Tom Hayden's Farwell to Politics?
By Jorge Casuso
The setting was an art gallery in Santa Monica, a radical bastion he helped put on the national map when he shared with Jane Fonda a bungalow by the sea. The cast -- a roomful of supporters who went back a quarter of a century -- labor organizers, environmentalists, former gang members, local activists and politicians, as well as actor Warren Beatty and a smattering of celebrities.
There on Sunday night, State Sen. Tom Hayden -- who last month shocked supporters by announcing he would not be returning to Sacramento after 17 years of 500-mile commutes - delivered a long, stirring speech that seemed to mark an end, as much as a new beginning, for the longtime activist.
After celebrating his 60th birthday (it was Saturday) banging a drum as his wife, Barbara Williams, sang and strummed a guitar, Hayden delved deep into his past. He tapped the roots of his activism in his refusal to take part in a bizarre campus ritual for the elite, then peered into the nation's future, which he glimpsed on the protest-torn streets of Seattle earlier this month.
"Seattle was possibly the morning star," Hayden told the crowd of nearly 300, whose donations will go to the local Democratic Club. "This was massive. This was big. It came together, and it's not going to go away."
But the speech, delivered from a stage lined with photos -- Bobby Kennedy, Tupac Shakur, Crazy Horse, Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, a Salvadoran revolutionary and a young Tom Hayden - failed to answer the biggest question of all: Will the former member of the fabled Chicago Seven give up electoral politics for good.
"I know you want to know, and I want to know, what I'm going to do next," Hayden told the packed Track 6 gallery at Bergamot Station, which featured a tattoo exhibit. "If I run for elective office, and that's a big if, it would be here in Los Angeles."
Hayden joked about "the campaign that evaporated because I changed my mind." (A turning point, he said, was when he skipped a large Yale University protest denouncing pension fund investments in order to attend a 15-minute endorsement interview with labor leaders.) And he promised to refund all those who had contributed to his aborted bid for an assembly seat he had planned to capture after his second four-year term on the senate expires under term limits next November.
Sacramento, Hayden said, was too removed, the policies too suburban. "Our governor puts a great focus on being middle of the road, of raising money, of getting behind causes only if they have 75 percent of the people's support."
For 17 years, Hayden said, he had been worrying, "How can I think like them effectively enough. I've had it with that kind of work."
"Sacramento is not about life. We're all disconnected," Hayden said. "It's much more empowering, much more positive to be close to the grassroots. Seventeen years is enough. I've done my service.... I'm not leaving Sacramento to leave politics. I'm leaving Sacramento to get back to living at the grassroots."
And with that thought, the man who championed causes that ranged from saving the Ballona Wetlands to brokering a gang truce, turned back the clock to his teens and a similar choice he faced as editor of the University of Michigan student paper. Hayden had been stripped naked, tied to a tree and covered with red dust as part of an initiation ritual into the campus Druids, an all-male club of elite students.
But when a second initiation to yet a loftier level was set, Hayden was once again faced with a choice - join the system, or be humiliated. "They couldn't find me," he recalled. "It was my first experience underground. I was hidden in the parking lot. I was the first who refused to join.
"They had made me feel that it was my fault, that I didn't have the right stuff, that there was a failure in me. It took me forever to feel that it was really okay that I had done this. This is why democracy works for us - the few that duck."
Hayden's break with the system was an epiphany of sorts. By wrestling with his emotions, he had tapped into the very reason democracy was so difficult to keep alive.
"It's feelings of unworthiness because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or you're too small, too big, too skinny, too this, too that, or your thing isn't big enough," Hayden said. "It makes you want to follow leaders, to turn leaders into stars and celebrities. And this is what makes it difficult to organize, because they feel they don't deserve it, while those people in power feel there's an entitlement."
And that's why Seattle may have been a turning point, Hayden said. Suddenly people of different interests, backgrounds and walks of life felt empowered enough to chain themselves together and take the pepper spray and rubber bullets in order to fight "a trading system that puts the rights of investors above all others.... What you breathe, what you eat, all is decided in secret."
It was troubling that of the thousands of elected officials nationwide, less than a dozen showed up to protest a system that was "silently giving power away to an invisible organization." It was, Hayden said, "a usurpation of power like I've never seen.
"Before Seattle, there were just disagreements," Hayden said. "What was the most powerful goes into the realm of the spiritual and psychological. We've had marches, speeches, pamphlets. There was an empowerment like I've never seen. It was a lesson in street democracy.... It was this kind of transformation of the self that gave me great hope.
"We have the majority, we have the issues," Hayden told the hushed crowd. "Clinton and Gore, they started the WTO, but when they landed in Seattle, they were on the side of the people. The magic when people stand up for their beliefs, that's what we don't have in America."
These were heartening words from someone whom speaker after speaker said "gave a voice to the voiceless." A senator who opened doors for shocked immigrants at meetings, and whom fellow activists often called "a pain in different parts of our anatomy." But Hayden, his supporters said, is "the real thing.
He has been called "a wildcard", a "dark horse," Hayden acknowledged in a clip from a new film about his life. And then he summed up his style with two words, "I'm unpackaged."
Hayden concluded what had quickly turned into a political rally by questioning the importance of gaining a seat at the table, a seat you felt thankful for because you felt unworthy. "It wasn't about the table," Hayden said. "It was never about the table. It's about democracy, and democracy starts at the deepest psychological level.
"It's taken me all my life to get to this point," Hayden concluded. "When I was a teenager, it was about the club. Am I in, or am I out. Let's make everyone in that club frightened to death."
And with those parting words, the crowd stood and cheered.
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