[Howard Zinn raw #3]

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Howard Zinn joins students from the Audubon Expedition Institute for a conversation about environmental justice, the Civil Rights movement and how to create social change.

0:05 Students converse at the table while they wait for Howard Zinn to arrive.

1:38 Howard Zinn arrives and introduces himself.

2:47 Students go around the table and introduce themselves.

7:10 Zinn tells the students that they’re an important part of the environmental justice movement, advises them to collect information as they travel the country about the different progressive organizations they encounter. “Wherever I go, however small the town, there are always groups of people who are committed to social change.” He says that people need to know what other people are getting done in other parts of the country.

10:55 Zinn asks the students where they’ve been and what they’ve done with the Audubon Expedition Institute. He speaks on the difficulty of convincing everyday people to consider long-term environmental benefits over short-term human needs.

13:34 Howard Zinn tells of the mayor of a town near a nerve gas production and test site in Nevada in the 1950s. When confronted about the proximity of the nerve gas to the town, he said, “We need this nerve gas factory. For us, it’s a matter of life or death.”

15:33 Zinn and a student discuss the AEI’s recent trip to the American Southwest. Zinn brings up hydroelectric dams as something originally hailed as beneficial, but ultimately fraught with enviromentally devestating consequences. A student brings up the Glen Campbell Dam as an example of an issue that invites a wide range of public opinion, as well as a mixed-bag environmental consequences. He notes that the dam has led to the return of endangered species downstream.

19:16 A student asks Zinn how to introduce people to long-term thinking. Zinn responds saying that it’s a difficult issue in any social movement. He recalls that in Atlanta during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, it was hard to bring long-term planning into focus while people were organizing for voting rights. “One of the issues that some of us [in the Civil Rights movement] tried to bring up was that political rights won’t be enough. There’s a fundamental problem of economic injustice.” Zinn says that the vision on long-term struggle put forward by Ella Baker and Stokely Carmichael played a major role in influencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-poverty organizing in the final year of his life. He implores the students to commit to a long-term vision, no matter what people around them are saying.

28:25 “But whenever you talk about long-term objectives, you are in a position of talking about utopian things – things that seem, to people, impossible. And yet it’s the talking about these impossible things that must be done in order for people to, at some point, move on beyond the issue that they are involved in and move onto something larger.” He warns the students not to let their fears of being seen as impractical or a romantic dreamer prevent them from talking about economic justice or an end to war or the abolition of national boundaries.

30:09 A student asks Zinn if he thinks it’s better to work within or without existing systems of power to achieve social change. He says its more important to work outside of established institutions, but that ultimately, it depends. He recount the story of Arthur Schlesinger, an advisor to President Kennedy, who felt sickened by the prospect of invading Cuba, but ultimately said nothing because he was surrounded by generals and security officials.

36:18 Zinn presents the story of Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund. He says that instead of seeking appointment or running for Congress, she kept her position because it allowed her to speak freely and fully champion her causes. He tells the students that we overestimate the power of individuals, such as congressional representatives, who are just cogs in more powerful machines and thus limited in their potential courses of action. “There’s something very corrupting that happens to people who think they’re going to work inside a corrupt system.”

41:48 A student asks Zinn if he’s had any experiences in his life that have completely turned a previously held stance on something. Zinn jokes with a woman named Susan about having just recieved a similar question from her in an email.

44:10 Zinn tells a story about being taken to a demonstration in Time Square as a seventeen-year-old by some Communists in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He says that as the demonstration developed, he heard sirens and then mounted police arrived and charged into the crowd; as he’s watching this, he’s hit from behind and knocked out. When he woke up, he says, the demonstration had completely dissapated and Times Square had returned to normal. “Very eerie feeling… kind of a Rip Van Winkle feeling.” He describes his shock at seeing the police respond so forcefully to Communists marching with banners through Time Square and his realization of the limits of political freedom in America. “It turned me from being a mildly liberal seventeen-year-old into a person who thought ‘maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system.'”

49:52 Zinn talks about enlisting in the Air Force in World War II thinking it was a good, just war. He describes a conversation he had with a man in another crew who suggested to Zinn that WWII was an war between imperial powers that don’t actually care about the Jews or oppressed and colonized people throughout the world. Zinn says that he didn’t accept it at the time, but eventually came to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a just war.

53:12 A student asks Zinn if he has any advice on how to get people to open up to the possibility of positive change when it’s seen in society as utopian, childish and silly. Zinn recounts how the women’s movement didn’t see any legislative victories, but that it transformed how people think and talk about sexual equality in America. He says that the political victories eventually won by the Civil Rights movement were unimaginable and seemingly utopian in the late 1950s.

 

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