alliance of the oppressed,’ and his treatment of nationalism and imperialism.”
Katz, through NAM, founded the Reproductive Rights National Network in 1977-78. A sympathetic author summed up this organization's objectives:
“The long-term goal was to develop an ‘offensive movement’ [against the pro-life movement] that could fight for a more comprehensive set of demands as the conditions for ‘free choice,’ including child care, national health-care, high-quality education, and guaranteed income.”
In 1983, NAM’s local chapters merged with Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form the Democratic Socialists of America.
That same year, Katz founded MK Communications, Inc., a public-relations firm bearing her initials. The firm's clients have included the ACLU, Amnesty International, Chicagoans Against War & Injustice, the Harold Washington 1983-1987 Mayoral Campaign, Lloyd Doggett’s 1984 Senate Campaign, Human Rights Watch, the Illinois Campaign for Choice, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the socialist publication In These Times, the MacArthur Foundation, Mother Jones, the National Community Development Initiative (for the Rockefeller Foundation), United Auto Workers - Local 719, UNICEF, Project Vote, the Habitat Company, the Joyce Foundation, History Makers, and numerous City of Chicago accounts.
As an aide to then-Chicago mayor Harold Washington from 1983-87, Katz did public-relations work for the developers of the “Presidential Towers,” a HUD-financed initiative that moved homeless people out of Skid Row in hopes of moving the upper middle class into their place.
In 1996 Richard M. Daley, who had succeeded Washington as mayor seven years earlier, collaborated with Katz and the Chicago Seven to do PR for that year's Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass reported that Daley, even as he laid off a thousand city workers, gave “Katz and other public-relations firms five-year contracts that could pay them as much as $5 million each.” As part of Katz’s work for the city, she wrote press releases for the Chicago Transit Authority, which was then headed by Valerie Jarrett.
Katz called on her radical rolodex in 2002, when she and former SDS national secretary Carl Davidson founded Chicagoans Against the War in Iraq (CAWI). Katz and Bettylu Saltzman organized the 2002 antiwar demonstration where the little-known state senator Barack Obama gave his famous speech opposing the Iraq War, calling it a “stupid” conflict and a conspiracy by Republican strategist Karl Rove to “distract” from the (by-then recovering) U.S. economy. This speech made Obama the choice of his party’s left wing in the 2008 presidential race.
In 2003, Katz put her new organization to work for the Democratic Party. CAWI – which lists “allies” like MoveOn.org, Code Pink, International ANSWER, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and World Can’t Wait – trained 200 people to register voters that year.
In 2004 Katz and Carl Davidson co-authored an article, “From Protest to Politics,” urging radicals to support Democrat John Kerry for President. In the piece, Katz and Davidson agreed:
“[I]t is true that the next president of the U.S. will represent one or another imperialist grouping…We should do this without illusions. The day after Bush’s defeat, the U.S. will still be an imperialist power.”
In 2005 Katz and Davidson collaborated to write the book Stopping War, Seeking Justice: Essays in a Time of Empire.
In August 2008, Katz and her old SDS comrade Don Rose (who mentored David Axelrod, another friend of Katz) met with a reporter from In These Times to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Days of Rage riots in Chicago. When asked if she had learned anything from the violence, Katz first accused the FBI of having “assassinated” 28 Black Panthers; she then depicted those mythical murders as “a wakeup call where we saw the underbelly of our own country.” Asked whether, “in this age of terrorism,” she regretted her past radical actions, Katz replied, “I regret nothing.” She did add, however: “I would have to say for me permanently, I would probably reject violence as a useful form of revolution.” (Emphasis added.)
Today Katz is a friend of Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama, and Michelle Obama. Barack Obama initially met Katz through his first job at a law firm run by Judd Miner. The New York Times reports that Katz “gave him [Obama] entry into another activist network: the foot soldiers of the white student and black power movements that helped define Chicago in the 1960s.”
Biographer Liza Mundy quotes Katz as saying that the moment Valerie Jarrett introduced Michelle Obama to her friends, Michelle “was recognized as brilliant and beautiful, and immediately accepted into a very sophisticated social circle.” Mundy describes a May 2008 fundraiser (for Democratic Socialists of America member Jan Schakowsky) which Katz attended and Michelle Obama addressed.
From their common social circle, Katz was welcomed into the Obama 2008 presidential campaign. Like Code Pink radical Jodie Evans, Katz became a bundler for Obama, and a member of his national finance committee. According to Public Citizen, Katz raised at least $50,000 for the Obama '08 campaign.
After seeing one friend (Barack Obama) elevated to power, Katz tried to convince disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to appoint Valerie Jarrett to Obama’s open U.S. Senate seat. The Times describes Katz as “a friend” of Jarrett’s who encouraged the latter to step out of Obama’s shadow and “be the sun.” Katz tried to schedule lunch with Governor Blagojevich's wife, Patti, to advocate for Jarrett's appointment. When that failed to materialize, Katz (according to Rod Blagojevich), contacted the governor and told him that if he were to appoint Jarrett to the U.S. Senate, Obama's people would help him raise money from their network of contributors across the United States. Federal investigators alleged that an unnamed individual suggested a three-way deal for Blagojevich to appoint Jarrett to the seat, take a position with the SEIU-affiliated “Change to Win” labor coalition, and then have President Obama bolster the organization.
Ultimately, nothing came of Katz’s overture. Jarrett opted to stay in the White House, where she became part of the Obamas' inner circle.
In December 2008 Katz was elected to the national steering committee of the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition led by Leslie Cagan, a longtime committed socialist who aligns her politics with those of Fidel Castro's Communist Cuba.
This profile is mostly adapted from the article, "Valerie Jarrett: The Next Van Jones," written by Ben Johnson and published by FrontPageMag.com on September 14, 2009.