Empowering Thousands Daily to Speak Out on Current Issues (Norman Solomon)

Sylvia: It’s September 30, 2016 and I’m interviewing Norman Solomon. I know you’ve accomplished many things in your life. How would you summarize your career?

 Norman: There’s certain labels that could be put on it, writer, author, activist, organizer? Political strategist, yeah. In this culture, you know, journalists can’t be activists. But I’ve been both for just about my whole adult life.

 What in your past led you to become an activist?

 Certainly I had role models. My mother was a liberal minded person. She did a lot of work for local liberal Democratic candidates in Maryland when I lived there in the ‘60’s. Passed out fliers, stuffed envelopes, and she organized what they called coffee klatches for candidates. She was courted by the local state legislature candidates for support because she would do that sort of thing and, as someone who has run for office, I understand that wonderful energy that people can bring to a campaign. My father was of a similar political bent but he was busy as a professional economist and working for the government.

I imagine they’d expected you to have a more square life than you chose to have.

 [Enticed by the sixties’ counterculture and “The Movement” for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, Solomon dropped out of high school in his latter teens. He already was an accomplished writer and political observer; soon articles of his appeared in a San Francisco weekly and the Washington Post. His complicated, nonlinear career had begun.]

 Well, I think there was a hope that maybe I would be a lawyer but certainly a professional, whatever that meant. Yeah, that was the expectation. They certainly thought I would go to college and graduate from college and that I should be a professional. Certainly my path was somewhat different. It’s been sort of a long winding road overall.

Yeah. Now, I have this question I generally ask, what issues have you worked on, and this is relevant for most of the people I interview but with you, I realize, we’d be on the phone for weeks. You’ve worked on many issues in many situations. You’ve written articles and books, you’ve worked with programs and projects and whatever. But what are the main issues that you feel you’ve worked on?

 War has been a pretty recurrent focus for me since I was in my late teens. So, I would say, anti-war work. Certainly anti-nuclear work, anti-nuclear power. Nuclear weapons issues. Environmental beyond nuclear power. Social justice, anti-racism, anti-poverty, international affairs, human rights.

There’ve been certain high points, like working with atomic veterans who cleaned up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were U.S. Marines who were sent into Nagasaki about six weeks after the atomic bombing. They were not provided any respiratory protection or any other safety equipment and they were told that it was all safe which was, you know, a horrible thing as it turned out but also a snapshot, a metaphor for assurances that nuclear weapons were really manageable.

Most of these veterans I talked to who were sent in to clean up, they had a typical attitude toward the bombing of the Japanese people who lived in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. “It was unfortunate but, you know, it was necessary and that’s the way it went, and it was a good thing that the bomb was dropped overall.” But quite a few of them, as they struggled with their own health problems which were quite likely correlated to the residue, they began to empathize and connect with the people who had been bombed. Harry Coppola, the former Marine who I got to know, went to Nagasaki and spoke there and a lot of the survivors of the bombing were very effusive and warm towards him which was tremendously moving.

What exactly had the Marines been cleaning up?

 They were sent into the ground zero area by the U.S. military because at that point the war was over and they were part of the occupation forces. They were moving debris around. There was rubble. They were working with bulldozers. They were trying to clear away the massive debris from the bombing.

 Aside from talking about all these thing in your past – since there is so much and you’re involved in different things now – why don’t you talk about RootsAction and about Our Revolution, and what you think about where we go from here.

 Sure, sure. In terms of RootsAction, I co-founded it almost six years ago. And we began with zero. We had zero online members — we didn’t take up from another group or anything. So it was really a challenge because we felt there was a need for an online action group, an activist group that would open up a multi-issue, anti-war, challenge corporate power, strong environmental and social justice organization, that would be willing to challenge, in this case the Obama administration and many Democrats. We wanted to be beyond any party loyalty and focus on issues. We really felt and I still feel that the large online action groups such as MoveOn are a very mixed bag and too often have been deferential to the Democrat in the White House or deferential to Democratic Party leadership in Congress. So we consciously set out to raise issues from an unabashedly progressive standpoint.

At this point we have 730,000 active members, people who have taken action through RootsAction and never unsubscribed. If we included people who unsubscribed it would be quite a bit more than that. We’re the largest multi-issue, strongly progressive organization with our politics.

We’re able to do a lot of petitions and emails that people can send. In a few hours, several thousand constituents can send emails to members of Congress on specific issues with a specific message. There’s sort of a cumulative satisfaction to me that RootsAction.org, together with my friend Jeff Cohen, who co-founded it with me, and David Swanson and other people involved, that we’ve been able to be part of this process of building RootsAction. And if you go to RootsAction.org and you go to the bottom of the home page, there’s a link that says “Blast from the Past.” And if you click on that “Blast from the Past” you’ll see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, it’s in reverse chronological order of actions we’ve done. I think we do maybe 250 actions a year.

We take on a very wide variety of issues and types of actions. I mean, we were the first sizeable group to go online in full support of Edward Snowden after he went public, it was just a matter of hours. We don’t just take polls of members, see what’s safe. A lot of times MoveOn and other groups will test it out with their members, “Are you gonna get mad at us? Are too many people gonna get mad at us?” We generally just go ahead. We try to pursue what we believe in. So, you know, I’m happy with what RootsAction is doing. I work on it part time. And then I also work on the Institute for Public Accuracy which I founded 18 years ago.

And Our Revolution — are you involved with that?

 I’m not involved in that. I was elected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention and then I coordinated the Bernie Delegates Network; many of the 1850 Bernie delegates were in our network. We’re continuing to do some post convention work. Our Revolution, of course, has come out of the official Bernie Sanders campaign and it has spun off. The Bernie Delegates Network that I was part of, and that RootsAction helped to launch along with Progressive Democrats of America, had always been totally independent of the Bernie campaign. We thought it was better for us, better for him. And there’s a little bit about it on my Wikipedia page that at this point is accurate.

Let’s talk about RootsAction again. What form does this take? Is this done by conference calls or are you all emailing one another or are you each preparing things and then clearing them with other people, or what are you doing?

 We have three people who are spending most of their time on RootsAction. Myself, as coordinator, David Swanson as campaign coordinator plus a coordinator for our tech work. Jeff Cohen also is on our board of directors and does a lot of work. So it’s a constant consultation. Rarely do we talk on the phone. It’s overwhelmingly by email and text.

If you look at that list on “Blast from the Past,” you’ll see that our email blasts really come out of very fast consultation. What’s the breaking news? What’s our evaluation? We don’t always agree on what we should prioritize and exactly what to say but we hash it out. Something that I’ve learned over the years is that if there are people who are committed, who have talent, have good values, if they can work together, the results are just gonna be so much better. RootsAction is always a process of evaluation and editing and sharing ideas and critiquing and fine-tuning. I’ve partly learned that because for 17 years I wrote a weekly syndicated opinion column. Part of that time I co-wrote it with Jeff Cohen. It was a co-byline.

 Well, that’s our main thing at RootsAction. Whether it’s petitions or being able to, in your case, push a button and send a message to Merkley and Wyden [senators for Oregon], for instance. That’s a lot of what we work on. You know, from talking out options to researching to putting together the petition and the content of the email blast. Often there’s follow through — for instance, we had this petition to shut down the Ramstein airbase in Germany. And just yesterday we had two whistleblowers presenting the RootsAction petition in Berlin at the Bundestag.

 So that takes a lot of work and some fundraising because we had to figure out how to pay for their plane tickets and hotel. The petition really isn’t an end in itself. It’s to help build momentum, to inform people, to create some media energy, some messaging, some political pressure, hopefully. So, that’s been the case ongoing.

One of the many things we focus on is whistleblower work. All the other major email action groups, they don’t support whistleblowers. A couple of them have come to support Snowden, but there’s a whole raft of other ones from the NSA from the CIA, whether it’s Tom Drake, whether it’s John Kiriakou, whether it’s Jeffrey Sterling. There are several people — one of them currently in prison, Jeffrey Sterling — and progressive liberal action groups have taken a pass on this. They don’t want to engage on that issue and we just don’t hesitate. So, that’s been one of our distinctive areas, for RootsAction.

Here’s another question about RootsAction. May I ask what is your budget?

 Our budget is now, I think, about $180,000.00 a year. It covers the income of several people but also a lot of it is tech charges. Because we are on contract with technology firms that provide services like, well, you’ll see when you click a petition and it gathers the comments and it does the thermometer and it distributes and then emails, for instance, our lists. We don’t send everything to everyone on the lists but if we did, which we occasionally do, in a matter of five minutes it goes out to 700,000 people. So, we’re paying the tech firms to do all that.

You’re getting a bargain. (laughs)

 Yeah!  I’m very impressed. I’m still awestruck about what’s feasible.

So, we were talking about the Bernie Delegates Network and how far did we get on that?

 If you were to Google, in quote marks, “Bernie Delegates”, Bernie Delegates Network and my name or just Bernie Delegates Network, you’d see we got a fairly large quantity of coverage at the convention in Philadelphia. Since then we’ve done a number of additional surveys to Bernie delegates and we’re gonna continue to do that and see if we can play some kind of role in the coalescence of the energy from the Bernie campaign.

Well, of course, you were there. You were on the ground. You are now the third Bernie delegate I’ve interviewed. Each one has different things that they remember.

 Yeah, it was quite diverse, though not racially very diverse. In terms of politics, it was no one line or two lines that Bernie delegates had. It was quite a range of people from some who were quite happy to fall in line behind Hillary Clinton all the way to people who were walking out for Jill Stein.

Yeah, I have another question that popped into my head before. You know, I’ve been in leftwing politics all my adult life. To the extent of contributing money to Black Panthers, particularly when they were in legal trouble or in prison. I’ve signed any number of petitions, thousands of petitions, I guess. And I’ve never had any difficulty with anybody in the government. There probably is a dossier about me somewhere. (laughs) But, I never had any repercussions. And I know any number of people who have been very timid all their lives who would find that kind of amazing. They haven’t done all the things that I’ve done. And you know, I demonstrated with Charles against the WTO in Seattle and all kinds of other fairly hairy stuff.

 I was probably standing a few feet from you in Seattle.

Anyhow, have you ever had any follow-up from the government? Any hassling?

 No, not that I’m aware of, other than when I did a Freedom of Information Act request a long time ago — and I haven’t in a very long time — I discovered there was a file opened on me when I was 14. And there was some file when I was around 20 years old and living in Portland because of what I was mailing out and that was the most tangible specific thing. I was mailing out sort of a poetry and prose news service to what we called underground papers and apparently somebody at the post office where I kept mailing it was reporting what I was mailing.

 So that’s in the files. But we’re talking early seventies. That’s still in the [J. Edgar] Hoover era. I just assumed with things I’ve done, particularly going to Baghdad three times and so forth, that I was monitored. And now I work with a lot of whistle blowers so I have to assume I’m monitored. And I’m totally open. I mean, everything I do is legal and non-violent. So, it’s never been a real worry of mine. And I certainly would be offended if there was no surveillance file on me in the U.S. government at this point!

(laughing) Well, it would show that they were not doing their job, I guess. 

 You, know, that I wasn’t considered in the least bit of a menace to the corporate/military system.

I think both of us have had the experience that there are different ways of being on the left.

 Oh absolutely! I totally agree with that. I compare it to a healthy forest. A healthy forest doesn’t have just trees or underbrush or whatever. And I really disagree with people who say, “Everyone should do X.” Or “Everybody should do Y.” It’s absurd! I’ve done a lot of civil disobedience in my life but I’m not saying that’s the only thing to do. There’s a vast variety of things that need to be done.

Right. Would you like to talk anymore about where you see the Bernie movement going?

 Well, I think that there’s been tremendous energy from the Occupy movement and that helped to energize the Bernie campaign. And I think the Bernie campaign, unlike most progressive election campaigns, actually strengthened the progressive movement while the movement strengthened the campaign. So, I think that’s all to the good and it’s about the oligarchy and so forth — it’s just hard to know.

I like to emphasize that campaigns are not movements and election campaigns are episodic. They tend to be boom/busts. Whereas, social movements have a longer cycle so it’s really hard to tell. One of the things we’re gonna do at RootsAction is to [demand a lot of a Hillary Clinton presidency.] We don’t want to give her a nanosecond of a political honeymoon. We are going to be challenging her from day one. It was horrible how so many people on the left were not willing to challenge Obama for so many years. That’s a very bad pattern that we need to break.

You could argue that people who live in Eugene have one of the best combinations of a member of the House and two members of the Senate. And they all have to be pushed. And they have to be supported when they do something good and they need to be challenged when they do something that’s not good. And unfortunately a lot of it is inaction. If you look at Wayne Morse [the iconic former senator from Oregon, the only senator who spoke out against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave then President Johnson a free hand to wage the Vietnam War], there’s not a single person in the House or Senate now who measures up to him in terms of war issues. Not a single one. I saw him speak. I don’t know if I heard him speak in Oregon in the early seventies but I’m certain I saw him in D.C.

We’ve been all over the map here. Is there anything you want to add?

 Well, I would say that fear is a very important factor to come to terms with and to overcome. So much of what we do and don’t do is mediated by fear. And I certainly think that fear is often very valid. We have reasons to be fearful or afraid. But we shouldn’t let it run our lives. We shouldn’t let it circumscribe our willingness to push the envelope, to explore new areas and to challenge authority. And so much of what is malfunctioning that prevents good and so much of what is functioning to impose terrible situations has to do with people internalizing their own fears. And being unwilling, unable, maybe not consciously aware of how they’re policing themselves.

But, when we let fear dictate and set the parameters then we often are policing ourselves. And that’s what the war makers and the exploiters want. That’s really how we are kept in line like lemmings to march off the cliff.

I really believe that legitimate authority is legitimate. And illegitimate authority is illegitimate. I was in jail once after one of the occupations of the Trojan nuclear power plant, and a friend of mine at the time said, “You know, when you’re out of jail you’re still in minimum security.” There’s always threats held over our heads. Or at least fears that we have, that if we step out of line something could be done to us. And that’s always the case.

Whether we’re in the jail or we’re not in the jail, there’s ways that we are easily intimidated. And again, I don’t want to discount fear as being legitimate but I do think that whether we talk about nuclear weapons or climate change or racism or economic exploitation, it’s really imperative that we challenge authority and think for ourselves and so for collective humanity. And I suppose, in retrospect, that’s an ethos that has guided me during my adult life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

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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