Howard Zinn, part two

One of the things that makes me personally sad about Zinn leaving us when he did is that I’d hoped to, when Ain’t Marchin’ finally came out, introduce him to Garett Reppenhagen (left), president of Veterans Green Jobs and former president of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The latter had told me, when I interviewed him two years ago, that Zinn’s People’s History had been a catalyst for him. “I walked into this cool bookstore in Colorado Springs,” Reppenhagen told me, “and I said I’m a high school dropout and probably going to Iraq. What do I need to know?” In addition to recommending John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (also an excellent choice), the bookstore clerk insisted he buy the Zinn. A sniper who was at that moment stationed in Bosnia, it took some time, he said: but afterwards felt changed forever.

Now it turns out that Zinn wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that, since another young vet from the previous Iraq war, Jeff Paterson, also credits him. Jeff, the tireless and inhumanly tall coordinator of Courage to Resist, tells about discovering Zinn in Asia in 1989:

At the time, I was a 20-year-old Marine artillery controller becoming disillusioned with what I was seeing stationed in Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea. Reading “People’s History” was certainly an unknowing step I took towards later refusing to fight in Iraq in August 1990. It enabled me to see my individual actions as a part of something much larger—yes, even larger than the Marine Corps.Within a matter of weeks in late 1990 and early 1991, nearly a hundred Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and Sailors pledged to refuse to fight—most eventually did time in stockades and brigs. Twice as many service members publicly spoke out against the Gulf War at anti-war protests and rallies—sometimes to dozens, sometimes to 200,000 people. However, unless you were there, or have read a recent edition of “People’s History”, you wouldn’t know any of that ever happened.

Maybe the book will make a small contribution toward lifting that national amnesia, at least a little. Meanwhile, see Jeff below with Michael Wong, a former Army medic who deserted after he learned about My Lai, spent years in Canada and then worked in exactly my job in San Francisco. Watching them interact makes me feel a little unstuck in time.

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

For D-Day anniversary: the voice of one who knows (Updated 6/9)

normandyIMG

I first met Knox Martin two years ago. For one of my first Chelsea Now stories, I wrote about his “Venus” mural on 19th Street and the West Side Highway, since obscured by Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue condominium complex. When I learned Martin, still fighting for his new anti-war mural “Killing the Whales,” was a veteran of Omaha Beach, I knew I had to talk to him for the book; we sat in his Washington Heights apartment, where he showed me the clipping at left – which was the only way his mother knew, in 1945, that her younger son was alive.

Below are some highlights of what he told me, which my paper published that August for the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.

You mirror your dad, pioneer aviator William Knox Martin, in that you’ve embraced both art and science.

Yes. My father’s uncle was putting him through art school at the University of Maryland, when he walked out of his house one day and saw this thing flying through the air. Very primitive—the airplane had just been invented in 1906. And he said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

I was going to be a scientist, too. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school known for graduating scientists. I was doing a lot of drawing while at school and was drawing for a WPA project. I was also an avid reader. I was so advanced, I dropped out of the school because I thought, I’m not learning anything here I don’t already know. My father then died, and my uncle asked me to come to Virginia.

You were 19 when Pearl Harbor was hit. Did you know right away that you were going to war?

I knew it was coming: I was an early reader. I read the paper and thought, How can this be, about Hitler? We were at a wealthy family’s house in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the owner was for Hitler. When everyone was out on the lawn, I took every piece of furniture and wrote “Death to Hitler” on the bottom of each one. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, It felt like a deep wound.

I didn’t go in right away. After my father died in 1941, I went to work for the Northwest Railroad, traveled through Virginia and Ohio. In the morning, you’d see for miles upon miles telephone wires glistening with spider webs. And the people were unbelievable! Living in pre–Civil War lives! But then I got into a fight with a supervisor and came home to New York. And everyone was in the service.

Why the Coast Guard?

My stepfather was a commercial fisherman, so we grew up around boats. He’d been in the reserves for years, so they made him head of this boat pool at Ellis Island.

Enest, Knox, Morris Martin (WKM's sons)We did boot training at Manhattan Beach, marching, gas masks, everything. Then we put in for a sub chaser and were sent to Mystic, Conn., to one of the most beautiful ships in the world: the 83-500. It was dark like a submarine, would submerge and turn itself upside down, depth charges underneath and rockets on the bow. We did this “bombing run” practice in Florida. They said there were German submarines in South America, but fortunately we never met one.

Normandy—it was an armada, you said.

We’re crossing the Atlantic and as far as you could see: cruisers, battleships, every kind of craft. The water was just full of ships. And the sky was blackened by planes going over, wave after wave after wave.

The Germans had a fantastic machine gun, and guys were dying everywhere all over the place—the water was littered with bodies. The invasion was threatened by a storm, so they made a harbor by sinking ships—a breakwater, 40-some-odd liberty ships. None of us slept for two nights; we were frazzled and hysterical and crazy. Then came that morning on the beachhead, lit up like the Fourth of July. There was this feeling, of being one organism with one goal, to get up on that coast and crush this thing: tyranny.

I do have to say, one of the greatest things was the atom bomb on Hiroshima. They had this little island—I saw it—where the Japanese fought to the last man. They would have done it; millions would have died. And before the bomb was dropped, the Russians were coming from the North, ready to invade. You would have had a Berlin wall of Tokyo.

You were discovered as an artist in a veterans’ hospital!

The first day when I came back, my mother greeted me—the tears. She was happy to see me but then said, “Your brother Morris, he’s gone. He was killed flying over Japanese waters.” How could this smart, great guy be gone? It wasn’t that I was divorced from reality, but the meaning of things changed, and I began to draw again. A guy came by the hospital on a project to work with “wounded veterans.” His name was Victor Kandel. I showed him what I was doing, and he said, “Hey, you’re a real artist. I would advise you to take private lessons.” So, I went to the Art Students League on the GI Bill.

In those days, everyone there was a Communist. It was my opinion that we were next going to fight the Russians. My uncle was in military intelligence: I knew what Stalin had done—how many mass graves. They would ask me, “Knox, why don’t you join the Party?” I said, “Ask me again, and I’ll see you in a rifle sight.”

Your mural, the one you’re still fighting to get made, was started as a statement about the Vietnam War.

Here’s what happened. The war starts; we’re after the Commies. It was great! Hit the Communists! Then, all of a sudden, on Sunday afternoon, what do you get on the TV? The war. It’s not an abstraction. A girl, a civilian, running from napalm. One guy, another civilian, sitting at a table, a soldier shoots him in the head. We all burst into tears. That’s why there was protest at all.

The young Knox Martin at the Art Students League

After my so-called success with the 19th Street piece [“Venus”] in 1972, I did the first maquette for this [current] mural. I tried to get it done everywhere. I figured I’d done the other one, Geraldo Rivera on the scaffold, and it would be a slam dunk! But—nothing.

You thought you had it this time, after Community Board 2 said yes and Cape Advisers [the developer of Jean Nouvel’s project] agreed to pay for it.

Two years of work, hundreds of people involved, and this one person—Michelle Cohen [of Art in the Schools] said, “This can’t be built now, or in the future.” She said, “It is not the content, not your credits.” What is it, then? Silence.

When I first talked to her, the first words out of her mouth were: “We have no funds.” I came up with the funds, and she said, the building can’t be touched for four years. I said, “The contractors working on the school say now’s the time to do it, not when the park is finished.” She said, “It’s dangerous for students.” I said that it’s on the back wall, away from the students. She said, “You can’t hang from the scaffolding; it’s too dangerous.” I said, “I’ll get a very slim cherry-picker, not me the fat guy.” She said, “Not on DOE property!” I don’t know her real objections, but it’s not over.

Any last words? Overall connections between the artist and the veteran?

After 9/11, maybe we’ll see the world waking up from 5,000 years of religious wars.

This is the infancy of Planet Earth. You don’t join a group, an army. Just be kind, look around you, and you straighten yourself out! You become a light unto yourself.

Look below for the rest of Knox’ D-Day story.

A couple mornings after

Given what I’ve posted here, you were likely expecting me to be exultant tonight. And I remain heartened, thrilled cautiously hopeful, and glad for the national results. In case you were curious about my little corner of the swing state, Ward 58 went with the wave, 69 percent for Obama — though not precinct 26, where I voted, with its Russian immigrants and many retired cops and firefighters who went for their fellow veteran.

But I also suddenly want a T-shirt that says “We Are All Harvey Milk.”  Dan Savage, on Salon yesterday, encapsulated what Rachel and I felt:

Tuesday night I was overjoyed.

But Wednesday morning, reading the papers and listening to the news on the radio, my boyfriend and I — we’re boyfriends in the USA, husbands in Canada — sat at our kitchen table and had the exact same discussion we had the morning after the 2004 election: When the hell are we moving to Canada?

The anti-gay politicking that goes on in this country is a bit like a dog whistle: Straight people can’t hear it, but it drives gay people absolutely around the bend. The importance of Obama’s victory can’t be overstated; I’m as moved as anyone else. But the passage of anti-gay marriage amendments in Arizona, Florida and, most heartbreakingly of all, California (and with overwhelming support from African-American voters), along with the passage of an anti-gay adoption amendment in Arkansas, left us both feeling shell-shocked, betrayed and angry.

We’ll see what happens. Personally, I’m in favor of abolishing civil marriage entirely: everyone gets a legal civil union, and leave the multiple definitions of  marriage to the multiple churches.

bayard1But it all feels like a dream deferred, as Bayard noticed 20 years ago. That video above is of the new President dancing with a woman whose wedding, seen below, may have just been invalidated. Here’s to dancing with the future, but only if all of us get to do it.

swing state notes: election day edition

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The door of the house where I live now has a hand-drawn sign, drawn by my father-in-law: NO POLITICAL SOLICITATIONS. GO AWAY. It’s been a little brutal, here in the 58th Ward: the commercials are relentless, the mail, the phone calls even more so. No matter your sympathies, the cacophony is hard to take.

Today, the vote itself was a little subdued — and a little odd, for someone who has previously voted only in NY and California. Here, instead of the 500-foot rule I’m used to, campaigns can and do post signs right up to 10 feet from the polling place. And I’ve obviously seen too many movies: the electronic voting machine, with its paper-looking plastic and only red lights to signify my choice, looked more like one of the old machines at Coney Island than anything 21st-century.

Unlike the hours-long lines I know are still happening in downtown Philly, the recreation center where we voted today was busy but not jammed, though its count of  290 by noon ( me, my girl and  her parents adding 286-290) still counted as record-breaking. But I’m glad we’re now headed into Center City, where election-day energy should be more in force.

the obligatory Pride Day post

.. which I’ll finish tonight, after the day’s over. But i spent much of this week reporting and writing this mellow profile of  gay Chelsea, and I thought you might be amused by the results.

And as everyone now knows, the whole day was dominated by thundershowers, and everyone — including me and Rachel, who were marching with the New York Civil Liberties Union‘s LGBT Equality Project — turned out quite soaked. We missed the Grand Marshal-ness of Governor Paterson, but it was an invigorating day nonetheless. Marching makes you feel far more a part of the day that waving from the sidelines.

Our contingent also had perhaps the best chant: “A-C-L-U! We defend your right to screw!”

is that an organizer's hand I see behind the curtain?

I should have realized last month, when I noticed that stream of articles about private equity and affordable housing, that some serious organizing had taken place to get their attention. Though god knows any reporter would have noticed the trend if s/he looked,it appears probable that behind that curtain were two fearless and dedicated advocacy groups,  the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development (whose director, the terrifyingly brilliant Benjamin Dulchin, was quoted by the Times) and Tenants and Neighbors, whose campaign on the subject is linked above.

I’m the opposite of surprised, of course. Social movements don’t bloom overnight, and most reporters are  too deep in that signature mix of lazy, stressed and mad busy, unless organizers make us see it.

TADN’s campaign’s main page has much to offer, including a handy step-by-step explanation of the process:

1. Entrepreneur identifies a building as an “underperforming or “underutilized” asset. This means that the income that the building produces is significantly lower than it could be – because people with low and moderate incomes are living there instead of people with higher incomes, who could pay higher rent.

2. Entrepreneur obtains “equity capital” by promising other investors a high rate of return – generally 20 percent a year. Investor then obtains “leverage” by borrowing more money – six to ten times more – from banks or other lenders.

3. Entrepreneur buys the building and begins working to increase its income. Often the entrepreneur and the equity investors are willing to see income go down – or even to lose money – for a few years before it actually goes up. * In the case of a Mitchell-Lama buyout, this enables them to immediately suffer the loss of subsidies, along with huge interest payments on the borrowed money, while waiting for rental income to increase over a period of years as the original tenants move out and new tenants move in and begin paying higher rents.

4. If the entrepreneur is a private equity group, it will sell the building to a new investor after three to five years – as soon it can show that the property’s income is going up enough to justify a significantly increased price. Other entrepreneurs may prefer to sell or to continue to own and operate the building. Either way, many or most of the original tenants must be replaced with higher-income people by this point, or the investment will be judged a failure.

If the legislators roused by all this actually do something, Dulchin’s and TADN’s organizers will be the Rosa Parks of this corner of the scene. Or perhaps, even, the Bayard Rustins, given their smart use of language. I wish I’d been smart enough to come up with the term “predatory equity, ” and cheer the polite use of the term “entrepeneur.” God knows most tenants use words with far fewer syllables, and to a far more explosive effect.