Sylvia: It’s December 3rd, 2016 and I’m interviewing Cimmeron Gillespie. I know that you’ve been an activist since you were in high school. You went to the University of Oregon and now you’re 28.
Cimmeron: Yeah. Pretty much for the last decade and a half, I’ve been involved in social movements one way or another.
And what in your past led you to become an activist?
I was a green diaper baby. You may have heard the phrase “red diaper baby.” They were the children born of communists, but my parents met in the environmental movement. So I joke that I’m a green diaper baby. I came up around social movements and I got involved very quickly. My parents met in the eighties and around that time there was big fear, a big transition in the environmental movement, fear from loss of local ecosystems, also fear of nuclear holocaust, the cold war.
So there was a very strong early understanding of the consequences of war and the environment and how these impacted each other and that led me later to very quickly be able to understand and adapt to the importance of different social movements and their interconnectedness.
Incidentally, I know that your father shows up at the Friends Meeting. So, he’s a Quaker, I suppose. Is your mother also?
She’s not, no. She was raised religious and moved away from that in later years. My grandparents on my father’s side were both ministers. On my paternal side, both my grandmother and my grandfather. [laughs] And they had a very rich history. My grandfather was involved in the civil rights movement.
My grandfather was involved in the civil rights movement and my grandmother was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. [She was an American but she was teaching in a school for black children there.] She had a number of stories, one of which was that she was called one night and told that one of her students had been picked up and so she went to the jail or whatever it was, British administration word for that. I don’t know. Whatever. Anyways, so she shows up there and he’s been killed. And so she has to inform the parents because the local police wouldn’t talk to the parents because the parents weren’t white. So they had to call the church people to do that on the parents’ behalf.
This is a horrific story but what church was this? What denomination?
I’m not sure who she was with at the time. They were United Church of Christ later. I don’t know a lot about her early life but I know that she attended Oberlin. [The first American college to admit black students – it did so in the 1830s — Oberlin and its graduates have a long and proud history of support for civil rights and racial equality.]
And she was also an early religious adopter of an affirming faith position. My grandfather was not and they had some arguments over that for some time. In the sixties and seventies my grandfather did not support same sex marriages and he believed that homosexuality was a sin and so on. My grandmother did not hold that position and I remember some heated exchanges they had in which she finally got him to come around to an affirming position. And a few years later they were co-ministering for a United Church of Christ church in Ohio and they told this congregation, we really need to be affirming. This is a moral issue. And that was very contentious, several wealthy donors pulled out.
So, that would be what’s usually called now a welcoming community or a welcoming congregation.
Yeah. Exactly. An affirming community. A welcoming community. Ultimately, I think that church closed a few years later. So it was a very difficult position to take. It cost their religious community tremendously.
My parents both have lived in Oregon since the eighties. And the rest of my family is sort of spread out across the United States. There’s a lot of stories that my family have about different movements. One is that when my parents met it was around the logging of a site called Millennium Grove here in Oregon. It was called Millennium Grove because the trees, evergreens, had been growing for over a thousand years. I’ve been to the site.
So what happened was — I’ll tell two stories. One is that there was a number of protests to try to save the stand. To discourage the logging companies from coming out, there was a tree-sit. And people came out. My mom went out to this, to participate in it. And some other people showed up who hadn’t been to any of the meetings before, and everyone in the group was suspicious that these new people who showed up may have been government agents. Police.
And so the whole group sat down in a circle, and everyone introduced themselves, and they all agreed that everyone had to say that they were not police officers. And everyone went around, and when it got to these people they sort of hesitated a little bit, and then said it, and that was enough for everyone there to say, “You gotta go.” So they drove with them and they drove them out cause, you know, all of these logging sites are up these pretty distant roads to get to, and so they followed them all the way back down to the main road. Next day they went to go sit down and then the loggers decided they weren’t going to show up that day. So, they went to lock down and nobody came. [laughs]
The other story from that tree-sit is that there was an injunction passed, there was a lawsuit about it that this was a special case and that this tree stand should probably be preserved and there was to be a hearing on it. And the day before the hearing, on a holiday weekend, I think it was like Easter weekend or something, they came in on a Sunday at midnight, turned on floodlights and cut it all down. And the story is that they didn’t even pick up the lumber. They just left it! It was just, you know, “We’re gonna cut it, just to spite you.You can have your injunction hearing, but it’s moot. It’s over. It’s already cut down.”
Which I think speaks to the drive in capitalism for profits, meaning that these corporations feel like they don’t have to follow the law. The law follows them. And I think that that really has been my experience, too, of the attitude of corporations. They don’t care what the law says. They just wanna do whatever will make them more money.
So that takes you from issues of the environment to your attitude toward corporate power.
And that leads directly to economic injustice as well. Right? Like corporations willing to do anything for profit means we have to ask what are they doing? Who may be getting hurt as a consequence of this? And it’s usually always workers. It’s usually always poor people. You know, you don’t often hear of rich people having gripes about, “Oh, this economy really isn’t going my way! Oh, these wages just aren’t enough for me with my million dollar bonus!” They never have to worry about having to go home and decide between buying cereal for their kids or afternoon snacks. You know. That’s never a decision that a rich family has to make.
So does this affect any groups that you’re involved with? I know that you’re certainly a non-violent activist. I believe that’s still your stance. Isn’t it?
My stance on violence is this. I don’t personally engage in any acts of violence. But I recognize that there are situations of tremendous violence in the world. And I think someone facing tremendous oppression and violence, I’m not gonna condemn them for standing up for their rights, for defending themselves. We hear about private militias and we hear about police beating people. If someone is being brutally attacked and in fear of their lives, I’m certainly not going to condemn someone if they kick back or throw a punch or something. In the grand scheme of things that doesn’t matter to me. I choose not to engage in violence and that’s a decision that I have made but I also want to make clear that I do not judge other people for making a different decision.
In Latin America, when there was criticism of some violence on the part of the underprivileged, the tremendously oppressed, there were some people in the Catholic Church, people in the Liberation Theology movement, that were saying that economic violence is just as serious.
I remember a quote from Friend Peg Morton, [a mutual friend of ours, a dedicated Quaker activist, recently deceased.]. There’s a section in her book to that effect as well. That was very moving for me. So I concur with that position.
Right. So why don’t you talk about some of the campaigns or efforts you’ve been involved in?
The first major movement that I was involved in was the anti-war movement against the Iraq war. The war started in Iraq about 2003 and by 2006 when I was graduating high school, people were talking very seriously about back door drafts. People who had already enlisted and been released were being recalled. And that signaled to me that our military may need more bodies and I was in a very real way concerned that a draft could happen, that I was of draft age and I might be pressed into service in this war that from the very beginning I thought had the most dubious arguments. There was no real justification for it. So my first major political action was resisting that war. I participated in this sit-in of Congressman DeFazio’s office, calling on him to stop the war funding.
Since then I’ve been involved in movements around a variety of issues going forward. Ha! And you brought up Orval Etter. I should say he was a member of Eugene Friends Meeting, and he had started a group that met at the University of Oregon called the Pacifica Forum. It began as a discussion group, originally talking about ideas of war and peace and militarism throughout the world. And [pause] at some point in the late nineties, early two thousands, those discussions of war began to focus very heavily on Israel/Palestine. And took some very critical views of Israel, some of the presentations.
And that attracted some conspiracy believers. Their particular conspiracy of choice was that there was a Jewish conspiracy. That Jewish people controlled money and the world and so on and so forth. And so their belief was that the state of Israel had to be overthrown or something. And they were Holocaust deniers.
I mean, they really thought that it was all made up. That there was no truth to it. Some of them said, “Oh there was a Holocaust but maybe only a couple hundred thousand people died,” or something, as if all the records were made up. As if all the testimonies and all the shoes, as if the death camps themselves weren’t obvious proof. As if the millions of accounts of what happened weren’t validation enough.
It didn’t happen all at once. My understanding is it grew over time. I don’t want to get too personal but there was a number of things, one of which was that Orval Etter, himself, I don’t think, held these views? At the time he was getting quite old. He was in his late nineties. I had several conversations with his family members. It was difficult for them, too, that their father was involved in this group that was discussing these abhorrent topics.
So as a discussion group it was kind of gross, but not necessarily a big concern. What happened was in 2010 they invited the National Socialist Movement, the NSM, to come and speak. And the National Socialist Movement was one of the splinter groups of the former American Nazi party. That event triggered a response. Because then many people in the community, many students that I knew, and community members were like, “Wow. Now you’re bringing Nazis to our campus. This really is unacceptable.” Prior to that time, Pacifica Forum was not very well known. It wasn’t very well attended. After that point there was controversy. There was regular stories published on it every week in [the city’s daily newspaper, the region’s most popular weekly, and the campus newpaper.]
Pacifica Forum was having weekly meetings. So myself and many fellow students formed an organization called Breaking Bigotry and we proceeded to have weekly protests. And that went on for eight months. Ultimately that resulted in the university changing its policy. Orval Etter had been able to reserve a room on campus as an emeritus professor but the university changed its policy, saying instead there had to be a department or a unit on campus that sponsored an event. And so that ultimately ended his ability to reserve the rooms and the organization broke apart. In the middle of that, there was extensive protests and threats.
Did you have demonstrations outside the meetings or what?
We went into the meetings. And we would actively disrupt them. It was a dark time but we sure had fun with it. There was a number of things. The most prominent was we held a kiss-in, cause they were talking about homophobia and their thinking was that same sex couples were an abomination and they showed the degradation of our society or something, so we held a kiss-in. Many same sex couples and many heterosexual couples came and made out. And [the attenders] were so disgusted by this display of intimacy, they made more noise than we did at that protest.
So, you would be standing around and doing these things.
We were sitting in seats. Yeah, and making out. And I remember there was one woman who was a regular Pacifica attender and she was sitting near me and the person I went with, and she just started making these disturbed noises like, “Ugh! Uhg! Owww! Oaah!” She just couldn’t handle it. [laughs] That meeting fairly well ended in total disruption. Yeah! They couldn’t do anything.
[laughs] This was a meeting on the subject of homosexuality?
Them promoting homophobia, yeah. Yeah. There was another meeting, they were talking about Martin Luther King, and they were accusing him of being a communist collaborator, trying to destroy the United States. The speaker was originally from Lithuania. And for that speech we agreed to do a silent protest. There was maybe a hundred of us in there or something. And we turned our backs to them as soon as they started saying something vile, which they did.
He was speaking about Martin Luther King. Saying he was a communist and that he was trying to destroy the United States and that he was really a man of hate and all this. Of course, none of this is true. [pause] What I remember most about that speech was just a genuine feeling of like, evil in that room. For me, it was palpable. I could sense it, it was disgusting! Here were people in a very serious way, using that as a position, in essence, to justify the Holocaust. They’re saying, “Oh well, Martin Luther King was really a socialist,” and that tied him to the communists, and the communists killed millions of people under Stalin — which is certainly true.
Their claim was somehow that anything to the left of white supremacy was really just out to kill white people. That wasn’t the theme of the speech but that was the undertone of it. And I remember just being so disgusted by that. And also feeling sad for these people whose lives were so insular that they couldn’t understand that the lives of people of color were valid too, that they had a role in our society
So we had a number of other protests at the Pacifica Forum. We had one, a call-in. We were in Agate Hall, and there would be two rows of protesters who would be sitting down, and the front row would have their phones turned up very loud with these very annoying ring tones, and the row behind them would call them and all the phones would go off and you’d hear, “Da duh dun da da da da duh dun dun. Da da da!” [singing] And all these other things. And the speaker, you know, couldn’t deal with all these cell phones. He’d be like, “Turn them off! Turn them off!”
So we had some just really lovely disruptions. One of the things that came out of that, though, was that the campus police showed up and their position was that the room was legitimately reserved and so they had to defend the people in the room who were using it. And so, the police were suddenly in this position of defending white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Well, you were walking a very tricky line there. When does disruption become limiting free speech?
Well, exactly. I came to feel that [sigh] free speech — I think it’s an interesting thing because it’s really intended to prevent the government from censoring individuals. I don’t think free speech was ever about individuals censoring other individuals, you know? Like, if your neighbor has their music turned up really loud at midnight, it’s perfectly reasonable to go over to your neighbor and tell them, “Turn it the hell down. You’re makin’ a racket!” But, nobody would ever say you’re infringing on their free speech.
Yeah. Well there are regulations in many communities about how late you can have loud music play or something of that sort.
Well, sure. But that’s just the point. We as communities do establish boundaries of what is accepted speech! And I think, for instance, in Germany, they have outlawed Nazi parties and they are certainly a free republic. It is possible to limit some extreme views in the interest of preserving a more free society.