Sylvia: It’s May 18th, 2017 and I’m interviewing Ethen Perkins. Activism has not been your main career. What have you done most of your life?
Ethen: Most of my life I was an environmental consultant working on various projects. Some of them involved neighborhood groups who were protesting against something that was happening in their neighborhood that they didn’t like. Some of them were also government agencies or private individuals or companies or developers. So, I kind of worked with all different kinds of people. I suppose in that phase of my life, my advocacy was mainly for things like endangered plants and wetlands and habitats for endangered animals and things like that. That would be who I thought was my client really.
The plants were your client?
I would be trying to satisfy their needs. So, I got into restoration of habitats and kind of bringing things back and that was a very fun and rewarding part of the work that I did. The great part about that was that once I had achieved a restoration it was sort of like the work disappeared. People saw this great spot and they didn’t realize that before there was a bunch of landfill or something that had been removed. The reward was to kind of have my work disappear. And to know that the plants were doing better than they were before. There were more of them or the animals had habitats and so on. That was lovely work. I enjoyed it greatly.
What kind of training did that require?
Well, I got a PhD. in Botany from the University of British Columbia. The coursework I did in ecology and environmental things was what I used most of my career. I did that for years. For a while I was directing an environmental field station in Southeastern Oregon. And I had a place called Malheur Field Station, which was right next to the wild refuge.
Oh, is that the place where recently there was a long confrontation with armed militants who opposed federal control of the refuge?
Yeah. That’s the same place. When I was there the previous director had riled up the local ranch communities with the book that he published called, “The Sacred Cows at the Public Trough.”
The years that I was there was kind of like mending fences with the local ranching community. But, also continuing to advocate for the environmental nature of the wildlife refuge and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] lands and so on that were around there. Mainly because the field station depended on bird watchers and naturalists and botanists and so on coming to see things like Steens Mountain and the fantastic bird life on the refuge and all that.
It was also fun and interesting working with natural history groups and school groups to appreciate the value of the vast marshes that were out there. And the fact that they harbored larger numbers of successful sandhill cranes than most other places, for instance. Taking school kids out to see sage grouse, leks, and the strutting and so on.
Leks. Which are clusters of males trying to interest females in reproduction. They are in decline throughout the West really, and probably eventually will be on the endangered species list unless something changes. They lose a lot of their habitat to ranching interests that remove the sagebrush. Or fires that remove the sagebrush. It takes a long time for it to come back. I became very much an advocate for that.
And then I worked for some years as a land steward for the Nature Conservancy for the state of Iowa. I would go from one little patch preserve in the midst of cornfields and soybean fields to another one a hundred miles away and see if I could figure out how to protect the orchids or whatever was in those little patches of remaining natural areas. And then I would burn the prairies so that the orchids would come back stronger.
You personally burned the prairies?
Yeah, I did. I would make the plan for it and then gather volunteers together and we’d go out and say, “Well, we’re gonna burn this section of the prairie this time.” And then I would come back later and look and see what had happened to orchids and things like that. So my activism was really associated with environmental concerns for years. Sometimes I would map people’s wetlands and help them figure out if there was room on their property to build a house without hurting the wetlands or what they might have to do if they did need to put a road through to the wetlands — things like that.
I usually ask people about their childhood, their beginnings. What made you an activist in the first place? Also, since I know you are a Quaker now, have you always been a Quaker?
No. When I went to Canada, at graduate school I started. I became a Quaker inside myself. I was being drafted into the Vietnam war and in various ways, I knew that war was wrong and got some counseling suggesting that I look at my religious views of war. I read through the New Testament and realized that’s not what Christianity is about. I’m a Christian and that means that I need to be a pacifist. It was clear that those people that are Christians and justify war aren’t really following what the text says, in my opinion.
Well, certainly in the Old Testament there’s a lot of glorification of all these great warriors.
Right, right. But, the real battle is an internal one not an external one. And external wars are not what Christ was advocating in any way.
So, what was your upbringing?
I grew up in various different Christian denominations, winding up being a confirmed Lutheran and going to a Lutheran college for a while, which is where I got into the Urban Studies program. And wound up graduating from the state school in Oklahoma. So, that was my background up until the realization that I was a pacifist. And that as a Lutheran I didn’t stand a chance of not going to prison if I had gone in front of the Tulsa draft board, which is where I was. There was evidence from other people who were Quakers, and Amish and Mennonites who had been told, “No, you can’t be a conscientious objector.”
Was your family religious?
My dad wasn’t tremendously religious and my mother has always gone to some sort of mainstream church of one kind or another. I’m the oldest of four kids. Amongst my brothers and sisters there’s a wide spectrum — everything from agnostic to very fundamentalist, literalist kind of interpretations of the Bible. My brother believed in faith healing, and was a member of the Christian cult called the Children of God, for years, pentecostal type. I’m the only one that’s Quaker. It’s been an individual journey there, for sure.
So, I thought, well, as just a Lutheran, there’s not a chance in the world that my draft board won’t draft me, in which case I’m gonna have to go to prison. But before I met the draft board to go in front of them with my papers, which I had already submitted to them, Nixon ended the draft. So, the draft board never called me before them.
[laughs] That was good luck!
Yeah. But, anyway, then when I went to Canada, I had read about Quakers and I thought, I just need to go to a Quaker meeting and see what this is about. And when I did, sort of like immediately, I thought oh yes, this is a place that I could call a spiritual home.
Before I went to Canada, I had started out with several other different degree plans and was in Chicago just after the 1968 demonstrations and riots during the Democratic Presidential Convention. I went to Chicago for an Urban Studies program in the aftermath of all that and that was when there was the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial.
Now, when you say Chicago Seven, are you talking about the enormous protests against the nomination of Hubert Humphrey?
Yes. There were enormous protests and in the aftermath of that, Abbie Hoffman and Bobbie Seale and several other people were arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot. During the trial, I witnessed the demonstrations and marches that were going on outside of the Federal Building. For instance, there would be a group of onlookers and then there’d be a cluster of Black Panthers marching in one direction shouting their slogans, and in the opposite direction, marching parallel to them, was the American Nazi Party. So, it was kind of an extreme kind of rhetoric of those two groups mixed in with what was going on up in the courtroom where Bobby Seale was bound and gagged to a chair so he couldn’t protest. He couldn’t express his opinions about the whole process.
William Kunstler [a leading radical defense attorney at the time] was their lawyer. The day I got to visit the trial was the day that Allen Ginsberg testified. And he said, “Well, the people were getting kind of upset so out in Lincoln Park I tried to calm them down. I got them all to sit down and we started chanting the mystic syllable.” And Judge Hoffman said, “Could you demonstrate what that is?” So Ginsberg, in his deep voice starts going, “Omm.” And the whole courtroom filled with this sound, and the judge gavels, “That’s enough! That’s enough!” [laughs] It was an interesting moment. It was a very interesting day in court to see all this.
The best story I ever heard about Abbie Hoffman was him going into the Wall Street stock exchange and at that point the viewers’ balcony was open to the Exchange. And he took a small handful of dollar bills and threw them over the balcony. And all of the traders stopped trading to pick up those few bills. [laughs] He stopped the stock market cold with a few dollars. Very symbolic. Very wonderful.
I’ve heard you say that, when you were in Chicago, you met Fred Hampton. [Hampton was a Black Panther leader who was assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969.]
I’d heard him talk a number of times. I was in this group of college students attending an urban studies program in Chicago. We came from all over the Midwest, little colleges. One of them was an African-American college, I forget which one. But they sent a bunch of people to the program and all of those guys stayed together. People were staying in apartments and then they would go do various things. Like one of my assignments for the college credits I was taking for Urban Studies was to go see what was going on with the conspiracy trial.
And so we would get together as a group in various places and have things. And the black students would all kind of be their own little subgroup within our group. The Black Panther leadership had been staying in the apartments of these other black students. And then they suddenly moved to another place. And when the Black Panther leadership moved to another apartment that’s when the Chicago police essentially murdered them all.
The reports on the subject usually say that they had their own apartment.
They did have their own apartment. They had been living with our students. Then they moved into their own apartment. And when they moved into their own apartment, then in the very early hours of the morning the police basically massacred all of the Black Panther leadership, Fred Hampton and others. Our faculty knew them.
This guy named Jody Kretzmann had a press pass. He was the son of the president of the school I was going to at the time, Valparaiso University. And he had a press pass so he went in and looked in and said there was no shootout at all. It was all just a massacre. He said it was clear from what you could see that they had just been murdered. And of course, that injustice has never really been rectified.
Well, their relatives sued for civil damages. Many years later, after years of litigation, nine plaintiffs, including the mothers of Hampton and Mark Clark, a Panther leader from Peoria, received a total of $1,850,000. So, I mean, that was a judgment in the courts.
Oh yeah. It should have been. It was awful anyway. That pretty much radicalized me in many ways. They were my fellow students. And I had gone to the Black Panther rallies and so on and met Fred Hampton and the others as part of our studies, you know. I think if the massacre had happened with the black students from these colleges, the innocence of the whole thing would have been much clearer. They obviously avoided that in this COINTELPRO way.
When you went to a Black Panther event there would be white guys with ties standing around all the edges taking pictures of everybody. Part of the FBI investigation. All of us started wondering what kind of files do the FBI have on us? It was totally intimidating.
That massacre had a big impact on me. I was living in New York and working in a pre-college program, helping young high school graduates from poverty neighborhoods get prepared for college. About two-thirds were black, most of the rest were hispanic. In high school they’d been tracked out of college preparation. So, now we were trying to reverse the tracking and give these kids a chance.
There were Black Panthers in the program and I knew one of them pretty well. I was in charge of the library and I was creating a library for the purpose. [sighs] This is a very long and complicated story. I had gotten acquainted particularly with one Panther who was advising me as to some things I should be buying for the library. Meanwhile I had a white friend who I knew from my days in Berkeley who was working as a VISTA volunteer in Bedford Stuyvesant which at that time was a totally black, poor community. Now and then this VISTA volunteer would come to dinner at my place.
So one time he brings a friend along to my house. Then he whispers to me,“He’s a Black Panther and he’s from Oakland!” Well, I had been living in Berkeley and working in Oakland previous to this. It soon became clear to me that this dinner guest of mine was the son of a sergeant in the Oakland police who was the highest ranking black in the Oakland police at that time. This sergeant was their “show nigger” if you’ll pardon the expression, an apologist for the cops no matter what they did. Everyone on the left knew he was a creep, you know? And when I asked the Panther who was having dinner at my house if this guy with the same last name was his dad, he seemed proud to say yes.
So I realized to my horror that this guy was a plant, an FBI provocateur. And for months I carried that around in my head wondering if I should tell the Panther I knew, that I trusted, that he was an FBI spy because I didn’t know what they’d do to him if I blew his cover. I didn’t want his blood on my hands. Still after that shooting, I couldn’t hold back anymore. I spilled the beans. I ratted on him.
They started having him tailed by Panthers he didn’t know. I think they tapped his phone besides. Anyhow he guessed that they were onto him and left. But before he left he borrowed money from community people just to turn them against the Panthers, because he wasn’t going to pay them back. Anyhow the Panthers were grateful to me for reporting what I knew because this FBI agent was aiming to trap them into serious trouble with the law for conspiracy to do terrible things.
Right. I recently read a book about the Attica prison revolt and how there’s connections with Black Panthers in that revolt, too. But of course the saddest thing about that was, when the New York State police came in to squash the revolt, people were just murdered indiscriminately. A lot of the hostages the prisoners were holding were murdered as well. The New York police came in and killed inmates and hostages indiscriminately.
This book is a recently published historical review based on information that this gal found in some of the county courthouses of upstate New York around Attica, where it had been stored and kind of forgotten. One interesting thing was that many of the prisoners that weren’t killed in that riot were transferred to Green Haven prison. And in Green Haven, shortly after Attica, Quakers were working with those people and developed a program called the “think tank.” The think tank worked with Quakers and civil rights activists like Bernard Lafayette to create the Alternatives to Violence Project workshop programs.