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The Chlorine Crusader

From Free Speech to Greenpeace: The Journey of Jack Weinberg, Radical Optimist



On October 1, 1964, Jack Weinberg calmly waited in the backseat of a campus-police squad car as thousands of Berkeley students sat down around it. For 32 hours they blocked the cops from taking him away and used the roof of the squad car as a speaker's platform. Earlier in the day Weinberg had been the first person arrested for violating the university's new rules restricting the distribution of political literature on campus. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was born, giving the New Left student movement of the 1960s a dramatic push forward.

Weinberg grew up in Buffalo, New York, in an apolitical family of immigrant jewelers from Poland. "Religion and business were two things that pervaded all parts of life," he says. "It was a very Jewish family, pervaded by rules, rules, rules--and there were even rules on how to break the rules." He remained wrapped up in that culture well into his junior year in high school, when he decided he was an atheist.

At the University of Buffalo he started out as a math student, though he was also interested in philosophy and attracted by the beat-generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He sees his political roots in their romantic vision of the heroic self, which echoed the popularized existentialism of the day. "From Jack Kerouac's On the Road to Goethe's Faust I took the same message--that life was not in the achieving but in the striving, that value was not in the goal but in the quest for the goal."

By his junior year that quest led him to drop out of college and hitchhike to Mexico with a friend. After four months of living in a dismal slum and hanging out with a bohemian crowd, he and his friend returned to Buffalo. At his parents' insistence he married his girlfriend (they were divorced three years later), then moved to California.

In Berkeley he became involved in the civil rights movement, especially the Berkeley Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which he says filled a void in his life. He also went back to school at the University of California. In the summer of 1963 he participated in civil rights actions in South Carolina and Arkansas. When he returned to Berkeley that fall, he says, "civil rights was my whole identity." He dropped out of school again, began helping organize major civil rights demonstrations, and became chairman of the new campus CORE chapter. He was recruiting for CORE on campus; the university wanted the recruiting stopped. And that led to the epochal confrontation that became the Free Speech Movement.

"I was 24. 1 could think of that experience as a blessing in which one is able to see social activism mobilize real forces that took a principled stand--the right to advocate illegal activities [civil disobedience] on campus. It was definitely a heady experience. While the Vietnam war was not an issue, the battle I was fighting became the basis for mobilizing a student movement." Gradually he shifted his political energy to the antiwar movement and to putting the new Peace and Freedom Party on the California ballot.

He also became increasingly involved in a small organization of socialist intellectuals who wanted to organize workers. He went to work in a Los Angeles auto plant, then moved to Detroit to work as an organizer. But by the late 70s he was tired of the extremely low pay and frustrated with the group's work. In 1977 he and his second wife, Valerie Denney, moved to Gary, Indiana, where he worked as a metallurgical tester at U.S. Steel until he lost his job in the major layoffs of 1983.

While working in the mill, he went to a rally against Northern Indiana Public Service Company's proposed construction of a nuclear power plant at Bailly. He soon was organizing an antinuclear coalition--the Bailly Alliance--which, after five years of protests, blocked the plant. It was during that period that he developed a new personal identity: environmental activist.

"I was convinced that what we were dealing with was humanity's survival in the long term. I began to think in terms of two to five generations, and with that you get a whole different perspective. Starting in the early 80s I became convinced that the capacity of the global ecological system to support human life when human culture was threatening it was the central issue."

He was now working at a print shop and becoming increasingly involved in Greenpeace activities and a campaign to stop all discharging of toxic contaminants into the Great Lakes. When Greenpeace advertised for a Great Lakes project coordinator in 1989, he applied. It seemed like his dream job, though partly because he's frustrated by internal Greenpeace organizational problems he's decided to leave later this year.

Weinberg was on the cutting edge of American politics when he worked for civil rights, student rights, and an end to the Vietnam war, and now, at 53, he's out there again. But he sees the issue before, him today as, far greater. than his earlier ones. "I'm very glad to be involved in this. It's a global environmental issue that addresses the future of human life around the world. It gives me the opportunity to be involved in a global effort to restructure industry. But in my mind I see this as just a stepping stone. The real issue is how you transform human culture.

"At root I believe we are living at a point in time as important as the neolithic revolution and the beginnings of agriculture. Human culture has unleashed tremendous forces to transform the global ecosystem and doesn't have the ability to control them. Human culture--the ability to acquire knowledge and transmit it--is a more efficient mechanism than biological evolution. We've unleashed huge power, but we've also revealed the question of whether this human life is the pinnacle of evolution or an evolutionary dead end. Our ability to create destructive forces may be greater than our ability to control them."

Maybe, he speculates, life similar to our own has existed on other planets but turned out to be a short-term, self-destroying blip. Maybe that's the fate earthbound humanity faces.

He sees parallels between his current crusade and his earlier battles for civil rights and free speech. "What is the character of human institutions that will have to be created for humans to control their own culture? The real issue--and this goes back to the Free Speech Movement--is that it's easy to be pessimistic at the size of these problems and to throw up your hands in despair just to think of them. But I saw a radical transformation of human consciousness in the Free Speech Movement, so I have an optimism that people can succeed. Pessimism is self-defeating. At root I am a faith-based optimist. That experience with the Free Speech Movement gave me the basis to be optimistic even in long, bleak periods. Believing doesn't make it happen, but it is a necessary condition. If you don't believe, it can't happen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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