Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties

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The political memoir as rousing adventure story—a sizzling account of a life lived in the thick of every important struggle of the era.

April 1973: snow falls thick and fast on the Badlands of South Dakota. It has been more than five weeks since protesting Sioux Indians seized their historic village of Wounded Knee, and the FBI shows no signs of abandoning its siege. When Bill Zimmerman is asked to coordinate an airlift of desperately needed food and medical supplies, he cannot ...

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Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties

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Overview

The political memoir as rousing adventure story—a sizzling account of a life lived in the thick of every important struggle of the era.

April 1973: snow falls thick and fast on the Badlands of South Dakota. It has been more than five weeks since protesting Sioux Indians seized their historic village of Wounded Knee, and the FBI shows no signs of abandoning its siege. When Bill Zimmerman is asked to coordinate an airlift of desperately needed food and medical supplies, he cannot refuse; flying through gunfire and a mechanical malfunction, he carries out a daring dawn raid and success­fully parachutes 1,500 pounds of food into the village. The drop breaks the FBI siege, and assures an Indian victory.

This was not the first—or last—time Bill Zimmerman put his life at risk for the greater social good. In this extraordi­nary memoir, Zimmerman takes us into the hearts and minds of those making the social revolution of the sixties. He writes about registering black voters in deepest, most racist Mississippi; marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago; helping to organize the 1967 march on the Pentagon; fighting the police at the 1968 Democratic con­vention; mobilizing scientists against the Vietnam War and the military’s misuse of their discoveries; smuggling medi­cines to the front lines in North Vietnam; spending time in Hanoi under U.S. bombardment; and founding an interna­tional charity, Medical Aid for Indochina, to deliver humanitarian assistance. Zimmerman—who crossed paths with political organizers and activists like Abbie Hoffman, Daniel Ellsberg, César Chávez, Jane Fonda, and Tom Hayden—captures a groundbreaking zeitgeist that irrevoca­bly changed the world as we knew it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Vietnam-era peace activism is as adventurous as going to war in this exhilarating memoir. Zimmerman recounts the radicalization via beatnikism, the civil rights movement, and antiwar protests that led him in 1969 to renounce a promising psychology professorship (he feared his research might somehow be bent to evil purposes by the military-industrial complex) and become a full-time antiwar activist. The switch put him in harness with Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Jane Fonda and gave free rein to his "weakness for audacious ideas": he smuggled penicillin to the North Vietnamese, filmed bomb damage in Hanoi, and, in a hair-raising set piece, air-dropped food to American Indian Movement insurrectionists at the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. Zimmerman's narrative is more focused on politics than is the typical counterculture memoir. It's also more about acting than thinking. Zimmerman has a knack for staging demonstrations and propaganda coups, which he transfers from the politics of confrontation to the politics of manipulation when he becomes a campaign consultant, but his antiestablishment ideology remains confused, emotional, and never very reflective—even in retrospect—about the Indochina conflict. Still, his is a vivid evocation of the romanticism and extraordinary shifts in consciousness that the 1960s unleashed. Photos. (Apr. 26)
From the Publisher

Praise for Troublemaker:

"For almost half a century Bill Zimmerman has labored with intensity for progressive causes as an organizer and political consultant. In this new memoir he looks back on his career with an unwavering commitment to his beliefs and an admirable intellectual toughness and pragmatism.... He has been a key player on dozens of issues including Wounded Knee, Central America, Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign and medical marijuana initiatives and fought with MoveOn.org against the Iraq War. His tense and harrowing account of literally risking his life by flying an airplane to drop food to the besieged American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee gives the book a drama not found in typical ideological memoirs... [His] is a unique and strong voice. Troublemaker is a well-written, passionate story of a personal journey through the Vietnam protest era, and a valuable model for progressive activists of our own time."Danny Goldberg, TheNation.com

"A political activist looks back on an eventful life.

Zimmerman (Is Marijuana the Right Medicine for You?, 1999, etc.), a working-class kid from Chicago who lost relatives in the Holocaust, struggled from an early age with revulsion over the idea that he might become the American equivalent of “the Good German,” a citizen who passively condones the evil actions of his government. His rebellious nature was nurtured in 1960 during a year-long hiatus from studies at the University of Chicago by the sight of French students skirmishing with police on the streets of Paris in protest against the war in Algeria, something unheard of in Eisenhower America. Back in America, he joined a friend working for the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee in Mississippi one summer, during which he witnessed firsthand the sickening effects of Jim Crow racism. Politically ahead of the curve with his peers, he led student negotiations with the university during an occupation of Chicago’s administration building as a graduate student, then as an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College. Soon, he was making a career fighting to end the Vietnam War, whether it involved confronting police or his fellow scientists and academics, shaming them for sharing research that could be used against civilians in the war. Zimmerman reveals here one extraordinary example of his activism: At a critical moment, he traveled to Europe to give North Vietnamese officials some stolen vials of newly developed penicillin that required no refrigeration, an act which, if he had been caught, might have earned him the charge of espionage or treason. The author’s experiences during the war (e.g., recording on film the damage American bombs did to cities and hospitals in North Vietnam) and after (flying a dangerously damaged cargo plane to drop food and medicine for besieged Indians at Wounded Knee) demonstrate that effective political activism requires no less physical courage than that of soldiers and federal agents. Perhaps overpacked with detail at times, Zimmerman’s memoir is, nevertheless, both a thoughtful eyewitness history of America’s war at home and a thrilling political adventure story.

An engaging exhortation to take risks and live a meaningful life."Kirkus Reviews

“A riveting book.  Bill Zimmerman is a shining example of Tom Paine’s ‘winter soldier,’ a patriot his country can count on in dark times to help it end a disastrous policy or realize its highest ideals.  The war in Viet Nam, catastrophe that it was, brought out the best in many Americans, he among them.  This is an inspiring story of a life committed to a better world.  And, what a life!  What a story!”
—Daniel Ellsberg
 

“Bill Zimmerman gives the lie to the old saw that if you remember the ’60s you weren't there.  He was there and he remembers.  He spent the ’60s making trouble from Mississippi to South Dakota to North Vietnam.  You don't have to agree with his politics to agree he has written one hell of a page-turner.”
—Paul Begala, CNN Political Consultant
 

“Bill Zimmerman’s memoir is a great adventure story since he managed to be engaged in many of the dramatic scenes of civil rights and antiwar struggle in the sixties.  We travel with him from Mississippi to Hanoi, from the steps of the Pentagon to Wounded Knee and many points in between, experiencing close-up how the events of the time compelled a brilliant young scientist to radical resistance.  Zimmerman’s tales of derring-do are fused with insightful analysis, and a history we thought we knew is retold in surprising and moving ways.”
—Richard Flacks, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara and Co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society

“Bill Zimmerman’s tale is remarkable.  I know him as a close colleague who helped create today’s internet-aided progressive resurgence, but he has a spellbinding story to tell of his political adventures in the 1960s and 1970s.  Activists today will want to read this inspiring story.”
—Wes Boyd, Co-founder of MoveOn.org
 

“Bill Zimmerman’s wise and rollicking chronicle of his contrarian transit across the sixties and early seventies (a sort of cross between Zelig, Zorro, and Zapata) can help explain the political and cultural passions of that era, both to those who lived through them and to their progeny, better than any such text has yet managed to do.  It’s a vivid tale, elegantly dispatched.”
—Lawrence Weschler, Director, New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Troublemaker lives up to its title in every way.  A smart, tough, incisive look at the politics of the ’60s and how they impact us today.  A look at the past that gives us a lens on the present.  Read it.  Then go out and cause trouble.”
Robert Greenwald, Producer and Director, Brave New Films
 

Kirkus Reviews

A political activist looks back on an eventful life.

Zimmerman (Is Marijuana the Right Medicine for You?, 1999, etc.), a working-class kid from Chicago who lost relatives in the Holocaust, struggled from an early age with revulsion over the idea that he might become the American equivalent of "the Good German," a citizen who passively condones the evil actions of his government. His rebellious nature was nurtured in 1960 during a year-long hiatus from studies at the University of Chicago by the sight of French students skirmishing with police on the streets of Paris in protest against the war in Algeria, something unheard of in Eisenhower America. Back in America, he joined a friend working for the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee in Mississippi one summer, during which he witnessed firsthand the sickening effects of Jim Crow racism. Politically ahead of the curve with his peers, he led student negotiations with the university during an occupation of Chicago's administration building as a graduate student, then as an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College. Soon, he was making a career fighting to end the Vietnam War, whether it involved confronting police or his fellow scientists and academics, shaming them for sharing research that could be used against civilians in the war. Zimmerman reveals here one extraordinary example of his activism: At a critical moment, he traveled to Europe to give North Vietnamese officials some stolen vials of newly developed penicillin that required no refrigeration, an act which, if he had been caught, might have earned him the charge of espionage or treason. The author's experiences during the war (e.g., recording on film the damage American bombs did to cities and hospitals in North Vietnam) and after (flying a dangerously damaged cargo plane to drop food and medicine for besieged Indians at Wounded Knee) demonstrate that effective political activism requires no less physical courage than that of soldiers and federal agents. Perhaps overpacked with detail at times, Zimmerman's memoir is, nevertheless, both a thoughtful eyewitness history of America's war at home and a thrilling political adventure story.

An engaging exhortation to take risks and live a meaningful life.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385533485
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/26/2011
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

BILL ZIMMERMAN, who holds a doctorate in psy­chology from the University of Chicago, is one of the nation’s most experienced political consul­tants. As cofounder of the leading consulting firm Zimmerman & Markman, whose work for ballot initiatives and for organizations such as the ACLU, NRDC, and MoveOn.org has won multiple awards, he continues to advocate for social justice. He lives in Topanga, California.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

We had a choice between gravel and grass and always chose gravel. Two blocks away, Garfield Park beckoned with a vast ocean of grass and trees, but we rarely went there. We were city kids, street kids, and the park was out of our element. We favored the Delano Elementary School playground with its odd mixture of hard-packed gravel and sand. My childhood friends and I hung out there, playing ball in the afternoons and into the night. We lived in a gritty working-class neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, but it was safe. The fifties were a safe decade. Few people questioned authority, and fewer still broke the rules.

On the east side of the park, everyone was black. On the west side, where I lived, we were all white. Italians dominated the neighborhood, but there were also Irish, Poles, and Jews. People stuck to their own kind. Race prejudice was the rule. Once, a black family moved across the park into an apartment a block from ours. Italian vigilantes made short work of them: rocks through their windows, racist slogans painted on their wall, insults shouted late into the night. The black family resisted until the first shotgun blast, then moved back across the park. Some of the rules were strictly enforced.

I was born the day after Christmas 1940, and despite my family's relative poverty I enjoyed a happy childhood with my parents and younger sister in a third-floor apartment across from the school. At times I had to pay a nickel toll to the little Italian gang leader for safe passage into the playground; at others I used my fists to resist. I had friends, plenty to do after school, and loving parents. Yet I knew from an early age that I didn't want the lives my parents and relatives had so cautiously built. The 1950s were the first period of calm after the twin traumas of the Great Depression and World War II. The grown-ups around me worked hard to protect secure but essentially boring lives. I wanted adventure and discovery.

My parents had been Jewish refugees as children. My mother came to America in 1912 at age three, fleeing pogroms in Latvia. My father landed at Ellis Island in 1910 at eighteen, in flight from the draft for the Austro-Hungarian army. They had but one year of college between them but were smart, well-informed, and respectful of learning. They were kind and loving to my younger sister and me, and my father worked hard running a small wholesale novelty business as he strived to give us a middle-class upbringing.

My carefree childhood ended at twelve when my mother required extensive surgery to remove a malignant tumor on her spine. The tumor led to a case of syringomyelia, a treatable condition today but one that then left her a semi-invalid in chronic debilitating pain. This was before families like ours had health insurance, so my father had to spend his life savings on her care. I resolved at that point, just as I entered high school, to earn what I could to ease his burden. I got after-school, Saturday, and summer jobs, and remained employed in that fashion for the next twelve years, until I completed my lengthy education.

Austin High School, which I attended with five thousand others between 1954 and 1958, was an academic joke. In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's first space satellite, and shocked Americans into the painful realization that we were no longer winning the race to space. Life magazine picked Austin High to represent the sad state of American education. In a photo-laden article that contrasted a friend of mine from the varsity swimming team with a typical Russian high school student, Life slammed American scientific teaching. The hardworking Russian student was seen in various Moscow science laboratories, while my friend was depicted in pursuit of fun and games. One picture, shot from the back of an Austin classroom, showed students looking through racy magazines shielded inside textbooks and invisible to the teacher in front. Life achieved its purpose. Many of us were pushed into science curriculums to help overcome the widening "missile gap" with the Soviet Union that John Kennedy later used as the rationale for his 1960 presidential campaign.

But for me high school was a lark. I rarely worked hard, yet consistently got top grades. After school, I swam with the varsity team and won the city championship in the backstroke. During my first two years, I worked as a bicycle delivery boy for a local drugstore two nights a week and all day Saturday. Later, after getting my driver's license, I had a similar schedule delivering pizza. At fifteen, I worked full-time during the summer as a warehouseman loading trucks. At sixteen, the summer employment picture dramatically improved. Thanks to my swimming ability, I landed a job as a Chicago Park District lifeguard.

Being slightly nearsighted, I was assigned to a park pool rather than a Lake Michigan beach. The girls were at the beach, so I was crestfallen. When I told my father, he offered to "pull some strings." Several nights later, we sat in the storefront office of our local alderman waiting with the other supplicants who sought his favor. When it was our turn, my father explained the situation. The alderman turned to the precinct captain, who lived on our block and coordinated affairs between our neighbors and the city government, and asked if my parents were good Democrats. Yes, he answered, they always vote Democratic. Well, then, let's see if we can do something for their boy. Three days later I was assigned to the beach. It was my first taste of politics, Chicago-style. It would not be my last.

That summer was marvelous. I was paid $2 an hour, a princely sum at the time. With no concern for the future, I bought an old Pontiac for $150 and used it to learn to fly. Two years before, at fourteen, after building a lot of model planes, I had coaxed my father into paying for a ride in a single-engine airplane. When we lifted off Meigs Field, Chicago's old lakefront airport, I was in the co-pilot's seat of a Beechcraft. Floating over the downtown skyscrapers, we turned south toward Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox. The pilot then banked north, flew past the downtown skyscrapers and on to Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, before returning to land. Only twenty-five minutes had passed, but I was hooked for life.

Pilots were the most glamorous of the celebrated warriors of World War II, and with the recent introduction of jet fighters they were more glamorous still. I thought being a military pilot could be the door to an adventurous life, even to the ultimate goal of space flight. So, whenever I could, I drove the old Pontiac northwest of the city to Palwaukee Airport, a small field with two grass strips and a short paved runway, to take flying lessons. My parents didn't like what I was doing, but it was my money and I would not be deterred. By summer's end I had twenty hours of solo flight time in a Piper J-3 Cub. It was enough to legitimately call myself a pilot, but not yet enough for a license to carry passengers.

Back in high school for my senior year, I thought of college for the first time. I knew nothing about higher education and assumed I would attend a two-year community college (they were called junior colleges then). My homeroom teacher, Virginia Heyse, noticed that I was curious and articulate and had gotten good grades with ease. She insisted I apply to the better schools, and when I objected that my family lacked the money for me to do so, she offered to help me apply for scholarships. Her intervention utterly changed my life.

The University of Chicago offered me full tuition. No doubt, I was a charity case, a poor kid with good grades and test scores from a culturally deprived environment. I knew nothing of the university's high academic stature, or why such stature was important. I was focused on the cost, and the scholarship meant that UC would cost no more than the local junior college. I was disappointed that UC didn't have a varsity football team or a Reserve Officers' Training Corps program to fast-track students into the military, two elements I had thought essential to college life, but neither did the junior college. My father was unable to help with expenses, but by living at home, getting a job at night, and commuting on public transportation, I could manage. On the basis of such primitive reasoning, I accepted the scholarship and unknowingly embarked upon a profound transformation. Three months later I would be a different person.

During Orientation Week in the fall of 1958, all UC students had to live in dorms, even the few commuters like me. I arrived on the sprawling and distinguished campus with its ivy-covered walls and gray stone buildings wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. Over my shoulder I had a blue drawstring laundry bag with a few changes of underwear and some extra shirts. My classmates arrived with steamer trunks. They were the cream of the national high school crop. I was the token kid from Chicago's down-and-dirty West Side. Many of them had been educated at elite private schools in New York and New England and had studied subjects like psychology and calculus. I had never heard of calculus. They were conversant with art and literature. I had never been in a museum of art, never attended a concert, and never read a work of literature other than the three (A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, and The Good Earth) I had been forced to study in what passed for a high school English class.

All of a sudden I was looking up from the bottom. I had hoped my education would be a stepping-stone to flight school and the space program, and I had naively thought that majoring in physics was the best way to get there. I should have been counseled to select another major, but was not. At UC there were Nobel laureates teaching the physical science classes. I could barely understand the lectures, and I became so confused and left behind I felt as if I had landed on another planet. How could school be so difficult when up to that point it had been so easy? Slowly, I began to realize that I had indeed landed in a parallel universe and that, in fact, my humanities and social science courses revealed another world I had never known, a world of books and ideas and critical thinking and intellectual curiosity.

My academic performance was dismal. I came close to failing all of my physical science courses. I was provoked by the humanities and social science classes, but felt completely at sea in them as well, having never known those fields even existed. Yet ideas began to stir, nurtured especially by the social science classes and new friends in the cafeteria and the campus poolroom, the one arena in which my West Side roots gave me a rare advantage. These new friends questioned traditional American culture and chafed at social constraints that seemed arbitrarily conformist and conservative. That, I could understand.

By the fall of 1958, a tiny beatnik subculture had emerged on the nation's elite college campuses. Its few adherents read the new Beat poets and ostentatiously rejected various social norms, especially dress codes, the girls making themselves visible with a new style, black tights under their skirts. Initially, I was enough of a jock to hold them in disdain, but then I succeeded in taking one to bed. There I learned that rebelling against society included rebelling against its sexual restraints, and the girls with black tights were leading the way. The beatnik perspective began to make sense.

I entered UC with a naive belief in god and country. Unaware of other cultures and ways of life, I had assumed that the United States was first in everything good and last in everything bad. Within months, my worldview changed dramatically. The humanities and social sciences classes at the university relied on the Socratic method, so I was forced to take part in the intellectual back-and-forth. UC had no graduate student teaching assistants, and the professors who led the classes taught critical thinking, no matter what the course content. Since I had to read voluminously in the classics and study both history and human behavior, my views soon exploded beyond the narrow American horizon in which they had been confined.

I wanted to participate more fully in campus life. My commute took over two hours a day. I swam with the varsity team in the afternoon and worked as a telephone solicitor at night. All of that, on top of my increasingly incomprehensible science and math classes, overwhelmed me. I left high school friends behind to spend time with new friends interested in books and ideas instead of sports and fast cars. But after one quarter I could no longer take the stress. I used my status as a varsity swimmer to get a cushy job doing minor maintenance in the field house. The higher salary, plus meager savings, allowed me to move to a dorm on campus. Then, in a stumbling and disjointed way, I embraced opinions that previously had been anathema to me.

Soon I too was in rebellion against the rigid conformity of the 1950s, a rebellion that was enhanced when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso swept through Chicago. They were the most visible stars of the notorious Beat Generation, come to town to read their wild poetry. They set up in a small downtown ballroom. When my friends and I arrived, it looked as if all the bohemians from Bughouse Square, the local venue for soapbox oratory, had come too. The poets railed against the prevailing culture and were raucously applauded at every attack on conventional society. The Beats didn't wait for people to come gradually to their own conclusions, as our professors did, but instead hit them upside the head with their radical critique of contemporary American culture and social mores. Their poetry was laced with profanity never heard in public, and they took special pleasure in attacking the sacred cows of our conformist culture. My friends and I were smitten. We had never experienced anything like them, and we realized that if they could get away with that kind of behavior, so could we.

I doubt my friends and I could have clearly articulated it, but somehow we understood that much of society's moral authority had been undermined by the nuclear arms race and the Holocaust, two facts that deeply colored our perception of the world. The two most powerful nations on earth were poised to annihilate the human species, their nuclear weapons on hair triggers. Our government had already used those weapons against unarmed civilians, so it wasn't hard to imagine it doing so again. As schoolchildren we had been forced to hide under our desks and participate in useless air raid drills, which only reminded us that our death, indeed our actual vaporization, could occur in the next second and with no warning.

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  • Posted July 7, 2011

    60s Heroic Political Activist with a Blind Spot

    Bill Zimmerman's acts, often heroic, have been mentioned by other reviewers; so, I won't list them here. As I write in my full review at Left Eye on Books, this book is not without blemishes. One of them is that Zimmerman unfairly attacks the hippie movement. He unsympathetically denigrates it as focused exclusively on "sex, drugs, and rock and roll". He declares that there was an "activist/hippie divide" during the 60s - a divide like that between responsible adults and socially irresponsible hedonists. Having been a member of both sides of this supposed "divide," I must record my own observations.

    The hippie movement, as I knew it, was an extension of the beatnik's anti-war, anti-materialism sentiment, and a critique of our society's obsession with commercialism. Both beatnik and hippie saw our post-WWII consumerist culture as reducing the human individual's value to its mere economic use-value, and upholding the making and spending of money as the meaning of human existence. Unlike the rest of America, the beatniks identified this as a loss of human value and meaning. But the hippies went beyond mere critique, and actually dropped out of that society in the hope of building one more in tune with the deeper needs of the human spirit. These include the need to live in a peaceful and caring community, and to pursue spiritual aims long forgotten by power-crazed organized religions.

    In this sense, hippies were more active than what Zimmerman calls the "activists." The latter accepted the materialism and commercialism and sought political justice by working within the system. The hippies were far more radical; they walked away from the whole ball of slime entirely. As fate would have it, the slime proved too sticky to shake off, and the Hippie Movement soon failed.

    Zimmerman also turns on his old friend Rennie Davis, a hero of the anti-war movement, and one of the Chicago Seven. Once the Viet Nam war was over, Zimmerman pursued the profitable business of political consulting. But Davis, seeking spiritual fulfillment, found the Hindu Guru, Maharaj Ji, from whom, like me, he learned to meditate. Stubbornly pushing his misunderstanding of what moved the hippies, Zimmerman harshly characterizes his old ally as "the zombielike disciple of an East Indian mystic."

    With these criticisms, Zimmerman reveals his failure to understand that other, and more subtle, forms of human happiness can be had. True enough, the thrill of action - that is, pursuing a carefully planned strategy for doing social good - can, as he concludes, result in "an honorable and happy life". But the practice of meditation, using techniques fashioned by the wisdom of millennia, can fill a person, who is just sitting, with a sense of joy, excitement, and completeness that even the ecstasy of victory can never match.

    Building a humane society does not require turning a contemptuous eye to the vital spiritual message of the beatniks and hippies. We can have both a good society and spiritually fulfilled individuals.

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
    Twitter: wjkno1
    YouTube: WJKPhD

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