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Merle Ratner, 67, longtime advocate for peace and Vietnam, killed while crossing the street

BY SARAH FERGUSON | Police have identified the 67-year-old woman killed by a tow truck in the East Village while crossing the street Monday as Merle Ratner, a longtime East Village resident and prominent advocate for peace and reparations for Vietnam, as well as other left-wing causes.

Ratner was struck in the crosswalk around 7 p.m. when the tow truck, traveling southbound on Avenue C, made a left turn onto E. 10th Street.

She was pronounced dead at the scene. The 59-year-old driver of the truck, owned by Timmy’s Automotive in East Harlem, remained at the scene and was given a breathalyzer test but has not been charged, pending the police investigation.

Ratner’s body, covered by a white sheet, lay in the intersection for nearly two hours as detectives blocked off the scene, causing a backlog of M.T.A. buses to collect along E. 10th Street and Avenue C.

Police at the scene of the fatality. (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)
Police stand by Merle Ranter’s body on Avenue C. (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)
The tow truck driver remained at the scene. (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)
The intersection is known to be dangerous, with a wide corner with M.T.A. buses turning and drivers gunning their cars to get onto the F.D.R. Drive. (Photo by Sarah Ferguson)

Ngô Thanh Nhàn, her husband of 40 years, said he was devastated by the news.

“The police found her ID in her bag and contacted me last night,” Nhan said, when reached at the morgue Tuesday morning. “You can see her bag lying in the street in the photo by the Daily News.”

Nhan, who lived with her in an apartment on E. Fourth Street, said Ratner had been shopping for groceries to have dinner with an elderly friend on E. 14th Street Monday when she was struck down.

“She loved the life and food of Loisaida, especially Puerto Rican and Mexican food,” he said.

A linguist and Vietnamese folk musician, Nhan said he met Ratner while he was studying at New York University, where he received his Ph.D. in linguistics.

Together they co-founded the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign to press the U.S. government and chemical companies Dow and Monsanto to compensate the people of Vietnam for the legacy of cancers and birth defects caused by the use of the toxic exfoliant Agent Orange during the war.

Merle Ratner.

But Ratner’s activism stretched back decades earlier. Born in the Bronx in 1956, she was raised by a family of Jewish labor agitators. In an interview with the New-York Historical Society, Ratner described getting arrested at age 13 outside the United Nations to protest the “genocide” of the Vietnamese people by the U.S. government.

She quickly became entrenched in the antiwar movement, as shown in a 1973 photo of her protesting alongside Father Daniel Berrigan outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral to denounce the secret bombing of Cambodia.

In a 2017 street interview with the blog EV Grieve, Ratner said she moved to the East Village in the early 1980s because she “wanted to live in a multiracial, working-class neighborhood.”

She served as program coordinator for the International Commission for Labor Rights and a board member of the Laundry Workers Center, which campaigns on behalf of low-wage laundry and food service workers in New York and New Jersey.

She also served on the board of the Brecht Forum, the former leftist cultural center in Greenwich Village, and was a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a group of socialists who broke with the Community Party USA in 1991.

But Ratner remained a steadfast supporter of both the people of Vietnam and its communist-led government. On Feb. 2, just three days before her death, the government-controlled Vietnam News Agency featured an interview with Merle in which she reportedly praised Vietnam for adopting a “market-oriented socialist economy.”

“She led many tours with activists and veterans going back to Vietnam to show solidarity with the people there,” said her husband Nhan. “She loved life and was always thinking about ways to build a society that supports people, not profit.”

16 Comments

  1. Lysiane Alezard Lysiane Alezard February 12, 2024

    From Daniel Cirera, a longtime French friend of Merle’s and Nhan’s: “C’est une tragédie impensable. C’est un choc. Merle reste la militante infatigable de la solidarité et l’amie généreuse avec qui j’ai partagé d’exceptionnels moments de discussions et de bonheur. Je suis très triste, elle me manque. A toi Nhan, et à sa famille, je dis toute mon affection.
    Daniel Cirera (Paris, France)”

  2. Rachael Rachael February 10, 2024

    When will the mean streets of New York stop treating pedestrians like roadkill and not even penalizing drivers, as if the roads were built for cars and not people.

  3. Lailah Hanit Pepe Lailah Hanit Pepe February 9, 2024

    This is a devastating loss. Merle never stopped working for justice for Vietnam and people affected by America’s devastating use of Agent Orange as a chemical weapon during the Vietnam War. We need to remember the mark chemical weapons leave for generations to come. It’s not a bell you can unring. I know she would have continued working for all of her life, had she been able to live it. Rest in Power, Merle.

  4. LYSIANE ALEZARD LYSIANE ALEZARD February 8, 2024

    I’m a friend of Merle’s and Nhan’s from France. I’m devastated, like all of you, her US and Vietnamese friends. We hadn’t been in touch for a while but Merle hosted me so many times and taught me so much about the US progressive movement. I share your grief and feel so sad for her longtime love, Nhan.

  5. David Worley David Worley February 7, 2024

    This is such sad news. I think I speak for all of us who worked with Merle at the Brecht Forum, when I say that she was an honest and selfless advocate for social justice at home and afar. Her good works live on.

  6. Bill Gallegos Bill Gallegos February 7, 2024

    Merle was a remarkable human being who effectively devoted her life to achieving a society based on equality, social justice and true democracy. Merle Ratner: Presente!!!

  7. Danube Danube February 7, 2024

    Deeply saddened. Heartfelt condolences to Ngô Thanh Nhàn and the rest of her family and friends

  8. Judy Gumbo Judy Gumbo February 7, 2024

    So sorry to hear this. Merle was an exceptional activist and exemplary human being. With much love and in sorrow – Judy Gumbo Albert

  9. Al Kovnat Al Kovnat February 7, 2024

    So sorry to hear about the death of Merle, who contributed so much to the world in peace and freedom for all mankind. She made a big difference and to lose such a meaningful human rights activist is a huge tragedy!

  10. Choresh Wald Choresh Wald February 7, 2024

    So sad and so predictable: Merle did everything right: she crossed the street in a marked crosswalk with the pedestrian “walk” sign illuminated.
    The driver who killed her did everything wrong: he took a left turn and didn’t yield to her, driving over her and crushing her to death. Merle is dead and the driver walks free.
    That’s a failure of 2 city agencies: the NYPD who let the driver go and the Department of Transportation, which never made this intersction safer for pedestrians. There are many tools that can be deployed: pedestrian Islands, extended crosswalks, different timing for pedestrians and vehicles.
    Nothing has been done and nothing will be done. Right now our only hope is for congestion pricing, which will lower the amount of vehicles traveling on our streets, making them safer.

  11. Paul Krehbiel, Los Paul Krehbiel, Los February 7, 2024

    I worked with Merle in building solidarity between peace- and justice-loving people in the US with the people of Vietnam. Merle helped lay the groundwork for these friendship visits and mutual support. She was a magnificent human being, loving, caring and brilliant. She will sorely be missed, but always remembered. Deepest condolences to her husband, family and many friends.

  12. Patrick McCann Patrick McCann February 6, 2024

    I am so sorry to see this tragic loss. Merle was the finest of human beings.

  13. Raquel Raquel February 6, 2024

    So sorry. A great loss. May her memory be our comfort forever.

  14. ddartley ddartley February 6, 2024

    Our streets working as designed.

  15. Dusty Dusty February 6, 2024

    Brilliant warrior for freedom and justice.

  16. Dan Dan February 6, 2024

    I was a classmate with Merle at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and I’m devastated to hear this. Merle was so intelligent, compassionate, and completely dedicated to the cause of human freedom. It was an honor having discussions and debates with her in class and learning from her decades of work and experience in activism.
    May her memory be a blessing, and may she be an inspiration to all of us who are working toward a better world.

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