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Sage Advice from the Radical Past

By David Haldane

Oct. 8, 2020


I met him in 1967, shortly before he went to prison.

By then, David Harris was already well known in radical circles. A former student body president at California’s Stanford University, he had recently founded The Resistance, an organization aimed at persuading young men to flout federal law by refusing military conscription to fight in Vietnam.

The occasion of our meeting was an antiwar “teach-in” at UCLA where I had just arrived as a first-year student. Sitting lotus-style on the grass with Harris and a handful of others, I recall listening to him gently pontificate against the war. Though I can’t remember exactly what he said, it must have been persuasive because afterwards I trembled with envy watching my peers burn their draft cards with shaking hands. Though I never mustered the courage to burn my own, it was Harris’ message that helped propel me into years of antiwar activism. And it was that same message that eventually landed him in prison for nearly two years.

So you can imagine my pleasant surprise at seeing his byline over a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times lecturing modern-day Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Describing himself as a “74-year-old, Stage 4 cancer patient” prevented “by the demands of my age and illness,” from joining the sometimes-violent months-long protests scorching Portland, Oregon, and other American cities, Harris, nonetheless, had some advice for those involved.

“Demonstrations are choreographed statements,” he wrote. “The point is to change people’s minds.”

The most effective way of doing that, Harris continued, is by projecting a message that’s “accessible, compelling fellow citizens to rethink hidebound attitudes and prejudices. Threatening people and shouting them down will only sabotage this dynamic—as will burning buildings, wearing body armor, throwing projectiles, breaking windows and picking fights… Frightening people is always counterproductive, even if it is sometimes emotionally satisfying. The objective should be to convert everyone with whom you have contact, whoever they may be, police included.”

The lives of Harris and myself took different turns following our shared radicalism of the 1960s and ‘70s. While both of us became journalists and writers, our political philosophies dramatically diverged. By all accounts, he still believes in peace, harmony, equity, and racial justice. I too share those goals, though my ideas regarding how to achieve them differ markedly from his. While I question, for instance, the true aims of the so-called BLM movement—or, at least, those of its leadership—Harris seems to accept them as advertised. And though I suspect, as I have argued in previous columns, the movement’s underlying premises of being false, Harris apparently believes in and even touts them.

All that said, I certainly endorse my erstwhile mentor’s call for nonviolence and civility. “I have been there before,” he writes, after summarizing his heroic efforts of the past. “That was, I admit, a long time ago, and ‘What have you done lately?’ would be an understandable retort. But please bear with an old man. Hazy as this ancestral perspective may be to many young activists, your predecessors have some observations that may be of use to you now.”

God willing, those admonitions will be heeded.


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(David Haldane chronicled his own journey through the radical 1960s and ‘70s in the award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and radio broadcaster who divides his time between homes in Surigao City, Philippines, and Joshua Tree, California. http:///felixr28.sg-host.com)



Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily


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