An Interview with David Harris
by Allison Hunter
June 19, 2003

David 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.

Harris' 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."

Harris 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.

Harris 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 action."

He worries 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."

Harris 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.

Instead, 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."

Harris 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.
In 1966 Harris returned his draft card to the federal government with a letter saying he would never carry it "while there were United States troops in Southeast Asia."

In February 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.
Harris believes that the draft was a powerful impetus for the young men of his generation, forcing them to take a stand and making the war a personal issue. He said the absence of the draft in the current conflict "absolutely" makes a difference in the movement. The war in Iraq is "more of an abstraction" to this generation of young people than the Vietnam War was to the Baby-Boomers. But, Harris said, "People can be organized without the draft. The issue is what makes people willing to care, and act like they do care. That can be done without personal threat, but it makes organization different."

Since 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."

He did 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."

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Allison Hunter is a senior at Stanford University majoring in American Studies.

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