I’m hardly the only person to whom Jay Marx offered a memorable introduction to Washington, DC. Jay passed through this world entirely too briefly, but he touched a great many of us and presented a powerful example of how to apply the principles of conscious counterculture beyond building community to help refashion a new default world.
Jay and I first crossed paths in 2002. I’d finished an internship interview with a law firm office on K Street, and stumbled into a peace march that he had helped organize six months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We went on to organize, perform, and party together in countless settings over the next 13 years before he passed away at Transformus in North Carolina this July.
A Brilliant Young Man
Jay pursued his inspiration — learning, connecting with others, and struggling to make the world a better place — his entire life. His mom Diane explains that he started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the ripe age of two and taught himself to read at three years old by watching Romper Room and Sesame Street.
It was also at three years old that Jay made his first declaration of agnosticism. Responding to his mother’s introduction of the concept of prayer by whispering in low tones before bed, he at one point recoiled and yelled, “This is ridicuwous! There’s nobody in this room but you and me.”
After his parents divorced, Jay spent summers in Wyoming (first, Cody, then Jackson Hole) with his maternal Uncle Jim, a world champion rodeo bareback rider who took Jay under his belt. Describing his time with his Uncle Jim, Jay wrote once in an email:
I am from the West, and essentially “of the West” (like Faulkner once described himself “of the South”). I love it there, it is what I know as Home, and expect (expect-ed..?) always to return….For me, at the frontier of my own awakening awareness, the West begins in summer 1974, in Cody, with Uncle Jim.
There are scores of stories waiting about the 12 summers we spent in Wyoming with Jim Houston, World Champion Bareback Rider (1964-5) turned rodeo producer, rodeo equipment maker, inductee into the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, storyteller par excellence, enthusiastic uncle. Those all have to wait. For now, suffice to say that in Cody (1974-7) and Jackson (1978-85) we were submersed in the unique American subculture of rodeo.
We watched, worked, rode in, fed animals for, cleaned up after, promoted about, counted tickets from, and basically ate, drank and slept rodeo for 3 months every year, from the day school ended in early June until Dad picked us up in late August, so we could spend a week with him in California before going back to school. Its where I learned to ride, work, hike (National Park proximity, check!), fish, drive, kiss, love freedom, fear authority, sometimes wish I was home playing summer baseball or soccer with my friends, and otherwise become everything I would forget I was during the school year. There wasn’t much room for rodeo back in Denver once school started (except for on some walls and photo albums at home, and at the National Western Stock Show, every January, when Jim would come stay in the basement for two weeks).
But all summer, every summer through 1985, it was all horses all the time…
That’s the foundation, I guess, for whatever comes later. After 1985, Jim gave up the concession granted by the Town of Jackson and went on the road, looking for the same freedom that cowboys always go looking for, sooner or later, and leaving me to finally play summer baseball in Denver.
Learning his childhood history and his Uncle’s role in his life helped me better understand Jay, whom I sometimes described as a cross between the Marlboro Man and a raging hippy.
It was during one of his trips to Wyoming that Jay first got his start in theater. His first production, The Pied Piper of Hamlin Town with the Missoula Children’s Theater, saw him playing one of only a few speaking roles, as the town brat. More plays in middle and high school culminated in a role as Danny Zuko in Grease.
In the 8th grade, Jay took a trip to Washington, D.C., where he would return many years later. When he got home from his school trip, he showed his mom a flyer from a vigil outside the White House protesting the use of nuclear weapons. The vigil began in 1981, and has continued nearly every day since then. It would later come to play a major role in Jay’s adult life.
After receiving a full ride, merit-based scholarship among only 10 awarded across the state, Jay studied history at Colorado College. As the Opinions Editor of Catalyst, the school paper, he demonstrated early his lifelong penchant for embracing controversy.
When he was done, he put his education to a far greater use than most graduates ever do.
A Prescient Voice for Peace and Justice
Jay presented a rare combination of talents. Few people reveal as deep and enduring a commitment to any set of principles. Fewer still combine his intellect, charisma, and sincerity to shine such prolific light in this world.
Jay served as the coordinator of the Washington Peace Center (which I served as a member of the Board before he joined the staff, and to which Jay’s family has invited donations in honor of his memory) in the mid-to-late 2000s. He worked to support campaigns, organizations, and communities mobilizing against war and militarism. Returning to his student publishing roots, he distributed the Activist Alert, a resource for the peace movement, while also providing sound equipment for events and guidance on the permit process for visiting activists.
He also spoke at dozens of events addressing issues from poverty and income inequality, climate change, and money in politics to drug policy, civil rights, and civil liberties. As he said to a crowd of thousands when speaking out against the war in Iraq:
“Seventy percent of the American people want this war to stop. Can we hear it for them? Who wants this war to stop? Can you hear us now? Over 3,800 American soldiers killed. But wait! Those numbers are still too small… How many American soldiers wounded, sent back with broken limbs, without limbs, with broken lives, sent back why? In a war for what? For oil…. Based on what? Oil and lies!”
Jay was a firebrand, but he was hardly content to hurl invectives at the system from the sidelines. It was Jay’s commitment to peace, among other things, that drove him to New York City to protest the Republican National Convention in 2004. As narrated by our fellow activist and writer, Nat Parry:
“We got arrested together at the 2004 Republican National Convention (along with several others from the DC Anti-War Network). As far as I know Jay was the only individual who attempted to escape from that mass arrest at Church and Fulton.
The NYPD had us pinned up against a cemetery wall, but rather than being passively placed under arrest one by one like the rest of us (for the crime of exercising our First Amendment rights), Jay decided to scale the wall, which must have been about ten feet high, and made a break for it through the cemetery.
Of course, he was quickly apprehended by the police, and needless to say, he was the first one that they loaded on to their buses to be taken down to Pier 57, out of about 200 of us. As he was placed in flexicuffs and escorted on to the city bus, Jay made it known to whomever was listening that this police conduct was unacceptable. He shouted loudly about his constitutional rights and how the NYPD was engaging in systematic repression of freedom of speech and assembly, and about how the war was wrong, and how it is our duty to speak out against it.”
A few months before he died, Jay received a five-figure settlement from a court case challenging mass arrests, part of nearly $20 million paid by the NYPD to resolve violating the rights of hundreds of peaceful people arrested, detained, and subjected to unsafe conditions for the “crime” of raising their voices. If speaking out is a crime, Jay was a recidivist.
Beyond speaking and taking action in the streets, Jay was also willing to lay his time on the line. In 2004, he ran for DC City Council, one of half a dozen Green Party candidates. While his candidacy was unsuccessful, he injected powerful ideas into the debate, like full constitutional voting rights for D.C. residents; restoration of a full service public hospital in D.C.; accountability on safe drinking water and other public health issues; and public investment based on the needs of working people rather than the interests of corporate lobbies and real estate developers — just as he always had as an activist.
Jay also supported the Anti-Nuclear Vigil outside the White House that inspired him when he visited Washington in middle school. As part of the next generation engaged in the vigil, he moved into the Peace House where the founders lived, and played an important role as they aged. His comments at the vigil’s 25th anniversary reflected his passion and energy.
After the founder of the vigil died in 2009, Jay went on a speaking tour with his wife, Ellen. Their Proposition One Campaign roadshow visited military facilities, national parks, and community events across thousands of miles.
Their visit to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada found Jay working with local activists to challenge the use of armed drones to kill targets (including Americans) without trial. He took a fellow participant to a testing site down the road, where a military helicopter greeted them by hovering above just 25 feet away until they left.
Remixing Many Talents
Jay was no mere policy wonk, neither was he simply an inspired person wielding the force of every soapbox he could reach. Nor was he just a comedian, nor merely an actor, nor only a fast friend to anyone. He was all of those things, which made Jay more effective in each of the roles he so joyously played.
After struggling for years to find work that aligned with his values, Jay found a job at which he excelled in the green-tech sector. As a Site Auditor for Solar City from 2011 to 2013, he installed renewable energy infrastructure on hundreds of homes in D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. As his colleague Chris explained, Jay “learned to survey roofs and layout panels for solar power installations, helping to literally bring power to the people. Unsurprisingly he was a master of client management, always delighting in getting to know customers.”
Soon after I moved to Washington in 2003, we and and a handful of others started the D.C. Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency to host and cultivate politicized spoken word performance. We recruited poets into a creative collective based on principles common to our overlapping social movements, from Burning Man to Occupy: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-expression, Civic Responsibility, Participation, Communal Effort alongside Radical Self-reliance, and reclaiming public space.
Jay was one of our most stalwart voices, willing to hit the mic at the drop of a hat, able to thoughtfully improvise while reflecting a range of moods from outrage to hilarity, and always eager to thoughtfully engage a passerby and trade ideas and perspectives. He could could not only talk about more or less any political subject with the fluency of a policymaker, but also do it in a way that would engage listeners rather than alienate them.
This 2007 video produced by the Backbone Campaign shows Jay demonstrating the power of parody in speaking truth to power:
He wasn’t afraid to take action, either. In D.C., Jay was frequently at the White House, whether to hold signs promoting the impeachment of war criminals, or to incite visiting student tourists to join him in heckling the President during a Rose Garden press conference.
He also took action in less prolific places. In 2008, Jay visited Minneapolis to support Vets for Peace during their continuing protest of the Republican National Convention in 2008.
But Jay was more than a thinker or a performer — he was also a garrulous and gregarious social superconductor. Jay offered joy and warmth to anyone, which drew people to him, each other, and the movement and counterculture to which he dedicated himself. Our friend Chris described Jay as constantly sharing “incandescent love,” which explains one reason he endeared himself to so many.
Whether at a silent disco by the Cherry Blossom Festival, the U Street Funk Parade, or at a watering hole in the woods, Jay reflected the light of the world and shared it with others.
Notably, Jay’s love was not confined to those he knew personally. He dedicated his life to activism not because he wanted influence nor because he had nothing better to do. He loved people — writ large — so much that he couldn’t stand idly by as institutional crimes compounded all around him. He wasn’t willing to go along to get along. He planted his feet and spoke his — I daresay our — truth.
In his own words, spoken during a street theatre action on Capitol Hill:
Jay’s love also helped him transcend some of the divisions unfortunately so visible today. He was willing to use his privilege strategically to serve others as an ally. As recounted by Nekia Wright:
A few years ago Jay Marx and I were walking around downtown Annapolis and he noticed that a police officer had pulled over two women for the all too common, DWB: driving while black.
Jay, fearless as always, ran over and immediately began interrogating the police officer. The women were waved off while a flustered officer found himself in a rhetorical battle with our dear friend.
Jay and I often spoke about privilege and power. He was very aware that, as a highly gifted and talented white male, he had been afforded a lion’s share. Like any superhero, he took every opportunity he could to use this power to help others and right injustice.
My Dear Departed Friend
The last time I saw Jay was the night before he passed away. It was late on a Saturday night, and he was riding an art car with his girlfriend, passing by a sound camp where I was DJing an early morning set. They ran over to give me a hug before heading home. We had no idea it would be the last time we’d see each other in this life.
He surprised me two days earlier by simply showing up at Transformus. He’d moved away from D.C., and we hadn’t spoken often, so I didn’t expect him to come bouncing over to the DJ booth on Thursday night during my opening set. Although we’re both hetero men, I gave him a hug, kissed him on the mouth, and told him I’d slip him tongue the next time I saw him. He winked and replied, “Not if I slip it to you first!”
By the end of the weekend, Jay was gone.
Like all of us, Jay battled with recurring challenges in his life. He had a hard time finding paid work aligned with his values, had a tendency to promise more than he could reliably deliver, and occasionally disappeared without a trace, only to resurface some time later with his trademark crooked grin and an armload of good intentions to smooth any aches.
For me, what makes his untimely passage most painful is the brightness of the future he was denied. Jay overcame many of his challenges, only to leave us before having a chance to enjoy the life he had built for himself.
A Loss for the World
After leaving D.C., Jay moved to North Carolina to build a sustainable Earth-based dwelling with Ellen, the remaining founder of the Peace Vigil that so inspired him when he was younger. Just one month before he passed, his mother Diane came to visit from Colorado. He was understandably joyous at the chance to bring his mothers together.
He’d also met Delight, a beautiful, brilliant, and charming partner who loved him as much as he loved her. Three months before he passed away, he wrote in an email:
“And now there’s Delight! Beautiful, brilliant, focused, thoughtful, somehow available, and she seems to like…me. In other words, she’s impossible, a miracle, and I’m not sure what else I can really say about the incomparable Delight, other than that I really can’t wait to get to know her better.”
During one of our last conversations, he said she amazed him, and that he was so inspired by their relationship that he was thinking of settling down. He said he’d lost interest in other women, and that she might even be out of his league. I told him he was right, but that it was all good as long as he recognized it.
Like his own Uncle Jim, Jay was a devoted uncle to his sister’s two kids, who he won’t have a chance to see grow up.
Jay looked forward to his future. So did the rest of us.
There are no words that can ease the pain of losing a dear friend, let alone a hero who devoted himself to promoting positive values in the default world from which we all work so hard to periodically escape. For me, it has helped to remember that he went out on top, the happiest I’d ever seen him, in a place he adored, and alongside a partner he loved.
While our world is dimmer having lost the light of Jay’s profound love, we who were lucky enough to be blessed by it remember his memory and will honor it on the playa, in the streets, and beyond.
RIP, Jay Marx. We miss you, brother.