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Tag: Jerry Brown

Deena Metzger’s Tree is Still Free


A throng of young protesters wearing masks and wielding clubs attack ‘conservatives’ at a rally at UC Berkeley, the home of the original free speech movement. Back in the Governor Ronnie Reagan days, the attackers would have been the ‘Blue Meanies’ as we students nicknamed them in the Sixties.  But now these opponents of speech pose as progressives and claim to be ‘anti-fa;’ (for anti-fascist) protesters who claim lineage to the fully exposed demonstrators of over fifty-years ago. Mario Savio must be spinning his grave.

What has happened to the left? What would the anti-fa do if an Allen Ginsberg look alike pulled one of his anti-establishment rants at a rally protesting conservatives? Would they accuse him of sexual harassment for micro-aggression for his unconventional stunts like disrobing at a poetry reading? Would the words in his seminal poem, Howl, like ‘cock’ and ‘pussy’ offend? What about the frequent speeches like those by ‘Jesus freaks’ on the plaza in the 70s?

Who are these people? Are they FBI undercover agents seeking to disrupt legitimate complaints about conservative positions? That did happen back in the day, and given the level of surveillance and the authoritarian nature of the Establishment today, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.  But on its face, it is not inclusive.  Authoritarian and intolerant, its’ posturing is antithetical to the values and ideals of the New Left of fifty years ago.

In 1970, I knew a Black Panther and attended a  Panther meeting with him. At that meeting at a coffee house in San Francisco, a lively discussion explored the likelihood of FBI agent provocateurs in the group. By that time, J. Edgar had almost no inhibition in his war against the radical movement.  He planted undercover agents in radical groups around the country in addition to inciting violence at anti-war demonstrations.   And it worked. Discredited by faux radicals and overwhelmed by Establishment newspapers maligning the New Left, the movement disintegrated into squabbling factions like Weather Underground and the SLA.  Fortunately, underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Free  Press and the Berkeley Barb exposed this undermining of progressive politics.

A period of exhilaration occurred when President Richard Nixon was driven from office.   His misdeeds combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s disregard for the constitution validated the radicals suspicion of persecution.  After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, evidence of the government’s harassment of the left was exposed.  In the 1976 presidential primaries, Jerry Brown’s populist campaign and forward thinking ideas reaped the scorn of liberals because he didn’t conform to Establishment dogma. Instead, a mild-mannered but non-innovative peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, was elected. His moderate policies were easily exploited by the former movie actor and governor who blamed the country’s ills on Berkeley radicals. Seduced by the smiley face of Reagan and his cowboyism, a weary public caved to repression stronger than ever. Most of the radicals cut our hair, got graduate degrees, and/ or built fortunes. In other words, we were coopted.

RW and Deena Metzger at her reading at the Topanga Public Library, October 217

A few weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to meet a local Los Angeles hero of free speech—Deena Metzger. Ms. Metzger was a cause celebre’ at Los Angeles Valley College in 1969.  I was a sophomore and anti-Establishment.  At this suburban community college, her cause became our local version of the free speech movement .  Deena Metzger went on to be a prolific novelist, writing teacher, and shamanic healer. But in 1970, she made the front page of the Los Angeles Free Press after she was dismissed from her teaching job for “immoral conduct.”  To illustrate censorship, she wrote and used in class a sexually graphic poem, Jehovah’s Child.  The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees voted to terminate her.  According to Ms. Metzger, the only vote against her dismissal was from newly elected trustee and later four-time governor Jerry Brown. True to the ‘cheap’ reputation he later earned as a higher office holder in California, Brown’s reason was that it would be fiscally irresponsible, Metzger said.*

Free Speech Plaza, LA Valley College, 2016

The scandal was a big sensation at the college. Demonstrations were held in the quad, later renamed Free Speech Plaza, supporting Metzger. Detailed stories were published in the LA Free Press, along with fragmented reports in the campus newspaper. The importance of free speech was brought home for me in the Metzger incident, but I had not met her until just last month. It was during my weekly writing session at the Café Mimosa in Topanga Canyon, that I noticed a flyer announcing a reading by Deena Metzger. A  cycle had come full circle and right on time. The time was ripe for a  glance back, the familiar issue—free speech, is back. Finally, I got to meet Deena Metzger, especially satisfying now as a reporter for the LA Free Press.

Like visiting a relative after many years absence, I felt like I was returning to a familiar person, and wanted to present myself as successful in life. Kind of like an accounting: What have I done? Did I stay true to the values? I’d never met her, but for me she represented that era’s hope and possibility for one’s self and society. I wasn’t disappointed. Remembrance of that old story added reality to my youthful memories.

A soft-spoken woman, with an earth mother quality accented by her many scarves and rings, Deena Metzger conveyed a grounded power. Still radical, her focus is now on the natural world and the pressing need to take care of our world. Comprised mostly of women from her long-running writing group, the audience seemed to absorb more than the words but also her essence. She spoke from experience within herself and the world.

Like a time-warp in that library room, I remembered how exhilarating those times of pushing the socially condoned boundaries felt as a 20 year old college student. After the talk, I bought one of her books and told her my story. She inscribed, “Many blessings for our shared history.” Meeting Deena contributed to my resolution of that long ago era of freedom when it was our zeitgeist. My soul felt freer knowing one of LA’s vanguard in free speech is unbent.

The soul of the Sixties still lives, grows, and teaches with Deena Metzger. Freedom is just that and the real heroes of freedom like Deena put their careers on the line and showed their faces. Metzger stands as an icon of the rich Los Angeles and Topanga iconoclastic history.  And real progressives are those who show their faces.

*In 1969, I was fired from a tenured teaching post at a local community college for reading to my students a poem I had written on censorship and pornography.  The case soon became an occasion for the advocates of censorship to organize themselves against the students’ right to  know and the teacher’s right to teach.  After three years, I was restored to  my position by the California State Supreme Court.

From Deena Metzger’s Writing  for Your Life.   1992

Inner Journey:

Imagine your  life at 20.  What did you believe in?  What did you strive for?  Who were your  academic heroes?

Action Steps:

Did you sustain those values through the decades?  Perhaps you can revisit one of those inspirational individuals and renew and act on that principle.

You Can’t Keep a Good Dream Down: Jerry Brown’s Practical Idealism

Jerry Brown, Linda Ronstadt, LA musicians 1970s

I usually keep my back story on the down low with acquaintances. Most people make up enough stories just by appearances, so I don’t like to give them more fuel with biographical details that can be used to pigeon-hole me. But one afternoon last fall, I happened to make a comment about the presidential debates to a fellow gym rat getting dressed next to me. A fit guy in his early sixties, he works in community housing. I’ve known Loren for a dozen years in that passing small talk way. He responded with an informed opinion. Sensing a deeper connection I asked, “What was your major in college?” He said, “Political Science at Stanford. I smiled knowing I’d met one of my tribe,  and replied, “That was my major at Berkeley, with a focus on Marxist ideology and its application,” said with a dose of irony.

An intense twenty-minute discussion ensued in the men’s locker room—comparing notes and opinions about the current political scene and its players from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Jerry Brown to Donald Trump. The variety of provocative topics elicited smiles and comments from other guys with gray-flecked hair in the room. A public forum exposed lifelong political interests, sparked by growing up during the Vietnam War and eventually graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies. Submerging my radicalism into a pragmatic career in public education, I’ve never relinquished my vision of fairness, justice, and peace. Now retired into the senior phase, I am again looking to publicly cheer on those who, in an overt fashion, seek to improve society. As has Jerry Brown.

So the locker room discussion became all that more interesting to me when it centered on current California Governor Jerry Brown and his previous administration in the seventies. We agreed he has done an excellent job governing, even better this time around at the age of 79. In his first terms as Governor, Brown was ridiculed with the label ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his radical, out-of-the-box ideas such as renewable energy, a state space academy satellite, and declaring a era of limits. Jerry Brown in the seventies expressed the idealism of the time. Ahead of the mainstream, Brown attracted derision from the older established politician/ reporter class. His lifestyle from his sleeping on a mattress on the floor to globe-trotting with Linda Ronstadt to his rejection of the new governor’s mansion invited criticism.

Brown’s ‘out there’ thinking proved to be too much for the conservative backlash led by his predecessor as governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who had catapulted his police-state treatment of the student radicals of my school, Berkeley, into the Presidency. Reagan stood for the old school Hollywood values of looking good, constant smiling, and hypocrisy. He promoted traditional values, even though he had divorced his first wife, his daughter basically disowned him and changed her last name, he denied his second son was gay, and his wife retained a staff astrologer. Among Reagan’s most egregious crimes against the white working class that idolized him was union busting which, directly, contributed to lower wages for the Nixon labeled ‘silent majority.’

With his campaign’s populist We the People slogan, Brown polled well but fell well short in his three presidential campaigns. Brown was ahead of the times as seen in last year’s presidential election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapping grass roots, anti-establishment sentiment. But Jerry didn’t quit. He wentMayor of Oakland, CA, a medium-sized city across the bay from San Francisco. While mayor he lived in a converted factory and loft, which ignited a downtown revival in the city whose police brutality against its majority black population in the sixties had birthed the Black Panther Party. Now, Oakland is a jewel of urban renewal with the bucolic buzz of Lake Merritt and the tony Jack London Square on the previously abandoned Embarcadero.

Jerry Brown practiced the adage ‘all politics is local’ and honed his skills as a politician. Not resting on his laurels and famous name to lay back and give expensive speeches, he went to work. Contributing to the greater good, Brown practiced and lived his ideals—government can be a tool for social justice and life enhancement. Re-energized after Oakland, he ran for and served as Attorney General and then Governor.  Now in his fourth term, Jerry Brown will be termed out when he is 80. Old age doesn’t limit him. Although in recent years he’s battled cancer, his vigor and mental clarity exceed the great majority of politicians half his age. He has every reason to kick back, retire, and cash in on his name. But why quit when you have something to give, something to learn, and unfulfilled ideals? I ask myself that question regularly—why should I? I don’t need to prove myself, and neither does Brown.

But then my Berkeley Boomer core wakes up and yells, ‘You’re not done yet.’ At the locker room discussion, I mentioned that I still stand by youthful ideals of community, free expression, individual rights and justice, adventures, and personal growth. Boomers were not all hippie radicals, but Sixties values have influenced our society from new age religions, to yoga, health foods, and alternative health systems mass acceptance. In fact, the notion of the personal computer came out of the edgy, psychedelic consciousness of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak back in the seventies. Our youthful ideals, tempered with realistic appraisal of the slow pace of change in the world have changed the world.

The political life of Jerry Brown demonstrates the successful marriage of ideals and experience. He went back to the basics (Mayor of Oakland), polished his craft and worked his way back up the ladder of California government. Still an idealist, but heavily tempered with realism and compromise. He applies decades of experience to real problems and gets results. His approval ratings dwell in the high seventies, virtually unheard of with high level office holders. Even the LA Times, his former nemesis, gave him a B+ rating with the potential of achieving greatness in this term.  At the same time, he still works from his early, progressive principles. For example, he has taken leadership in the US to support the Paris accords on global warming. And he has never changed his opposition to capital punishment, even in the hard on crime 90s.

Brown still working for progress

Experience counts for Jerry Brown and can count for all of us in the fall of life. Youthful optimism for quick transformation may be gone, but I attempt (as Jerry does), to take my experience and skills and marry them to ideals perhaps half-forgotten in the mists of time.   Although today I may disagree with his wheeling and dealing, he gets stuff done.  One of the greatest gifts of aging is the dignity of surviving and working with the inevitable setbacks.  The Sixties/ hippie ideals of expression, justice, community, and love still make sense, it’s  a great time to bring experience and patience in the struggle for progress.   And as a non-Boomer friend says, “You got nothing to lose.”  Keep up to date and find inspiration in the Los Angeles Free Press, reborn because truth wants to be FREE.