Interview with Ron Jacobs, author and commentator
Ron Jacobs is the author of the first comprehensive history of the Weather Underground - The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared in Counterpunch, Monthly Review, Monthly Review Zine, Alternative Press Review, Berlin Jungle World, Works in Progress, State of Nature, and a multitude of other places. Ron lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
I caught up with him after reading one of his latest pieces for Counterpunch, Confronting the War Machine in the Pacific Northwest.
"I think the greatest legacy of Weather is their level of commitment--their willingness to give up the privilege they were born into as white people in the US and commit them selves to ending racism and imperialism."
TA: You're perhaps best known as the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Can you talk a little bit about that book and how you wrote it? What is the legacy, if any, of the Weather Underground organization itself?
RJ: The book is an attempt to relate the history of and dissect the political history of the Weather Underground from its inception in 1969 to its dissolution in the late 1970s. It is the first book to try and do so and had its share of problems. The biggest difficulty I faced was trying to get any former WUO members to talk. I began actually writing the book in 1989 and most people were still hesitant to talk about that part of their past. I was fortunate to have known a couple fellows in the San Francisco area who used to know a few WUO members when they were underground and they had provided me with a number of details about their comings and goings and I set out to verify the stories. At the time I was attending Evergreen College in Olympia and in 1990 the book became my senior project. I began reading a lot of microfilm - Evergreen has a great collection of the underground press of the 1960s and 1970s on microfilm - and some interviewing. I was mostly able to interview people who knew Weather or worked with them or against them during their public days. After many years of reworking the text and running into more info and sources, I eventually found a publisher in 1996.
I think the greatest legacy of Weather is their level of commitment - their willingness to give up the privilege they were born into as white people in the US and commit them selves to ending racism and imperialism. Politically, it would be heir focus on US imperialism as the cause of the world's greatest misery and injustice. Like Neil Gordon, the author of The Company You Keep, said to me one time, "How could they be so right about what was wrong, and so wrong about how to make it right?"
TA: I notice more than one of your pieces references events in the Northwest, yet according to your most recent piece on Counterpunch, you mention living in North Carolina. What's your connection to the Northwest?
RJ: I moved to Shelton from Berkeley in 1985 with my son and his mom. I worked at a little assembly plant there for a couple years and then moved to Olympia, where I lived until 1992.
TA: In "Confronting the War Machine in the Pacific Northwest", you describe quite well both the actions of the protesters and the coverage by the mainstream media. You finish the piece with this quote: "The fact is that there is hardly a town in this country that the military-industrial complex has not stretched one of its bloody tendrils into. This economic reality not only means we all share some culpability for the destruction and bloodshed carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan; it also means that every one of us has the ability to expose that connection wherever we live and from there, hopefully oppose it."
What led you to the understanding that the military-industrial complex is so dangerous? Have you held this view for a long time, and what, if anything, do you suggest folks do about it, other than to expose its various incarnations?
"Then, as I became more politically aware the facts became more and more obvious - these people don't give a s*** about people, only about profits and war."
RJ: I grew up as an Air Force brat. That had its benefits - I lived in some pretty different places as a kid - Pakistan, Germany, Alaska, Texas - but it also brought home to me how pervasive the reach of the military is. When I was in 8th grade I read Eisenhower's famous quote about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and started thinking about it. That was 1968 and the US was tearing up Vietnam and being torn up itself over Vietnam. I had a pretty cool social studies teacher who gave me some readings about the defense industry and how it worked in tandem with the Pentagon to build and maintain the war economy. I didn't understand all the specifics of the readings but I got the general theme. That was my intro to the reality of this country.
Then, as I became more politically aware the facts became more and more obvious - these people don't give a s*** about people, only about profits and war.
What can be done? The first step, as you point out, is to expose the tentacles of this animal that connects almost all of us to the wars of Empire. The next is to challenge their bulls***. When I lived in Burlington, VT., a woman there whose daughter went to one of the public elementary schools discovered that General Dynamics (which has a plant in Burlington) - a true war profiteer if there ever was one, they make nothing except military equipment - was donating books to the city's schools on the condition that they be allowed to put a sticker in each book stating that it was a donation from GD. This pissed her off and she brought it to the attention of the school board. She had no objection to free books, just the idea that general Dynamics was trying to influence the children of the district into thinking it was a good corporate citizen. The school board meeting was quite contentious, with GD execs arguing that they provided jobs and were good citizens, and the opposition arguing that they were war profiteers and what they did was criminal. This whole process was very educational and raised one of the most important questions that I think can be raised in a society like ours: How culpable am I for what my government does? Even though the protests at the Olympia and Tacoma ports are a more direct confrontation, the most important thing they have done so far is quite similar. They have caused citizens to question their complicity. This is a first step towards untying oneself from that complicity or, even better, working towards making our world a place where becoming complicit in the war machine is not as easy as getting a job or attending a sporting event sponsored by the military or some corporate criminal.
TA: In "It Did Happen Here" you talk about Nazi youths in Olympia. Did you live in Olympia at the time? How did you cover this story, and what did you find out about the modern neo-Nazi movement?
RJ: I did live in Olympia at the time of Bob's murder by the two nazis. I was good friends with a group of young anarchists and others who put out zines, did a lot of political agitation and organizing, and opposed nazis and war whenever and wherever they could. I also worked at the Olympia library with a young woman who was a good friend of Bob's. She turned me on to a couple folks who were in Sylvester Park the nigh Bib was killed. I had my notes when I left Olympia in 1992 and followed the story from there, with the help of Anna Schlecht and a few other Olympians. It was then that I wrote the story. The modern neo-nazi movement is small but rabid. The fact that young people could become so involve in hate took me for a bit of a surprise at first, but it shouldn't have. I think that we haven't heard the last of these groups. In fact, their numbers may even increase as the anti-immigrant movement continues in our nations' legislatures and newspapers.
TA: In your bio on Op-Ed News, it mentions that you're a library worker. Are you in a union? What do you think of today's labor movement? Where do you think workers should be putting their focus in today's complex political environment?
RJ: I am not in a union, through no fault of my own. Today's labor movement has potential, but must stay away from nationalism and purely economist issues. The best hope for its revitalization is the immigrant rights movement. I only hope that the grassroots union members understand this and force the leadership to call for complete legalization of all undocumented workers int he US.
"Often, just a rumor of intimidation circulated by management is enough to cause the majority of workers at any given workplace to vote against the union."
TA: You recently wrote about the Employee Free Choice Act. Talk about what it is, and why we should pressure Congress to vote for it.
RJ: The Employee Free Choice Act is a bill that would make it easier for workers to get a union into their workplace. Currently, the workers organizing for a union must follow a two-step process: Get at least 35% of the union organizers must first get at least 35% of the workers in a workplace unit to sign a card stating their desire to be represented by a union. After this number is reached, the union and the employer have a set amount of time to garner enough voted to win an election set by a national or state labor relations board. During the period leading up to the election, union organizers are limited in where and how they may campaign for the union, while employers have what amounts to a free rein in tactics to convince its employees to vote against the union. Although employer intimidation and threats are supposedly illegal, I know that they have existed in every union organizing campaign I have been involved in. Often, just a rumor of intimidation circulated by management is enough to cause the majority of workers at any given workplace to vote against the union. This act would remove the election step and replace it by implementing a structure where over 50% of the workers in a unit would have to sign cards. If that number was reached, the union would be in. This legislation would level the playing field considerably by removing the interim period between card signing and elections - a period that gives management the upper hand in its attempts to "persuade" workers not to vote union.
TA: Tell us about your new novel, "Short Order Frame Up". What's it about, and why should we want to read it?
RJ: My new novel, coming out soon from Mainstay Press, is a novel about racism. The plot line revolves around a murder of two suburban white kids over a drug deal. Another young person - a Black man - is charged with the murder in what can only be called a situation where the cops find a suspect and then fit the evidence to him. Despite the paltry evidence, the young black man is locked up until trial. This sets a number of events into motion, with the most important being the attempt by his relatives and friends and their political and church connections to free him. There's a small town civil rights preacher, an anti-racist group, a liberal lawyer, a player or two, and the actual murderer. Oh yeah, there's a love intrigue or two going on and a bit of off hand political history telling, too. If you like good crime fiction, this fits the bill. If you like fiction told from a leftist perspective, this fits the bill. By the way, the publisher (Mainstay) is a small outfit whose intent is to publish fiction to effect social change. They began because they found today's bookshelves rather empty of political fiction told from a left perspective.
"Unfortunately for Baby Bush and his warlords, they underestimated the Iraqi people's determination not to be subjugated."
TA: In a 2003 piece, "Waiting for the Last War to End", you describe protesting the first Gulf War. What do you see as the common threads, from that war to this one, and what do you think made this war so much bloodier for both the Iraqis and the Americans?
RJ: The common thread is simple - both of these wars are about imperial control. Washington wants to be able to control who gets the oil in the Gulf and, if possible, how much they will pay for it. It is bloodier for all sides because Baby Bush took Papa Bush's war a step or two further. he didn't just humble Saddam and contain him, he humbled him and tried to take over the country. Unfortunately for Baby Bush and his warlords, they underestimated the Iraqi people's determination not to be subjugated.
"...no matter what any liberal is going to tell you, the US is imperialist and to genuinely oppose its wars one must be anti-imperialist."
TA: Okay, the big protests against the war took place this last weekend, following four straight years of bloody occupation and rapidly increasing sectarian violence in Iraq. I notice in one of your pieces about this, you mention off-handedly about some petty squabbles between the two major anti-war groups, ANSWER and UFPJ. Having only been involved in protests organized by these groups as a spectator, I am a little unclear as to what these beefs are. I tend to assume that the only people who don't like one group or the other are right-wing media types who want to sow confusion among the Left and the anti-war community. Are there substantive differences between these groups that we should be concerned about? Is one more legitimate than the other? Does it really matter?
RJ: Let me start off by answering your last question first. No, it doesn't really matter for those of us who go to these things. It does matter when it comes to gathering the largest number and when trying to present a concerted and continuous popular effort to end the war. If I were to put the differences in the simplest possible terms, this is what I would say. UFPJ tends to listen to its right flank, which insists that the Democrats can be made into an antiwar party. ANSWER believe no such thing. This is because ANSWER is an anti-imperialist organization from the get go. That doesn't mean it doesn't have problems, because it does - its Stalinist tendencies being the most obvious. UFPJ is a much broader organization but not all of its member groups are anti-imperialist - which means that they don't see the war as a systemic thing but just something that the neocons have done. This analysis forgets the years of sanctions and low-intensity war wage by Mr. Clinton's administration. The leadership of UFPJ seems to mimic the groups that aren't anti-imperialist (even though most of the leadership is anti-imperialist). This makes it harder to move people to an anti-imperialist analysis in the future. And, no matter what any liberal is going to tell you, the US is imperialist and to genuinely oppose its wars one must be anti-imperialist. Some folks opposed to UFPJ also fault them for their refusal to include Palestinian issues in their demands. However, I have a feeling this must be changing, considering UFPJ is sponsoring a week of actions in June to end US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
TA: Imperialism is a word that those of us on the Left tend to bandy about quite often, without getting into what it means. Can you talk a bit about it for those who are unfamiliar with the concept?
RJ: Imperialism is, plain an simple, the process whereby capitalist nations expand into other countries via economic aid, diplomacy and war in search of raw materials and resources, cheaper labor and new markets. This expansion is necessary because of the essential nature of capitalism: in order to survive it must make a profit. in order to make a profit, it must minimize costs, produce ever more goods, and create markets to sell those goods. So, when a country can not provide all of the resources and labor required by a capitalist enterprise (or collection of enterprises) and the markets of that country are saturated with goods, the enterprises move overseas. When necessary, they enlist the government (which is made up of men and women who believe in the holiness of profit as well) to help them make that move. Hence, so-called free trade deals and wars.
TA: One criticism I hear a lot about anti-war protests from mainstream liberals is the overwhelming number of other issues included in the discussion: Israel/Palestine, Native American rights, etc. Can you explain why these other issues are germane to the issue of the war?
RJ: Liberals are not anti-imperialists. That is why they don't understand the connectedness of these issues. The US support for Israel, its history of genocide against the indigenous of this land, and so on are all symptoms of our imperial history and policy. They are not separate issues. But, in order to understand this, one must have a radical analysis--radical as in going to the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is US imperialism.
"I do think it might change the nature of the war on terror if the world public found out that some element of the US government were involved in those buildings coming down."
TA: You're obviously a pretty radical guy. Considering that you have your stuff on Counterpunch, you must have a position on 9/11. Alexander Cockburn is known for being openly antagonistic towards so-called "9/11 conspiracy theories". Where do you stand on this issue? Do you think the towers were brought down as part of a controlled demolition? What about building 7?
RJ: To be honest, I don't spend much time thinking about this. I was in Manhattan on 9-11 and sat in Washington Square Park for several hours after the event waiting for a friend who worked near the towers. I saw both towers fall from 24th St. and saw Number 7 go down from the Village. If the government was involved, the events of 9-11 served the purpose of getting people to support the wars and consolidation of power that has followed. If the government wasn't involved, the events of 9-11 served the purpose of getting people to support the wars and consolidation of power that has followed. In short, what I am saying is that it doesn't matter to me who did it. One can't change the past. Of course, if the folks who are exploring the possible scenarios involving someone or something besides the men on the planes and the planes themselves do find something, I wouldn't be surprised. But I don't think it makes any difference in terms of what my focus is - getting the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan and preventing a war with Iran or some other country.
TA: Follow-up to that one: If 9/11 was allowed to happen, or worse, Bush and Company facilitated it, what's the endgame? How does planning a terrorist attack against their own people help the Bush cabal, and what does it mean for the future of American imperialism, and popular opposition to it?
RJ: Pure speculation here. If the Bush cabal was involved in letting 9-11 happen or in facilitating it, the only possible way it could help them would be in paving the way for an eventual suspension of the Constitution and the declaration of martial law. If that were to happen, then the opposition must change to survive. However, like I said above, it doesn't matter if the Bush cabal was involved, because they got their Patriot Acts whether they were or not. They can suspend the Constitution whether they were involved or not, too.
TA: Do you think it would change the nature of the so-called "War on Terror" if the majority of Americans knew what really took place on that day? In your mind, how important is it that we catch and/or kill supposed international terrorists?
RJ: I do think it might change the nature of the war on terror if the world public found out that some element of the US government were involved in those buildings coming down. As for the American people, I think it would only increase their ever growing cynicism--a result that would probably change nothing. If the capture of international terrorists is to be done, it should be done via police actions, not wars. I tend to think that the Al-Qaida stuff is overblown and a genuine mish-mash of real terrorists and various intelligence agencies setting up real terrorists. I don't know how that makes much difference, but it might if this came out while the supposed threat still exists - not thirty years from now.
"Torture is wrong and should be banned--it doesn't matter if the suspect is a supposed terrorist, a runner for a drug dealer, a suburban kid who hates his high school, or a gangbanger."
TA: Recently, imprisoned terror suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has confessed to planning or assisting in the planning of 31 separate terror plots. Do you think that the US government should be able to use information gathered using extreme interrogation tactics in court proceedings? What do the new standards laid out in the Military Commissions Act mean to you, in terms of how this "war on terror" is perceived around the world?
RJ: I think Mr. Mohammed's confession has as much legitimacy as the lies I used to tell my parents when I was a kid and didn't want to get in trouble for being late to dinner. In other words, his confession means absolutely nothing because it was extracted through coercion and fear of coercion. Torture is wrong and should be banned--it doesn't matter if the suspect is a supposed terrorist, a runner for a drug dealer, a suburban kid who hates his high school, or a gangbanger. Torture is wrong. The Military Commissions Act most likely confirms that the US is not the great lighthouse of freedom it pretends to be and that the standards it proclaims are as cynical as the wars they start to protect and expand those standards.
TA: We appear to be getting closer and closer to the point at which real evidence of Presidential crimes may be coming to light. Do you think the Democrats will have the guts to seek the President's impeachment, and if not, why not? Which high crimes or misdemeanors committed by this White House do you see as being most egregious? Following up on that, which do you think could most easily lead to a conviction in the Senate?
RJ: I don't think the Democrats have the guts. However, the most egregious of all of Bush and Cheney's possible crimes has to be the criminal war on Iraq. The one most likely to lead to a conviction in the Senate would probably be something having to do with homegrown politics, like the firings of the attorney generals. I say this because of history. Back in 1974, one of the crimes Nixon was originally charged with was the illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos. However, the staff of the
impeachment subcommittee took that charge off the final bill because they didn't think that enough legislators would consider that an impeachable offense.
"A lot of liberals and progressives like to say that this whole project in Iraq and Iran is a neocon thing when it isn't. It's a Washington thing."
TA: Scott Ritter and Seymour Hersh are speaking out lately about the oncoming war with Iran. They both seem convinced that we are already using covert agents within Iran to foment violence and may in fact be planning a full-scale air assault to happen any day now, possibly in reaction to a real or imagined attack on US forces. What are your opinions on this scenario, and why do you think so many Democrats seem to want war with Iran?
RJ: I believe Ritter and Hersh are repeating a very real scenario being considered by the US. This doesn't mean it will happen, but that it very well could. As to the Dems and their support for this insane exercise, it comes down to a a few things. Control of an important geopolitical region and its resources, a desire for revenge on the Iranian people for chasing the Shah out of the country back in 1979, and Israel. A lot of liberals and progressives like to say that this whole project in Iraq and Iran is a neocon thing when it isn't. It's a Washington thing. Neoliberals are the flip side of the neocon coin. Both of these elements of US political thought believe in the need for continued US expansion around the globe and the need to make the world safe for US capitalism, no matter what the cost to the rest of humanity.
TA: What's next for Ron Jacobs? Is there anything you would like to see our readers doing more of?
RJ: I'll get up every morning and go to work. I have another novel gelling in my mind - at this point it looks like it's another crime novel, but it could turn out to be something else. I'll keep on writing for Counterpunch and the like, as well as print mags, and I'll try to keep a smile on my face. As for everyone who reads this, don't give up hope and keep working for justice and peace.
TA: Thanks so much for talking with us, Ron. Keep up the good work, and we'll talk to you soon.
And for all of you, why not check out Ron's work and let him know what you think of it. For those of us opposed to this war, it's important that we stick together and give each other the encouragement we need to keep this moving going.
Categories: Underground Notes