Long Distant Running, An Interview With Peace Activist Doug Allen
Anyone who has done organizing on a college campus knows the difficulty of sustaining such work. Faculty come and go, students enroll and graduate, and even the most vibrant campaigns come to an abrupt end. In the best of circumstances, organizations, particularly activist ones, seldom last more than a few years.
When Doug Allen arrived at the University of Maine in 1974, he helped found the Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC) even though he had just recently been fired for his activist work by Southern Illinois University.
Remarkably, 41 years later, MPAC is still going strong, continuing, among other things, to publish its newsletter, sponsor events, tackle campus issues, and participate in broader campaigns. A contingent of MPAC members, for example, participated in the Climate Justice March in New York this past September.
Over those 41 years, Allen, Professor of Philosophy, has been the one MPAC constant. His work illustrates how someone can devote their life-long distance running—to building a better world. He’s also a long-distance runner, who, while about to turn 74, still runs 5 days a week.
PIASCIK: When did you first become an activist?
ALLEN: It was during the three years from 1964 to 1967 I spent getting my PHD at Vanderbilt University. Nashville was still shaped by the inspirational courage of the earlier Freedom Riders and, though I had witnessed a great deal of poverty, exploitation, oppression, and injustice during the previous year I had spent in India, I was unprepared for the reality of legalized segregation. I participated in marches, demonstrations, and other actions as part of the Civil Rights Movement and I also started an anti-racist political and literary magazine, which we named Promotheus, and for which half of the editors and participants were young African Americans.
How did you get involved in the antiwar movement?
I was against the Vietnam/Indochina War while I was in India and at Vanderbilt, but the key development occurred during my first full-time faculty position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1967 to 1972. The Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs at SIU, funded through a U.S. Agency for International Development grant in 1969, was in many ways a continuation of the infamous Michigan State University CIA project, exposed by Ramparts magazine and others.
If SIU had been Columbia or Harvard, the Vietnam Center would have received more national exposure. That is one reason isolated Carbondale was chosen. Hidden from view, SIU had received two big U.S. contracts to do work in Vietnam during the 1960s intended to restructure Saigon’s educational and security programs. The ambitious Vietnam Center funding in 1969 was part of Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization, with the same imperialist objectives, but just changing the color of the corpses so fewer U.S. soldiers died. The purpose of the funding for the Vietnam Center was to assist the war effort and, especially, assuming that the U.S. would win the war, for postwar reconstruction. Wesley Fishel and other key individuals from the Michigan State project joined the SIU program. As outlined in the AID grant and other documents, SIU would perform services for Washington, the military, and others involved in U.S. imperialist policies and would then be rewarded with massive postwar funds to restructure Vietnam’s educational, legal, economic, agricultural, technological, police and, security systems.
What was the response of the SIU peace community?
It became one of the most intense and one of the most successful antiwar struggles at any university in the United States. This “Off AID,” antiwar, anti-Vietnam Center movement functioned on a range of levels: doing research, uncovering documents and working with insider whistleblowers, and then publicizing the findings through talks, teach-ins, articles, and books; working with the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars to organize a very effective international scholarly boycott of the Vietnam Center; organizing a dramatic “Vietnamese invasion of Carbondale” with courageous antiwar Vietnamese coming from throughout the U.S.; organizing major conferences at which Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky, and other antiwar scholars and activists came in solidarity; and organizing ongoing protest activism through rallies, marches, sit-ins, and other actions.
There was a price to pay. In May 1970, about 400 of the antiwar protestors were arrested. We lived under an armed occupation, with about 1,000 National Guard and several hundred state police as occupiers, with huge military vehicles and people with guns surrounding classrooms and other campus facilities. And yet militant antiwar and anti-Vietnam Center protests continued every day until the authorities lost control, and SIU was permanently shut down one month before the end of the semester. With guns fired, beatings, and mass chaos, we could have easily had an incident like the ones at Kent State or Jackson State.
I was alerted by an SIU administrator that my classes were being infiltrated with fake students who were informers and that I should record every class. Subsequently I was fired twice on blatantly political grounds, and I was then blacklisted.
I was very fortunate that I always received widespread support and solidarity from the overwhelming majority of students and faculty, all of the professional associations, the American Association of University Professors, which investigated and placed SIU on its National Censure List with major consequences, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a successful suit in Federal Court on my behalf.
When I communicate with former students, faculty, and antiwar comrades from those years, they often assume that this was a terrible time for me and others, since there was so much local repression and suffering. (Of course, some of us were fully aware every day that the real suffering and death was being inflicted on the Vietnamese.)
I often give the opposite response: I look back fondly to a time when every day seemed so intense with so much at stake, in which you had a deep sense of community and solidarity, and in which you could act on your antiwar, peace, and justice values and make a difference. And, most importantly in terms of the antiwar anti-Vietnam Center struggle, the Center, for all of its money and power relations, was totally unsuccessful and never achieved any of its objectives.
What campus activism existed at the University of Maine in 1974?
It was a transitional period from the activism of the 1960s. On the one hand, I was surprised that there was not an antiwar or peace group. There had been antiwar activism, and the writer Stephen King was part of the student group, but all of that had ended. I recall that we had many meetings in the fall of 1974 to see if we could form a group, which became the Maine Peace Action Committee (MPAC), which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. We finally decided that one issue on which we could unite was the need to end the Vietnam/Indochina War. On the other hand, there was a remarkable feminist group on campus with women who had come out of the 1960s with all of the contradictions and struggles of Second Wave feminism. In addition, starting in the mid-1970s, we had a group of international students led by graduate student activists from India who had been engaged in activist struggles, focusing on impoverished and exploited peasants in rural India.
What are some of MPAC’s accomplishments?
In general terms, MPAC’s most noteworthy accomplishment has been to sustain a major educational and activist presence at the University of Maine for 41 years. For example, we published Volume 40, Number 2 of the Maine Peace Action Committee Newsletter in April. To keep an activist publication of good quality going for 41 years is an accomplishment.
In terms of specific issues and struggles, MPAC’s most noteworthy accomplishment was in the anti-apartheid movement. Year after year, MPAC’s South Africa subcommittee did research, raised consciousness, arranged films, speakers and plays, and engaged in demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. As a result, the University of Maine became one of the first ten universities in the U.S. to divest all of its holdings in apartheid South Africa, amounting to one-third of the university’s principal portfolio.
Other noteworthy accomplishments included anti-nuclear struggles, exposing the CIA presence on campus and bringing about changes in recruiting policies, Central America solidarity, years of effective organizing around the Iraq War and various other conflicts, including exposing UMaine’s secret plans to become an integral part of the post-2003 U.S. and corporate restructuring of Iraq, solidarity with others working on racism, sexism, homophobia, Native American issues, and environmental destruction. Often MPAC was able to bring a larger, structural, systemic perspective, raising issues of militarism and imperialism, to student debt, environmental, and other more single-issue concerns.
The group has lasted 41 years. To what do you attribute this?
Typically, campus organizations become active and then, when the student leaders graduate, become inactive and usually go out of existence. With MPAC, there was an effective process of mentoring that allowed for transition, continuity, and the emergence of new leadership. Typically, an undergraduate will join the group with little analysis and self- confidence, especially since the issues of militarism and imperialism seem so daunting. By participating with more experienced members, attending films and discussions and demonstrations, students gain confidence and acquire skills, thus becoming active members.
I’ve been one of those mentors, always challenging student members to resist injustice and inequality, exploitation and oppression, violence and militarism; challenging them to work for a university, community, and world of much greater freedom, peace, and justice. On several occasions, there were so few dedicated student members that it seemed MPAC would perhaps cease to exist. But we always managed to turn things around.
What is MPAC working on currently?
We’ve organized a semester of programs for the MPAC Peace and Justice Film Series in which we show films followed by discussions and we organize activities and cosponsor events, including for Black History Month, Women’s History Celebration, and the next HOPE Festival (Help Organize Peace Earthwide).
Talk about civil disobedience in 2006.
On September 21, 2006, International Day of Peace, 11 of us were arrested at former Senator Olympia Snowe’s office to dramatize how Snowe and Senator Susan Collins supported the U.S. war in Iraq. As part of a carefully prepared and very effective campaign in the Gandhi- King tradition, our affinity group refused to leave Snowe’s office, were arrested, and later imprisoned for around 24 hours. One should not overemphasize civil disobedience, one of many forms of resistance to injustice. I believe in forceful, disciplined, nonviolent resistance, most of which involves noncooperation, withholding one’s labor and resisting complicity, raising consciousness and organizing, boycotts, and demonstrations. However, sometimes when there are no viable alternatives, it’s necessary to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to resist blatant injustice.
The 24 hours in prison was a little tense, but rewarding. The other prisoners found the fact that we had voluntarily gone to jail hilarious and many wanted to share their personal stories. This was usually tragic. So many of them were bright and sensitive human beings, who had been trapped in poverty and other circumstances, many of whom, when asked why they were in jail, just said that they made a stupid mistake.
This often involved dealing drugs to informers or undercover agents. So many dramatic conversations showed a real understanding of injustice and a tragic sense of daunting obstacles and potentials lost. The connections were very moving and meaningful for affirming my commitments.
You’re also involved in the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine.
I’ve served as their education coordinator since its founding over 25 years ago. We have members throughout Eastern Maine. Our purpose is to network with and unite individuals and groups working on a wide range of peace and justice issues, and to raise consciousness and bring people together acting for mutual support and greater empowerment. This has led to a deep sense of community in which members can express values and act on what they believe in meaningful ways.
An effective illustration of this is our annual HOPE Festival, held every April around Earth Day, usually attended by 1,000 people, with 70 organizations participating, with local organic food, great music, educational presentations, and a full day of children’s programs, in which there is so much positive energy and gratitude for the good work so many are doing.
I have responsibility for writing articles and doing educational research on peace and justice issues, for organizing our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration and for providing some leadership in our activist work of mobilizations
This involves reaching out to show solidarity with others working on single-issue or more narrowly defined struggles and to try to make the connections, introducing a larger peace and justice framework and showing how we are all in this together with the need for greater unity.
Last question: are you still running?
I run anywhere from three to seven miles about five days a week—and in five to ten races a year.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist who writes regularly for Z and ZNet.