Bart Bolger is the current chair of the Veterans for Peace Linus Pauling Chapter 132 in Corvallis, Oregon.
What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?
I began organizing with the local peace movement shortly after arriving in Corvallis in 2004. My motivation was the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. Shortly after that I began getting involved with other peace, social justice and labor groups and realized that many of their concerns shared common undercurrents: economic, gender, racial and other inequality. Personally, I didn’t experience any of those and it took me some time to learn about the systemic problems which cause and aggravate inequality. After doing a fair bit of reading and talking with some folks, I understood that we are all deprived of a just society when some of our people are treated unfairly. That’s when I went to work on these issues.
Who would you consider your social justice hero and why did they inspire you?
I am inspired by the late Howard Zinn. I first learned of his work in the peace movement during the Iraq war because of his affiliation with Veterans For Peace, of which I am a member. But I then read his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, and of course A People’s History of the United States. Perhaps Zinn’s finest attribute besides a keen intellect was his compassion.
As a bombardier in World War II, he turned against war after imagining the innocent civilians he was killing from thousands of feet above. He didn’t need to see the bodies or, like today’s drone operators, see infrared images of victims bleeding out and dying. He had a sense of humanity and caring that pervaded every struggle he undertook, whether it was supporting the black students of Spelman College where he taught or putting his life on the line with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights struggle. So I’ve always admired his dedication to fixing problems that didn’t effect him personally. That takes compassion and caring, not seeing “the other” but seeing someone just like you, and that’s what I hope to emulate in some small way.
What gives you hope for the future?
I’m optimistic when I see energy and sincere compassion from young people, including my 27 year old daughter who is striving to connect with social justice movements and make a difference in the Chicago area (while holding down a demanding job to pay off her loathsome student debt). I feel like us old-timers are just carrying a torch for the younger generations. We can’t really make progress without them taking that torch at some point. And I see plenty of encouraging signs of that happening with groups like Allied Students for Another Politics (ASAP!) here at OSU, demanding change and being willing to risk their own relative comfort for radical change.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
The ever-increasing concentration of wealth and other forms of power in the hands of the economic and government elites who seem to stay one step ahead of the struggle for equality. The forces that actually move the control levers of every facet of our lives are comprised of a shadowy system that we don’t even understand. I believe there is complete and constant collusion between the top echelons of business and governments worldwide which have rendered elections nearly irrelevant. These forces have learned from history, e.g., the labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that if you can pit one group of the underclass against another, the infighting will render them powerless. This is why it is so important to be totally inclusive and committed to social justice to build a collective powerful enough to force transformative change. And I believe that change can only occur when the powerful are weakened by hitting them in the wallet and damaging their economic viability, “throwing sand in the gears,” as Chris Hedges likes to say. So the only solution is to build solidarity and community among those being held down by the current “system,” I believe starting at the local level and spreading out from there. But we need to be constantly on guard against reform as the imposter of real transformative change. The government will always offer incremental reform to deflate a movement. We must not settle for anything less than full equality for everyone.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change?
I believe it’s important to understand our history and what has and has not worked in the struggle for social justice. I mentioned A People’s History by Zinn but I’ve also been reading biographies of labor leaders and heroes like Joe Hill and Eugene Debs. The social and political contexts of their personal stories are surprisingly similar to what we face today. I also believe we can learn valuable lessons from other cultures like the Zapatistas–I very much enjoyed, Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories, by Hilary Klein.
Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?
Frankly, most recent films don’t offer much, but I am looking forward to seeing “Trumbo” which will highlight Dalton Trumbo’s bravery and resistance in the face of the red scare of the 1950’s. I lean more toward documentaries and interviews that I find online. Any interview with Noam Chomsky is certainly worth a look. I rarely miss Chris Hedges’ new series on telesurtv.net, called, “Days of Revolt.” Bill Fletcher, Jr., the long-time labor and social justice activist, does a very good program called, “The Global African,” on The Real News Network (therealnews.com). And David Barsamian’s speakers series on Alternative Radio (broadcast locally on KBOO) is a real valuable resource.
Interview by Joseph Orosco for the Anarres Project (December 2015)