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Peter Haberfeld ’63

November 30, 2021, in Oakland, California, from a heart attack.

A community organizer and lawyer for the people, Peter used his wit and intelligence to fight the abuses of power. A lifelong learner, he was a fighter and a nurturer who was deeply engaged with the world and people around him.

He was born in Portland, eight minutes older than his identical twin, Steven Haberfeld ’63, and 10 years older than his sister Mimi, all children of a Swiss mother and Austrian father who emigrated to the United States to escape the rise of Nazism. Peter grew up on  his family’s farms in the Willamette Valley and in rural Los Angeles County, where he attended high school. Along with a love of animals and deep attachment to nature, as a teen he developed a solidarity with working people.

Peter wrote his thesis, “The Great Dissenter: Mr. Justice Hugo L. Black and His ‘Absolutist’ Position Regarding First Amendment Interpretation,” advised by Prof. Richard Flathman [philosophy 1962–69]. He celebrated his graduation by skipping the ceremony and riding the rails back to Oakland with a friend. He went on to earn a law degree at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall (renamed Berkeley Law in 2020) and embarked on a colorful career.

He lived through times of excitement and struggle, and was proud of his arrest record: first during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964; while working to register Black voters in Mississippi in 1967; during the People’s Park struggle of 1969; and finally with his wife, Tory Griffith, while protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He spent the “Freedom Summer” of 1966 in the South, and considered himself fortunate to work for C.B. King, the pioneering civil rights attorney in Albany, Georgia. Peter was deeply influenced by his mentor’s brilliance and profoundly affected by the glaring oppression and lack of equity for Black people in the Jim Crow South.

After passing the bar, he worked as a lawyer, a labor organizer, and an organizer for political campaigns. His career began in the office of progressive attorney Francis Heisler, who encouraged him to go to Mississippi to help voters register. That shattering experience left him determined to defend the marginalized, abandoned, and powerless. His organizational engagements ranged from the National Lawyers Guild to the Black Panther Party and the United Farm Workers.

Between 1968 and 1975, Peter worked as an attorney and organizer in California’s Central Valley, helping to direct a project providing legal help to Latino youth and farmworkers. He was the first staff person hired to run the new office of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, and worked briefly for the Youth Law Center and California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). He incurred the wrath of the conservative legal establishment wherever he went. When Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to defund CRLA, he cited Peter’s legal work, including his involvement with the Black Panther Party in Marysville.

In 1975, Peter joined the legal staff of the United Farm Workers, joining Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in the legendary battle to seek union recognition for farm workers. Fred Ross, who trained the UFW leaders in the art of organizing, was also an influential mentor.

Peter organized and advocated for the back-to-the-land folks in Shasta County and worked as a lawyer for the Department of Industrial Relations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Public Employment Relations Board. Later, he was hired as a labor organizer for teachers in Fremont, Oakland, and Vallejo, California. He worked for the Oakland Community Organization organizing teachers and parents for school reform in Oakland.

Ultimately, he worked at Siegel & Yee, where he fought his final court battles, including an epic case that ensured the survival of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. In retirement, he worked on the Obama campaigns and both Bernie Sanders bids for the Democratic nomination for president.

Peter met his wife, Tory (Victoria), in 1994 while both were working on California’s universal health care effort, Prop. 186. They married in 2004, sharing a hatred of injustice and a drive for political organizing. While activism was a key focus of his life, Peter loved being a father, instilling confidence and athleticism in his daughters. He encouraged adventure, ensuring their exposure to the natural world through backpacking and river rafting trips; to the wider world through travel; and to their inner worlds by consistently inquiring about their perspectives on life.

Fun and mischievous, he relished the absurd and loved challenging authority. He enjoyed working with his hands, throwing pots, harvesting olives, laying tiles, and crafting his beautiful home. He had an empathy for animals,and frequently took them under his wing. 

Peter is survived by his wife, Victoria Griffith; daughters, Demetria (Demi) and Selena Haberfeld Rhine; brother Steven; and sister, Mimi Haberfeld.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2022

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