Decades of Leading Struggles for a Better World (Michael Carrigan)

Sylvia : It’s August 2nd, 2016 and I’m recording an interview with Michael Carrigan. I know that you work for the Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC). How would you describe your duties there?

Michael C.: I’m the program director at CALC. The focus of my work is on the Peace Program and the Shelter Rights program. The peace program consists of a variety of different things that we do. Like our Bring the War Dollars Home campaign — every year on tax day outside the downtown library, we give people ten pennies, they decide where their tax dollars should go and if the folks in Lane County were leading this country, we would not be spending so much money on our national defense which now is over 50% of the discretionary funds Congress appropriates each year. We do that event each year. It draws a good amount of people. We get stuff in the newspaper. We talk to people with our goal, let’s bring the war dollars home to help the people who live here in Lane County.

Every year my favorite event is the Hiroshima Nagasaki Commemoration, which happens on August 6th. I enjoy the event because it highlights that we still have nuclear weapons on alert. That we’re still ten minutes away from global destruction. Russia and the United States still have, you know, scores of nuclear weapons at the ready. People don’t remember that. That’s why we do the event. And also it’s a wonderful event because it brings together the Japanese-American community and the peace community. It’s shown how valuable it is to have collaboration, to work together. The Japanese are not the enemy. They are our friends. I was in Hiroshima for the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb, one of the most powerful moments of my life. It’s at that event I said, ‘I will dedicate the rest of my life to abolishing nuclear weapons.’

This reminds me of something you didn’t touch on in your two examples of what you do. It seems like every time there’s a problem in the community where some ethnic group is attacked, CALC is right there defending them.

Yeah. Our Back to Back: Allies for Human Dignity program has a part called Stop Hate. So whenever hate activity of any kind happens in this community, CALC does respond. We go knock on doors, we talk to people about it so that they feel that we have their backs. That they’re not alone. They’re not a lonely person or household targeted by the haters. We put up our Hate Free Zone fliers. And we have these little fliers with our contact info and the police contact info, we pull our allies together as well to tell them, ‘We do not want hate in our community.’

 I think CALC is just amazing. There’s just so many things. Then you said Shelter…

 Yeah, the Shelter Rights program is a very active program at CALC. Marion Malcolm, of course, long time CALC person, is actually one of the founders of the program that St. Vincent de Paul does in cold weather when it goes below 30 degrees, the Egan Warming Centers. CALC started those in Springfield. [Springfield and Eugene are side-by-side neighboring towns. Eugene is the home of the University of Oregon; Springfield is somewhat more working class.]

 CALC was one of the founders of Opportunity Village Eugene [a self-managed community of low-cost tiny houses] which is a rest stop for about 50 folks which is doing great, an example to the rest of the country. We have another rest stop called the Nightingale Health Sanctuary which we helped establish. It’s an example that we can do things differently. These things are all funded by the community. We don’t get public money at all for these projects. So, we’re saying, “Hey. We’ve got new innovative ideas, don’t cost much money, they help people. Let’s do more of it.” So, CALC continues to speak out for innovative solutions to help the unhoused.

What in your past led you to become an activist?

 Well, when I was a senior in high school in 1971, my brother graduated from Colgate University in upstate New York. The speaker at the graduation was the then Secretary of State for the U.S. He gave a nice speech but what really stood out was when the people in that class were called up, the valedictorian of the class said, “Those who are opposed to the Vietnam war, please stand up.” And over half of the class including my brother stood up and said, “If called, we will not go to Vietnam.”

 It was incredible! I was sitting there and my father was a veteran from the second World War, and you know, I stood up, even though I was sitting right next to my father, it was probably one of the bravest things I’ve done in my life. And right then I knew I was gonna be a peace activist the rest of my life. So, that got me started. And then I went to college ’71 to ’75, also at Colgate University. And I wasn’t that active then, but a couple things really laid the foundation for the rest of my life.

I did an environmental studies institute one summer and it was just a very select number of students but great connection with the teachers and I became an environmental activist then. And then the next summer I went and did a study group in Yugoslavia and I got to see a part of the world I didn’t know. I also traveled to Turkey and Greece. Yugoslavia at that time, part of it was a developing country, and it was a mixed country. You have the Muslim areas and the Christian areas and at that time it was working. And so then I said, “Whoa. The world is not just upstate New York. It’s not just white people.”

So, it was the first time you went out of the country?

 Yes. And I said, “Whoa. I like this.” The diversity and being out of the U.S. Then when I lived in Albany, New York, Three Mile Island almost went down, Albany was downwind from Three Mile Island. [In 1979, an accident at a nuclear reactor there resulted in a frightening partial meltdown that made international news.] If that had happened we would have been very severely harmed. And there was a environmental center there in Albany. I became a volunteer there; that’s when I started my anti-nuclear work.

And how old were you then?

 I was about 25. So I spent four years in Albany and then I came out to visit a college friend who lived in Eugene. I loved it, said “I’m moving here.” So, after I got my master’s at the State University of New York at Albany, I loaded up my little Volkswagen Rabbit and drove cross-country. When I came here a guy named Doug Barber, a friend of mine from college, was working for CALC. So, when I first moved about January of 1981, that’s when I first got involved in CALC. It had a nuclear freeze campaign going, I volunteered for that. And that’s where I met Marion Malcolm and Cynthia Kokis [both mainstays of nonviolent activism in Eugene.] And that laid the foundation for my activism in Eugene for years to come. After that I did move to Portland. I traveled around the world. So, I was gone for a long time. And for a time I worked in Salem [the capital of Oregon] for Oregon PeaceWorks.

 I worked in Alaska in the summers. [Salaries in Alaska were far higher than in Oregon.] Yeah, fish cannery and then I canvassed for Oregon Fair Share, door to door, in Eugene at a time when the economy was not doing very good. Going door to door asking people for money for a good cause, that was probably the best training I ever received. Cause I can do anything now! Nothing will stop me! Cause that’s one of the hardest …. You know, activism can be a challenging business but I’m able to keep going because I think that training really, really helped.

Yeah. Well, if it didn’t stop you in your tracks and make you say “never again.”

 Right. But then I had saved money working in Alaska so I went on a round the world trip for about four years. I was in Japan for a year. And when I came back around late 1987 I decided to move to Portland. I lived in Portland for about 10 years and that’s when I got involved with Oregon PeaceWorks and became the director there. So, I worked for Oregon PeaceWorks for close to 10 years. Worked in Salem while I lived in Portland but then I moved to Eugene because of connecting with Sue Barnhart [his longtime partner]. At Oregon PeaceWorks I did some volunteer work with CALC as well or worked with CALC as an ally in the peace work that we were doing.

Once you said your father was a lawyer. Was he an overbearing sort of person?

 No, no. My father was a good guy. He was a Republican but an old style one. Kind of a progressive Republican. He was a good guy. I wasn’t a great athlete. My brothers were so he didn’t quite know how to handle the kind of geeky intellectual I was, so I wasn’t as close with him as my brothers were but he was a kind man. And I felt blessed to have him as my father.

So, what issues have you worked on, you’ve worked on everything. What are the most interesting or satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 I think when I went to a nuclear weapons test site in Nevada in 1988 when I returned from my long trip. And it was at that event that I met up with Oregon PeaceWorks activists. But, I spent two weeks there. And you know, crossing over the fence and getting arrested with a variety of folks and seeing that passion and that focus, and seeing what it did. It led to the United States no longer doing above ground nuclear tests.

 And to be involved with an activist movement that actually won and accomplished a great victory was like, “Wow! That was fantastic!” Cause, as you know, activism rarely leads to great victory. Change is usually incremental, one little victory, if you could get ‘em, at a time. This was the activists working with then Congressman Mike Kopetski and Senator Hatfield and people from all around the world. It worked! And to be part of that really was an astonishing thing. It’s just one of, I think, probably the greatest activist moments of my life.

I think too, going back to Three Mile Island and then what happened there, the anti-nuclear power movement became very very strong, like the concert at Madison Square Garden in New York with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, a lot of famous musicians who really highlighted the issue and where we were able to get a moratorium on the building of nuclear power plants in this country for many many years. So, you can win sometimes. That whole experience was very very satisfying as well, seeing how the grassroots combining with famous people, musicians, you know, how that can work.

And who had designed that demonstration in the first place?

 There was a group called MUSE [Musicians United for Safe Energy] a bunch of anti-nuclear activists who came together in New York. They also organized a big demonstration in Washington, D.C. This was in 1979.

The third thing is for a while, I’d been an environmental activist as well as a peace activist. So, I was working with Oregon National Resources Council, now Oregon Wild. And I was there when the ancient forest campaign kicked into high gear. So probably, in terms of affecting my personal life, it’s the most important victory I’ve been involved with in that we’d been able to save huge areas of ancient or old growth forest. So, being involved with, was a leader in this movement, I was in Portland then, it was just amazing. Seeing the combination of grassroots meeting with national folks from National Audubon, Sierra Club, and others, and getting that coalition together. We took on the timber industry. And we won. An example of the benefit, I went hiking in Opal Creek a few weeks back. It was because of the movement from that time, that special place was saved. So, I can go out, I can touch the victory now. I can smell the victory. I can drink the clean water.

This is a victory I can experience each and every day. Because our water in Eugene comes from the McKenzie River. Not all of the cutting of the forests have stopped there, but most of it. So, it’s like, yeah, every day I can go out and hug a tree when I go out hiking. Know I was part of it.

It’s really satisfying. You know, I helped save those forests.

You say you’ve been part of all of these movements. It’s one thing to be somewhere and cross the line and do something that’s very specific, but what other things are involved in your work? I mean, is it speaking? Is it writing? What is it?

 Yeah, it’s a variety of things. I just wrote an alert for the Hiroshima event. Writing for an event. Sending it to the churches. Sending it to the Eugene Weekly. Sending it to the Register Guard [Eugene’s daily newspaper]. Getting it on Facebook. Getting it onto our webpage. It used to be simple in the old days. You just do something and send an email and that was it. Now, you gotta do all the different social media. And we used to phone bank in the old days. Now people don’t do that anymore. I think we should still call people on the phone.

Well, email is sort of the substitute for phone banking. Some people just delete their emails and that’s the end of that.

 So, that’s a key part of the work that I do. But, it’s still the face-to-face interaction. Talking to people gives me the most satisfaction. That’s why speaking at a vigil or a rally or a chance to speak one on one with folks, to me, is still the best way to do it. You get the stronger connection. You can see a smile on their face, that’s still a part of it. Some people think, “Oh it’s social media! It’s all we have to do.” I don’t think so. That’s a key part. And also, we’re always pressuring public officials about making changes but it’s still about not just pressuring and pushing but making connections with them. Cause even your opponent doesn’t have to be your enemy as Gandhi would say.

So that’s part of the work I do because I have an ability to get along with folks. I was the peacemaker in my family from day one. And that’s a talent I’ve been able to use in my activism work as well. I can talk to people others can’t talk to. So I’ve been able to still talk to the grassroots activists. I was involved with the Occupy Eugene campaign. Working with the activists, oftentimes very strident, it’s “They’re the enemy! They’re awful!”

I have to interrupt to say that you’re gesturing here with your fists, waving them around and looking angry. (laughs)

 You know, just kind of reflecting the anger of what was in the movement then. But, you have to channel that anger into some positive construction action. That’s what I like to do. Get people who are angry, who are just like, “Augh! You know what — this is so! How can we do this?!” And try and pull people together, have some meetings, come up with some specific things to do and go out and both put pressure on but also talk to our opponents. In CALC it’s called the inside and outside game. If you don’t put pressure on the public officials, change will never happen.

It’s the inside and outside pressuring of our public officials. You gotta be able to sit down and talk with them as well. Otherwise, all the pressure’s not gonna achieve anything except people being angry. And to me, that’s not enough. We’ve gotta make change.

Not long ago there was a demonstration here in Eugene in support of Black Lives Matter and it was fun to see you there. It was primarily a white demonstration but there were some blacks there too, a couple taking leadership roles. Did CALC organize that?

 Well, we helped SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. We worked with them. CALC was the co-sponsor of that event. But, SURJ deserves to get most of the credit for that event. They’re local, a new group of white folks who have come together to do more anti-racist work in our community. You know, CALC is a little group. We haven’t had a staffer for our anti-bigotry program for a bit of time. So, it was really great that SURJ came forward, then we worked with them with our years of experience and knowing folks and how to organize a march and vigil and rally, so we helped out a great deal. But, it was with our allies that we were able to have a great rally and a great march. And SURJ had a wonderful guest opinion published in the Register Guard.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

 I’m urging people to get involved. Activism is not only important, activism is fun. Some of my best friends now I’ve met through the activism work that I’ve been involved in. It’s a great thing to do. But, we need more folks involved. And money, too! So, the things that I do, I mentioned the activism, the organizing all these rallies and talking to folks but also helping raise money. It’s not all fun, but even raising money satisfies, if the people value your work enough they’re able to give money. That’s also a very satisfying thing. Every time that happens.

 

 

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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