An Interview with David Harris
by Allison Hunter
June 19, 2003
Harris might not look like a "typical" anti-war activist.
Middle-aged and balding, he relaxes in the living room of his sprawling
Mill Valley home, where an enormous picture window provides a panoramic
view of the San Francisco Bay. Nor has Harris engaged in many of the
"typical" protests that have occurred only a few miles away.
He was incensed by the disruptive tactics used by anti-war protesters
in San Francisco, who formed human chains in the streets to block
commuters from driving home. Yet Harris' is one of the most familiar
names in the anti-war movement, and his work has influenced generations.
In a recent
interview in his home, Harris explained his attitude towards what
he called "know-nothing" anti-war protesters, part of a
new generation that seems nihilistic and destructive, and advocated
instead the need for mass education about war-related issues.
is one of the old guard of the protest movement. Soon after his arrival
in the fall of 1963 as a freshman at Stanford University, Harris,
who had been Fresno High School's "Boy of the Year," became
involved in student activism. In 1964 Harris, along with scores of
other Stanford students, traveled to Mississippi to participate in
"Freedom Summer"-the drive to register blacks to vote. He
said that he went for "value-based," rather than ideological,
reasons. He simply "thought blacks should have the right to vote."
points to this non-ideological basis as one of the major differences
between the protest movement at Stanford and those at more stereotypically
"radical" schools, such as UC Berkeley. Whereas Berkeley
had a radical history, and plenty of revolutionary ideologies floating
around campus to choose from, Stanford was traditionally much more
conservative, and the movement there was grounded in idealism.
also sees this split between the older and younger generations of
the current anti-war movement. He worries that many students today
are protesting the war because it's hip, not because they understand
the issues at stake. Regarding the traffic-blocking protests in San
Francisco, Harris said, "Certainly actions like this smell of
know-nothing-ism. Obviously a lot of these people who are out there
haven't given any serious thought to what does it take to build an
anti-war movement or what is an anti-war movement, or what is political
about the lack of activities like teach-ins, common in universities
during the Vietnam Era, organized to inform students about the details
of the conflict. These days, Harris sees young protesters as far more
ignorant than his peers in the 60's. "We are here conquering
a country which more than half of Americans cannot find on a goddamned
map," Harris said. "This is the level we're dealing at here.
So that if there's going to be an anti-war movement, it has to bring
more expertise. Not just passion and not just belief in their cause.
That's all good, but if you can't bring real information and real
understanding and teach people what has been going on in this area
historically, who these people are, why a policy of empire is not
going to work, who would victimize it, etcetera, etcetera, and make
significant intellectual arguments to people and be able to sustain
those, you can't organize a movement. And you know students are in
a great position to do that. All they gotta do is decide to educate
themselves. But I see far greater energy being spent in taking a position
than in understanding it."
decries the destructiveness that has characterized some of the recent
protest activity. "They somehow have these video cuts from the
60's in their mind of people rampaging in the streets and think that
this is what you do in an anti-war movement" he said about the
San Francisco demonstrators.
Harris envisions a mass movement created through education. "First
I'm envisioning public education," he said. "The simplest
form is going out and leafleting people. Going to schools and talking
to people. Going to community groups and talking to people. Getting
people to participate in ritualized actions like going out and marching
every month, if that's what it takes. To make it clear that there
is a constituency against this empire. Not terribly dramatic stuff,
not stuff that's going to send a lot of adrenaline running through
people's systems per se, but stuff that goes out and makes larger
numbers. Whatever the stuff that helps us build, those are the activities
we need to do."
himself has much experience in political organization. While at Stanford,
Harris organized a group called "The Resistance" that encouraged
young men to refuse to be drafted. In 1966 he was elected student
body president at Stanford by the greatest margin with the biggest
voter turnout in campus history. His campaign was focused on issues
the other candidates refused to address, such as Stanford's complicity
with the Vietnam War.
of 1967 Harris resigned the Stanford presidency in order to work full
time on draft resistance. In July of 1969, after he wed folk singer-turned-activist
Joan Baez, Harris was sent to La Tuna Federal Correction Institution
in La Tuna, Texas, where he spent 22 months incarcerated, most of
the time spent in maximum security.
he was released from prison in March of 1971, Harris has made his
living as a journalist, both for Rolling Stone and for The
New York Times Magazine. Currently he writes books and does some
freelance journalism. He does not see himself as a pure pacifist,
saying that when his parole board asked him he responded, "You
got another war you want me to fight, ask me about it. I'll take my
wars one at a time. But if we're going to kill people, I'm going to
insist on having a good reason."
not speak out against the U.S. involvement in Kosovo, about which
he had mixed feelings. He believes the conflict in Iraq is unjust
because of its preemptive nature. Harris called the Bush administration's
actions in Iraq "Hitlerian," saying, "That assumption
that someone gets to strike without being struck first is the scariest
part about it. What pisses me off is that no American official during
the entire Vietnam Era would dare to come on television and say the
kind of stuff that Bush and his people do every day."
Yet he is also angered by the anti-Americanism present among U.S. citizens. While he said, "I don't blame the rest of the world for being anti-American. They're frightened of us, and well they should be," he feels anti-Americanism at home is not appropriate. "We are the true Americans," Harris said, speaking of the members of the anti-war movement. "We are here fighting for our own constitution and our own country, and by God I'm going to fight all the way down as an American."
Allison Hunter is a senior at Stanford University majoring in American Studies.
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