A former student activist reflects on a life of dissent.
Standing in CJ Brune’s cavernous library on the south side of Lawrence, Kansas, it’s hard not to get caught up in history. Along with hundreds of books on everything from Afghan geopolitics to radical feminism, the walls are adorned with countless campaign stickers, buttons, and posters. Together they recall a radical lineage: the fiery words of Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs, campaign posters for the Youth International Party, antiwar slogans demanding peace in Vietnam, Iraq, and El Salvador.
I was there to talk with CJ about her long years of activism, how organizing has changed since the ‘60s, and what the future holds for social justice. For more than four decades CJ’s been a fixture of Lawrence’s vibrant activist community, marching for civil rights, sitting-in against the Vietnam War, and fighting back against poverty. In 1972 she was one of 30 “February Sisters” who occupied the East Asian Studies building at the University of Kansas to demand equal pay, a women’s studies program, and an affordable child care center on campus. The action was a dramatic success and marked a high point for women’s rights in Lawrence.
Since then she’s opposed wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice and volunteered countless hours at the city’s underserved homeless shelter. She also welcomes younger organizers into her home for meetings and radical sing-alongs; for the city’s activist community, CJ’s library has long been a cherished space, and CJ a beloved elder.
Once we sat down, CJ pulled out a copy of the Port Huron Statement, the founding declaration of Students for a Democratic Society, written in 1961. “This was the unifying document for our generation,” she said pointedly, laying it on the white pine table. “It was incredible that we all read this and it struck a chord. But we all started acting as one.”
It’s that feeling of oneness that CJ returns to again and again, a feeling she says is harder to find today. The kind of movement she helped build in the ‘60s was one of minute-to-minute organizing, where young activists not only lived and breathed social justice, but also worked to create a radical alternative to virtually everything around them. Young activists founded alternative schools and newspapers, lived in communal houses and formed radical theory study groups. It was a movement in which Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusal of the Nobel Prize was grounds for a party.
But it was also a time when expectations were different, when breaking with convention was riskier. At one point CJ showed me a black-and-white photo of the first antiwar protest she attended in 1965. “Look how clean-cut and how well-dressed we were! Women wore skirts, and these are fraternity boys,” she said, pointing to two smart looking boys in crew cuts and tucked-in checkered shirts. “I swear we wore pantyhose and heels. OK, maybe not heels—I don’t know if I ever went that far,” she laughed. “It’s tough to march in heels,” I joked. “And run!” she shot back, and laughed again, alluding to the violence Lawrence activists frequently encountered in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
A college town of just under 90,000 people, Lawrence prides itself on its progressive heritage. The city was founded by abolitionists from Massachusetts and played a vital role in the Bleeding Kansas conflict that cemented Kansas as a free state. Residents remember this history well. Last August, on the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid, the local newspaper live-tweeted the events of the summer day in 1863 when Confederate guerillas burned Lawrence to the ground.
But Lawrence has another history, one that’s less remote but also less remembered. Like many college towns Lawrence was virtually upended by the movements of the ‘60s. Inspired by leaders like Tom Hayden and Angela Davis, activists in Lawrence confronted discrimination, inequality, and abuses of power wherever they found them. By 1970 the sleepy Kansas town witnessed regular firebombings, police riots, and student sit-ins, especially around the University of Kansas campus. It was a time of unprecedented advances for women, for blacks, and for gays and lesbians, but it was also a heady, violent era for all involved.
For CJ it was a period she can look back on with fondness and pride, but also regret about what’s been lost since. Activists today confront a very different set of challenges, she says, though doing good is always possible. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Can you describe the atmosphere of the activist community you knew in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
We were all in it together. Whether you were gay or lesbian or not, it didn’t matter. These were the same people you had rubbed shoulders with for the last five years, marching Jayhawk Boulevard or down Massachusetts Street or standing in South Park. These were the same people. And you were going to jump in and support their cause. You know, “What do you want us to do?” We had great gay balls at the student union ballroom, stuff like that. And there were always more straight people that attended them in solidarity for our friends who had come out. We had safe houses in various parts of Lawrence. And there just seemed like there was a large core of people who latched onto the causes and just immersed themselves in it. I know we were all going to school, we were all working, we were all raising kids, but the movement (whatever it was at the time) really, really, really encompassed every minute that we had. So we would hang out with the same people for a decade, for ten years.
So it wasn’t something you did on weekends. It was something you lived.
Oh God—no! It wasn’t a weekend thing. And that was another thing: everybody lived together! It was like, “Where are we meeting tonight?” “Oh we’re in Jack’s.” Well everybody knew who Jack was and where he lived. It was the student ghetto but there were no apartment complexes—just these great, big houses. And so you would go home and if it wasn’t your night to cook you’d immediately go into the living room to find out what sort of conversation was going on. And there was a lot of drinking beer and smoking dope but in 1964 you could walk down Massachusetts Street smoking a joint! It was illegal but no one cared! Right out there in the open. It was just so cool.
The houses that you describe: were they co-ops?
They were. Functionally they were, though I’m not sure if we referred to them as that. And you’d think nothing about eating dinner at one place and then going with two or three people to somebody else’s because they were going to have a conversation on the virtues of Maoism versus Marxism, or some other great esoteric question of the day. I remember having a great big part when Jean-Paul Sartre—this was 1965—received the Nobel Prize for Literature and turned it down because of the Vietnam War. [laughs] It was just cool stuff like that.
It sounds like you had a really vibrant, active intellectual culture outside of the university system.
Oh definitely! The university was what brought all of us to Lawrence in the first place. But the university quickly became secondary. In fact, by the late ‘60s—and it started at the ECM, we used the ECM a lot—we had the alternative university. You know we had a class catalogue—and it was a sort of parody… Astrology, Castro’s Cuba, civil disobedience, alternative education. We at once time were offering 50 or 60 courses per semester. I mean courses like Sitting on the Hill and Admiring Sunsets—that was a course. [laughs]
These days, Occupy Lawrence, and some other groups have tried stuff like this. And I don’t know why they don’t have the spontaneous appeal that stuff like this did—other than, this didn’t happen in a year, it didn’t happen in two years. We were doing this for five or six years. So this wasn’t like, “Let’s try this for a year and if it doesn’t work we’ve failed.” No! It takes a long to build these things up. But they were really fun.
Do you think part of that energy may have been in the novelty of it, people not seeing actions like that before, that it was just new for people?
No I don’t, Sam, and this is why. When we were 18 I think the idea—and it was mostly inspired by this [points to the Port Huron Statement]—the whole idea was to educate yourselves. Don’t depend on the university. Educate yourselves. We had these study groups, though we didn’t actually call them study groups. They were big discussion groups where we sat around talking about imperialism in Vietnam: why Vietnam? Who was in Vietnam before us? We learned an awful lot before we actually devised a strategy to go out and protest it. And they were fun because as I said, everyone was smoking and drinking wine and whatever. But these discussions would last all night. They were that intriguing. And we were 18, 19, on up to 25 in these groups. So I don’t think it was a novelty. I think we were finally becoming so aware for the first time in our lives of what was happening in the world that you felt like you had to do something. So after a week of talking about the situation in Vietnam and somebody saying “We need to have a protest march; it needs to go from here to here, we need to stop at Strong Hall, we need to demand that the university divest.” You know these were well thought out marches and well delivered speeches from the group. It wasn’t anything that people walking around Jayhawk Blvd joined in because it looked like fun. They joined in because they maybe wanted to heckle, but they didn’t join in because, “Gee, there’s something fun going on here …”
What do you see as the legacy of your actions in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
We got an incredible number of things. Now you might say, “Where are they today?” They’re not. So I think the great criticism of the activism of the ‘60s was, “Yeah you guys made a lot of difference, but did it last?” And I always feel really bad about that when I look back on all the things that we did achieve—and things like this were huge achievements, the February Sisters victory was a huge achievement, and some of those things lasted—but where are they now? Well, we didn’t do that after a while. Nobody cared, nobody wanted it anymore. So that’s another thing about getting old, Sam, you have all these victories and then 50 years later you wonder what happened to them. I always feel badly that some of the great things that happened in the ‘60s and early ‘70s—some of them didn’t last. On the other hand I think we all are so much better people because we lived through that. And I know that I raised kids to be like that, on ideals like helping each other, looking out for the underdog.
I’m so glad I lived through that time. I so wish that there was another movement that I felt that I could contribute to with a whole bunch of other people. I really did have high hopes for Occupy. I went to the meetings in the park and those were good. And then fewer people started coming and then the weather got cold.
But I’ll just blame it all on age. [laughs] I’m still very, very idealistic, I’m still 100 percent socialist, I’m still very atheist, I’m still all of the things I became when I was 18. I still believe that nobody should have any more than the least person among you, which I guess is socialism. Stuff like that.
Recently you’ve been active with the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice. Can you describe that?
The Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice has just like always been there. But it wasn’t even holding vigils until the Gulf War started. And then of course they were very instrumental in the massive build up, the massive demonstrations all over the globe before the Iraq invasion. And that sort of brought the anti-war movement back into focus. And then we had, “Yeah, we’re getting all the combat troops out of Iraq,“ and “Oh yeah, we’re gonna go in Afghanistan and have these drones.” And it just got to be not at all the big unifying televised warfare that we had in Vietnam. I don’t know. It was very, very difficult to get people mobilized. I remember vividly one time, not that long ago, where a reporter went to Eudora High School because a student at Eudora High had been killed in the Afghan War. So they went to interview students about what their feelings were about this. And not one of the five students they interviewed knew that there was an Afghan War. This was a real eye-opener to me.
I sort of thought, “There’s no hope for the anti-war movement.” So right now all of my energy—and I still have a lot of energy—has sort of come full circle. You know, with Michael Harrington’s book in 1962, The Other America, which really inspired me then, I’m sort of devoting all of my time and resources to the poverty question. And for the last two and a half years since I retired I’ve been spending a lot of time out at the shelter.
Do you see your work at the shelter more as pushing for social change, or dealing with the symptoms of an oppressive system?
My mind says the only way things will change is if the system changes. That’s what my mind says. My heart says, “Who’s gonna change it?” I mean it’s not gonna be these people. It’s not going to be these people who on a good day they might have a pair of clean socks—forget shoes—they’re not going to change the world. They are not going to get out there and politically advocate and write to their representative and march in Topeka and carry a sign that says, Fuck Sam Brownback. They’re not gonna do it. Most of the people out at the shelter know that Brownback is the governor of Kansas and they don’t see what the big fuss is. “What’s wrong with him?”
Do you think there’s more hope with Strike Debt or Occupy Our Homes or these Occupy offshoots that are still going strong?
I still take pride—hope, not pride because I’m not doing anything with it—when I do see Occupy. I mean there’s an Occupy Lawrence, there’s an Occupy almost everything. There are cells of people out there everywhere protesting against the system—trying actions, not just sitting and talking about it but doing different actions. I really, really, really love when I read about taking over buildings that are repossessed. That is right on! If we just had enough people doing that and if we had enough power to cripple the banks … but you know, Sam, this is such a materialistic and corporate-controlled society now.
Maybe it’s the little differences though. Maybe if they all make a little difference where they live you don’t need a nationwide difference—I don’t know. But I haven’t given up hope. I am certainly not pessimistic.
What keeps you optimistic?
What keeps me optimistic? Well, because what choice do I have, dear? I mean I wouldn’t even want to be around myself. I have some friends who have gotten very pessimistic in their old age and I don’t like to be around those friends anymore. I don’t like to stop by and say “Let’s go have a beer,” and within five minutes be so bummed out that I just want to get out. It’s always more positive to say, “Well this isn’t really working too well, but maybe this over here will.” It’s just that that’s the only realistic choice for me. People like Pete Seeger keep me going. If you can be a Pete Seeger, you’ve got it made. I cannot ever be that optimistic but he was one of my heroes from way back.
Do you feel that action itself can be a way of working through some pessimism?
Oh yeah. Just the enthusiastic contagion of being around other people if nothing else, even if you know your action is doomed and no one is listening. All of a sudden you’re in Topeka and there’s 50 other people that are feeling the same way you do and the adrenaline’s flowing and everyone’s at a different stage of being really pissed off or really enthusiastic. Oh yeah. That definitely keeps you going.
What else has kept you going?
The people here in Lawrence, I guess. I’ve stayed in Lawrence. A good number of people have. And I can still go down to the Bourgeois Pig any night and see Wayne Propst and a bunch of other wild-eyed radical people. And everybody’s sense of humor has sort of aged with them—we can look back and make fun of ourselves for some of the things we did. And that’s very healthy. You always have to be able to look back and say, “Well that was really a stupid, dumb thing to do there—let’s go out and do it again!” Or something like that. [laughs] It’s comforting to be in an environment that has a lot of memories.
Readers: What’s been your experience with activism? How has it changed? Do you feel more engaged now than you did 10, 20, or 30 years ago? Tell us in the comments or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.