We'll probably never know who killed Bob Sheldon. Was it a botched robbery, a politically motivated killer or a government paid agent who shot Sheldon in the head on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 21, 1991, as he closed up the Internationalist bookstore in Chapel Hill? Perhaps no one but the killer will ever know.
The rock band Sonic Youth sang of Sheldon in their song called "Chapel Hill": "Back in the days when the battles raged, and we thought it was nothing, a bookstore man meets the CIA, and we know." Sheldon was memorialized in the Indigo Girls song "Jonas and Ezekiel," multiple news articles, activist writings and documentary films. But the greatest memorial to him is the Internationalist Books and Community Center, still active 30 years after Sheldon founded the center for political activism and radical literature.
I managed the bookstore from 1998–2000, after completing my undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I know many of the managers, volunteers, board members and supporters from throughout the years. It's hard to write about the Internationalist and it not be part love letter, part memoir—it helped me become an entrepreneur, an organizer and a scholar, and it has helped inspire the political identity and life paths of many more.
Sheldon was killed 34 days into aerial combat in the first Gulf War. The previous month, he was on the evening news talking about resisting the draft during the Vietnam War and the coming Gulf War. Sheldon moved to Chapel Hill from Colorado in the mid-1970s, worked as a nurse for the UNC infirmary and became a fixture on campus, tabling for the Revolutionary Communist Party, sometimes sporting a red beret. Over time, Sheldon's politics evolved and changed. (How can you not develop a complex worldview when stocking books on dozens of different political perspectives?) He became more active in the Green Party and even voted for the occasional liberal Democrat.
Sheldon started the Internationalist as a reading room on Henderson Street in 1981; in 1984, it moved to a bigger space on Rosemary Street. After his death, the volunteers and eventually some paid staff who stepped in to keep the store alive moved into the space that harbors the Internationalist today, at 405 W. Franklin St.
Sheldon's legacy is an active resistance in the face of state abuse of power. We had at least one undercover agent try to copy our computer files and volunteer lists as the Internationalist helped organize buses of activists to Washington, D.C., for the World Bank protests in April 2000. It was there that a number of Chapel Hill activists were illegally arrested, cuffed and left sitting on police buses during a march protected by the First Amendment; just recently, they received word of a verdict in their favor in a $13.7 million class-action settlement. Who says activism doesn't pay?
Sheldon left Chapel Hill with an idea incubator wrapped in collective process and supported by an ever-evolving and unique merger of retail business and community organization. For many activists, the Internationalist is a first exposure to inventory management, returns policies, cash flow and financing. And it is a constant experiment in cooperative management and community building. There was a time when the bookstore nearly closed its doors after UNC's Student Stores cracked down on professors who were ordering textbooks through the Internationalist to help generate student business and traffic. But in the same spirit that kept the store open after Sheldon's death, volunteers raised more than $10,000 from community members and transitioned the store to a nonprofit, giving it another 10 years of life.
Sheldon was part of a tapestry of counterculture, alternative politics and independent thinking that is continually renewed. When I first encountered the Internationalist as an undergrad, it was a home for both older activists who cut their teeth in the 1980s on anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity work and a younger generation of activists organizing Food Not Bombs—free community soup kitchens. From the meetings of like (and unlike) minds at regular Food Not Bombs gatherings, and the camaraderie formed in small kitchens and bubbling stews, emerged the Mallette Street punk house and many other households that manifested cooperative politics in our everyday lives.
There were countless 'zines, "Reclaim the Streets" parties reminiscent of 1970s street theater, and giant puppet shows inspired by and part of the growing global justice movement, which hit the presses in November 1999 with the battle of Seattle against the World Trade Organization. The Internationalist harbored NC Indymedia, part of a surge of grassroots media activism as the Internet took off. Folks from the Internationalist community helped form the Weaver Community Housing Association, joining a growing co-op housing movement in Carrboro. During the Iraq War, the Internationalist was a hub for organizing, a source of alternative news and a beacon of progressive light. Recently, the Internationalist has supported a prison books collective, a transgender discussion group and a board game night.
Sheldon showed us the vital value of a space for literature and authors whose works push the boundaries of political and cultural understanding. The Internationalist has sold hundreds of copies of Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States, filled an auditorium for Leslie Feinberg's reading from Transgender Warrior and exposed the fallacy of global free trade with Kevin Danaher's teach-in from his book Corporations Are Gonna Get Your Mama. Countless local authors, artists and activists have found their audiences and customers on the shelves of this little establishment, from local 'zines like Cuke and Sew to the prolific writings from the CrimethInc collective.
Bob Sheldon left us with a piece of infrastructure that accelerates the pace of social movement organizing and the capacity for impact, particularly in times of urgency and social upheaval. It was a natural anchor throughout many struggles—a place for the public to buy bus tickets to go to growing anti-war protests in D.C.; a space to hold press conferences after activists returned beaten and abused at the Republican National Convention protests; a venue to support budding new organizations, welcome traveling activists and inspire collective action. It is a space for anarchists, climate change activists and queer youth alike to organize from.
Sheldon gave us a public space, a unique, participatory dimension of civic life where those with an energy for social change can find consistency, conversation and community. And Sheldon laid the seeds of that space with his open personality, a loving heart and a deep thirst for political debate, learning and activism. Without the experience of Sheldon the man, I doubt that the community would have come up with the same essence of the Internationalist that lives on today.
And just what is an Internationalist? Why a name that had more relevance during the labor movements in the early 1900s than activism in the 2000s? I think it captures the spirit of something grand—an aspiration for a global solidarity of many peoples, working from many political experiences and ideological legacies, moving forward a vision of justice, ecology and economy too expansive for one book, too important for one spokesperson. Sheldon was an Internationalist, and in carrying on that name for one of the Triangle's few remaining new and used independent bookstores, he left us a constant reminder of a powerful idea.
Internationalism advocates economic and political cooperation among nations and direct mutual aid among people across borders. Internationalists find inspiration in the anti-fascist socialist, communist and anarchist volunteers who traveled to Spain from 53 countries to fight Franco and the fascists in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Today, with the recent example of nonviolent revolution in Egypt against Mubarak's 30-year reign, the concept of international solidarity between peoples, and often in conflict with the governments that claim to represent them, may find renewed inspiration and fuel another decade of relevance and success for Internationalist Books and Community Center.