Saturday, January 26, 2008

Queer Democrats Fail to Endorse for City Attorney

Incumbent Aguirre Defends Record Against Two Opponents’ Attacks


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Mike Aguirre, Lee Burdick, Dan Coffey

During his three years as San Diego City Attorney, Mike Aguirre has been a flashpoint for controversy. His denunciations of the city’s budget-busting pension deals for its employees as illegal; his confrontations with mayor Jerry Sanders, city council president Scott Peters and other officials; his challenges to local developers and the sweetheart deals he alleges they have made with the city; and his insistence that he’s responsible, not to the Mayor and Council, but directly to the people have aroused anger and derision from a wide range of sources, from the conservative San Diego Union-Tribune to the city employees’ unions, To his enemies, Aguirre is an obstructionist boor who’s causing the city more trouble — and costing it more money in litigation — than he’s worth. To his supporters, he’s a passionate truth-teller and one of the few San Diegans in public office who’s dealing seriously with the city’s financial troubles.

The controversies surrounding Aguirre were on full display at the January 24 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club, which heard from Aguirre and two Democrats who are running against him, Lee Burdick and Dan Coffey. For almost an hour, an unusually high turnout of club members heard Aguirre, Burdick and Coffey debate a wide range of issues, ranging from his legal strategies on the city’s pension crisis and the Sunroad development in Kearny Mesa to the very function of a city attorney. In the end, the club members voted by a substantial margin (28 in favor to 43 opposed) not to endorse in the city attorney’s race at all — or at least not to do so before March, after the filing deadline to run for the office. Many opponents of an immediate endorsement said they wanted to wait to see if other candidates, including Peters, might run — and they were also concerned that the San Diego County Republican Party has already united behind a candidate, former Assemblymember Jan Goldsmith, who might benefit from a divisive primary campaign involving Aguirre and other Democrats.

Even before entering the meeting room — the Joyce Beers Community Center on Vermont Street in Hillcrest — club members saw a picket line of about 20 representatives of city employees’ unions, carrying picket signs demanding that they not endorse Aguirre for re-election. One picketer got angry at this reporter when he took his photograph, insisting that Zenger’s needed a release from him to use his picture even though he was in plain view at a public event. The protesters eventually entered the meeting room and remained quiet while the club conducted its other business, including electing its own officers for 2008. About 30 minutes into the meeting, president Andrea Villa called the city attorney candidates to the front of the room — and the debate began.

Coffey, who gave the first opening statement, said, “I’m hoping there is a possibility to put a real Democrat in the office who will respect other people and follow the law” — a reference to allegations that Aguirre is too combative and verbally attacks other people instead of negotiating with them.

Aguirre, up next, rose to the challenge. “We have completely reorganized the city attorney’s office so it is no longer an enabler of wrongdoing,” he said — referencing his charge that his predecessor in the office, Casey Gwinn, signed off on then-Mayor Susan Golding and the City Council as they granted inflated pensions to employees which Aguirre says were illegal because the city had no way to pay for them.

Rising to accusations that he is anti-Queer, Aguirre then said, “I will be for you as I was with the Boy Scouts [when he declined to appeal a court ruling against the city for giving the Boy Scouts a $1-per-year lease on 18 acres of city parkland despite their discrimination against Queers and atheists]. I will be with you as I was defending the fire chief [‘out’ Lesbian Tracy Jarman] against the charge that participating in the Pride Parade somehow discriminated against heterosexual firefighters. I will be for you as I was when I stood up before the City Council and declared that the Constitution supports marriage equality. Whether you support me, I need to be steadfast in enforcing your rights, and aware that there is still much work to be done.”

“Tonight you’re going to hear a lot of contradictory information about Aguirre,” said Burdick. “I want you to set yourselves apart from that debate and agree that he has divided us. Aguirre has driven a wedge in this city, this party and this club. I want you to find a candidate on whom you can unite.”

The questions club members and others asked of the candidates — submitted on index cards and read by Jeri Dilno, the club’s vice-president for political action — seemed about evenly divided between pro-Aguirre and anti-Aguirre questions. Surprisingly, Aguirre’s most controversial action involving the Queer community — his involvement in closing down the 2200 Club, a Gay bathhouse in North Park, supposedly at the urging of radical-Right activist and self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” James Hartline — went unmentioned. Instead, most of the questions involved the pension issue, Aguirre’s personnel policies and the proper role of a city attorney.

The first question, clearly from an Aguirre supporter, read, “Will you have the courage to stand up to the Mayor when you know he will send the unions and the Union-Tribune after you?”

“If the city attorney were doing their job, we’d have nothing to fear from the media,” Burdick answered. “I will put a moratorium on the city attorney calling press conferences for at least the first six months of my term. We will represent San Diego through our actions, not our words.”

“The Union-Tribune is a tool of the vested interests that have just about destroyed our city,” Aguirre said. Under his tenure, he added, “For the first time the city attorney has been interposed between the citizens and the special interests. Our city attorney’s office for the first time represents all San Diego and not the people who make campaign contributions.”

“The Union-Tribune has said a lot of things about a lot of people, many of them untrue,” Coffey said, “but the real question is whether the city attorney can work with the mayor and city council for the people. I’ve been courageous enough to stand up against the mayor, the city attorney, the Union-Tribune and anybody and everybody that I think is doing the wrong thing.”

Many of the questions dealt with Aguirre’s expansive conception of his job — an issue that came up in his first campaign for the office in 2004 as well. Aguirre’s opponents argue that the city attorney’s true clients are the mayor and the city council, and the job is to facilitate what the mayor and council want to do and make sure they do it in a legal way. In his 2004 campaign, Aguirre argued that by having the city attorney independently elected instead of appointed, the authors of San Diego’s 1931 city charter intended the position to have broad powers to investigate and litigate directly on behalf of the people — and that, Aguirre says, is what he’s done in office.

Asked what role the city attorney should play in initiating policy and legislation — one of the main areas in which his opponents say he’s stepped out of bounds and usurped the powers of the mayor and council — Aguirre said, “Typically, the city attorney does not initiate policy. But violating the law is not a policy choice.” Aguirre accused the city of ‘not complying with the environmental laws, not complying with the state constitution, not complying with the conflict-of-interest laws. We’ve been sued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Water Quality Control Board, the Department of Health Services, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and on and on and on. The [previous] city attorney became an enabler and an excuse-maker for wrongdoing at City Hall.” By contrast, Aguirre said, he is insisting that the city avoid actions that would violate state and federal law — and for that he’s been accused of using his office to “make policy.”

“Before the city attorney becomes the city attorney, they are an attorney and they have ethical obligations that are established by the Bar that grants them the privilege of representing clients in the state of California,” said Burdick. “Those ethical obligations govern the attorney-client relationship. So when the city attorney becomes the city attorney, those ethical obligations carry forward. The fact of the matter is that the proper role of the city attorney is twofold. When the city attorney is presented with an issue by their client, the first thing they must do is determine whether there is illegality about to occur, and it is their duty to inform their clients — not the press — whether that illegality exists and how to avoid it.”

“The city attorney can suggest things as policies,” said Coffey, “but the way our balanced government is set up, you have a mayor and a city council tha5t set policy, and a city attorney that carries out the responsibility of making the laws lawful. The city attorney can suggest things, but cannot set policy. I would be in the role of suggesting appropriate policies.”

A related question asked whether the city attorney’s proper role is as the “corporation counsel” to the mayor and city council. In other words, who is the city attorney’s client — the mayor and city council, or the people directly? Both as a candidate and in the office, Aguirre has been steadfast in his insistence that the city attorney’s client is the people. “The city attorney’s job is to fearlessly protect the interests of all San Diego, and not just look at the interests of the mayor and city council,” he explained to the San Diego Democratic Club. “The city attorney’s primary job is to make sure the law was complied with by everyone involved.” Aguirre added that when that doesn’t happen — when the city attorney sees his or her role as providing legal justification for whatever the mayor and city council want to do — you have “the damage, the carnage” of the pension decisions between 1996 and 2002, when “people worked together … and violated almost every law on the books.”

Not surprisingly, Burdick and Coffee both strongly disagreed and said the city attorney’s clients are the mayor and city council, not the people as a whole. “The city attorney is the principal legal advisor to the city council and the mayor,” Burdick said. “Because it’s an elected position, some of us have gone back to the election propaganda of 1931 and tried to say that the city attorney represents all San Diegans. The city attorney is elected by and responsible to the people, but represents the corporate city of San Diego.”

Coffey’s response was similar to Burdick’s. “The city is a municipal corporation, and the city attorney is the counsel for that corporation,” he said. “The corporation is run by the mayor and city council, and legal advice is provided by the city attorney and by other counsel. Aguirre has created this legend, based on an old, obsolete document, that he is the representative of all the people.”

The candidates returned to the issue of just what the job they’re seeking is later in the evening, in response to a question about why the city attorney is elected. Burdick said the job is elected for one reason and one reason only: so the public can enforce the “accountability and independence” of the city attorney by being able to remove one through voting them out of office.

“I happen to have reviewed the historical documents,” Coffee said. “In 1930, because a second-year lawyer named Mr. Quitman was the only attorney available to the Board of Freeholders [which wrote the current San Diego city charter], they made the city attorney an elected position. The person who actually wrote the charter recommended an appointed city attorney.”

Aguirre claimed that when the San Diego city charter was voted on in 1929, it contained a provision for an appointed city attorney — “and it was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.” After that, he said, the Board of Freeholders resubmitted the charter to voters in 1931, substantially the same but with the city attorney elected instead of appointed — and it passed.

Among the other issues raised were whether, and under what circumstances, the city should hire outside attorneys — which Aguirre has frequently claimed various agencies have done to get more congenial legal opinions than the ones he was going to give — and what to do about the city’s pension crisis. “Even though it’s a violation of city charter section 40 to hire an outside attorney,” Aguirre said, “I work with the outside attorneys because I don’t want to jeopardize the city or risk liability. It really hurts to see people violate charter section 40 bcause the people, not the mayor or city council, decide who the city attorney should be.”

“I suspect this question will come up very little under my administration,” said Coffey, “because I plan to have well-qualified people working in my office, and it won’t be necessary to hire outside counsel. There was a time we spent $5 million on outside counsel, and in the last three years we’ve spent $90 million because of all the conflicts of interest and chasing down rabbit holes” from Aguirre’s office.

“I’ve been practicing government law for 20 years,” Burdick said. “I’ve also been a private-sector litigator for 17 of those years. Many times I’ve had clients say, ‘I need to bring in other attorneys. City charter section 40 does not prohibit the city from hiring outside counsel. It says the city attorney is the primary advisor to the mayor and city council, not the only one.”

“If the city council can hire an attorney at will, what’s the point in electing a city attorney?” Aguirre replied. “The public asserted its right to elect the city attorney after the first proposal to have an appointed city attorney was shot down in 1929.”

On the pension crisis, Coffey said that Aguirre’s attempts to go to court to break the city’s pension contracts with its public employees’ unions were illegal and wasted the city’s money. He said Aguirre’s lawsuit “is a cross-complaint on a case already brought by [private attorney] Michael Conger and already settled. That case cannot be refiled and it cannot be won. Aguirre filed against the wrong parties and outside the statute of limitations.” He added that even if Aguirre had been able to win the suit, it would have reduced the city’s pension liability by only 2.5 percent. “It was a political case to raise Aguirre’s profile and get him on TV,” Coffey added. “If we’re going to solve the pension crisis, it will be through discussions, not litigation.”

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Burdick said. “The agreements were not illegal, and therefore the city is contractually required to pay those benefits, unless and until they’re renegotiated.”

“An illegal contract is not an enforceable contract,” Aguirre replied. “Every legal group that has looked at these contracts has found that these benefits were granted illegally.” He added that not only did the city act illegally in 1996 when they raised pension benefits without the money to pay them, but “in 2002 they did the same thing. They increased benefits and decreased contributions. The current cost is $6.4 billion, and they’re going to solve it by taking away defined benefits for future employees.” Aguirre essentially accused the city government and the employee unions of working together to deny new city workers pension guarantees, and instead stick them with 401(K)-style “defined contribution” plans. “I favor unions,” he said, “but I am not in favor of labor leaders ripping off their members.”

The candidates were also asked whether the city attorney has the power to demand documents from the media — a reference to Aguirre’s abortive attempt to investigate KPBS for dropping the Full Focus public-affairs program from their TV schedule. “In Russia, that’s a good policy,” Coffey said. “In the U.S. we have something called the First Amendment.” Investigating the media, Coffey said, is “not a democratic principle. It’s a totalitarian principle, anti-democratic and anti-American.”

Aguirre essentially argued that because KPBS is publicly owned — “SDSU and the California State University trustees hold the license” — it’s a legitimate subject for investigation to see if it’s misusing taxpayer money. “Sending them a request for public documents is appropriate, and questioning the role of the Union-Tribune in KPBS’s editorial decisions is appropriate,” he explained. He argued that there is a conflict of interest in that Union-Tribune owner David Copley chaired KPBS’s building fund — and the cancellation of Full Focus meant that the only remaining KPBS program on local politics is headed by the Union-Tribune’s editorial page editor. “That is not right,” Aguirre said.

“Aguirre issued two public requests to that station,” Burdick said. “They complied with the first request, and after making the second request, Aguirre consulted with a First Amendment attorney, admitted his mistake and withdrew the second one.”

Even the candidates’ closing statements revealed vast differences between their organizational and personal styles — and gave them opportunities to attack each other. “Each election allows us to focus on the issues of importance,” Burdick said. “We are wasting that opportunity by talking about the issues that divide us. We cannot allow a single issue to divide us or distract us from advancing the politics of opportunity, including marriage rights. We need a candidate who has no vendettas to settle and who brings a clean slate. I am that candidate, and I would ask for your endorsement tonight.”

“You now control the city attorney’s office,” Aguirre said. “Neither of my opponents raised the issue of marriage equality before the city council. They were missing in action. I brought down the San Francisco city attorney and worked with city councilmember Toni Atkins to get the council to sign on to the amicus brief in support of marriage equality. Do you think either of these individuals would have put their reputation on the line for that? Would Casey Gwinn have? The last time I saw Dan Coffey involved in a campaign, it was Dick Murphy’s for mayor. John Kern [Burdick’s campaign consultant] is Murphy’s right-hand man. The city attorney’s office is working for the people of San Diego. The mayor and the Union-Tribune are attacking me, but that’s not what you hear in the communities.”

Coffey took Aguirre’s comments about marriage equality as a personal insult. “I invite you to watch the videotape on the amicus brief hearing, and you will see me there,” he said. “Aguirre just lied to you, as he does whenever it’s convenient for him. I believe in honest and decent government, and to get honest and decent government you need honest and decent people. I am not a Democrat in name only. I practice it and I believe it, and that’s what I’ll bring to the city attorney’s office — not a lot of lies and intimidation. I ask for your endorsement because I will bring honesty, integrity, fairness and a decent place to work to the city attorney’s office for the first time in four years.”

After the forum, Aguirre conceded privately to Coffey that he had been at the hearing, but insisted his comments were still accurate because Coffey had not spoken to the city council in support of marriage equality.

King’s Words Highlight of Alternative Holiday Celebration

Answer to Military, Law Enforcement Presence at Official Parade


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Jonathan with Gloria Verdieu and spoken-word artist Sylvia Telafaro; Enrique Morones

While the official parade and “all-people’s breakfast” commemorating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday January 21 featured politicians, the military, immigration agents and other arms of U.S. law enforcement, the San Diego branch of the International Action Center (IAC) sponsored a small but lively alternative celebration of King’s legacy in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Skyline Drive that featured King himself as its most powerful and significant speaker. King’s words, from a recording of the “Beyond Viet Nam” talk he gave at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — one year to the day before he was killed — seemed eerily prescient as he warned of what the enormous waste of lives and resources in a pointless war was doing to the prospects for freedom and equality here in the U.S.

“No one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war,” King said in 1967. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Viet Nam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. … We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

In the same speech, King noted that he had traveled to African-American communities in America’s inner cities and tried to talk younger Blacks out of rioting and using violence to pursue racial equality, but that the war had got in the way of that task. “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems,” he said. “I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Viet Nam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

The event, which drew about 30 people, also heard from another recorded speaker: Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 in what the IAC and other advocates consider a politically motivated frame-up. A journalist before his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has written a book called Live from Death Row and continues to write, record and release political commentaries. The one played at the January 21 event was taped 10 days earlier. Called “America’s Martin and Martin’s America,” it made the point that the “official” commemorations of King’s legacy had turned him into a harmless African-American icon and ignored the radical implications of King’s actual words and ideas.

“What distinguishes the life and work of King towards his latter days, was his dedication to Black poor folks, a group that seems to be all but forgotten in the years since his passing,” Abu-Jamal said. “While today’s America seems to be on the brink of electing a Black person [as President] (or at least possibly nominating one), the plight of the Black poor could hardly be more perilous. … For them is reserved: the worst of public education the worst housing; brutal treatment by cops; ignored by political leaders (at least until election time rolls around), highest rates of joblessness; the highest incarceration rates — we know this list can go on and on. King Day may be remembered, but the man behind the name is fast disappearing.”

The speakers who appeared “live” at the event expressed similar sentiments. IAC activist Gloria Verdieu said that her group had helped organize a “Martin Luther King/Cesar Chavez Coalition for Justice and Unity” two years earlier “when we documented the militarization of the King and Chavez Day parades.” Calling for a united front of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and indigenous people, Verdieu said, “There’s a time for celebration and festivities, but this Martin Luther King Day is a time for resistance … to unite against racism and imperialism, and for immigrants.”

Verdieu then introduced Border Angels founder Enrique Morones, who opened with a line he’s used in many of his speeches — “We’re all the same race: the human race” — and then talked about his ongoing campaign for immigrants’ rights. “We all need to treat our neighbors as brothers and sisters,” he said. “There’s persecution every day, and we need to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. Between 4,500 and 10,000 people have died attempting to cross the border since ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ started in 1994. There are 260 million people worldwide without documents. The United States has only 12 million of them.”

Morones said that “Operation Gatekeeper,” the border fence and all the other anti-immigrant measures being put into effect to prevent immigration from Mexico to the U.S. are violations of U.S. treaty obligations. He claimed that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, under which Mexico gave up almost half of its territory to the U.S. (including what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico), guaranteed people on both sides of the border a permanent right “to go back and forth” between the two countries. He announced that on February 2, the anniversary of the signing of this treaty, he is launching his third annual “March for Migrants,” a caravan of cars from San Ysidro to Brownsville, Texas. “To me, Martin Luther King was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” Morones said. “All of us can do extraordinary things.”

“We all have dreams,” said Ray Burrell of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), riffing off the title of King’s most famous speech. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. People come here to seek the things they didn’t have back home.” Burrell called upon the people at the event to “participate with local community leaders and activists, register new voters, make sure they know the differences between Democrats and Republicans, independents, Peace and Freedom Party members and whatever, and we must educate.”

A young man named Carlos identified himself as part of a San Diego organization affiliated with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. “I’m just here in solidarity,” he said. “We’re organizing with the people in Mexico. We hope to be part of the coalition.”

The first speaker after King’s recording was played was a young man named Jefferson, who introduced himself as a Los Angeles representative of two organizations with ties to the IAC, the Workers’ World Party and the Troops Out Now Coalition. “King knew he would be murdered,” Jefferson said, “and what turned the system against him was his opposition to the war in Viet Nam and his own government. It’s the same today.” He called the IAC’s event “the real Martin Luther King celebration,” as opposed to the “official” one that included representatives from the FBI and ROTC.

“There are many ways to oppress people, not just bombs and bullets,” Jefferson said. “One day before King was killed, he talked about the way slaveowners pitted slaves against one another. That’s still happening. The biggest threat working people can pose to the system is to united. We have to unite. That’s why King was killed. He knew he couldn’t stop the bombing or the aggressions. We have to speak out against the oppression of Palestine and the exploitation of Africa.”

Alan Woodson, an organizer with a prisoners’ rights organization called All of Us or None, said that when they were first brought to the U.S. as slaves, “Black people were told they couldn’t speak their language or practice their culture. We were given the worst of the meat and learned to like it.” After talking about diabetes and other health hazards that disproportionately affect African-Americans, and mentioning that 60 percent of U.S. food is now bioengineered, he said that there were still 300 African-American political prisoners in the U.S. from the Black liberation struggles of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Linking America’s imperialist policies to its status as the nation with a greater percentage of its people in prison than any other in the world, Woodson said that the reason for all the “tough on crime” legislation putting people in prison for decades for relatively minor offenses is to get around the 13th Amendment and re-enslave African-Americans. “In prisons they are making high-tech and military equipment for 12 to 30 cents a day,” he said. “We’re only 17 percent of the population in this country, but we’re the majority of its prisoners.” (Actually more white people are held in U.S. jails and prisons than any other race, but African-Americans have a higher percentage of their population in prison than any other American racial or ethnic group.)

Tammy Harris and a man identified only as “Brother Kweiku” spoke on behalf of an African nationalist organization called the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (“Uhuru” means “freedom” in Swahili). Ironically, they showed up at the King Day commemoration and displayed their literature even though a book by their group’s founder, Omali Yeshitela, made clear that he disagreed strongly with King’s attempts in the 1960’s to discourage young African-Americans from staging race riots and preparing for violent resistance to racism.

“The only way we can change is if we get involved,” said Harris. “Everyone here today is here because they want to make a change. If we continue to allow the system to control what we do, we won’t get anywhere. Being part of the world and making a change means being bigger than yourself. We are a grass-roots organization led by the working-class African community. We unite with any organization that understands that self-determination is the highest experience of democracy. If you believe you have the ability to improve your situation, we unite with you. We’ve got to stop what’s happening in our communities.”

Amad Shauf, identified as a minister with the Nation of Islam, also said that “unity, regardless of where we come from,” was one of the two most important qualifications for bringing about social change. “The other important thing is to have your own self-identity. That’s equality. We should have discipline and have the freedom to represent ourselves. Equality is being able to be free to be you, and being able to respect your brither and sister is important. All the things I just talked about are within you.”

Verdieu ended the event with a call for people to join in an effort to build a larger King Day counter-event in 2009, including a march through San Diego’s historic communities of color. To help, please call her at (619) 255-4585.

The complete text of Dr. King's April 4, 1967 "Beyond Viet Nam" speech is posted below.

Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break Silence

By Rev. Martin Luther King

4 April 1967

Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City

[Please put links to this speech on your respective web sites and if possible, place the text itself there. This is the least well known of Dr. King’s speeches among the masses, and it needs to be read by all.]

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Viet Nam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Viet Nam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Viet Nam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Viet Nam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Viet Nam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

The Importance of Viet Nam

Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Viet Nam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Viet Nam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Viet Nam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Viet Nam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Viet Nam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

“O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Viet Nam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the “Vietcong” or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

Strange Liberators

And as I ponder the madness of Viet Nam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Viet Namese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Viet Namese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Viet Namese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Viet Nam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Viet Nam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators — our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change — especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy — and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us — not their fellow Viet Namese — the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go — primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them — mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Viet Nam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force — the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on — save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Viet Nam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front — that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the north” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Viet Nam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them — the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Viet Nam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.

When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Viet Namese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Viet Nam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Viet Nam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Viet Namese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

This Madness Must Cease

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Viet Nam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Viet Nam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Viet Nam. Recently one of them wrote these words:

“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Viet Namese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Viet Nam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Viet Nam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Viet Nam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Viet Namese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

In order to atone for our sins and errors in Viet Nam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

1. End all bombing in North and South Viet Nam.
2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
4. Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Viet Nam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Viet Nam government.
5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Viet Nam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.

Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Viet Namese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.

Protesting The War

Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Viet Nam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.

As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Viet Nam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Viet Nam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Viet Nam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Viet Nam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Viet Nam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. n the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove thosse conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

The People Are Important

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on...” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Viet Nam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

“Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

“Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own. “

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Anton at 6th @ Penn: A Theatrical Delight


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Anton in Show Business — that’s “Anton” as in “Chekhov,” by the way — at 6th @ Penn is a total delight, a great comedy that doesn’t break much new ground in its spoofing of the theatre business but manages an artful combination of the stereotypes and clichés that makes you laugh along the way until it builds to a surprisingly poignant ending. Premiered at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky and credited to a mysterious author called “Jane Martin” — more on that later — Anton in Show Business tells the story of an ill-fated production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at a theatre called “Actors Express” in San Antonio, Texas.

The three sisters themselves are played by an intriguing trio of actresses, two of whom are cast at an open audition in New York while the third provides the star power needed to get the show on in the first place. The star is Holly (DeAnna Driscoll), who’s trying to grow her career beyond the Sex and the City-style sitcom she’s on to establish herself as a Serious Actress so she can get film roles (maybe, she ruefully muses at one point, film roles that will actually let her keep her clothes on throughout). On a whim, she insists that two actors who are catching a hard time from an egomaniac British director (Kelly Lapczynski) be cast as her co-stars. One of these is Lizabette (Aimee Janelle Nelson), a Kristen Chenoweth-type Texas transplant who gave up a gig as a third-grade teacher to come to New York and try for stage stardom. The other is Casey (Robin Christ), a hard-bitten veteran performer and cancer survivor who’s all too aware that she’s been around so long the only role she can hope for is Olga, oldest and homeliest of the sisters.

The dramatis personae also include two more egomaniac directors, a Black militant named Andwyeth (Cashae Monya) who replaces the Brit and wants to throw out the Chekhov script and remodel the play as a racial melodrama; and Wikewich (also Kelly Lapczynski), a Polish émigré with a thick accent and an even thicker conception of the play which he isn’t sure his cast is able to “get.” There’s also a producer who has her own ego trip going — she takes up hours at rehearsal to discuss her own childhood — and Ben (Patricia Elmore Costa), a country-music star whom Holly is determined to seduce away from his wife and children just to prove she can. (In honor of this plot development, the first act ends with Hank Williams’ classic record “Your Cheatin’ Heart” played as the exit music.) Also in the mix is Don Blount (also Cashae Monya), the tobacco company executive who wrote the check to supply the financial backing for the production and who resents it when Casey goes on a tear about how his company is merchandising death — then begs him for another pack of cigarettes since she, a compulsive smoker, has run out.

Anton in Show Business is built around two gimmicks that add piquancy to its set of familiar “backstage” characters and situations. One is that it’s written for an all-female cast even though its characters are both men and women — and rather than being done subtly to make some sort of broader point about gender roles, the cross-gender casting is so obvious there isn’t even any attempt to make the women look credible as men when they’re playing them. The other is that Martin has answered all our possible objections to the play — that it’s too gimmicky, too stereotyped, too theatrical, too self-referential, too cut off from the world outside the theatre — in advance, by putting them in the mouth of Joby (Morgan Trant), a character who speaks from the audience and heckles the onstage characters at critical moments.

Yes, this play is self-referential; it not only is theatre, it’s about theatre and doesn’t pretend to be anything beyond what it is. It’s also aimed at an audience that truly cares about the theatre and its supposed decline. Nobody goes to a house like 6th @ Penn and watches plays in a space the size of a large living room if they don’t care about theatre itself on a level beyond their interest or attachment to any specific play. A company like 6th @ Penn finds its natural market niche among people who believe that, despite all the marvelous technological advances that have brought us movies, records, radio, TV and now the glorified home movies of Internet sites like YouTube, the best way to be entertained is still to have the people who are entertaining you right there before you “in fhe flesh,” as it were, breathing the same air you are and talking with nothing but the lung power God, nature or the gene pool gave them.

There’s a mystery surrounding the playwright of record, “Jane Martin,” by the way. Though she’s been writing plays since 1982, when the Louisville theatre premiered a series of her monologues under the title Talking With … , no one outside the theatre has ever seen, heard or spoken to her. She has never spoken in public or given an interview. No biographical details have ever been published and no photos of her are known to exist. She’s won prestigious awards and cash prizes for her work, but surrogates have always accepted the awards for her. One widely held belief is that “Martin” is actually Jon Jory, who was artistic director of the Actors Theatre in Louisville until he retired in 2000 after directing the world premiere of Anton (and whose father, Victor Jory, was a veteran actor in Hollywood whose best-known credits were as the overseer Jonas Wilkerson in Gone With the Wind and Helen Keller’s father in The Miracle Worker).

Jory has always denied it, saying, “Whoever writes these plays feels that they would be unable to write them if (their identity) was made public knowledge.” But after Anton premiered and showed an intimate working knowledge of small theatre and the perils of running one, some critics were more convinced than ever that “Martin” was either Jory writing solo or he and his wife, Marcia Dixey, in collaboration.

Nonetheless, whoever wrote Anton in Show Business can feel proud of how 6th @ Penn has staged it. The company’s artistic head, Dale Morris, has handled the direction personally and done a wonderful job maintaining the timing comedy needs to succeed. He’s also got some first-rate performances from his cast, especially Christ, who brings her hard-bitten, seen-it-all character to vivid life. Nelson as Lizabette is a bit too chipper for her own good — though at the end she sounds depths her previously (and deliberately) superficial performance haven’t led us to expect — and Driscoll has the charisma to convince us she’s the spoiled diva and the acting chops to make us feel sorry for her. Costa’s Ben, despite the on-purpose ludicrousness of her “masculine” get-up, also brings real pathos to the character.

The set, also designed by Morris, is simple but effective and is given scope by the marvelous murals by Valentine Viannay that hang on either side of the theatre, one representing New York and one representing Hollywood — with the San Antonio setting of the main action not only geographically but philosophically and ideologically “in between.” The technical team members keep their work unobtrusive throughout but Jamie Lloyd’s costumes and Mitchell Simkovski’s lights are simple, straightforward and sum up the characters. 6th @ Penn has picked a good script and done it justice, creating a production that everyone who loves theatre — especially small-scale independent theatre — should see.

Anton in Show Business runs through Sunday, March 2 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and other information, call (619) 688-9210 or visit

PHOTO: Back row: Julia Hoover - Kelly Lapzcynski

Middle Row: Morgan Trant - Cashae Monya - Patricia Elmore Costa

Front Row: Robin Christ - DeAnna Driscoll - Aimee Janelle Nelson

Photo credit: Paul Savage,

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Giving His Eyes for His Country

Mazin al-Nashi on Serving the U.S. in Iraq — and the Aftermath


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For Mazin al-Nashi, Arab-American immigrant and San Diego resident, September 11, 2001 really did “change everything.” “We managed for 10 years in San Diego,” al-Nashi’s wife Layla told Activist San Diego at a January 14 meeting, “and then President Bush called for cultural people to serve America against the terrorists.” Since al-Nashi spoke three languages, he signed up with the U.S. military as an interpreter and was eventually contracted to the San Diego-based Titan Corporation. He served in Iraq and was assaulted, first by insurgents who were targeting anyone who was helping the Americans — and then, after he was injured, by his employers at Titan, who couldn’t wash their hands of him fast enough once he’d become a liability instead of an asset. Today Mazin al-Nashi is blind, and he and his wife work with Activist San Diego to try to bring the U.S.-Iraq war to an end.

“I worked as a civilian with the U.S. Army,” Mazin al-Nashi told Activist San Diego. “I was accepted by Titan Corporation before the war started.” When he to Iraq, Mazin reported to Sharif al-Abadi, a high-ranking staff member to Shi’a religious leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani — an influential figure the U.S. was trying to cultivate. Al-Abadi told Mazin that Sistani’s organization had a charity to raise money to bury Iraqi war victims. “I said, ‘How many bodies?’.” Mazin recalled. “He said they collected more than 3,000 per day from the streets of Baghdad and also from the hospitals, people who were injured in war.” Mazin recalled al-Abadi telling him that they didn’t have either enough ice to preserve the bodies or enough gasoline to cremate them, “so they asked us to ask the Americans.” At the time, the U.S. was still governing Iraq directly through the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer. “I contacted the office of Ambassador Bremer,” Mazin recalled, “and the answer was no.”

Mazin said that under steady U.S. attack and inept stewardship, virtually everything citizens of a modern country routinely expect — water, sewage treatment and electricity — had almost totally ceased to exist. Visiting the Baghdad sewage treatment plant as an interpreter, Mazin was told by the engineer in charge that the plant had been “heavily bombed” by the U.S. Air Force, and in a country with the world’s second largest known oil reserves, they couldn’t get diesel fuel to run the equipment even if they could put it in working order. Mazin was told the U.S. had also bombed Iraq’s water facilities: “All the pipes were broken, and Iraqis get only one hour of water every other day.”

According to Mazin, the U.S. had also targeted Iraq’s electricity system, a vital necessity for daily life in a country where the temperature frequently reaches 130°. “There is no power for people in the cities, and no power for farmers to get water to irrigate their plants,” Mazin explained. Asking around to find out just what was happening to the electricity Iraq was still generating, Mazin found, “All the power is going to the oil pumping stations. The oil is being pumped 24 hours a day” — while the residents of Baghdad consider themselves lucky to have electricity for one hour a day.

All this is killing Iraqis every day, Mazin stressed. “Iraqi children have diarrhea and other diseases they get from the polluted water,” he said. “Most of Iraq’s hospitals have been looted or bombed. Iraq’s children are the first who suffered.”

Mazin said that during his time in Iraq the deadly effects of the war and the U.S. occupation stared him in the face every day. “Every day I worked in Iraq there were dead people in the streets,” he said. “Some were being eaten by their dogs.” Mazin also said he “met people who couldn’t leave their homes” for fear of being victimized either by sectarian militias or kidnappers.”

For Mazin’s wife Layla, virtually all of whose relatives either still live in Iraq or have fled to Syria or Jordan, the kidnapping threat hit home. “After 30 years of persecution under Saddam Hussein, my family stood with the Americans and voted in the elections,” she recalled. “My brother’s seven-year-old son was kidnapped in May 2005 by insurgents who knew who had exposed themselves to the Americans. They wanted $250,000 — and I don’t think any Iraqi family today has that kind of money. … There was waling throughout the walls. The neighbors started bringing money and throwing it on the sofa. That was on Tuesday. By Friday my aunt had died under the stress, and on Saturday the community gathered together.”

Eventually the kidnappers settled for the amount of money Layla’s relatives and their neighbors had been able to raise — but that wasn’t the end of it. They found to their shock that the kidnapping had been an “inside job” and at least one of the neighbors who had supposedly rallied around them to “help” had been in on it. “The kidnappers ransacked their home and left flyers that said, ‘Become Muslims or leave the country,’” Layla recalled. Layla’s relatives fled Iraq and left their home behind “for whoever took it,” she said.

Even exile, bitter as it is, has ceased to be an option for most Iraqis as the neighboring Arab countries — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan — have tightened their immigration policies. “Before the war, Syria welcomed Iraqis,” Layla said. “Now they’re not welcome. Syria just put in a new regulation that every Iraqi has to cross the border back into Iraq, stay 15 days and then request a three-month visa. My sister has a one-year visa because she has a child attending school. Without a home and a place to call your own, you don’t have respect.”

Layla also pointed to one of the least discussed evils resulting from the U.S. war on Iraq: the virtual enslavement of Iraq’s women. Whatever was wrong with Saddam Hussein’s regime, at least it guaranteed women equality with men. Layla herself went to school in Iraq in the 1970’s and studied geological engineering. That isn’t an option for Iraqi women anymore, she explained. Today, under the new Iraqi constitution which the Bush administration ballyhooed as a triumph of “democracy,” women are once again second-class citizens who can’t get married without the permission of their families or leave the country — or even go out of their homes — without the permission of their husbands.

“We feel sorry for the 4,000 U.S. servicepeople who were killed and the 80,000 who were wounded, many of them blinded,” Mazin said. “There are more blind people from this war than from Viet Nam or any other. I cannot see anymore. I have lost my eyes, most of my teeth, my hearing on one side, and [the use of] one hand and one leg.” Mazin recalled that he was a target on both sides, attacked by insurgents because he was helping the Americans and also shot by an American soldier because he was standing in Baghdad International Airport. “The Iraqi people hate us and don’t want us there,” Mazin said. “We want every family to have peace and jobs. The war is affecting every one of us.”

A Disposable Man

Mazin al-Nashi’s problems only began when he was attacked and blinded. While he’d been hale, hearty and able to work, Titan Corporation had billed the U.S. government $240,000 per year for his services — and only paid him $60,000. Once he was injured — once he moved from the asset to the liability side of Titan’s ledger — he became, as he put it, “enemy number one” to them.

“They pulled me out of the intensive care unit four times, both in Iraq and in Germany,” Mazin said. “They wouldn’t give me laser surgery” (which might have saved his sight). “Titan fought to get me out of ICU in Baghdad, sent me to a tent in 130° heat for four days and left me there to die. They don’t care about you because they’re billionaires and you’re nothing. At home, they scheduled a nurse to ‘help’ me and she wrote false reports about me. They only spent $4,000 on my care, and $3,000 of that was on MRI’s. They put me in a wheelchair and sent me back to my wife — and yet I was still on their payroll. The government was still paying them money for me.” Mazin grimly added that the only money Titan sent his family was $9.04 — his last paycheck.

“It’s been a nightmare for me, and not just to be blind,” Mazin said. “For the first year, I went from doctor to doctor, and every day there was a knock on my door from a collection agency. One was for a bill for $1.47. We have to pay back every single penny the Army spent on us in military hospitals.” Meanwhile, his health insurance premium went up from $4 to $1,000 because he now had a “pre-existing condition.”

As a last resort, Mazin and his family sued Titan — and that, too, turned out to be yet another arena in which their bottomless financial resources were used to victimize him again. “As soon as you sue them, eighteen lawyers will be in court every minute about your status and situation,” he said. “Hundreds of lawyers will fight you, and three dozen doctors will say you are still O.K., you can put up high-voltage lines and fly planes — even though you are blind. They use everything they can against you.”

And it isn’t just her husband and other people who served the U.S. through private contractors who are getting screwed, Layla added. “Eighty thousand active-duty people are also being denied claims and benefits,” she said. “A lot of them will end up homeless. The government says, ‘We will take care of our heroes.’ Don’t believe it. I have written to everyone in the government, including President Bush and our Congressmember, Duncan Hunter. Duncan Hunter’s chief of staff said to my face, ‘We’re not going to help your husband because he was a volunteer. We have a good business relationship with Titan.’”