Tom Hayden Feelings On Occupy Wall Street Run Hot and Cold

Occupier Jeff Smith has a surprising conversation with Tom Hayden, a senior statesman of radical politics.

Michael Buckner / Getty Images

“It went without saying that the time would come, it was just a question of what the scenario would be,” veteran radical Tom Hayden tells me about Occupy Wall Street’s eviction from Zuccotti Park, a scenario he had predicted five weeks before it finally happened.

“The political reason is that it’s disturbing to property owners and to politicians because it’s an insult and aggression against their view of proper order ... watering the grass and allowing people with their pooper scoopers to walk their little dogs in peace and read The New York Times and sit on the bench or make out during approved hours in the park. And if there’s 200 people there, it’s an offense to all these other people.”

It’s a perspective one would expect from the senior statesman with impeccable movement bona fides. As an Occupy activist, I was eager to listen to Hayden, primary author of the Port Huron Statement that served as his generation’s call to action and list of demands—the latter something the movement I participate in, Occupy Wall Street, has been criticized for neglecting (“But what do they want?”).

But then Hayden—who’s been making the rounds to mark the statement’s 50th anniversary and tie it to the occupation, arguing in short that movements need to come to terms with electoral politics and the powers-that-be to produce change—turned enigmatic. “If something happens, you know the things that are alleged—rape, disease, sexually transmitted disease. You never know who’s down there, homeless people. The mayors can’t tolerate it. It’s unfair, but they’re the ones who are going to get blamed if anything happens to anyone ... all the blame, whatever the real reason, will be [on] the mayor. And the cops will be accused of being weak.”

“The only mayor I’ve talked to [is] Villaraigosa,” says Hayden, turning to his home turf of Los Angeles, where more than 200 occupiers were arrested in November when their encampment was evicted from City Hall Park.

“When they were about to sweep, he called me and said: ‘Tommy, nobody’s going to be hurt. We have to do this. I’m a lover, not a hater. They’re not going to get hurt, but they’ve got to go. We’ve had people in there every day, and there’s things going on in there which could become a very bad mark for the movement and for me. And we just can’t let the cops ignore the possibility that there might be child abuse or sexually transmitted disease or rape or stabbing.’”

“Not that those things don’t happen every day anyway in L.A. somewhere,” says Hayden. “But this is his reputation on the line. So he has to balance the right of the protest—and he agrees with the goals of the protest, and he let it go on for weeks and weeks and weeks—but being what a politician does, he went to the extreme end of what he thought was allowable for him as mayor and just said, ‘That’s it.’"

“If he hadn’t said ‘that’s it,’ he probably wouldn’t be mayor, he’d probably be in big trouble.”

On later reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hayden, now a spry 72, has walked a tightrope between radical outsider and skilled political operator for half a century: Freedom Rider, founder and president of SDS, witness to the Newark riots, member of the Chicago Seven, husband to Jane Fonda, almost two decades in the California legislature, not to mention two runs for Senate, mayor and city council in Los Angeles, university gigs, a Nation fellow.

I met Hayden at Penn Station an hour earlier as he arrived by train from Boston (where he had spoken with Noam Chomsky the previous day). We hopped a cab and headed to the Village apartment of another former ’60s radical, away on vacation, where Tom was staying while in New York. From there, we spoke on our way to a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the seminal 1962 manifesto of new-left progenitors Students for a Democratic Society. We arrived to find 150 mostly septuagenarian radicals crammed into a musty labor-history room at NYU’s Bobst Library to reminisce about their own social movement.

“I’m the oddity who has spent 50 years nonstop in social movements,” Haden told the audience at the event’s opening night. “But I’ve also spent 20 years running for office. Winning ... losing ... I served 18 years in the California legislature—16 of them under Republican governors, which was unexpected—and I was the poster boy for Republican attacks. But I got a hundred bills signed, but I had to compromise, compromise, compromise ... ”

I thought back 50 years to when he wrote the document he was reflecting on now: “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

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Unlike Occupy, which sprang out of disillusionment with electoral politics—one of the reasons that was named Occupy Wall Street rather than Occupy Washington—SDS, says Hayden, didn’t shy away from the Beltway. “Alan Haber and I went to the White House and gave it to [historian] Arthur Schlesinger because he would get it to John Kennedy,” Hayden reminisced. “We had this expectation that maybe through our document we could alert the liberals to the fact that they had missed the coming of the new generation of young people. And it was our obligation to at least drop the paper off and brief the White House.”

A few years later, Hayden heard from the White House, this time the Johnson administration. “They wanted to copy SNCC and SDS. They wanted to have a poverty program that did what we did, that’s how they put it in their friendly political way. And they wanted me to head it up in the Andes,” Hayden, who declined the offer, told the rapt crowd.

“You sit back and you say, ‘Oh, you were being co-opted.’ Well co-optation is very subtle. When you get an offer to organize a group of poor people in the Andes, you have to carefully investigate why this is happening. They were trying to mirror SNCC and SDS globally and move the Peace Corps in that direction. Obviously with a mixed agenda and [one with] ulterior motives.”

Hayden told the audience that the dishonesty of Johnson’s ’64 campaign “shocked” and “disoriented” him, but when I’d asked him earlier about Obama’s inability to deliver on his antiwar campaign promises, he shrugged: “Obama just made a cold decision.”

“He’s a brilliant politician, which requires cold blood, and he said, ‘I can’t do that now. I know I campaigned on it, but I won’t last long if I go too far.’ Remember when he got slapped down immediately when—remember he said he was going to close Guantánamo? He didn’t have a single person on his side. I said, ‘What’s he doing?’ He couldn’t even get the governor of his home state to allow one Guantánamo detainee to be moved to Illinois even if they built some fucking 450-ton steel chamber. Why? ’Cause they’re afraid of any unnecessary voter flare-up where they don’t get anything in return to cover their ass.”

Hayden concluded his keynote address by taking a few questions from the audience. Unlike the previous evening, the day’s events were held in the basement auditorium of NYU's Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, which felt cavernous—only sparsely filled by a smaller crowd. An older gentlemen identified himself as an SDS member, ’63–’64, and announced with pride “The Port Huron Statement called for the best of our generation” and that, in fact, was why he joined SDS in the first place.

“Young people today are facing the same kinds of horrors in the world that we faced when we were growing up. And I say to young people today, follow your convictions, follow your conscience ... Because if there’s one real lesson from the ’60s, it’s not that it went too far, but that we didn’t go far enough.”

“Right on,” Hayden said and moved on to the next question.