Zelig of the Left: Bill Zimmerman with Lawrence Weschler
Brooklyn Rail | Tuesday, Nov 01, 2011
In his vividly engaging memoir of his activist life during the ’60s and ’70s, Troublemaker, published by Doubleday earlier this year (and then completely ignored by the mainstream media), Bill Zimmerman casts himself as a virtual Zelig of the Left, showing up improbably in all sorts of amazing places: the pre-Freedom Rides South; the earliest anti-Vietnam war and Dow Chemical demonstrations in ’65; Brooklyn College at the outset of the incredibly dramatic student uprising there in 1967; Chicago in ’68; Hanoi in 1970, at the launch of the Medical Aid for Indochina campaign; Wounded Knee in ’73, where he helped break the F.B.I. siege; Chicago in ’83, leading the triumphant Harold Washington mayoral campaign; and then out to California, where he ran all manner of triumphant ballot initiatives.
Zimmerman’s book has of course taken on all the more relevance in light of developments since he completed the manuscript last year. “One such wave (and not the least) I raised and rolled before the breath of an idea, till it reached its crest, and toppled over and fell at Damascus,” Zimmerman cites T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), of all people, by way of epigram (from his 1926 Seven Pillars of Wisdom), continuing: “The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, will provide the matter of the following wave, when in the fullness of time the sea shall be raised once more.” A quotation that reads as all the more uncannily prescient given that Zimmerman had slotted it there at the front of his text well before the rise of the Arab Spring and all its direct progeny all around the world. Though from the start Zimmerman had indeed conceived of his book very much in the manner of a letter from one battle-tested veteran to future generations of activists.
With this in mind, the Rail thought it might be interesting to send the California-based Zimmerman down to the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, accompanied by me, a longtime friend. Following our walkabout, we sat down at Rail headquarters for a discussion of Zimmerman’s career and his views of the current protests.
Rail: Maybe we should start with your just giving us a sense of your pre-activist background.
Bill Zimmerman: Well, I was born in Chicago into a working-class, Jewish, West side, lower middle class family. I had no idea about academic or cultural life, but I won a scholarship and went to the University of Chicago and discovered a whole new world of books and ideas and critical thinking.
Rail: Had anyone else in your family gone to college?
Zimmerman: I was the first in my family to go to college. Both of my parents were born overseas in Eastern Europe and came here as refugees from one war or totalitarian regime or another. And at the University of Chicago I became involved with people who today would be referred to as beatniks—people who were rejecting the conformity and hypocrisy of the 1950s, but had no real vision of the future or agenda. After two years of college I left with a couple of friends for a season in Europe. We worked over the summer to save enough money for travel expenses, and we wound up living in Paris in the fall of 1960, and there I witnessed a massive student demonstration against the war, the French war in Algeria, and it made a huge impression on me: the sheer ambition of this movement of mere students after all, their tactical and strategic smarts, how they were willing to confront the full power of the state, the club-wielding, gas-spraying police and the army itself held in reserve under the bridges of the Seine, in what at first seemed like a hopeless campaign.
Rail: And one which ended up winning, within two short years, with de Gaulle withdrawing from Algeria.
Zimmerman: Exactly, such that for the first time in my life I saw political jiu jitsu at work. I saw that a small force, if applied correctly at a particular pressure point could be used to leverage great political change, and that it was possible to look at building such political change around a strategy, where the weak could use tactics to defeat the strong. Well, there would be no end of possible applications for that new knowledge back in the United States in the years to come.
Returning to America, Zimmerman resumed his studies at the University of Chicago, which he presently interrupted once again to travel south to Greenwood, Mississippi, to assist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-associated activists there in their attempts to desegregate public services (it was during those months that he got his first vivid sense of the way in which white elites played poor whites off against poor blacks as part of a system of subjugating both of them, a system which he notes persists to this day—witness the blandishments of the Tea Party). Returning north, Zimmerman took part in some of the earliest anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, including one, early in 1965 outside a Dow Chemical plant where Napalm was being manufactured, which only managed to muster 40 participants.
Zimmerman: One thing I learned in the early ’60s—and it’s very pertinent to what is going on now—is how it’s always difficult to see over the horizon, to see the consequences of present action. It was the hope, or perhaps the hope against hope, that if we continued these small actions they might build someday into larger actions. And by the fall of 1967, a half million people would march in New York City to protest the war. And not just college-age students, but young and old, black and white, people from across the economic and social spectrum.
Meanwhile, academically, Zimmerman was pursuing a bachelor’s and presently a Ph.D., still at the University of Chicago, technically in psychology but really in the then nascent field of neuroscience, specifically with the Sleep Lab that was making one trailblazing discovery after another in dream research (this was the lab that first identified the significance of Rapid Eye Movements) and the possible applicability of such findings, for example, in the treatment of schizophrenia.
Rail: Moving the story forward, soon after receiving your Ph.D., you were recruited to come teach at Brooklyn College.
Zimmerman: I was hired as an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College beginning in the fall of 1967. Part of the reason I wemt to Brooklyn College was there was an active anti-war movement on the campus and there was a professor in the psychology department, Bart Meyers, who invited me not only to collaborate with him in terms of his scientific work, which was similar to mine, but also in leading the anti-war movement on that campus because he was the faculty advisor of the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) chapter and he was sort of my kind of guy given my own experience at the University of Chicago.
Rail: And now things really began to move.
Zimmerman: Well, within a month of my arriving at Brooklyn College, in October of 1967, Navy recruiters showed up on campus and the students tried to remove them and as a consequence the police were called and a police riot occurred on the campus.
Rail: So this was on the eve of 1968, basically. I wonder whether the people at Brooklyn College know any of this history today.
Zimmerman: I doubt it, as it’s been covered up pretty well over the years. Students sat down in front of the Navy recruiters. The dean of students immediately called the police who came onto campus and arrested the students sitting in front of the recruiters. Other students wanted to set up a table facing the recruiters to distribute anti-war literature, and they were denied permission. A large crowd of students gathered, curious about what the cops were doing on campus, and we encouraged them—they had brought a paddy wagon on campus to pick up the arrested students—so Bart and I encouraged them to sit down around the paddy wagon and surround it and not allow it to leave, much as Berkeley students had done in the free speech movement in 1964. So we had the cops, the cops had the students, we had the cops surrounded, nobody could move. It lasted about an hour and then the tactical squad of the New York police force showed up, and a phalanx of cops drove through this crowd of students, swinging billy clubs, bloodying heads, dragging female students around by the hair, extraordinarily brutal—I’ve seen a lot of demonstrations, but this was one of the most brutal. They arrested 60 students and we then gathered the remaining students and called for a student strike, and the next morning the strike was 90 percent effective. The campus had been shut down. That happened to be the Friday before the march on the Pentagon. So Friday the campus was shut, Saturday we went to Washington for the Pentagon march, Monday we came back, and the strike was continuing.
The administration made an offer to the students about no more Navy recruiters and some minor concessions but would not drop charges against the students who had been arrested. So we called a mass rally, 2,000 students on the campus, and a number of us encouraged them to reject the administration’s offer and hold out for stronger demands. The students agreed to do that and two days later the university completely capitulated to the student demands, promised no more recruiters, dropped charges against everybody arrested, and promised that the cops would never be called on campus again, disputes like this would be resolved academically rather than with outside forces. So it was an extraordinary victory. And the students who had come together and maintained their solidarity and maintained the demands felt that their strategy and tactics had worked and they felt very empowered. That’s, in a way, how movements get built. They don’t always get built out of defeat. There have to be victories. And this was one of those victories that encouraged more and more people to become involved in this movement because, to some extent, it was winning.
Rail: It was also, by the way, fun.
Zimmerman: Yes, it was fun. It wasn’t fun being beaten up by the cops, but the consequences, what came afterward, the organizing and the solidarity and so forth was fun. And this demonstration, to some extent, fueled another that happened only six months later at Columbia University.
Rail: Was it, by the way, a direct relation? Did the people at Brooklyn go to Columbia?
Zimmerman: Yes, Columbia students came to support us during our student strike and when they went on strike, a large delegation. I don’t want to claim too much credit but, you know, there was a certain amount of cross-fertilization there.
Rail: Meanwhile things were changing on your academic front as well.
Zimmerman: Well, during this period Bart Meyers and I were still scientists and still planning to collaborate on research on the newly discovered neurotransmitters and their impact on the brain, on cerebral functioning. Many of the neurotransmitters that are common now were only being discovered during this period in the ’60s. But as we prepared to do our research, Bart got a reprint request for a copy of previous research he had done from a scientist at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
And we wondered why someone at Fort Detrick would be interested in his research. We knew from a book that had been written by a young investigative reporter named Sy Hersh that Fort Detrick was the Army Center for Chemical and Biological Warfare Research. We did a little digging and found out that the research Bart had done was of interest to scientists there who were developing a new nerve gas, presumably for deployment in Vietnam. Now Bart as a basic scientist had no knowledge, or no awareness, that the new knowledge he was creating could ultimately be used to refine and develop a new nerve gas. So we went through a three- or four-month period of intense soul-searching about what is the role of a scientist in modern society. We’re not engineers. We are scientists discovering basic knowledge, but we have no control over the way in which that knowledge is used by engineers who are serving the interests of the people paying their salaries. Well, who pays their salaries? The people with the most money to pay them and exploit the new knowledge are the military and the corporations who are organizing around profit. And suddenly this endeavor, which we had seen as the pursuit of truth and knowledge, was being corrupted by a system that was taking that knowledge and using it for weapons application and the exploitation of workers and consumers. We didn’t want to be part of that. So we felt compelled after three or four months of anxiety and confusion and research, we felt compelled to leave science.
And it was at that point that I began to think of myself as a full-time anti-war organizer. I went back to Brooklyn College the following year. We had intense political struggles during that year—this is now ’68 becoming ’69. And in the spring of ’69, black and Puerto Rican students at Brooklyn College organized a movement demanding open admissions to the senior colleges in the CUNY campus for black and Puerto Rican kids, such that if they didn’t meet the academic standards for admission, various remedial programs would be set up to get them up to speed so they could do the college work.
When the demands were first made, of course the college rejected them out of hand. But this was a very aggressive movement put together by the students, who were now inspired to a new level of militancy by organizations like the Black Panther party and the Young Lords in the Puerto Rican community. And they stuck to their guns. But instead of allowing themselves to be arrested, they engaged in a number of guerrilla tactics. They’d take the president’s office and instead of staying there, waiting to be arrested, they’d hold it for two hours and then leave, and go someplace else, which frustrated the administration officials tremendously. Eventually the Brooklyn D.A. ordered that 21 of these students be arrested, in their homes, rather than on campus. This was the first time anything like that had ever happened in America. Six a.m. and there were raids on the homes of these 21 students, with the police coming into their homes with shotguns, wearing flack jackets, battering down doors, and dragging these students in their pajamas out of their homes down to jail. They then were charged with offenses that could have led to almost 100 years in prison. Well, the campus went crazy. The white students supported the black and Puerto Rican students. Everyone went out on strike.
The administration got an injunction against the strike. Bart and I taught our classes in defiance of the injunction, as did other professors. The administration responded by a police occupation of the campus. For the last 35 days of that spring semester in 1969, there was a cop in every classroom and in every corridor of Brooklyn College. I didn’t teach what I was supposed to teach. I began to teach a course about the politics of police occupation and, you know, issues that were more directly involved with the protests. One of the demands the students made was to reinstate me as a professor, because when I had announced that I would no longer do research, Brooklyn College refused to renew my contract for the Fall 1969 term and the students were demanding that they reinstate me and one other professor who had been treated the same way. None of those demands, of course, were met, and I was fired at the end of that year. Ironically, by the next year, the City University of New York capitulated to the black and Puerto Rican students and did set up an open admissions program with remedial training that survives to this day. But by then I was gone.
Rail: That was the end of your academic career.
Zimmerman: And of my involvement in Brooklyn.
And the beginning of his career as a full-time political activist. Across the years ahead, he would travel to Hanoi to document the effects of the wholesale American bombings of civilian targets—a trip that led directly to the creation of Medical Aid for Indochina.
Zimmerman: The antiwar tactics are interesting given what’s going on today. Because from a set of tactics that effectively organized young people but alienated people who were unwilling to go out into the streets and get arrested and fight cops, we were trying to develop tactics that brought people into the movement rather than pushing them away. Because average Americans are not going to risk arrest or risk losing their jobs in order to support a political movement, and too many people on our side, especially the more militant people in the anti-war movement, began to develop fantasies of revolutionary violence, and went out and took ridiculous actions that had no impact on the war and simply alienated more and more Americans from the anti-war movement. But some of the rest of us were looking for ways of developing more inclusive tactics. And one of the tactics we did develop was Medical Aid for Indochina. Many, many Americans were happy to be able to contribute money to buy penicillin, or surgical equipment, or other medical equipment to send to people that we were bombing. So half the country was paying for the bombs, and the other half of the country was paying to deal with the damage that the bombs were causing. And that organization was very successful.
Other anti-war work put Zimmerman in touch with activists from the nascent American Indian Movement who had launched their protest occupation of the historic Wounded Knee site in South Dakota, one which presently came under a strangulating siege by the F.B.I. In some of the most exciting chapters of his book, Zimmerman describes how Indian activists, having heard that he’d developed a passionate hobby of flying small aircraft, enlisted his help in breaking the siege—leading to a daring three-plane dawn airdrop of food and supplies which indeed did have the effect of collapsing the F.B.I.’s resolve. Back on the antiwar front, Zimmerman and his allies proved increasingly effective in pressuring individual members (and presently a majority) of Congress into limiting and eventually halting American financing of the South Vietnamese regime, a process which culminated in the end of the war in 1975.
Rail: By the end of the war, what had become your attitude to more traditional electoral politics?
Zimmerman: Well, some of us from the Indochina Peace campaign—which included Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda and a number of others—decided in the spring of 1975 to run Tom as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in California in the primary election in 1976 against the incumbent Democratic Senator John Tunney, who was perceived to be a lightweight. The Watergate scandal had undermined people’s confidence in government, and the anti-war movement had finally succeeded in helping to stop the war, and we felt that somebody like Tom might have a chance in a Democratic primary, which drew a lot of relatively liberal voters, especially in a place like California.
So Tom asked me to manage the campaign. Neither of us knew anything about what we were doing. I had never managed a campaign before. He had never run for office. I hadn’t even voted in the previous 11 years, since having voted for Lyndon Johnson in ’64 thinking that he was the peace candidate running against Barry Goldwater and then having to spend the next 11 years of my life fighting the war that the peace candidate had launched. So we were very alienated from the electoral system, but we were good organizers. We had spent, you know, 10 years organizing on a large scale, so we applied what knowledge we knew from organizing to an electoral campaign.
In the end, Tom got 41 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary, which was remarkable and far, far exceeded expectations. And in the course of that year I came to realize the power of television advertising. Because simply applying the organizing techniques we had used in the anti-war movement, we were completely failing to build support for him as a candidate. But within two weeks of unleashing television ads, our support rose from 15 percent to 33 percent. And I realized that this was a tactic that the Left had to learn if it was going to succeed in electoral politics. And that, as a Left, we had to involve ourselves in electoral politics, not exclusively, but we had to have an electoral capacity, because if we wanted to build a movement for social change in the United States, that’s the one thing, the one political act, that the majority of our citizens participate in from time to time, and we couldn’t leave it unattended, as it were, while we tried to do other kinds of organizing.
So I decided after that experience that my role in the future would be as a campaign manager and political media consultant and that I would try to make those skills available to the Left, and that’s what I did.
Rail: Could you list some of those campaigns?
Zimmerman: Well, I guess the next very visible campaign that I was involved in was a gubernatorial campaign in New Mexico for a crusading Hispanic named Toney Anaya. And we succeeded in getting Toney elected Governor in ’82. And then on the strength of that success I was invited to come to Chicago in December of ’82 to meet Congressman Harold Washington who was planning to run for Mayor of Chicago. So I got involved in that campaign. That was probably the most racially polarized and bitter campaign that had ever occurred in the United States, but we succeeded in winning. By April of 1983, Harold became the first black mayor of Chicago.
Rail: And that victory would rebound in all sorts of ways.
Zimmerman: Well, yes; for one thing that victory inspired the black community in Chicago in a way that it had never been before. Suddenly there were new opportunities for African Americans in politics and in political organizing in general, there was an excitement in the community, a sense of potential that had never been there before.
Coincidentally, a 24-year-old community organizer showed up in Chicago that spring named Barack Obama, who was impacted by that enthusiasm and excitement as he relates in his own book, and based on it began to consider a career in electoral politics himself. At the same time, right after the election, I was invited to lunch by the Chicago Tribune reporter who had covered the Harold Washington campaign. This reporter had interviewed me frequently during the course of the campaign, we became friends, and after the campaign was over he invited me to lunch and he leaned across the table and said, “I’m tired of doing what I do. I want to do what you do. Tell me how I can begin a career as a political media consultant.” His name was David Axelrod. And he did become a political media consultant, eventually the preeminent political consultant in Chicago, and decades later, when Barack Obama was looking for someone to assist his political career, Axelrod got involved and the rest is history.
Rail: So it’s all your fault.
Zimmerman: It’s not all my fault, but I did have a small role in making it happen. But anyway, I got a lot of visibility as having helped to run that campaign and, on the strength of that, I worked on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in ’84 and did a number of other visible campaigns in ’84–’86, Tim Wirth’s successful campaign for the Senate in ’86.
Rail: Along the way, though, didn’t you begin to have doubts about the electoral strategy?
Zimmerman: Well, I began to doubt the efficacy of getting candidates elected, especially to the Congress, because of the seniority system. You know, someone gets elected to the House or Senate, it takes years before they can rise through the committee structure to a point where they can have some real influence. And I was impatient to make more political change and make it faster than could happen in that way. In California, though, we have a system of ballot initiatives where citizens can write their own laws and, by petition, get those laws on the ballot, and if they pass with a majority vote in the next election they become law, completely circumventing the legislative process; and, in California at least, the legislature can’t overrule or effect any law passed by the citizens. Only the citizens can change a law that they’ve passed.
Rail: The Right certainly knew how to use this, Proposition 13 and so forth.
Zimmerman: Proposition 13 in 1978 of course had completely changed tax policy in California and began to de-fund everything that had made California such a wonderful place to live and work. So I looked around for an issue to build a ballot initiative campaign around, as an alternative strategy for electing candidates. And at that time, the cost of automobile insurance in California was outrageously high, and the automobile insurance industry was totally unregulated in California.
So I found people who understood how to regulate insurance companies, we drafted a law that came to be known as Proposition 103. The industry threw $80 million at trying to defeat us, muddying the waters by putting up four fake initiatives of its own, and despite that massive expenditure, our initiative with a mere $2 million budget not only won but was the only one of the five initiatives to win. So that was a very dramatic victory. Looking back on it, the Consumers’ Union did a study some years ago in which they projected that in the first 20 years following the passage of Proposition 103 in 1988, we had saved California rate-payers $63 billion. So I said to myself, okay, this is a better strategy, and from that point on I focused on ballot initiatives rather than candidates.
Rail: And just give us an idea of some of your other such initiatives.
Zimmerman: We passed the first physician-assisted suicide law in America in Oregon in ’94. We did the first medical marijuana initiative in California in ’96 and six more successful medical marijuana initiatives in other states. In 2000 we passed an initiative that required the state to give drug treatment to first- and second-time drug possession offenders and disallow their ability to incarcerate those people. In the 10 years since that initiative has passed, 350,000 people have been saved from going to jail who otherwise would have if this law had not passed. In 2004, and this is perhaps relevant to what’s going on today, we passed an initiative in California that placed a 1 percent surtax on income over a million dollars, the money from which is used for a public mental health program targeting the homeless mentally ill and at-risk school children.
Rail: And you got Californians to vote for that?
Zimmerman: I got Californians to vote for all of these initiatives. That initiative in 2004 resulted in $1.8 billion being used for these mental health programs. So think about that: a 1 percent tax just on income over $1 million results in $1.8 billion in tax revenue for the state. So the proposals that are being made right now to put a 1 percent tax or even higher taxes on income over $10 million can result not only in massive new revenue for the state, but can be supported by the public despite the propaganda about such initiatives being job-killers that the other side advances.
Rail: Let’s go back for a moment, though, to the wider legacy of the ’60s, because in fact the wider horizon has the Right and not the Left in the ascendancy for decades after Vietnam. Ignazio Silone once described fascism as the counterrevolution against a revolution that never happened.
Zimmerman: True, but you know, there are very important lessons. I think that we are partially responsible for the three or four decades of conservative hegemony that came after Vietnam.
Rail: How so?
Zimmerman: Because we failed to build alliances across divides that occurred in the ’60s and that could’ve been addressed after the ’60s, principally between the anti-war movement and the labor movement. Granted, that rupture was part of a larger dynamic, in which the tremendously robust Left of the ’30s and ’40s had really had its back broken during the McCarthyite ’50s, such that the labor movement in particular had been largely hijacked by its most Cold War right-wing elements. Beyond that, we in the new generation really had no contact with the activists from that earlier moment, and couldn’t, or anyway weren’t interested in, taking any lessons from them. But look at what happened as a result. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of white working-class male votes was Lyndon Johnson. That was 47 years ago. The white working class, for cultural reasons, was convinced to act against their economic interests and support Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election on the basis of a false nostalgia for the 1950s prior to the ’60s when they lost their children to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Now obviously there were other very strong forces working to create that polarization, for example the Right’s manipulation of race.
Looking at the Wall Street demonstrators and wondering how we can help them enlarge their movement, if there’s any message from the ’60s that we can send to those people, it’s to be open to alliances, be ready to reach out, be ready to work with people who aren’t like you but with whom you can develop a shared agenda.
Rail: For example, as you and I were discussing down there today, with the police.
Zimmerman: You’re right, the cops at Wall Street should be with the demonstrators. They too are having their pensions crushed, they’re being subjected to the same lay-offs and cut-backs as all other public servants. The same with construction workers—our old hard-hat enemies from the ’60s. Everybody around Wall Street, except the people on the trading floor and the brokers in the skyscrapers, should be with the people on Wall Street. But they’re not, and they’re not going to be until we find ways to bridge those gaps.
Rail: Having said that, give us some of your other impressions from walking around there today.
Zimmerman: Well, what’s happening on Wall Street today is a kernel of activism and we don’t know whether that kernel is going to develop into something larger or not. One thing we do know, though, is that movements don’t come into existence full-blown, they develop from these little kernels.
Rail: And it’s ridiculous to criticize them for just being a little kernel.
Zimmerman: Absolutely, and it’s ridiculous to sit around and wait for them to develop into a full-blown movement before you join them. You have to join them now and help the kernel grow and be optimistic about what the future can bring.
Rail: So what is there to be optimistic about here?
Zimmerman: Well, one of the most difficult things about trying to organize in our society now is that information about what’s going on has to pass through a corporate media filter before it gets to the public. Such that, more and more, the media comes to control not just the perception of what’s happening, but what is actually happening. So we have to capture media attention.
And one of the reasons why I’m optimistic about what’s going on on Wall Street is that despite the fact that the people down there may not be the most sophisticated political organizers in America, they have captured the media. I mean, when we were walking around there today, we saw cameras and camera crews everywhere. This has become a phenomenon that not just people in the United States, but people around the world have become interested in. So they have accumulated much more power than they realize they have. They’ve broken through and captured the media and are now using the media to accumulate a message.
Now, if that message is right—how we’re the 99%, we need to tax the rich, we need to have a more equitable distribution of wealth in this country—if that message resonates with a larger group of people, if confrontations with the police suddenly become alliances with the police, if labor becomes more intensely engaged, this media story begins to build and penetrate the consciousness of more people, it starts to change the balance of forces in the country, and it creates new political openings for other forms of organizing. Look, one of the things we discovered during the anti-war movement is that we’re never going to get millions and millions of people to risk arrest and the loss of employment to participate in a movement that requires that kind of commitment. But lesser tactics can draw in more people. So the idea is not to get more people to get down to Wall Street because people work during the day and have jobs, if they’re lucky in this society, but to find other forms of involvement that are more accessible to people who do have to support families and maintain jobs and don’t have time to go down and demonstrate during the day.
Rail: Are you troubled by the vacuousness of the demands at this point?
Zimmerman: No. I think those demands are being made by people who feel very intensely about the issues, so intensely that they’re willing to camp out overnight in a public park. And such early kernels of activism are always chaotic, always anarchistic. We can’t look to the people sitting in Wall Street for strategic political leadership. What we can look to them for is the ability to inspire more people to think about the issues that they’re talking about and to find their own ways to get involved and make demands and build political organizations that can achieve those demands. The people in Wall Street aren’t the leaders of the future. The people in Wall Street are inspiring the leaders of the future. We have to tolerate the fact that some of them are freaks and some of them are beating drums and most of them have an anarchistic attitude and little ability to organize politically. But that’s not their role. Their role is to inspire.
Rail: I’m surprised to find you so relatively optimistic. As you know, a big part of our now decades-long friendship has consisted in our see-sawing, out of sync with each other, between optimism and pessimism. And over the last several years, you’ve been the darker of us two. I’m regularly emailing you some eager new proposal.
Zimmerman: And I’m always shooting you down.
Rail: And you’re always shooting me down. As in this wonderful email sent to me August 1, 2010.
Rail: I’d written something along the lines of, “I don’t want to bother you with yet another idea but how about this?” And you emailed back:
You are welcome to bother me as much as you want. It’s the tragedy of our lives that there is no practical way to achieve political change that is so obviously critical to our collective future. So I sympathize entirely with your frustration. I simply get impatient with it, which is understandable given my cynicism about what can be done. But ideals are another matter entirely and you should never let my cynicism about what is or is not practical undermine your desire to achieve what is clearly impossible.
I love that, as you can see, I keep it folded in my pocket notebook just to remind myself. And, seriously, what’s become of you, what’s become of the cynic in you?
Zimmerman: [Laughs.] At the time I wrote that, granted, only a bit over a year ago, there was no obvious way forward that I could see. But here these kids come along on Wall Street and totally, unexpectedly create a way that can lead to some significant change.
Rail: So what is the next step?
Zimmerman: I don’t know what the next step is any more than the kids on Wall Street know what the next step is, but it’s our responsibility to find it, not theirs. We have to figure out how to take advantage of a new consciousness in America in which people realize a) that they’re being ripped off economically, and b) that the government isn’t defending them.
Rail: But does the strategy necessarily involve an electoral focus?
Zimmerman: I don’t think so. I think it’s a mistake to rely on the electoral system to bring about fundamental political change. The electoral system reacts to political change. Change doesn’t come from Washington. Washington responds to change that occurs in the rest of the country, because Washington wants to survive. I mean the first responsibility of anyone elected to office is to get re-elected to office. So change can’t come from people who spend all their time guarding their own self-interest. Those people have to be forced to change. And every time we’ve had a significant movement in the United States, every time the government has been forced to create a new set of rules, it’s been forced by a groundswell of support that’s come from outside of Washington and that’s been organized by people outside of government.
Rail: I still want to push you a little bit. We raise people’s consciousness, we get them angry, we get them focused, we begin to peel off people who have been either apathetic or hopeless, we begin to give them hope, but how in practice do we get from having raised their consciousness into the next step?
Zimmerman: Well, for example, there’s a huge constituency of people there who have underwater mortgages.
Rail: Even Reagan’s own chief economist, Martin Feldstein, was making an argument along those lines the other day on the Times op-ed page, that unless we address the problem of underwater mortgages directly and vigorously, we’ll never get the economy moving again. But Washington shows not the slightest sign of being able to do so.
Zimmerman: Precisely, but if all those underwater mortgage holders, and for that matter the former students groaning under the weight of those loans with their insanely usurious rates of interest, if they could be organized such that they did something in unison, for example threatened to stop making further payments as of some specific particular date in the near future, unless their grievances were fairly addressed, if they took some kind of collective action that threatened the survival of the banks that hold those mortgages, you’d get a very quick response in terms of change.
Rail: Do you know what? Do you know what? That was the very suggestion I made in that e-mail the letter I sent you on August 9th—“Why don’t we try to organize underwater mortgage people and have them do something en masse?” which then provoked the response I read you a second ago.
Zimmerman: But look how everything has changed. That’s what I keep saying: you never can tell what lies just over the horizon, and what new sorts of activism can suddenly become possible if we just keep ourselves open to the possibility.