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Monday, August 5, 2002


Building a Movement

By Jim Dorenkott


My Generation

I should explain how it was that George began to play such a large role in my life. I had come out of the Navy determined to help reshape society. My brief encounters with activists and radicals in California before I left had kindled my desire to be part of the movement.

When I first met George, I was turned off by his demand that I quit smoking pot and drinking and, at first, considered it an extremely unlikely option. But his challenge made me more conscious of how much my “using” was getting in the way of greater successes, and I was determined to find out if this sobriety thing really could help.

By this time I was getting slightly burnt out. I was taking 24 hours of courses, and I had started a drama club and a film society in addition to being co-editor of the school newspaper. I could see that continuing to get high under these circumstances was not going to improve my performance. It was very difficult to cop to someone over 30 that they were correct, but I knew it was the right thing to do. So our relationship began by my agreeing to stay clean and sober to continue the dialogue.

This was not an easy decision. Smoking pot together was a very important ritual in the movement. It was used as a bonding experience as well as a detector of people who were not part of the movement. If you didn’t smoke, you were suspect.

In addition to taking courses together, my friends and I spent a lot of time talking with George between classes. Some of the others joined in our experiment with sobriety to varying degrees. We felt privileged to “rap” with him. He had become somewhat of a celebrity because the teachers often deferred to him in discussions, asking him to share his life experiences and relating it to the subject matter.

Prior to his joining us, we had spent a lot of time discussing what was going on in the movement, trying to understand it. We knew in a vague way that there were social experiments taking place on campuses and in workplaces, but we didn’t have a lot of information. Trying to glean the extent of what was going on from the establishment press was almost impossible, and the countercultural press I saw was often more entertaining and image oriented than factual and analytical.

In addition, our school wasn’t very political and we didn’t have an SDS chapter. Some of us had heard about the Port Huron Statement and we kept hearing about the organizing that students were doing around building a “participatory democracy” and “economic democracy,” but we didn’t know a lot about it. In our discussions we tried to understand how we could fit into the very exciting and promising movement that we could feel building all around us.

I took advantage of every opportunity to learn what I could from George, even riding with him on the train to Boston, where he worked for the railroad as a dispatcher, assigning crewmembers to trains. We would read the various East Coast newspapers that were lying around the train. We compared the different ways they treated the same story – how the headlines were different, the way the paragraphs were arranged, and the amount of information carried in each paper. Then we would analyze the stories to see what the vested interest of the overall message was.

A few times I visited him at his house on the ocean, where he lived with his wife and two children. A few times we went swimming and studied for classes. Most of the time, though, we met at school or his workplace.

As I got to know him, I realized that he was into building organizations and that he wanted me to know he knew how to do that. When I was still trying to decide whether to go sober, he invited me to attend a meeting of the alcoholism and drug addiction association that he chaired. There I was, bearded and long-haired, sitting in the same room with all these short-haired representatives of hospital CEOs.

It was hard to know who felt more out of place. George used the situation to chide my idealism about the movement, and he challenged us "young turks" to translate our beliefs into effective action. He ridiculed “pseudo intellectuals” who protected their “vested interest” and were incapable of “original thought” His vocabulary was sprinkled with these kinds of unusual terms, which leant a mysterious air to his commanding presence.

The association produced documentaries and a TV program about drug and alcohol abuse. At his suggestion I attended an AA meeting, but it didn’t work out very well because it was mostly attended by boozers. In those days potheads and boozers didn’t even speak the same language. Also, I never met a pothead who supported the Vietnam War, but many of the boozers still did.

After a few months he requested that in addition to staying sober, I shave my beard and cut my hair. I was not accustomed to bending to other wills, and so I struggled with surrendering yet another component of the image of our generation. Yet I knew that George was a person with a unique intellect and experience, and I agreed to do it to learn what I could from him.

One of the biggest challenges came when he asked me if I was willing to visit his son James in prison and attend the AA meeting which he had been chairing. He and I had been talking about James rooming with some of us when he got out and so, while it was a very scary thought, it made sense to go out there. Though I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As the gates clanged closed behind me and I went deeper into the bowels of the prison, I could feel the walls closing in on me. Even though I had done nothing criminal and wasn’t using any drugs, it felt very dangerous to voluntarily put myself in the hands of the same authorities we talked blithely everyday about overthrowing.

In the AA meeting it was clear that some of the convicts were there to make a good impression on the jailers. I ended up sitting next to a young guy who had killed several people in a diner with a shotgun. It was hard not to keep remembering that during the meeting. The guy’s coldness was so chilling that I can feel it now. After seeing what James had to endure on a daily basis, I was more motivated than ever to help him reenter society.

I hadn’t stopped to consider why it was that James was being kept in the same place as this guy.