It’s not déjà vu

Tom Hayden sees more change than repetition in our history

Tom Hayden and Frank Condon will be reading and signing copies of their books at The Avid Reader, 1600 Broadway, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25.

He’s seen it all before: an unpopular war, an even more unpopular president and a contested Democratic primary. But if you ask Tom Hayden about déjà vu, he doesn’t immediately start reminiscing about the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago 40 years ago, or about the trial that followed, in which he and six other defendants were accused of seeking to overthrow the government.

Hayden’s most recent book, Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader, is devoted to his entire career. “The book covers 50 years of my writing, so I feel sometimes like an archeological site,” Hayden told SN&R. “You can excavate any decade you wish, but it does provide a kind of unique perspective when you get to this age.”

Hayden will be in town this week for a book signing, where he’ll be joined by collaborator Frank Condon, artistic director of Sacramento’s River Stage. In addition to Writings for a Democratic Society, they’ll be signing and discussing Voices of the Chicago Eight: A Generation on Trial. Condon’s play about the trial, taken from transcripts and court documents, is included in the volume.

With a career that’s included grassroots organizing and 18 years in the California Legislature, Hayden’s now putting his experience to work, from globalization of trade in Latin America to the Obama campaign. “I helped start up a group called Progressives for Obama,” he said, rattling off the Web address ( He’s also been active in the movement to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why aren’t Americans, who seem so dissatisfied with current policy, especially in Iraq, “taking it to the streets” as they did in the Vietnam era?

“The simple explanation is the right one: The Iraq war was designed to keep protests at a controllable level,” he said. Without a draft, he said, the war might be harder for the Pentagon to fight, but “it also means that protest is channeled through orthodox channels.”

Hayden points to the election of 2006 as an obvious peace mandate, and to the Obama candidacy as an example of engagement with the political process on the part of people who once were excluded. “Some people aren’t happy with the pace” of change, he noted, “but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have more avenues for participation and no draft and still expect people to take to the barricades as if there’s no other option.”

Hayden, a self-described “gradualist,” noted that some of the people he’s worked with in the past may disapprove of incremental change. “I agree with the people who are very suspicious of the two-party system and are suspicious of compromises,” he said. “But I also agree with the people who are trying to improve everyday life and trying to make things better by gaining ground.”

And there are still lessons to be learned from the past. “The point of my writing at this point is to put all this in perspective,” he said, “so that people know what social movements can accomplish and the elastic nature of the overall system, even if you can’t quite name it.”