Exemplars

Free Speech Icon Is Still Free: Deena Metzger

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A throng of young protesters wearing masks and wielding clubs attack ‘conservatives’ at a rally at UC Berkeley, the home of the original free speech movement. Back in the Governor Ronnie Reagan days, the attackers would have been the ‘Blue Meanies’ as we students nicknamed them in the Sixties.  But now these opponents of speech pose as progressives and claim to be ‘anti-fa;’ (for anti-fascist) protesters who claim lineage to the fully exposed demonstrators of over fifty-years ago. Mario Savio must be spinning his grave.

What has happened to the left? What would the anti-fa do if an Allen Ginsberg look alike pulled one of his anti-establishment rants at a rally protesting conservatives? Would they accuse him of sexual harassment for micro-aggression for his unconventional stunts like disrobing at a poetry reading? Would the words in his seminal poem, Howl, like ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ offend? What about the frequent speeches like those by ‘Jesus freaks’ on the plaza in the 70s?

Who are these people? Are they FBI undercover agents seeking to disrupt legitimate complaints about conservative positions? That did happen back in the day, and given the level of surveillance and the authoritarian nature of the Establishment today, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  But on its face, it is not inclusive.  Authoritarian and intolerant, its’ posturing is antithetical to the values and ideals of the New Left of fifty years ago.

In 1970, I knew a Black Panther and attended a  Panther meeting with him. At that meeting at a coffee house in San Francisco, a lively discussion explored the likelihood of FBI agent provocateurs in the group. By that time, J. Edgar had almost no inhibition in his war against the radical movement.  He planted undercover agents in radical groups around the country in addition to inciting violence at anti-war demonstrations.   And it worked. Discredited by faux radicals and overwhelmed by Establishment newspapers maligning the New Left, the movement disintegrated into squabbling factions like Weather Underground and the SLA.  Fortunately, underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Free  Press and the Berkeley Barb exposed this undermining of progressive politics.

A period of exhilaration occurred when President Richard Nixon was driven from office.  His misdeeds combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s disregard for the constitution validated the radicals suspicion of persecution.  After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, evidence of the government’s harassment of the left was exposed.  In the 1976 presidential primaries, Jerry Brown’s populist campaign and forward thinking ideas reaped the scorn of liberals because he didn’t conform to Establishment dogma. Instead, a mild-mannered but non-innovative peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, was elected. His moderate policies were easily exploited by the former movie actor and governor who blamed the country’s ills on Berkeley radicals. Seduced by the smiley face of Reagan and his cowboyism, a weary public caved to repression stronger than ever. Most of the radicals cut our hair, got graduate degrees, and/ or built fortunes. In other words, we were co-opted.

20171004_203840RW and Deena Metzger at her reading at the Topanga Public Library, October 217

A few months ago, I finally had the opportunity to meet a local Los Angeles hero of free speech—Deena Metzger. Ms. Metzger was a cause celebre’ at Los Angeles Valley College in 1969.  I was a sophomore and anti-Establishment.  At this suburban community college, her cause became our local version of the free speech movement .  Deena Metzger went on to be a prolific novelist, writing teacher, and shamanic healer. But in 1970, she made the front page of the Los Angeles Free Press after she was dismissed from her teaching job for “immoral conduct.”  To illustrate censorship, she wrote and used in class a sexually graphic poem, Jehovah’s Child.  The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees voted to terminate her.  According to Ms. Metzger, the only vote against her dismissal was from newly elected trustee and later four-time governor Jerry Brown. True to the ‘cheap’ reputation he later earned as a higher office holder in California, Brown’s reason was that it would be fiscally irresponsible, Metzger said.*

LA Valley College Free PlazaFree Speech Plaza, LA Valley College, 2016

The scandal was a big sensation at the college. Demonstrations were held in the quad, later renamed Free Speech Plaza, supporting Metzger. Detailed stories were published in the LA Free Press, along with fragmented reports in the campus newspaper. The importance of free speech was brought home for me in the Metzger incident, but I had not met her until just last month. It was during my weekly writing session at the Café Mimosa in Topanga Canyon, that I noticed a flyer announcing a reading by Deena Metzger. A  cycle had come full circle and right on time. The time was ripe for a  glance back, the familiar issue—free speech, is back. Decades later I finally met Deena Metzger, especially satisfying as a reporter for the LA Free Press.

Like visiting a relative after many years absence, I felt like I was returning to a familiar person, and wanted to present myself as successful in life. Kind of like an accounting: What have I done? Did I stay true to the values? I’d never met her, but for me she represented that era’s hope and possibility for one’s self and society. I wasn’t disappointed. Remembrance of that old story added reality to my youthful memories.

A soft-spoken woman, with an earth mother quality accented by her many scarves and rings, Deena Metzger conveyed a grounded power. Still radical, her focus is now on the natural world and the pressing need to take care of our world. Comprised mostly of women from her long-running writing group, the audience seemed to absorb more than the words but also her essence. She spoke from experience within herself and the world.

Like a time-warp in that library room, I remembered how exhilarating those times of pushing the socially condoned boundaries felt as a 20 year old college student. After the talk, I bought one of her books and told her my story. She inscribed, “Many blessings for our shared history.” Meeting Deena contributed to my resolution of that long ago era of freedom when it was our zeitgeist. My soul felt freer knowing one of LA’s vanguard in free speech is unbent.

The soul of the Sixties still lives, grows, and teaches with Deena Metzger. Freedom is just that and the real heroes of freedom like Deena put their careers on the line and showed their faces. Metzger stands as an icon of the rich Los Angeles and Topanga iconoclastic history.  And real progressives are those who show their faces.

*In 1969, I was fired from a tenured teaching post at a local community college for reading to my students a poem I had written on censorship and pornography.  The case soon became an occasion for the advocates of censorship to organize themselves against the students’ right to  know and the teacher’s right to teach.  After three years, I was restored to  my position by the California State Supreme Court.

From Deena Metzger’s Writing  for Your Life.   1992

Inner Journey:

Imagine your  life at 20.  What did you believe in?  What did you strive for?  Who were your  academic heroes?

Action Steps:

Did you sustain those values through the decades?  Perhaps you can revisit one of those inspirational individuals and renew and act on that principle.

FOR A COPY OF DEENA’S NOTORIOUS POEM, JEHOVAH’S CHILD, PLEASE SEND a REQUEST TO THE ADDRESS ON THIS SITE.

 

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Categories: Creative Expression, Exemplars, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Can’t Keep a Good Dream Down (Boomer Ideals/ Exemplars)

 

News flash:  Jerry Brown attended Paris conference on global climate change December 2015.  Still here and still advocating for the environment and his principles.  

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I’m in this crowd somewhere, Peoples’ Park ’71

I usually keep my back story on the down low with acquaintances.  Most people make up enough stories just by appearances, so I don’t like to give them more fuel with biographical details that can be used to pigeon-hole me.  But one  afternoon this fall, I happened to make a comment about the presidential debates to an associate gymmer getting dressed next to me.  A fit guy in his early sixties, he works in community housing. I’ve known Loren for a dozen years in that passing small talk way. He responded with an informed opinion.  Sensing a deeper connection I asked, “What was your major in college?”  He said, “Political Science at Stanford.  I smiled knowing I’d met one of my own kind and replied, “That was my major at Berkeley, with a focus on Marxist ideology and its application.”

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Jerry Brown and assorted LA musicians in the 70s

 

 

A intense twenty minute discussion ensued in the men’s locker room of 24 Hour Fitness—Santa Monica comparing notes and opinions about the current political scene and its players from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Jerry Brown to Donald Trump. A range of provocative topics elicited smiles and comments from other guys with gray flecked hair in the room.  All of this exposed my long standing political interests, sparked by growing up during the Vietnam War and eventually graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies.  Submerging my radicalism into a pragmatic career in public education, I’ve never relinquished my vision of fairness, justice, and peace.  But now I wonder how I can apply my years of experience to promoting a better society.  Jerry Brown has.

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Brown second time around

The locker room discussion centered on current California governor Jerry Brown and his previous administration in the seventies.  We agreed he has done an excellent job governing, even better this time around at the age of 77.  In his first terms as governor Brown was ridiculed with the label, Governor Moonbeam for his radical out of the box ideas such as renewable energy, a state space academy satellite, and declaring a era of limits.  Jerry Brown in the seventies expressed the idealism of the time.  Ahead the mainstream, Brown attracted derision from the older established politician/ reporter class.  His lifestyle invited ‘eyebrow raised’ commentary, from his sleeping on a mattress on the floor to globe-trotting with Linda Ronstadt to his rejection of the new governor’s mansion.

Brown’s ‘out there’ thinking proved to be too much for the conservative backlash led by his predecessor as governor of California, Ronald Reagan who had catapulted his police-state treatment of the student radicals of my school, Berkeley, into the presidency.  Reagan stood for the old school Hollywood values of looking good, constant smiling, and hypocrisy.  He promoted traditional values, even though he had divorced his first wife, his daughter basically disowned him and changed her last name, he denied his second son was gay, and his wife retained a staff astrologer.   Among Reagan’s most egregious crimes against the white working class that idolized him, was union busting, which directly contributed to lower wages for the Nixon labeled ‘silent majority.’

With his campaign’s populist We the People slogan, Brown polled well but fell just short in his three presidential campaigns.  Again ahead of the times as seen in the current presidential election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapping into grass roots, anti-establishment sentiment.   But Jerry didn’t quit.  He went back to the basics, something I’m often encouraging for later in life re-inventors/ Boomers.  Instead of president, Brown served two terms as mayor of Oakland, CA, a medium-sized city across the bay from San Francisco.  While mayor he lived in a converted factory and loft, igniting a revival in the down-in-the-mouth city whose police brutality against its majority black population in the sixties had birthed the Black Panther Party.  Oakland has become a jewel of urban renewal with the bucolic buzz of Lake Merritt and the tony Jack London Square on the previously abandoned Embarcadero.

Jerry Brown practiced the adage ‘all politics is local’ and honed his skills as a politician.  Not resting on his laurels and famous name to lay back and give expensive speeches, he went to work.  Contributing to the greater good AND practicing his craft, Brown practiced and lived his ideals—government can be a tool for social justice and life enhancement.  Re-energized after Oakland, he ran for and served as Attorney General and then governor.

Now in his fourth term, Jerry Brown will be termed out when he is 80.  Old age doesn’t limit him.  Although in recent years he’s battled cancer,  his vigor and mental clarity exceed the great majority of politicians half his age.  He has every reason to kick back, retire, and cash in on his name.  Many of us do too.  We’ve had a career, maybe raised kids, and / or written a book—achieved and served.  But why quit when you have something to give, something to learn, and unfulfilled ideals?  I ask myself that question regularly—why should I?  I don’t need to prove myself, and neither does Brown.

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Peoples’ Park these days

But then my Berkeley Boomer core wakes up and yells, ‘You’re not done yet.’   At the locker room discussion, I mentioned that I still stand by youthful ideals of community, free expression, individual rights and justice, adventures, and personal growth.  Boomers were not all hippie radicals or counter-culturalists, but many were and have influenced our society from new age religions, to yoga, health foods, and alternative health systems mass acceptance.  In fact, the notion of the personal computer came out of the edgy, psychedelic consciousness of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak back in the seventies.  Our youthful ideals, tempered with realistic appraisal of the slow pace of change in the world have changed the world.

Perhaps President Obama has not delivered on all of his goals as president, but any president can only move the country forward (or backward depending on your point of view) a few steps.  Big change takes time, even when a system is rotting from the core like what happened in the former Soviet Union.  But he has moved the pieces forward a bit on key Boomer concerns of the seventies; environment, civil rights, war, and soul.

The political life of Jerry Brown demonstrates the successful marriage of ideals and experience. He went back to the basics (mayor of Oakland), polished his craft and worked his way back up the ladder of California government. Still an idealist, but heavily tempered with realism and compromise.  He now knows how and when to mollify central valley farmers with a big government project (the bullet train) and to take an independent stand as he recently vetoed several bills passed by his own Democratic Party legislature.  He applies his decades of experience to real problems and gets results.  His approval ratings dwell in the high seventies, virtually unheard with high level office holders.  Recently, the LA Times gave him a B+ rating with the potential of achieving greatness in this term.

At the same time, he still works from his early, progressive principles.  For example, he pushed for recent legislation to end global warming that promises to be a model for the rest of the country and the world.  And he has never changed his opposition to capital punishment, even in the hard on crime 90s.

Experience counts for Jerry Brown and can count for all of us in the fall of life.  Youthful optimism for quick transformation may be gone, but I attempt (as Jerry does), to take my experience and skills and marry them to ideals perhaps half-forgotten in the mists of time.  One of the greatest gifts of aging is the dignity of surviving (sometimes prevailing over) the travails of life.  Age and experience qualify idealistic Boomers to contribute to our world aligned with the Sixties/ hippie ideals of expression, justice, community, and love.  I do my best to live up to the vision and work for incremental progress.  And as a non-Boomer friend says, “You got nothing to lose.”

On  a personal note:  I just returned from a ceremony in Berkeley where I established a perpetual scholarship for needy and  deserving  students at Berkeley Student Cooperative.  The gift of  community I learned in  the coops has fueled and sustained me throughout life so far, and especially now that I’m in the ‘golden’ years.  I know where I came from and support that  mission.  Again, the work of Jerry Brown and many others  of our generation that enhances the  common good are markers of a  meaningful life.  More on  that & the coops in the seventies in a future blog.

Categories: Boomer Ideals/ Remembrance, Exemplars | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not Taking Angel’s Flight, 2015 (Remembrance)

 

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Angel’s  Flight  when I met  it in the  Fifties

One of the good things about being a Boomer is the memories. Ever have the feeling that you know the place you’re visiting, but it isn’t quite right? I’m not talking about déjà vu. I mean the experience of going to an old, familiar place same name and location, recognizable but totally different function and character. Recently I visited an old haunt, Grand Central Market at DTLA (new acronym for the resurging downtown LA) and Angel’s Flight. Ghosts of the old days linger, but it was spooky.

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An LA icon shut-down

My experiences in DTLA go back to my childhood growing up in LA in the Fifties. As a toddler, I would visit my grandparents, who owned an apartment building on Third St, just west of the then newly completed Harbor Freeway. My grandmother and I would walk through the cavernous (1500 feet long) and much filmed Third St tunnel. Car horns and dim light made for great adventure. Eventually, we would break through into the bustle of downtown and visit my grandfather, who was a butcher at Grand Central. In those days it housed a labyrinth of stalls and shops on two floors where shoppers would go for fresh produce, meat, and spices. Supermarkets were rare in those days and usually located in the suburbs like the new subdivision in the San Fernando Valley where I lived with my parents. To a three year old kid walking the aisles of Grand Central was as exotic as the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. The cacophony of languages belted out by competing merchants ranked up there with Clifton’s Cafeteria as fun for me.

 

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Inspecting the  broken icon with Jeff Bughouse

Across the street on Bunker Hill decaying rows of Victorian houses stood watch over the booming metropolis. Originally mansions for the elite of Los Angeles, by this time they had been subdivided into rooming houses, soon to be demolished to make way for redevelopment. Access to the towering homes was via Angel’s Flight, dubbed the world’s shortest railway. After visiting grandpa, who cut an imposing figure with a white smock splattered with blood and hat and tie, we would take the 5 cent ride to the top of the hill.
Recently, my brother suggested meeting at Grand Central for lunch with our 22 year niece. Recovering well from tough times serving the burgeoning immigrant population, now Grand Central Market houses a couple dozen boutique cafes, one produce stand, one meat market, and a few holdovers from the ethnic days of the 80s—Chinese herbs and Central American veggies. And a gourmet coffee place, where a cup of Joe costs minimum $4.

But more bizarre than the former bazaar is Angel’s Flight, a funicular that climbs 300’ at 33 degrees. Dissembled and stored 1969, while Bunker Hill was flattened and then developed with high rise office buildings and condos. Moved south 200 feet, Angel’s Flight reopened in 1996. Accidents and repairs forced closure again in 2001, 2011, and 2013. Currently, the two funicular cars sit mid hill as if in suspended animation waiting for the conductor to flip the switch, while tourists stare in wonderment and peer down memory lane. Along with the railway, the adjacent park with its information plaques and benches is fenced off from the public pending its next redevelopment.

Bittersweet, this journey to landmarks of my childhood reminded me that everything is impermanent, except our memories. Visiting Grand Central and Angel’s Flight felt like going to a high school reunion and not recognizing your old friends. The old friend doesn’t look the same, but you have a connection. This spirit of remembrance infused the day, not with nostalgia but fondness for my childhood, my grandparents, and my city.

Categories: Boomer Ideals/ Remembrance, Exemplars, Funk/ Issues/ Roadblocks, Planning/ Structure | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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