September 04, 2008
By Tom Hayden
Tom Hayden delivered these remarks to a gathering of activists at the
Democratic National Convention in Denver. It appears as part of the
Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken word.
Let me tell you some of my story and lessons I have learned over
these past five decades. I have always tried to improve my country,
always trying from the places around me.
I was smart and ambitious and athletic, but something never felt
right in my suburb, school and church. I felt more at home with the
underdogs and misfits than with the authorities. I was Holden
Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye against Alfred E. Newman at Mad magazine.
I editorialized against overcrowded classes in high school. I
editorialized against racist fraternity discrimination at the
university. I went to the Democratic Convention in 1960 and was moved
by Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and a new student movement.
I moved to Georgia, became a Freedom Rider, got beaten up for civil
rights. I helped start a movement on campuses called Students for a
Democratic Society that believed in what we called participatory
democracy, the right of everyone to a voice in the decisions
affecting their lives. We wanted to bring the spirit of the Southern
movement to the North.
I left graduate school and became a community organizer in the slums
of Newark for four years. During that time the US government, led by
the Democratic Party, invaded Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of
troops after promising not to. The draft started up, and I was
classified IY, the category for potential troublemakers.
Watts blew up in 1965. My Newark neighborhood became an occupied war
zone in 1967, and that was it for the war on poverty. I wanted to
know who we were really fighting, so I went to North Vietnam in
December 1965, my first trip outside America. I was shocked at the
civilian destruction, and the brave resistance of a small nation of
peasants. I came back and immediately lobbied for a negotiated
withdrawal, and got nowhere.
Now I was living in two worlds, still knocking on doors in Newark and
opposing a war that was ending the war on poverty I believed in. The
contradictions becoming too much, I helped organize antiwar protests
at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Nixon, the
FBI and even Lyndon Johnson said we were part of an internationally
funded communist conspiracy. I was still fighting against wrongdoing
at home, while my father's generation thought we were pawns of an enemy abroad.
I went back to Berkeley set on organizing youth and student
communities. I was yanked away to be indicted by the Nixon government
for the street riots in Chicago. I spent about five years, including
five straight months on trial, living under a cloud, until the courts
threw out the case of the Chicago 8. I really didn't know if we were
descending into a police state or not. During our trial, one
defendant, Bobby Seale, was chained and gagged, and two Panthers
working on his legal defense were shot with ninety police rounds
while sleeping in their apartment.
I went back to mainstream antiwar work trying to defund the Indochina
war, from 1972 until 1976. I supported George McGovern as a peace
candidate, Vietnam veterans against the war like John Kerry, the
Berrigan brothers' civil disobedience, and those who went underground
to Canada. I didn't join them, but I thought the Weather Underground
was completely predictable and understandable.
After the long radicalizing interruption of the war, I tried to
combine community organizing and electoral politics. I served in the
California legislature for eighteen years, once again returning to
local and state issues. Based on the early vision of participatory
democracy, and building on the progress towards political rights like
voting, I helped build a statewide grass roots campaign for economic
democracy, pressuring the great corporations to become accountable.
Some of the issues we worked on were these:
• Protecting the right to local rent control, which saved Santa
Monica residents alone about $500 million over little more than a decade.
• Stopping a nuclear power plant in Sacramento by a democratic vote
of the people.
• Stopping a Liquified Natural Gas terminal on Indian land in Santa Barbara.
• Empowering neighborhoods to bargain effectively with big
developers. Saving the oldest building in LA from the wrecking ball.
• Saving salmon, stream beds, wetlands, deserts and redwood forests
from the power of developers and special interests.
• Trying to replace the war on gangs, mass incarceration and
unconstitutional police misconduct, with gang peace processes and
employment opportunities, from LA to El Salvador.
• Involvement in over fifty political campaigns at local levels,
including some of the earliest elections of feminists, gays and
lesbians, renters, Asian-Americans and former '60s radicals.
• Getting Hollywood celebrities engaged in supporting political
causes and candidates.
It was said by Washington consultants that we had the greatest
grassroots organization in the national Democratic Party. But it was
also the '80s, and Ronald Reagan was invading Honduras, El Salvador
and Nicaragua, and placing nuclear missiles in Europe. My world of
domestic issues became small and secondary again, like my days in
Newark when Vietnam was escalating. And I noticed that our foreign
policy interventions were creating a wave of new refugees who could
be exploited either as cheap labor or scapegoated as my Irish
ancestors were the century before.
And so it has gone. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed. Even when
Bill Clinton was elected on the strategy of "it's the economy,
stupid," we soon were bombing the Balkans, inventing new doctrines of
humanitarian war and expanding NATO. By carving Kosovo out of the
former Yugoslavia, we were creating an incentive for Georgia to
invade South Ossetia--and try to reignite the cold war.
Then came 9/11, and a legitimate security crisis was transformed into
the invasion of Iraq along with the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and
perhaps soon Iran. The neocons and hawks applauded and funded
Israel's ill-considered war with Hezbollah and Lebanon, completing a
new battlefield of the war on terrorism to replace the cold war.
So there you are. We will have to go back to the lessons Roman and
British empires to learn the painful lessons of imperial
overextension. The lessons in blood bravely shed in lost or dubious
causes. The lesson of a weakened capacity to fund healthcare,
education, our children's futures. The lesson that democracy is
diminished as the secrecy of the warmaking state expands. The lesson
of being hated in a world where alliances are a necessity, not a choice.
For too long we have divided our movement labor between domestic and
foreign policy issues. Sometimes there are contradictions, for
example, when the cold war liberals--today's humanitarian
hawks--believed we could have both guns and butter, the world's most
massive arsenal, fueled by oil, combined with robust domestic
initiatives on healthcare or the environment or inner city jobs. It
just hasn't worked out that way. The richest country in the world
still lacks a national healthcare program, still is pockmarked by
ghettos and barrios, still has massive school drop out rates combined
with the largest incarceration rate in the whole world.
And despite any evidence of significant success, the wars go on, the
war on terror, the war on drugs and the war on gangs.
Despite the evidence, the organized peace movement is weaker than any
other social movement, or network of NGOs, in America. The peace
movement is a mainly voluntary expression of antiwar feeling that
rises and falls depending on the body counts and media coverage. The
peace movement is not institutionalized, not in comparison with the
labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the
environmental movement. It is not funded by the great liberal
foundations nor by the wealthy liberals of Hollywood or other moneyed circles.
The point I am making is that our progressive priorities are wrong.
Any hope for transformational domestic change depends on reversing
the entrenched interests driving the dual agenda of military and
corporate empire, including the Pentagon and the oil industry and the
narrow elitist thinking of most national security and economic experts.
The battle is between the empire, or whatever euphemism by which is
goes, and participatory democracy.
Our adversaries, who once favored monarchy and then white supremacy,
have done a successful makeover and attempted to steal the banner of
democracy. For example, they are exuberant about imposing democracy
by force across the Middle East and to the borders of Russia, but
they show no enthusiasm for the democratic process sweeping away the
former dictatorships that our government backed in Latin America. Our
government is opposed to democracy on our borders if those
democracies reject our military bases, our special forces and our
corporate dominance over their resources and services. Venezuela,
Bolivia and, of course, Cuba are being targeted for isolation and
subversion, while Colombia is the American spear in the Andes.
Latin America is the brightest democratic spot on the planet today.
But its democratic revolution is not enough; an enormous shift in
global finance, investment and trade policies is needed to address
underdevelopment and poverty. The resources to build a movement here
against military intervention in Latin or Central America are sorely
needed. An alternative to the Monroe Doctrine is sorely needed. An
alternative to the top-down secretive WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA
models is sorely needed. The movement for immigrant rights and labor
rights is where domestic policy and Latin American policy should meet.
I am campaigning for and voting for Barack Obama not because I agree
with him on every foreign policy issue but because I think we need to
unleash the energy of those who fight for justice and housing and
healthcare and jobs and the environment here at home. The Obama
movement is registering and mobilizing millions of new voters, young
people, working class, people of color and poor. The mere fact of
their being mobilized will create a pressure for new priorities on
the economic home front against the present priorities of
militarization abroad. The fact that Obama rose to his present
position on the tide of antiwar sentiment forces Obama and the
Congressional Democrats to pay greater attention to our needs at home
or pay a political price. If he expands the quagmires in Afghanistan
and Pakistan, we will have to oppose those wasteful wars as well.
So I am saying that domestic groups--organized around issues from
civil rights to the environment--cannot afford to leave peace simply
to the peace movement. And the peace movement has to point every day
to the domestic costs, including energy costs, of the Iraq War and
the larger empire. And we must define an alternative vision to the
undemocratic structures of corporate and military power that promise
security but bring us war, that promise jobs but lower our standard
of living. We need a new model of political economy that is equitable
and sustainable, not one that expects every country in the world to
meet our needs, including our appetite for their resources. And
finally, we must build a progressive movement inside and outside the
Democratic Party, one that respects the autonomy of single-issue
movements, that brings our community organizing experiences to bear
on this frustrating political process, that can build and strengthen
a progressive power base that can fight everyday for our needs, not
the empire's needs.
It is not enough to liberalize the empire; the task is to peacefully
and steadily bring it to an end, making democracy safe for the world
as some organizers said fifty years ago. In place of empire, we need
to understand the world as a multipolar one, and drive it towards
participatory democracy through social movements. Those social
movements will not only pressure their existing governments but
energize a global civic society that can achieve enforceable new
norms on human rights, a global living wage and corporate
accountability, a healthy environment instead of global warming, and
the steady reduction of nuclear weapons.
Tom Hayden is the author of many books. His most recent are Voices of
the Chicago Eight: A Generation on Trial and Writings for a
Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader both published earlier this
year by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.