Sylvia: It’s November 2, 2016 and I’m interviewing David Zupan. I know you’ve been a mainstay of the peace movement in Eugene and the director of Progressive Voices nationally. Has activism been your main career or did you shift into it at some point in your life?
David Zupan: I shifted into it after a stint at teaching. I was an English teacher. Got my master’s degree in English and then started teaching high school and I did that for five years. I taught in California and then came up to Coos Bay, Oregon, taught at Marshfield High School for several years.
But then you switched to activism. What form did that take?
I became more interested after I went back to graduate school here in Eugene. I’d always been somewhat politically involved, even as a teacher but I wasn’t really what you’d consider an activist. I think the turning point for me was when I was living in student family housing. That was a great experience because people there were organizing and they were collectively working to improve the living conditions by negotiating with the university to try to keep the rent down and increase the maintenance. This would’ve been from 1975 on up through about ’79.
There was a rent strike. Initially I was kind of on the sidelines, going to meetings, not really that active. But I got drawn into it more and more and saw how, as an individual, you couldn’t do much but as a group we had a lot of power. The rent strike culminated in us holding about $26,000 that was put into an escrow fund and we then negotiated with the university and got a rent freeze and a childcare center [on the premises.] So that was quite a victory. And that was my first real experience with mass organizing and how it can really work.
I was also getting involved in anti-nuclear power activities. I went up to the Trojan [nuclear power] plant. Was arrested there a couple of times. That’s where I met Norman Solomon. [Interviewed on September 30, 2016] and Charles Gray [Sylvia’s late husband.] Those were great experiences. Learned a lot about solidarity in and out of jail. We were arrested but we were released fairly quickly. And eventually we were found not guilty. Partly out of, I think, a technicality. But, it was a great moment. Years later when I got to see the Trojan cooling towers demolished, saw footage of that in the news, it confirmed what we’d been saying all along. That Trojan was dangerous and ineffective as a power source.
That obviously wasn’t the end of your activism.
No. Then I got involved with anti-nuclear weapons campaigns of various types including we protested against the White Train, which many people have forgotten about or never heard about. That was when they used to bring hydrogen bombs on trains. Through cities. The train had all white painted cars and was very heavily armored. And I was part of the protest. Many people from Eugene would go up to Portland and participate in the non-violent direct action to block those trains and sit on the tracks.
Were there any military people on those trains?
Oh, yes. They had armored cars and gun ports that they looked out of. People painted the sides of those trains with various peace slogans and so forth. That was a very successful campaign. It kept growing and then the government decided it wasn’t the best thing to be doing.
So they changed tactics. They went to trucks, semi-trucks. They started carrying the bombs, basically bringing these from Texas. I believe these were Trident submarine missile heads that were being brought from Amarillo, TX up to Seattle where the big Trident submarine base is. When they put them on the semi-trucks, for a time people were able to identify them because they were very distinctive. And they did similar kinds of protests. Then they made them so you couldn’t tell any difference. I’m sure they’re doing similar kinds of transports today, actually. People just don’t know.
What other issues have you worked on and what was your role in these actions?
I was a participant as far as being part of affinity groups. I wasn’t an organizer of the actions but I was willing to do civil disobedience and willing to risk arrest. That evolved into going down to Nevada to the American Peace Test actions and I did a number of those as well. We were arrested but because there were so many of us, most of us were released. I remember being arrested with Martin Sheen and put on the school bus and their tactic was to take us very far away from the arrest site, in hopes that we would then give up and not come back. I remember that particular instance they went even beyond Beatty, that was about 80 miles. They decided to take us another 80 miles, almost 200 miles away from the site to Tonopah.
But, of course, it was unsuccessful because we had our support people right behind us in cars and we just waited for them and we went out to the local restaurants and bars after we’d been released and hung out there waiting. The townspeople were very friendly. They were glad to see us. They said, “We haven’t seen days like this since the silver mining. You’re welcome back here anytime.” The support cars would just take us back to the site and we were able to go back and protest again the next day. It was interesting being on the bus with Martin Sheen because the guard that was guarding the bus came up to Martin Sheen, asking for his autograph. That kind of thing. It was a very positive experience.
Then years later, I got more involved in more grassroots, electoral type of organizing. We got involved in the Nuclear Free Zone movement. It was a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Oregon. There was also Citizens Action for Lasting Security, CALS. But, I believe it was the former that was involved in ballot measure campaigns. Probably the height of this movement was when we had five ballot measures. We had two state measures. One to close or restrict low-level radioactive waste at Albany at Teledyne. That was one of the measures.
They would buy uranium or they would buy a certain kind of sand from Australia and then convert it into zirconium that was then used for part of the fuel rods that are needed for all nuclear power plants and reactors. So that was on the ballot and then one about Trojan and then down here in Eugene we had a nuclear free zone for the county and the city. And then another statewide measure which was to make the whole state a nuclear-free zone. And that was pretty intense because we had to collect signatures to get all those on the ballot.
We did that successfully and then we were very involved in the educational campaigns, to see if we could get those passed. And it was a mixed result because, of course, PG&E [Portland Gas and Electric] and other big companies spent a lot of money to try and defeat them, and they were successful at the statewide level, but on the county level we were able to get both the Eugene and Lane County measures passed.
And then, of course, that was the beginning of another campaign because then the city people resisted implementing what was really a very tough, strong nuclear-free zone ordinance, which basically said they couldn’t make nuclear weapons parts here in Eugene. Some of the establishment people didn’t like that, they wanted to make it more open, so they started this campaign and they used a very deceptive technique which was used nationally.
They got one company called Rohr to say they were thinking about coming to Eugene but they changed their minds when they heard about this nuclear free zone ordinance. So, that ploy allowed them to raise $80,000, especially from the business community. I think we only had like $6,000, so they put it back on the ballot, the city of Eugene. The same measure the people already passed, they basically put both measures up there. There were some slight legal technicalities that could’ve been easily remedied, but instead, they put ‘em both on the ballot and they were successful in getting the weak one passed. So basically it was a joke, the weak nuclear-free zone. So, that’s how the people of Eugene were cheated, hoodwinked.
Those were very interesting campaigns and I was glad to be a part of them. I was on the mayor’s task force that was reviewing that strong nuclear-free zone, along with some other pro nuclear-free zone people. And, of course, they stacked it with more anti nuclear-free zone people and that’s how they were able to turn things around and get it so we were looking at putting both measures back on the ballot. I believe it was 1988 that all those were on the ballot. And then, maybe as late as ’89, ’90 is when it got reviewed. We actually hosted the international nuclear free zone conference here in Eugene, I think, around ’91 or ’92. Yeah, the coalition of peace groups in town.
Were you at all involved with CALC? [CALC’s director, Marion Malcolm, was interviewed for this blog on October 14, 2016.]
Worked with them through PeaceWorks, founded around 1980. There were chapters of Oregon PeaceWorks throughout the state and Eugene was one of the chapters. Eventually they became independent and Portland PeaceWorks and Eugene PeaceWorks are still going and, I believe, Salem is still going in some form. We’ve worked with CALC and continue to do so today, we collaborate.
I’m trying to see how you got to be a media person.
That came a little bit later. I started the Speakers Clearinghouse [now Progressive Voices] and Norman Solomon was one of my first speakers. I found speaking engagements for him and others at campuses around the country and then eventually became affiliated. He founded the Institute for Public Accuracy which is a national group that works on getting more media exposure for progressive analysts and activists and I still work — I was on the staff of the group for some time and then eventually we kind of slimmed down and consolidated. We still have an office in Washington and I volunteer as kind of as an outreach person for the Institute for Public Accuracy.
So that’s where I got more and more involved. As a broadcast media outreach person, I was doing a lot of outreach not only to radio but also to television outlets around the country. And was working to expand the database of IPA. It remains one of the best organizations for supplying media exposure for activists and analysts. One of the ways it succeeds in doing that is by putting out releases almost every day that list these people that the media outlets can then turn to when they’re doing like a breaking story and they’re looking frantically to find someone that can speak to that story. We have a track record of providing their phone number, their email to journalists who can contact them and interview them or have them on their shows. We’ve gotten thousands of people into the mainstream media that way. But it’s still difficult because as a whole the media establishment, it’s like an impenetrable wall, but there are cracks and that’s where IPA steps in. It’s finding those cracks and providing the people so they can get more access, more exposure than they typically do. Particularly if they were trying to do it by themselves.
So you contact people at various places, is that what you would say?
That’s what I was doing more of, yeah. Now I’m listed on the release as someone the journalist’s producers can contact if they can’t reach someone at our D.C. office. And they’re trying to make a connection with an activist on the release, or an analyst. But that’s where I got more aware of the power of the media and the importance of media activism and locally I started a committee of Eugene PeaceWorks called Eugene Media Action. And that has been around for quite some time now. At least, probably 15 years.
Eventually PeaceWorks made the decision to not only work on peace and justice issues but to take a media focus. And that’s eventually evolved into our decision about 2 ½ years ago to take on the community radio station project that we’re engaged in now. It was a kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity that came up when the FCC basically opened the window for any non-profits that might be willing to sponsor a low power FM station and they did this throughout the country. That window has since closed. What it allows these groups to do is to raise the money necessary to buy the equipment to get on the air, and you have to do it by a certain time. And then you get your broadcast license.
You have clarified for me more of what the Institute for Public Accuracy does than Norman Solomon did. [Interviewed on September 30, 2016] I sort of assumed it was something where you put out press releases, but it’s not that at all. It’s finding places for actual advocates or experts or something where you have a voice, directly. Am I getting that straight?
Well, it’s both. I mean, one of the main ways that happens now is to use press releases, like I said, almost daily, that are put out and they list these analysts. And now that we’ve built this huge database of television and radio producers around the world – actually beyond the U.S.A., some are in Europe and Canada. And Australia, and so forth. So, that any of these folks can find what they’re looking for. It’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s a wonderful organization that Norman created. And he has since created another one, more of a grassroots one you may’ve heard of called RootsAction.
We talked a lot about that when I interviewed him.
There’s a lot to take on. But, at least there’s some tools to work with that are effective, that we’re lucky to have.
Now, when you have all these advocates and experts, is any of what you’re doing connecting them with campus groups that want speakers?
Well, that gets back to this Speakers Clearinghouse which I did for many years, and I still have the website going. I did place a lot of people, but that is dramatically changed since the rise of the internet because now it’s possible for the campus groups who may be looking for speakers to directly contact whoever they’re interested in and do their own booking that way. So, there’s less need of an intermediary than there was at one time.
I’m curious as to how that works. Does someone supply his email address or something like that, and then they just go follow that through?
Well, a lot of the people on campus that are booking the speakers are young people, and they don’t use the phone so much to communicate. They’re more inclined to use tweets and texting.
So, they’re following through on tweets?
Well, that’s one way that they can be done. But, it’s just a much more challenging market than it was. Personally, I’ve become more interested in documentary film. That’s become my latest, I guess you could say a hobby, so to speak. I’ve been going back to the U of O[regon], auditing courses and working to improve my filmmaking skills and collaborating with students on films. That’s been one of my main activities. And it fits in with what I’m doing with PeaceWorks and Media Action because we’re able to use these films to address certain topics that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be aired. So, for example, we’ve dealt with the homeless issue in a documentary production. Typically, they’re not very long. We’re talking about 10 or 15 minutes. I’ve worked quite a bit with Jana Thrift, who is a local homeless advocate. She’s a wonderful media activist and homeless advocate.
And then in the course of taking documentary production through the Journalism school, I’ve made several films with students there. The latest is on the subject of the students from around the country who are suing the U.S. Government over the lack of action on the climate crisis.
The federal courthouse here, that’s where the center of this hearing so far has been. There’s been two and they’ve actually made progress, they’re moving the case forward. Basically, it’s 20 young people, ages from 10 to 21, plus the scientist James Hansen, who was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm over the climate crisis as early as in the early ‘80’s. He told Congress about it. So, he’s one of the plaintiffs. And they’ve got a wonderful legal team made up of U of O ELAW [Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, based in Eugene] folks, including Mary Wood who developed the principle of the public trust.
It’s an area of law that she elaborated on to become the basis for their case. That the government has a responsibility to maintain the public trust when it comes to preserving the air, the water, and the land for its citizens. And these young people, obviously, are being adversely affected by the climate crisis. The argument of the case is that the government should respond adequately to the climate emergency.
So, you’re doing this in a documentary film? Will this also be 10 or 15 minutes?
[laughs] Interesting you should bring that up because we initially started off to do that length film and then we were thinking more ambitiously about doing something longer. But, then we learned that there was another group that has also stepped up because it is a very, very important case, it’s an important story to tell. What it boils down to is they’re going to make the longer one and we’re going to continue with our plans to make the short one.
And how do you market these, to whom do these go?
It remains to be seen where this particular one will go but in the past we’ve aired them on Oregon Public Broadcasting. They have a series in the summer, I believe it’s called The Oregon Lens. They show a certain number of student films and then they also show it at the local Eugene International Film Festival. So that’s a possible avenue for showing films. I think this one on the climate crisis with the students actually could be aired more extensively. I’m going to the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks and I’m going to bring a copy of this film and see if there might be interest in it there. It’s an annual international film festival.
That’s great. OK. What are the most interesting and satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist? Have you already said that?
Yeah, I think it’s all been pretty interesting. As far as being satisfying, the high points would be whenever we’ve worked collectively toward a certain goal and, even when we don’t necessarily succeed, there’s that satisfaction of being part of something that is worth doing, even if we don’t meet our goal. We have worked together for the good and the truth. That’s probably been the most satisfying.
One example being the campaign to save Amazon Student Housing — that was a 2 to 3 year campaign. It was a quite extensive community-wide effort of people to preserve low income family student housing. And we had broad community support. The U of O [response] was to save 8 buildings out of 48. Our argument had been that they could save ‘em all, renovate ‘em, and preserve the low cost status of the place but the U of O wanted to tear ‘em down and rebuild. So, they took 8 of those buildings which are still, you can see ‘em today, and they’re perfectly fine. They were renovated by private interests in one case, St. Vincent’s in the other, they’re both perfectly adequate housing serving people today but they had to pay extra, of course, to move them. Whereas, if they left ‘em where they were they could’ve been renovated even more cheaply. That was a huge campaign that included making the whole Amazon National Historic District, we got national status for that. The U of O, with the help of state and city government, basically rolled over that. But, it was still very satisfying to be a part of that effort.
You wanna talk to me more about the radio station? It isn’t up yet and running is it?
It is running in the sense that we’ve started live streaming on the internet at kpew.org. And that just took place at our launch event Saturday at Whirled Pies [a pizza restaurant and event venue in Eugene.] It was a wonderful event. We had good turnout and people really seemed to enjoy themselves. From here, we’re on the final stretch to raise the money necessary to get the equipment to broadcast, which if all goes well, would be in mid-February.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Well, I just encourage folks to get involved and to stay active. I think it’s really good for our collective mental health for citizens to be activists rather than bystanders or consumers. One way or another, we’re all involved. Whether or not we wanna be. Might as well be activists for the good.