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Averse to Illiteracy: Poets Come Out Against DC’s Ailing Public School Libraries

By Alan King
alanwking.wordpress.com
August 7th, 2011


Walking past DC’s Watts Park in Northeast, the people stopped in their tracks when they heard  Mister Señor Love Daddy, from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaking.

The fictitious disc jockey was invoked through a poem by Fresno, Texas-poet Jonathan Moody. Through Derrick Weston Brown’s reading of the poem, Love Daddy held court for three minutes, long enough to lend his voice to an issue of concern not just for the folks on foot, but those driving by, who pulled over to get the 411.

“My people, my people,” he said. “What can I say; say what I can.” And just as baffled as the character and Brown himself were other poets and organizers who took over the park’s Marvin Gaye amphitheater August 6 to do something about the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries.


“It seems the politics of this city are costing our children their right to a quality education,” Melanie Henderson, an organizer for Saturday’s event and managing editor of the literary journal Tidal Basin Review, said in an interview afterwards.

“It is unimaginable what the effect on a child’s self-esteem might be when walking into a nearly-empty school library,” Henderson said.

The last straw for many was the Jan. 23, Washington Post article on Ballou Senior High’s poorly-stocked library. “The literature section of [school librarian] Melissa Jackson’s library…had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves,” Post Reporter Bill Turque wrote in his article “Librarian at D.C.’s Ballou High Scrambles for Books.”

“In the area marked ‘pure science,’ there were 77 volumes,” he continued. “This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid.”

And that’s just at one school. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore described the public school library system as horrific. “The DC Public School libraries I have seen resemble a library I once saw at Lorton Prison when I taught there in the 1990′s,” he said. “Few books, hardly any good books of any relevance, and the books are ragged, old and insulting.”

“And,” in the words of Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”

Henderson and others at this past Saturday’s Summer 2011 Literary Arts in The Park wondered how the historic traditional public schools in the nation’s capital were below the 100 book per student threshold. “Our kids here deserve not just enough, but the best,” Henderson said.

Another point of contention were the current disparities in educational resources between the city’s haves and have-nots. “I have also seen libraries at private schools in the area and these libraries are usually stellar,” Gilmore said.

Among those private schools with stellar libraries is Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama are among the 1,109 students.

In a post on her award-winning website, author and freelance writer Susan Ohanian noted that the school has three libraries. “The Upper Level school library contains over 20,000 volumes,” wrote the former educator and current fellow at both the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Ohanian noted that Sidwell Friends has a separate area for books about the study of China, adding that students also have access to more than 50 magazines and journals. “The library also subscribes to ProQuest for online periodicals in full text,” she wrote. “This service is available both at the school and to students when off-campus.”

Ohanian sent out a charge for the First Family to correct the disparities. “I know there are thousands of schools across the country hurting for the lack of books, libraries, and librarians, but when we see one little light of a school trying to buck the anti-library tide, we must try to help,” she wrote. “And we should urge our First Family to do likewise.”

The poets and organizers at the Saturday event at Watts Park responded to a similar call to action sent out by Tidal Basin Review, Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Abdul Ali shared a poem about his experiences at a creative writing workshop at Howard University.
The event kicked off a series of book drives to take place around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries.

Gilmore, who was on the program to perform but didn’t make it because of a last minute scheduling conflict, did collect books for the drive. Though there in spirit, he called Saturday’s event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

But more needs to be done, Gilmore noted. He suggested the organizers creating a grassroots coalition or a nonprofit to work outside what he calls “the toxic dysfunctional government apparatus.” This coalition or nonprofit would regularly collect and make literature available to DC public school libraries.

Saturday’s event was just the initial effort, Gilmore noted, applauding the organizers for “a small, yet, symbolical way” of showing DC youths they’re not alone.

Henderson agreed. “Events like these empower average people to cause change in their own and in the communities of others,” she said. “It puts the power back into the hands of the people, whose love and connection to a place or space will push them to work harder and give more to the positive development and preservation of the culture, or cultures, that have nourished them.”

Henderson hoped residents left inspired to affect change in their own ways. She also hoped the event would spur “wider and stronger community involvement in support of youth.” Like Gilmore, Henderson offered suggestions on how to take the next step.

“This is a problem with a practical solution that everyone can be a part of and feel good about,” Henderson said. “The idea is to take what you know, your own talents and gifts, and your resources and networks and use them to better your community.”

During the event, the poets took the stage after posing for a group photo with organizers and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Among them was Abdul Ali, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort. “I liked the idea of sharing poems with a book drive,” Ali said. “It’s a rare opportunity to do literary activism and a reading all in one.”

Poet Yao Hoke Glover agreed with Ali. “Literacy and the promotion of reading is the foundation of a community’s ability to transfer ideas [and] connect with one another,” Glover said. “The concept of books and literature must be cultivated in the children at an early age.”

That the event took place in Ward 7, with construction on the new Woodson High School in the background, made it all the more symbolic for the poet. “I would hope the event is a very concentrated and solid beginning to the strengthening of D.C. Literary Culture, particularly in the African American Community,” said Glover, who closed out the reading with poems about his father.

The highlight of the event was Mister Señor Love Daddy’s appearance on that humid Saturday. “Yes, children, this is the cool-out corner,” the fictitious disc jockey said in a poem written by Jonathan Moody and performed by Derrick Weston Brown, who opened up his set with OPP (Other People’s Poetry) before reading his own.

The character’s words summed up the mood of those gathered that afternoon in the park. He said, “I’ll be giving you all the help you need.”

For those interested in donating books, please contact Melanie Henderson via email at communitybookdrivedc@gmail.com.

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Suspended Somewhere Between: A Review

By Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies 3, no. 2 (2011)

In Akbar Ahmed’s Suspended Somewhere Between, the poems themselves seem to assume suspended shapes, moments hanging in the wide expanse of history that the author draws inspiration from. Not only are these poems suspended in time but between disparate cultures, between faith and intellect, between the personal and the public, ideational and palpable, between the sacred and secular, between love, hate and understanding. That Akbar Ahmed, who is considered by the BBC as “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam,” should choose to publish a book of poems, says a lot about his spiritual approach to the complex subject matter that has occupied him as a scholar for nearly half a century.  

 If read purely for poetic merit, this work would fall short on many accounts as the author’s intent (as elaborated in his preface) is not to write an ambitious work of poetry but rather to chronicle the moments of his life that have shaped his deeper understanding of historical dynamics. The power of this work is in its large-spirited acceptance of everything—the noble, the questionable, the profound, the grotesque and strange around him and within him. This gesture of seeking higher wisdom in things scared or profane, and acknowledging the powerful sweep of compassion has a Sufi flavor and is supremely exemplified in the poem “Walking the Streets with the Dahta:”  
 
The cane-waving policeman/smiles at me/and takes care to reply in his  English/but the Dahta is unequivocal in his care/and perhaps the false beggar/returns from him richer.  
 
Ahmed’s declaration that he has never edited his poems ought to serve as a guide as to what kind of reader would glean the most from this work. These poems are not crafted with the often ruthlessly precise artistic chisel of a seasoned poet, rather, these are moments of inspiration caught raw, and recorded promptly by an extremely precise thinker. His judicious spirit enables Ahmed to present things as they are or as they were, without as much as a scratch of the chisel. Even the more personal poems (some of which border on being sentimental) from his young days are left untouched because editing these would inflict a sort of censorship and concealment of his younger self, which, to the reader’s benefit, Ahmed is bold enough to embrace. The value for the reader here is to appreciate the influences and the evolution of this great thinker of our times, unhindered by cosmetic revisions.  

The poems in this collection are centered on themes ranging from the spiritual to the political, personal to the historical and are written in various tonal registers. Because the book spans the author’s entire life and is unrevised, the style swings significantly from poem to poem. The work’s uneven literary quality becomes a lesser concern when one considers its incredible breadth and depth. Well-written lines such as: “Strings of spittle hang/at your mouth, you,/drooling, helpless/clutching wildly at air/your tiny body—just six months old—cannot move or obey your will/only your eyes lucidly convey and pierce me with love” (For Umar, With Love) more than make up for weaker ones such as “In robust days and ill health/In failure and in wealth/Through the highs and lows/ you always took for me the blows” (For Zeenat, Princess of my Heart).  

The awkward redundancy in “On the western front frowned the eagle/ mighty Caesar in imperial regalia regal,” (I, Saracen) is compensated by the chilling lyrical narrative of The Meeting: “ a snake—the deadly village viper/it stood stock-still by the prayer-mat/ ” or by breathtaking poems such as Spring Thoughts in Farghana, which are striking in their immediacy despite the distance of history: “The pipe and the kettledrum/have sung the warrior to his sleep;/the mourners wail their way/back to the village/ High above, the mountains which stretch/like a young man’s ambition in springtime, an iced drizzle starts to speak…” Here is where we see the true gems of this collection.  

Suspended Somewhere Between does a remarkable job of exploring dualities and even multiplicities of the self, of the loneliness and the longing for identity that has anguished the Pakistani soul since its inception.  Akbar Ahmed’s voice is a vital contribution to the world of contemporary letters and he has aptly been called “a national treasure.”
 
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, D.C., the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S Naval Academy, Annapolis, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A former ambassador of Pakistan to the UK, Ahmed has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge Universities and is the author of a dozen award-winning books. His most recent book is called Journey into America—the Challenge of Islam (Brookings Press, 2010). Suspended Somewhere Between is Ahmed’s first book of poems. 

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Radical ideas implicit in the Jeffersonian democracy on which the U.S. was founded

By Belinda Webb
The Tribune Magazine
June 2011

No, this isn’t a review of a reader on the works of the Conservative politician Paul Goodman (heaven forfend), but of the American writer and social critic who inspired the youth movement throughout the 1960s: a holistic, pacifist, anarchist man of letters, as he would label himself.

“Pacifist anarchist” may seem like an oxymoron, but Goodman was fervently anti-violent; passive resistance, like that espoused by Gandhi, was key. It may surprise some that Goodman was also one of the co-founders of gestalt therapy, the phenomenological existential therapy created by Fritz and Laura Perls in the 1940s. The goal of a phenomenological method is awareness of what’s happening in the here and now, not an interpretation and re-jigging of existing attitudes. You could almost imagine Karl Marx taking to it with gusto because the aim is not to interpret, but to change. It was the attitude that Goodman brought to all his many and diverse writings, and one which won him admirers like Susan Sontag, for whom he was a hero, although she felt he held her in disdain.

I found his work a revelation. I was aided in this by a thorough, generous and warm introduction by Taylor Stoehr, whose overview serves to remind older readers and inspire new ones now eagerly supping up the eloquent articulation of constraints that are even more relevant in these troubled Tory times. The Reader is well organised, although there is an irony in it being so well categorised—politics, literature, psychology, theology and so forth—considering that Goodman’s holistic approach seemed to rebuke such categorical distinctions. There is a good selection of his poetry here, too, although I was disappointed not to find his essay On Being A Writer. Maybe it was because it wasn’t his fiction or poetry that secured his recognition but his social criticism.

Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organised Society
(1960) ignited the fame that would be his until his death in 1972 at the age of 60. The book “launched a wide-ranging critique of American society and its failure to make a world worthy of earnest and idealistic young people.” In this critique he was not alone. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, there emerged works by those such as William Whyte, author of The Organization Man (1956), which claimed that a cautious collectivist ethic had usurped the rugged individualism upon which America was founded. There was also The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson, which, along with Whyte’s observations, seemed to confirm the visions which fed novels like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, in which wage slavery and worshipping at the altar of the corporation while commuting in mind-numbed drones were treated with the contempt they deserve. Like Yates, Goodman maintained that his ideas were “implicit in the Jeffersonian radical democracy upon which the U.S. was founded.” It is a problem that still afflicts our societies—the problem, as Goodman put it, of autonomy.

Unlike most social critics, Goodman despised abstract thought, such as freedom as a metaphysical concept. Instead, he saw freedom as being a “deep animal cry” and, therefore, intrinsic to who and what we are. No wonder, then, that he referred to Marx as a social psychologist, with his illuminating sketches of human alienation and disaffection which Goodman expanded on. You could easily assume he was inspired by Marx, but Goodman said he only found retrospectively that everything he wrote was in agreement with Marx so he thought he, too, must be Marxist, although he would later become critical of the ideological harshness of the New Left. Goodman was gentler, more compassionate, and his work remains fresh and personable. This Reader presents a man deeply committed to humans being free and, more importantly, feeling free—a work in progress that this generation must make their priority.

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You Can't Annihilate This Band: Black Flag's Legacy and Lore in Spray Paint the Walls

By David Ensminger
Pop Matters
July 29, 2011

One cannot saunter through a bookstore today without stumbling across a punk rock memoir, biography, or oral history. From San Francisco to Detroit, from the Replacements to Darby Crash, the scenes have been endlessly dissected and prodded, with earnest fervor and entrenched nostalgia. For true believers, though, punk rock means much more than a fetish for product.

To them, punk is a constructive tale about stirring culture from below, being pro-active, and doing things: skateboarding, setting up shows in DIY halls, participating in late-night copy store binges printing fanzines or flyers, and making a cassette tape mix with homemade art to be traded with another zealous fan. Heavy metal and hip hop instilled and inspired their own cultural ripples, but punk rock still seems to meld the world of collectors who memorize memorabilia and the world of politics and alienation, in which left-wingers and libertarians often share paranoia and points-of-view.

Black Flag is very personal to me, not because my tame parents raised me anywhere near Hermosa or Redondo Beach, California in 1978. In fact, I was a skinny shy boy, miles south of the Wisconsin border, west of Chicago, ear pressed to Cheap Trick on the jukebox. I dropped nickels into the clunky machine, and at home scooted around my basement, miming Rolling Stones songs, too. I was the kid brother of punk rock, the self-possessed one who played Civil War for hours on end in the backyard and created a boy cave in a cupboard, where I stuffed games and food and told people to leave me alone.

My brother was ten years older. Gay, but not “out,” he graduated in 1980 from a high school built by prison architects, then left for Chicago’s dirty streets and art school. He came back to our sleepy suburb with peroxide-striped hair, a drugged attitude, handfuls of 45 records and fanzines, and breathless stories of seeing Black Flag, with Dez Cadena. The band tore a hole through the somewhat stilted music scene of the Windy City, where groups like power pop Pezband ruled the late ‘70s. To him, Black Flag were avant-garde; to me, they were a blistering earache.

Six years later, in a darkened hull of a cellar club in Rockford, I too saw Black Flag. Donning a yellow Circle Jerks shirt and a fuzzy upper lip, I awaited the buzzsaw, off-kilter power chords and frenetic, rasping Henry Rollins. Instead, I endured an endless barrage of molten, jazz-noise-metal riffage from a band that clearly disdained the charade that punk rock had become.

Still, when I exited the club with a damaged left ear lobe (I was dumb enough to stand in front of their PA stacks, feet away from guitarist Greg Ginn) cops lined the streets with smirks and paddy wagons, taunting passers-by. They acted as if ‘80s-style Los Angeles riots were a potential threat in this rust belt city.

Luckily, Stevie Chick chronicles Black Flag from both ends, mapping how they careened from menacing, berserk, and beachcore outsiders to grizzly hardcore icons to bizarre, and sometimes boring, post-hardcore pioneers that chewed through miles, tours, members, and songs. In doing so, they produced an unstable hybrid between the jugular-busting prowl of the Sex Pistols on speed to King Crimson style sonic mapping. Chick sketches a journalistic portrait imbued with high energy: fervent, toughened, and coiled sentences meld Walt Whitman’s sense of the body electric with Lester Bangs’s maverick verbiage. Plus, he exhibits a new school appreciation for keeping cultural context intact.

Many people will bemoan what’s immediately missing—the voices of Gregg Ginn and Henry Rollins, above all. Instead, Chick delivers from deep slanted angles, using the input of early singer Keith Morris (of famed Circle Jerks and Off!) and bass player Kira Roessler. She first paved her way with bands like Sexsick and Twisted Roots, became the pounding, hand-aching backbone of Black Flag, and later ended up Mike Watt’s (Minutemen, Iggy and the Stooges) short-lived marital mate but long-term companion in art-infused Dos.

In addition, Chick taps penetrating narratives from SST (the label jumpstarted by Greg Ginn) compadres like Mugger (Overkill, Nig-Heist), who now operates a record label out of Oregon, and Tom Troccoli (Tom Troccoli’s Dog). They prove to be earthy and legitimate witnesses: these are the people who hauled the amps, smoked the pot, dropped the acid, berated the audience, and logged the tours with rough aplomb and self-styled anarchy.

In this outing, Chuck Dukowski is the previously overlooked member lionized at length. Gregg Ginn might have been the determined Machiavellian intellectual, and Henry Rollins the enfant terrible turned rock icon and street poet, but Dukowski is the manic player and media savvy provocateur. He understood that politics is not about Truth but a struggle over truths, especially in regards to youth and power in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, in the leftover haze of hippiedom.

As his interviews with local TV news reporters and documentaries like Urban Struggle (chronicling the club The Cuckoo’s Nest) attest, Dukowski’s street politics invoked contested physical space, access to media, and autonomy for youth. Politics meant debating who could control venues. Teeming with images culled from Raymond Pettibon’s art, Black Flag’s mass-produced handbills became insurgent folk art that promoted shows, threatened uptight civil society, and created an informal network of fans—a teenage wheat paste army of Black Flag.

Politics was not first and foremost about ballot boxes, Dukowski knew, it was about being a conduit for the resentful, the ignored, and the inflamed kids in the neighborhoods teeming with boredom.

Most of the text is aimed at the pre-My War years, before Black Flag mutated beyond recognition, according to many fans. In doing so, Chick offers a depthy read, painting a long-overdue portrait that also includes bands like The Last and Descendents. Though the narrative gets more scant as Black Flag’s career unfolds in Reagan’s second term, Chick still packs quite an analysis of records like Slip it In.

He chooses not to ignore or gloss over the seismic sexism unleashed both on the road by Nig-Heist and on tracks by Black Flag as well. Plus, his hyperbolic, breathless prose fits the grooves of a band interested more in Charles Manson, Black Sabbath, and Grateful Dead than GBH and English Dogs.

For a plunge into SST lore, this is the book to grab for summer’s enervating heat. Don’t expect newfound testimonies that will upset the Black Flag brand, but do expect a fascinating and eventful journey into the heart of damaged territory.

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Tunnel People in CHOICE

Notes From the Underground
By I. Glasser
CHOICE
June 2011, Vol. 48 No. 10

Dutch photographer and journalist Voeten documents two years of work with the men and women who lived underground in a New York City train tunnel from 1992 to 1994.  Most of the book is a chronological presentation of Voeten's extensive field notes, written while he lived (part time) in the tunnel himself. The book's epilogue and pictures of his former bunkmates taken 13 years later are touching. The author experienced the stress of living underground without clean water, bathrooms, privacy, and cooking facilities. In addition to homeless people, many journalists, photographers, and documentary filmmakers were also present who competed with each other for the affection and cooperation of the underground community. Voeten documents the slow and tedious process by which most of the tunnel dwellers were able to leave their underground community and finally get an apartment above ground. This book could have benefitted from more thorough editing. Voeten editorializes at times (someone is a "creep," an apartment building is "tacky"); he is inconsistent in naming fellow researchers (one is always "professor," others are called by their first name); and there are some mistakes in syntax. Despite these caveats, a vivid and accessible account. 

Summing Up: Recommended.  General and public libraries.

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Peace activist Brian Willson on book tour

By Kevin Fagan
SF Chronicle
July 15, 2011

Gliding slowly along the back roads of the Bay Area this week is a white-haired man on a strange, low-slung tricycle powered by hand cranks. His two metal prosthetic legs poke out under his shorts to rest in stirrups, and he never musters more than 10 mph.

Most drivers have blown by in Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa counties with barely a glance. Some stare. The cyclist never notices, cranking, always cranking—and usually with a big smile on his face.
Little do they know this is one of the most renowned antiwar protesters of the past quarter-century.

He is Brian Willson, and he is on a tour to promote the autobiography he released this month, Blood on the Tracks. It's a book 24 years in the making—ever since Sept. 1, 1987, when he was run over by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station while trying to block it from delivering bombs headed for Central America.

Lost his legs

Willson lost both legs below the knees and suffered a fractured skull that day. In the years since, he has been in demand at lecture halls and hailed as a pre-eminent voice of peace advocacy by people ranging from activist actors Ed Asner and Kris Kristofferson to Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote the foreword to his book.

But now, at the age of 70—his birthday was the Fourth of July—and living in a solar-powered house he built three years ago in Portland, Ore., Willson feels his life is about more than peace protest.

His 440-page book traces his journey from high school baseball star in Ashville, N.Y., to Air Force captain in Vietnam to antiwar figure—and on to today, when he says his most important message is that "we have to all live more simply, because our lifestyle in America is totally unsustainable."

Living small

"After all the things I've experienced in my life, I think the neolithic village is our model," Willson said the other day as he stopped for lunch at the Sebastopol home of a longtime protest pal, Eszter Freeman. "We'd all be better off living in small, local, self-sufficient communities, using simple tools.

"The lifestyle we've had for the past century, based on fossil fuels that are disappearing and polluting our planet and causing wars, is unhealthy and killing the earth," Willson said. "There's only one ultimate solution—radical downsizing of our lives."

That, Willson said, is why he has undertaken this book tour not in rented cars or buses, but by hand-cycling the 800 miles from Portland to San Francisco, with side routes, over the course of a month.
He started June 25 and will speak at San Francisco's First Unitarian Church at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. After hitting a few final lecture spots, he will board a train July 23 headed back home.

Appeal to young

He said younger people at his book stops often tell him they didn't know who he was before seeing notices advancing his appearances. The conflicts from the 1980s over El Salvador and Nicaragua have long since given way to arguments over Afghanistan and Iraq, and though Willson still rails against war, his wider mantra of going green and questioning authority means more to some of them than peace activism.

"Brian was much more focused on Central America 25 years ago, but now he's gone deeper into the American way of life," said David Hartsough, a fellow protester in 1987 who protected Willson's exposed brain as he lay, head cracked open, on the tracks.

On Wednesday, Willson's journey brought him back for the first time in many years to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, now mostly shuttered and awaiting civilian re-use. He and Hartsough had a few hours before a book talk, so they drove up to the exact spot where Willson's life changed 24 years ago.

Visit from the law

They'd been on the tracks for one minute before six Contra Costa County sheriff and U.S. Army security cars swarmed them. They wanted to know if the man with the artificial legs and his companion were terrorists—a label once used by the military to describe Willson back when he was blocking munitions trains.

The whole thing blew over quickly. One cop called Willson "a legend when I was in school," and said he was glad to meet him.

"After all these years, to be stopped like that again," Willson mused with a small chuckle. "I mean really - after all these years?"

Tour blog

A trip blog, tour schedule and description of "Blood on the Tracks," by Brian Willson, can be found at: bloodonthetracks.info.

E-mail Kevin Fagan at kfagan@sfchronicle.com.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/14/BA691KAI5E.DTL#ixzz1UlbeQmWs

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Stopping the Train, Stopping the System

By Ron Jacobs
CounterPunch
July 15, 2011

In a world where the violence of war can be safely ignored by most of the population because it occurs in faraway lands the need for moral witness has never been greater. When the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize unabashedly claims that the violence of war is sometimes necessary and then pursues a policy dependent on increasing that violence, the need for those who oppose such a philosophy to speak up would seem essential to human survival. When the economy of the world's richest nation goes into free-fall because it insists on destroying lives and land in at least three different nations under the guise of fighting for their freedom, the need to put one's life on the line to end those wars and the economy that creates them has never been clearer.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the number of people actually willing to do so seems to have diminished to a relative handful. Of that handful, even fewer are known outside their own circles. Even this latter group finds it difficult to be acknowledged by the greater population. Much of this inability to get publicity can be attributed to the mainstream media machine whose sole purpose is to gear the population up for the next invasion and accompanying repression of rights at home. Occasionally, however, an act so dramatic and courageous creates a situation that not even the corporate media machine can ignore it.

One of those instances occurred on September 1, 1987 outside of the Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS) in Concord, California.  It was on that day that military veterans Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe and S. Brian Willson sat down on some train tracks outside of CNWS as part of an attempt to block trains carrying weapons and other materials bound for Central America. In Central America, these materials were being used by the El Salvadoran military to kill revolutionaries and their civilian supporters. In Nicaragua and Honduras those materials were being used by US-funded paramilitaries and the Honduran military to destroy the popular government of Nicaragua. Protests like the one that took place that day in 1987 had been going on for weeks. The trains had always stopped before reaching any protesters on the tracks and waited for local police to arrest the protesters.

On September 1, 1987 the train did not stop. In fact, it sped up as it headed towards the three men. Two of the men were able to extricate themselves from the tracks at the last moment. Willson could not. In seconds his legs were crushed and his skull pierced. His body bounced around under the still moving train as the men driving it continued on their way back on to base property. If it had not been for the medical knowledge and quick action of Willson's fellow protesters, he would have died. Given the impact the attempt on Willson's life had in the national media, one can be fairly certain that there were those involved in waging the US wars in Central America who wished he had died.

As it turned out, Willson lost his legs, but otherwise recovered.  He was hailed as a hero by the Nicaraguan people and became something of a moral beacon for the anti-intervention movement in the United States. His memoir, Blood On the Tracks, was recently published by PM Press. The tale he tells is one that is not completely unique to Wilson, although the specifics certainly are. Born in a small town in the eastern US, he played sports in high school, went to college, went into the military and served in a war.  His particular war was Vietnam. Like most of his fellow GIs, Willson never seriously questioned or understood why he was being sent to Vietnam before he was in country. However, once he got there, the murderous contradictions began to challenge his very core. When he wondered aloud why civilians were being killed and labeled as the enemy, he was told to shut up. When he didn't shut up, his tour was shortened and his military life was essentially over. Thus began what would become his future as an antiwar activist, even though he did not know it at the time.

Willson's narrative is a deeply personal story contextualized by a growing awareness of the avaricious and murderous history of the country he always called his own. This growing awareness created a situation quite common amongst Willson's compatriots of the 1960s and 1970s—a situation best described as cognitive dissonance. In other words, everything he had been led to believe about his nation was a lie.  Furthermore, he was complicit in living and perpetrating that lie.  His (and our) complicity is so complete that even if we do nothing to support Washington's wars and Wall Street's rapaciousness, we remain complicit by the fact of our citizenship. Willson's realization is what motivated him to untangle himself from the web of complicity all US citizens are tangled in. Like so many others, his journey involved opposing the wars of his nation. Unlike so many others, it cost him part of his physical body.

S. Brian Willson doesn't just acknowledge his and our complicity; he demands that we challenge it. Even more, he demands that we work to end it.  As anyone knows, this is not an easy or necessarily desirable path.  Yet, in the moral universe of Willson, there is no alternative to certain destruction unless every US American confronts their role in maintaining the machinery of death and greed we call America. Like the revolutionary Mario Savio told a crowd at UC Berkeley in 1964, you must ""There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.  And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" Blood On the Tracks is the story of one man's attempt to change the direction of that machine or, failing in that, preventing it from working at all.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator's Tale. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

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The Well of Light: Book of the Month

The Well of Light (monthly e-magazine)

Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson
Book of the Month

"We are not worth more, they are not worth less." This is the mantra of S. Brian Willson and the theme that runs throughout his compelling psycho-historical memoir. Willson's story begins in small-town, rural America, where he grew up as a "Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist," moves through life-changing experiences in Viet Nam, Nicaragua and elsewhere, and culminates with his commitment to a localized, sustainable lifestyle.

In telling his story, Willson provides numerous examples of the types of personal, risk-taking, nonviolent actions he and others have taken in attempts to educate and effect political change: tax refusal—which requires simplification of one's lifestyle; fasting—done publicly in strategic political and/or therapeutic spiritual contexts; and obstruction tactics—strategically placing one's body in the way of "business as usual." It was such actions that thrust Brian Willson into the public eye in the mid-’80s, first as a participant in a high-profile, water-only "Veterans Fast for Life" against the Contra war being waged by his government in Nicaragua. Then, on a fateful day in September 1987, the world watched in horror as Willson was run over by a U.S. government munitions train during a nonviolent blocking action in which he expected to be removed from the tracks and arrested.

Losing his legs only strengthened Willson's identity with millions of unnamed victims of U.S. policy around the world. He provides details of his travels to countries in Latin America and the Middle East and bears witness to the harm done to poor people as well as to the environment by the steamroller of U.S. imperialism. These heart-rending accounts are offered side by side with inspirational stories of nonviolent struggle and the survival of resilient communities.

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Peace activist rides to protesters' battleground

by Greta Mart
The Martinez Gazette
July 14, 2011

To this day, Brian Willson questions why he so obediently—as an officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1970—went “9,000 miles from home to participate in destroying people and villages who I knew nothing about.”

Willson, the veteran and peace activist who lost both of his legs below the knee after being run over by a military train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in 1987, returned to the site of his maiming this week en route to a speaking engagement at Walnut Creek’s Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center.

Willson is currently traveling on a book tour, but since he renounced flying due to the destructive environmental impact of commercial jetliners, he cycles to his appointments on a hand-cranked bicycle, using his arms to propel himself.

He said he hasn’t flown in 11 years, naming the present TSA screening processes and the concurrent assault on civil liberties as a factor in his decision.

Since June 25, he has cycled 800 miles from his home in Portland, Oregon. He will go as far south as Capitola and return to his home via the Coast Starlight Amtrak train, he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

A supporter, Joel Finkelstein, has accompanied the 70-year-old Willson on this trip, toting behind his bike a trailer carrying tents and sleeping bags. When the duo hit Santa Rosa, they were joined by Willson’s longtime friend and fellow peace activist David Hartsough.

PM Press recently released Willson’s third book, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers, wrote the introduction to Willson’s book.

In an interview at the Sebastopol home of friends, Willson discussed his life journey since that fateful September day he was protesting the shipment of arms to Central America.

Nearly 25 years later, Willson continues to participate in anti-war demonstrations around the country and has broadened his focus to encompass environmental issues.

In Martinez, however, Willson is still best known for the confrontation that sparked a massive protest four days later, when an estimated 10,000 people came out in Concord to protest the Navy’s decision to treat the veterans blocking the trains as domestic terrorists. At the September 5, 1987 protest, well-known peace activists such as Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Alice Walker and Daniel Ellsberg joined in to bring national attention to U.S. involvement in Central America and express outrage over the train versus veteran clash.

“I saw my friend, Brian Willson, run over by a Navy train pulling two boxcars of explosives at Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS), the major military transshipment point for weapons on the West Coast,” said fellow activist Ken Butigan in an essay published by the Pledge of Resistance organization, describing how 2000 people had protested at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in June of 1987 and Willson had been part of a group determined to use non-violence to stop the arms shipments.

“The train plowed directly into Brian, dragging him twenty-five feet, tearing off his lower right leg, mangling his left ankle (both legs were later amputated), fracturing his skull. The train never slowed down until it stopped inside the restricted area,” 100 feet from the point of impact.

“The Navy train crew and their superiors knew in advance of our nonviolent three-member veterans’ blockade and had a clear, 650-foot view as the train approached us at high noon on a bright sunny day. Though expecting to be arrested and jailed by the nearby armed U.S. Marines and local police, we never imagined the conscious and criminal acceleration of the loaded train to more than three times its posted five-mile-an-hour legal speed limit,” Willson recalls on his website, www.brianwillson.com.

The former base is now shuttered and the City of Concord is in the process of redeveloping the area for commercial, residential and open space use.

“I had to go to Vietnam to get awakened,” Willson said this week. Asked why he wanted to return to the Concord Naval Weapons Station this week, Willson replied, “We’re going to remember and be glad we’re still alive.”
 
Those interested in attending one of Willson Bay Area engagements can find times, dates and locations at www.bloodonthetracks.info. 

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Blood on the Tracks: Berkeley Daily Planet

by Gar Smith
Berkeley Daily Planet
July 12, 2011

It’s a good sign when the testimonials on the back of a 440-page autobiography include the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ed Asner and Martin Sheen. But that only hints at the praise directed at S. Brian Willson’s long-awaited memoir. The testimonials continue on the inside—for another seven pages
and include plaudits from Cindy Sheehan, William Blum, Kris Kristofferson, Norman Solomon, Peter Dale Scott, Cynthia McKinney and Country Joe McDonald.

This whopping epic (published by Oakland’s feisty PM Press) tells the story of a Vietnam-era soldier who entered the war as a red-blooded small-town recruit and emerged as a die-hard dissident, driven to expose and oppose not only warfare in general but also the US’ unique role in spreading military terror around the world.

Willson returned home to become a leading war resister—a man whose dogged determination to confront the war machine lead him to fast on the steps of the US capital and eventually cost him both legs
severed on September 1, 1987, when he was run over by an ammunitions-filled locomotive on the first day of a nonviolent protest on the railroad tracks leading to the Concord Weapons Station.

As Daniel Ellsberg notes in his powerful introduction, “Viet Nam was not a mistake any more than the Iraq War is a mistake . . . They are part of a pattern of brutality written into our country’s DNA.” Americans seem to feel that “it is our manifest destiny as exceptional people to gain ever more material goods, even at the expense of anyone and everyone else, and the earth. We continue to treat others as inferiors.”

Before embarking on his self-styled “psychohistorial memoir,” Willson lays down some grammatical ground rules. His manuscript does not refer to US citizens as “Americans” but as “US Americans” arguing that “it is presumptive and arrogant to do so, considering that the USA is but one country of many on the American continents.” Willson’s book also insists on capitalizing the phrase: American Way of Life. “As an acronym,” he explains, “it signifies being AWOL (‘absent without leave’ in military jargon) from our humanity and the natural systems of the planet that sustains us.”

Born on the Fourth of July


Like other autobiographies, Blood draws us back through the author’s childhood. The son of a rabidly conservative salesman, Willson grew up in the small-town ambiance of central New York State where he learned to revere the military and fear the “communist threat.” Like fellow vet and activist Ron Kovic, Willson was born on the Fourth of July. He was a member of his high school honor society and a standout athlete on the baseball diamond and the basketball court. His family’s John Birch/Barry Goldwater worldview suffered its first small fractures at Eastern Baptist College when he happened across a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He decided to abandon his plans to enter the Baptist ministry and instead enrolled to study law at the American University in Washington, DC.

Willson’s plans to become a lawyer were derailed by a draft notice that arrived in March 1966. He enlisted in the Air Force and within three months was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Willson’s depictions of combat training are revelatory. Commanded to plunge a bayonet into a dummy 100 times while screaming “Kill! Kill!” Willson’s body freezes in revulsion. “In my head I wanted to comply” he writes, “but my body stubbornly refused to cooperate . . . Much later, I came to understand that the human body has its own wisdom, one older than the thinking mind.”

Auto da Fein Viet Nam

Willson’s education continued in Viet Nam, an experience that he captures in a cavalcade of stunning, surrealistic scenes, events and encounters. Here’s just a taste: “One evening while watching pornographic movies on the patio of the officer’s club, pilots were eating steaks and drinking beer with their Vietnamese whores when the siren went off warming of potential incoming.”

In one poignant recollection, Willson writes of a rare invitation to share dinner at the home of a Vietnamese family. After the meal, the family asked to sing a “special song.” It was called “Ode to Norman Morrison” and was dedicated to a US anti-war activist who set himself afire beneath Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office window. In a stunning aside, Willson pauses to note that Morrison was not the only US citizen to immolate himself to protest the war. “There were at least eight others from March 1965 to May 1970, ranging from 16 to 82 years of age, including three women. Five of the immolations occurred in California.”

As an intelligence officer, Willson began to doubt the rationale of the military’s “free-fire zones,” which allowed pilots to strafe and bomb farming villages on the flimsiest of suspicions. His concerns were dismissed and he was warned not to become a “gook-loving kook.” Willson’s worst fears were confirmed when a Vietnamese lieutenant invited him along to inspect a recently bombed village in Vinh Long Province.

“I didn’t see one person standing,” Willson writes. “Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and machine gun wounds, many blackened by napalm beyond recognition; the majority were obviously children. I began sobbing and gaggin . . . I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed. I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes . . . Napalm had melted much of the woman’s face, including her eyelids, but as I focused on her face, it seem that her eyes were starring at me.”

The full horror of America’s war in Viet Nam settled deep inside Willson’s soul that day. “I could not talk about this experience for twelve years, and the thought of it still creates tremors in my body,” he confides in his book. “I often find myself crying at the thought of it, and at times feel a rage that nearly chokes me.”

A Warrior for Peace

Confessions like this make understandable his transformation into a relentless critic of US military interventions. Willson’s experience as a combat officer made him a formidable critic in the anti-war movement—and a target of covert government surveillance. Working with Veterans Against War, War Resisters League, and Veterans Fast for Life eventually took Willson (in the company of singer/actor/activist/veteran Kris Kristofferson) to Central America, where the US was waging a secret war against the revolutionary government in Nicaragua.

To Washington’s mounting anger, Willson visited hospitals to visit victims of US-backed “Contra” attacks, protested outside the US Embassy in Managua and addressed 300,000 Nicaraguans at the Plaza of the Revolution on November 8, 1986.

On his return to the US, Willson was determined to find an enhanced strategy to confront Pentagon brutality—some tactic that carried more moral force than mere words, fasting or vigils. With his friends Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe, David Hartsough and others, Willson decided to revive the historic peace vigil outside the gates of the Concord Naval Weapons Station
the major transshipment point for US weapons being sent overseas.

Showdown at the Concord Weapons Station

“After a couple of weeks of seeing so many trucks and trains pass slowly by our vigil, visibly loaded with rockets and bombs, I started ‘seeing’ bodies inside the boxcars.” It may have been latent Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Willson reflects, but “all I knew was that the rockets and bombs we saw on flatbed railcars looked, to me, like bodies of the dead.”

This chilling vision drove Willson to envision a form of confrontational protest that was to prove even more dangerous than he could have imagined. He resolved to begin a 40-day fast that would take place on the very rails leading into the Weapons Station.

The protest was named the “Nuremberg Actions.” The vigil was intended to call attention to the fact that Washington’s Central American wars were illegal under both the US Constitution and international law. And, further, that the Nuremberg Principles
enunciated during the famous trials that held German Nazi officials to account for atrocities conducted during WWII—compel citizens to not only “refrain from participating” in illegal government acts but also to actively oppose them, even if that means breaking other laws.

The Nuremburg Action statement read in part: “Once the train carrying the munitions moves past our human blockage, if it does, other human beings in other parts of the world will be killed and maimed . . . We are not worth more. They are not worth less . . . It is worth giving our lives to save theirs.”
“We assumed we would be arrested and made plans to fast in jail as well,” Willson recalls. This was an honest assumption. Previous protests at the weapons station had all concluded with arrests and jail terms. In addition, the base had safety protocols in place that held train traffic to a slow 5 mph. Train operators were instructed to halt trains whenever there were any obstructions on the tracks (a sensible rule, given that the trains were loaded with tons of high-explosives).

The Navy Decides to Go for a Kill


But on September 1, 1987, someone in the military chain-of-command decided to play by different rules. There were early signs. For the first time, extra security (a show of armed marines wearing flak jackets and brandishing M-16s) was trotted out. One shouted out to Hartsough: “There is going to be violence today.”

The protest had been widely announced
to the base commander, to politicians and government officials, to the press. It was clearly stated: “Fasters will not move for approaching rail traffic.” The morning was sunny and clear as Willson and fellow fasters Duncan Murphy and David Duncombe took their positions on the railway track at 11:40 a.m. A weapons train was seen approaching the Weapons Station but it pulled to a stop several hundred feet away from the vigil. The protesters were clearly visible to the two men standing on the front of the engine to act as “spotters.”

Slowly the train began to move. And as it bore down on the three men, the engine began to pick up speed. Instead of 5 mph, videos of the incident revealed the train was travelling upwards of 15 mpg when it struck Willson and, at the moment of impact, it was accelerating. Duncan suffered a gashed shin but Willson, as he attempted to rise from a seating position and move off the tracks, took the full brunt of the locomotive.

Horrified onlookers watched as Willson’s body was smashed beneath the train and bounced 20 feet down the track “like a rag doll.” In the process, the train amputated both of Willson’s legs just below the knee, leaving his boots, with his severed legs and feet still inside, scattered alongside the rails. One arm was torn open and a large part of Willson’s skull was ripped away, exposing his brain.
Willson credits his wife Holly (with her training as a midwife) and former Green Beret medic Gerry Condon for stopping the bleeding and saving his life.

The military attempted to spin the story, portraying the near-murder as an “accident” but eyewitnesses and videotapes told a different story. After a long and painful recovery, Willson sued the government. In the course of the subsequent investigations, it was revealed that the train crew had been given special instructions that day to proceed without stopping. The train crew’s defense in the “Nuremberg Actions” case was ironic: They insisted they were “only following orders.”

“When the Naval command gave the order to move the train forward, the message was that the government was willing to murder us in order to protect their cargo, cars full of weapons designed to kill other people.” Like the napalmed villagers in Viet Nam, “like the eleven campesinos I saw being carried to their graves in Esteli [Nicaragua], we were in the way of empire. We had to be eliminated.”

But the War Machine was stopped that day. After running over Willson, the locomotive and its cargo of rockets and bombs braked to a halt outside the Weapons Station. And as word spread about what our government had done that day, the people of the Bay Area decided to rise up rebel against intimidation.
The next day, as Willson remained unconscious in a hospital bed recovering from multiple surgeries, thousands of nonviolent activists—including Joan Baez—descended on the Weapons Station. They chanted and sang and then they rolled up their sleeves and began tearing up the tracks that had been used to carry US-made bombs, rockets and ammunition to waiting ships. Inspired by Willson’s sacrifice, the people united and actually stopped the Pentagon’s War Machine.

The story of Willson’s near-death experience only takes us to the middle of this detailed (536 footnotes!) and fascinating autobiography. The middle of the book also offers a special treasure—a 60-page book-within-a-book filled with a stunning collection of photos that recapitulate the author’s amazing life and travels.

A Man in Motion

S. Brian Willson continues to be a man in motion. Four months after being crushed beneath a speeding locomotive, Willson was back on his (new, prosthetic) feet, participating in an anti-war protest on the steps of the US Capitol with Dan Ellsberg, Ed Asner and others. He soon resumed a full campaign of agitating, actively waging peace with fact-finding trips to Central America, Palestine, Iraq, Panama City, El Salvador, Cuba, and Haiti.

These days, however, Brian has stopped flying. He refuses to promote polluting forms of travel that stoke climate change. He has designed and built his own sustainable home, powered by solar panels. He has replaced the engine on his 1984 Chevy pickup truck with an electric motor.

S. Brian Willson is currently embarked on a “carbon-free” book tour to promote Blood on the Tracks. You won’t have any problem spotting Brian out on the highway. He’ll be the one traveling down the road in an “arm-powered handcycle” beneath a whip-pole flying the flag of Veterans for Peace.

Local Book Tour Appearances:  

Wednesday, July 13
7:00 PM -- 8:30 PM

Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center
55 Eckley Lane
Walnut Creek, CA
Thursday, July 14
7:00 PM -- 9:30 PM

CommunityChurch of Sebastopol
1000 Gravenstein Hwy N.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Friday, July 15
7:30 PM -- 9:30 PM

First United Methodist Church
9 Ross Valley Dr
San Rafael, CA 94901
Sunday, July 17
Noon -- 1:30. First Unitarian Church
1187 Franklin Street (at Geary)
San Francisco, CA
Monday, July 18
6:00 PM -- 9:30 PM

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists
1924 Cedar St
Berkeley, CA 94709By Paul Thissen
with contributions from Lou Fancher

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