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Remembering Dave Dellinger

Dave Dellinger was a coalition-builder, a nonconformist, a pacifist. He was a living mountain of a man.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Dave Dellinger was a lifelong pacifist. As one of the Chicago Seven (with Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Lee Wiener, and Bobby Seale, the eighth member), he was arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago for protesting the war in Viet Nam. He suffered from Alzheimer's and died of pneumonia on May 25, 2004.

The first thing to remember about Dave is that he lived through one-third of the history of America, give or take a year. Many lives, many movements, many eras lie buried in the architecture of his identity, hard to excavate, impossible to simplify, but awesome to just admire.

The second thing to know is that Dave was blessed to be one of clearest, non-conforming and curious of human beings during 80 years when most Americans were cursed with a kind of permanent cultural Alzheimer's Disease and still don't know it. Watch TV for a day if you don't know what I mean.

The third thing is that he was one of the few who made the transition from the old left to the new starting in the 1960s. Maybe that's because he wasn't really part of the old left, I am not sure, or maybe because serious non-violence meant engaging creatively and respectfully with new and diverse people. But Dave didn't spend a lot of time wondering if was a schachmanite or a deutscherite or a stalinoid or any of the categorical junk that made it hard for the old left to get down with the new.

The fourth thing is that Dave was a kind of politician, a listener, a fixer of things, a coalition-builder in a movement filled with fanatics and factions and ego-trippers of all sorts. Dave could sit down and make agreements that would allow things to happen, like marches of hundreds of thousands.

The fifth thing is that Dave was flexible about his non-violence. That is, he never let the issue of violence block his ability to relate to, and work with, people he considered oppressed, whether the Black Panthers or the North Vietnamese.

Sometimes this got weird. One day we were walking down a street in Cuba and Dave asked our interpreter about a big building. The Cuban said that's where Batista used to execute people, and Dave nodded as if it was a museum to barbarism. He then asked the Cuban what the building was used for, and the Cuban replied, "That's where we execute people." Dave choked on his cigar as he took the information in.

I don't mean Dave tolerated everything. He wouldn't hesitate to denounce me either for being soft on violence or soft on Bobby Kennedy, I don't know which crime was worse. A core opposition to both violent ideologies or participation in the system ran through his blood.

He would have joined Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, then told them to be nonviolent, make alliances with the Indians, change their name to men and women, and still he would have written articles justifying their rebellion based on its underlying causes.

He was a living mountain of a man. When the big federal marshals in the Chicago courtroom were roughing up Bobby Seale, Dave nonviolently placed himself in their way, more like a linebacker than a Gandhi.

When the same marshals were moving in on Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Dave said, "Don't touch them." When the marshals then told Dave to "shut up," Dave then reverted to offended politeness: "you don't have to say 'shut up.'" He was the only defendant who wore a sports coat and tie everyday to court. He had boundaries.

When the prosecutors accused Dave of going off to disrupt the Chicago loop on Sept. 28 (that was me, not Dave), Dave said in court, "Oh, bullshit." I looked at him as if he'd lost his mind, but maybe he was finding it.

His greatest moment (for me) came on the day of his sentencing, when he already had been in jail for two weeks, ailing from all sorts of pain and diseases. He said:

You want us to stay in our place like black people were supposed to stay in their place, like poor people were supposed to stay in their place, like woman are supposed to stay in their place, like people without formal education are supposed to stay in their place, and children are supposed to stay in their place, and lawyers are supposed to stay in their place...

The marshals grabbed Dave and started dragging him to jail. His voice kept rising:

Well, people will no longer be quiet. People are going to speak up. I am an old man and I am speaking feebly and not too well, but I reflect the spirit that will echo throughout the world...

Take him away, the judge ordered, and then I saw Dave's 15-year-old daughter Michele in the midst of the courtroom rise up, red-faced and screaming, like a little tiger being held by a frightened marshal, and Dave trying to move protectively toward her carrying the marshals on his neck and back. The father and daughter were held apart physically, but the officers of the court had committed moral suicide, and everyone knew it. Hardened reporters were standing there crying. Bill Kunstler started weeping at the lectern, asking to be punished next.

I had seen what nonviolence could do when the body really becomes a weapon, not a passive mass of flesh but a cannon of the soul. That was the Dave I loved and learned from, and whose story I will tell and write to whoever wishes to become a mountain in the storm of their time.

Tom Hayden was a leader of the student, civil rights, peace and environmental movements of the 1960s. He served 18 years in the California legislature, where he chaired labor, higher education and natural resources committees. He is the author of ten books, including "Street Wars" (New Press, 2004). He is a professor at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics last fall.