Who I Am

Jed Proujansky

I was born in `49. I came of age in the 60's with the Civil Rights movement, riots in the ghettos of America, drugs, sexual promiscuity and then the Vietnam war. For many of us it was a time of disillusionment and an awakening of a rebellion against the forces in our society that represented the wealthy and traditional. I was for Youth, Civil Rights, Equality and Justice.

My first exposure to a larger world or national view came when my cousin went to Mississippi during the summer of `64 as part of the Civil Rights Movement to protest segregation. I listened to our parents talk about what it meant that she went to the South to teach others. I was very impressed that someone would give up her time and risk her health and safety to do something for someone else. The urgency of this cause was highlighted by the deaths of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, three civil rights activists murdered on the highways of Mississippi. That fall I joined group that worked raising money to support the Civil Rights work in the south. I saw that the racism, segregation and discrimination which we were fighting in the South also existed in the North. It looked different, but was much the same. We started working in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, NY organizing in the black community against housing discrimination and high food prices. I felt a sense of accomplishment, and learned that I could make a difference in the world.

I remember arguing with people in `65 about the war. I was not opposed to it at first, and often argued against the majority because I did not want to blindly accept their position. Eventually I was moved by the arguments against the war and, in time, came to agree with them. I could see no gain for the American people from the war, and saw issues like Civil Rights and Racism take a back seat in the American agenda as the war built up. I also believed that we had no legal right to intervene in the internal affairs of Vietnam. By 1967 I was actively opposing the war. I saw a build up that was starting to drain the American economy, I saw soldiers going off to a war that had no moral justification that I could support. I believed that the war was being fought for corporate interests and to support US global expansion, all at the expense of the common person.

I started to do a great deal of reading to understand international ideologies and figure out what I believed. I read many of the great Communist and Anarchist writers over the next few years trying to understand and make sense of what they were saying. One of the things that I came to understand during that period was the rights of nations and how that related to Vietnam.

During the late 60's I was an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) in the New England area. I went from school to school leafleting, talking to interested parties and trying to organize people to action. I felt it was wrong to believe in something but not be willing to put one's beliefs on the line. Many people were opposed to the war, but were unwilling to take a stand. I remember marching in Boston in `67 in a licensed march, only to be tear-gassed and attacked by the police. It was a radicalizing experience to have someone try to stop me from speaking my piece. Students were arrested in connection with the march but there was no criticism of the police. I saw this pattern repeated many times over the years that followed.

A great sense of frustration built up in me over those years. I left school for a while to organize full time. As hard as I worked to stop the war, the government continued to build up the war and send more troops to Vietnam. There were days when I screamed, days when I cried and days when I just moved in a daze, finding it painful to be so sure of what I believed and so impotent to stop the war.

In `68 and `69 I was affiliated with some of the most extreme groups in the "New Left". I believed in the old Barry Goldwater statement that "extremism in the pursuit of virtue is no vice". I thought that by participating in the most extreme acts of protest I could induce others to take a more active role and follow my example.

In early `70 I went to Cuba to cut sugar cane and protest the U.S. blockade on Cuba. The group consisted of more than 600 North Americans from across the broad spectrum of the progressive movement. For eight weeks we cut sugar cane and talked amongst ourselves and some of our Cuban hosts.

One day we were visited by several North Vietnamese regulars who were being honored by the Cuban people for their valor in battle. I was most impressed that they understood that their enemy was not the US people, but the US government. They made a clear distinction between the two groups. They also said that they had no animosity towards the American soldier. They believed that the US soldier was there to fight for interests that were not their interests. The Vietnamese soldiers understood that when they returned to combat in Vietnam they would have to kill American GI's or be killed themselves, but that the GI was not to be blamed for the war. I remember seeing a Vet talking to the N.V.A. soldiers and crying with an incredible sadness for himself and all those who had been through what he had.

When I returned to the US, I had to reintegrate myself with the movement and redefine what I was going to do. I realized that I was off base with my "ultra-radical" approach. People were not listening to me (for good reason) and I had to figure out what I really believed, rather than what some dogma told me to believe. It was during the last half of `70 that I isolated myself in Northern Vt. and rethought my views on life. During that time of introspection I was able to reaffirm my beliefs in a `left' or `progressive' world view and rethink how I could attain those goals. I became much more understanding of differing points of view, and figured out that what was important was not having my way at a meeting, or demonstration, or winning a discussion. What was important was open dialogue and bringing people together around a common idea that we all could support. I knew that I had not always been right, and from that I found humility.

Towards the end of the war I lived in Minneapolis, MN. I worked with many people of differing view points from the more extreme leftists to the moderate Quakers and Pacifists. I did not do any work around the Vietnam War in an affiliated capacity. What I had done since 1970 was to work independently on specific projects and activities and try to avoid sectarian in-fighting.

Today I can support many of the intellectual ideologies of Communism and Anarchism. I still embrace a leftist view point. I have many differences with them as well. My own journey has brought me to focus on local issues where I can see results more clearly. Currently I am working on bringing public health clinics to some of the poorest communities in Massachusetts. We are providing free or low cost health care to the uninsured and the under-insured. It feels good to be doing something that makes people healthy and is supported by the vast majority of people I come into contact with.

During the Vietnam years, I was tear gassed, beaten by police, spied on by the FBI, and arrested on trumped up charges. Friends of mine spent time in jail for crimes they did not commit. For about two years, I had the FBI taking pictures of people coming and leaving my household. They believed that I was connected to fugitives they were looking for. I was not, but that did not prevent them from lurking and spying on me and my household. I lived with a consistent program of police harassment. Many of the police tactics were outside the law, but I am unable (and have no desire) to prove them. I know what happened, and I think that it was a logical (though illegal) reaction on the part of the police. There was a war at home for the hearts and minds of the American people. It was fought with great intensity on both sides.

Copyright 1998 © Jed Proujansky All Rights Reserved

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Added 3/22/98