Don Olson

In 1984, when the fledgling Utne Reader needed a
distributor in its hometown, Don Olson was the no-brainer choice.
The veteran antiwar, antidraft, and antinuclear activist
distributed off-the-mainstream publications in Minneapolis and St.
Paul, and was dedicated enough to have gone to prison for his
beliefs.

The Olson-and-Utne relationship still stands today.
He’s a living symbol of the sustainable culture the magazine
represents (for years, he made his magazine deliveries by bicycle
and city bus), and, in a sense, magazine distribution is simply an
extension of the work Olson, 60, did as a dissenter during and
after the Vietnam era: spreading information that challenges the
status quo.

Minneapolis-born, he entered the University of Minnesota a
convinced young conservative, but antiwar demonstrations and
teach-ins opened his eyes to what he calls ‘the larger context of
the steady expansion of U.S. power since the 19th century.’ Olson
plunged into antidraft counseling and action.

Then came a fateful night in 1970, when he and seven other
activists approached government buildings in Little Falls,
Alexandria, and Winona, Minnesota, intending to destroy draft
records. The FBI was waiting, and they were arrested. Dubbed the
Minnesota Eight, the group became a national cause, inspiring huge
sympathy demonstrations. Olson eventually served 20 months of a
five-year sentence in a dank, antiquated federal prison in
Missouri.

A stint as a potter followed, but when the local alt-press
distributor went out of business, Olson took over. He also began
hosting a weekly program on KFAI-FM, a Twin Cities community radio
station. He plays tapes of local speeches by luminaries like Noam
Chomsky and antinuclear activist Helen Caldecott, and, via
interviews with Minnesota activists, helps keep the spirit of
principled dissent alive. The show is still going strong, and so is
Olson, who has his hands full with Iraq and the other hot-button
issues of the Bush era. While his anti-administration views are
clear, he doesn’t throw softballs to his leftist guests. ‘I often
ask the questions a right-winger would ask,’ he says. ‘I want them
to defend themselves. The progressive message should reach
everybody.’

Utne features readers of our magazine in this space each
issue. Please alert us to any and all Utne readers who are doing
interesting things. Tell us all about them in a letter and send it
with a photo to Reader Feature, 1624 Harmon Pl., Minneapolis, MN
55403 or e-mail us at
editor@utne.com.

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