Peace Activist Brian Willson Returns to the Tracks Where He Lost His Legs
Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Article Launched: 09/01/2007 04:27:15 AM PDT
When packing for this weekend's trip down to Concord, Brian Willson included a few unusual items: his blood-stained St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat, a pair of boots he hasn't worn in 20 years and a piece of his shin bone.
These aren't normal travel items, but Brian Willson isn't a normal guy and this isn't a normal trip.
Twenty years ago today Willson and two others took to the train tracks in Concord to stop a train loaded with weapons headed from the Concord Naval Weapons Station to the hands of Contras in Central America.
The group, which called themselves Nuremberg Actions, sent numerous letters to the station and local law enforcement stating exactly when and where they would be on the tracks, but the train was ordered not to stop.
Duncan Murphy and David Duncombe, who joined Willson on the tracks that day, leapt out of the train's path, but Willson couldn't move in time.
”It just plowed right through,” said Holley Rauen, Willson's wife at the time who was standing nearby with her then 14-year-old son Gabriel, in a previous interview with the Times-Standard. “It was pretty horrible to see Brian's foot fly out from under the train.”
While Willson has no delusions about the serious impact the event had on him and those who witnessed it, he also tries to keep it in a global perspective.
”Basically, what happened was just a brutal, graphic experience for U.S. citizens, but it happens all over the world every day,” he said.
Historian, author and peace activist Howard Zinn said the event thrust the once-vibrant peace movement back into the national spotlight.
”It not only drew national attention,” Zinn said in a previous interview with the Times-Standard. “It sparked activity all over the country.”
Several days after the incident, thousands of people flocked to the tracks, including Jessie Jackson, actor Martin Sheen and folk singer Joan Baez. Protesters ripped up the tracks. It was the beginning of several years of action in Concord, which saw a steady line of protesters blocking the tracks, hundreds of them getting arrested in the process.
David Hartsough, who was at the tracks Sept. 1, 1987 and is helping to organize the 20th anniversary event, said today's event is, in part, about reuniting all those people that spent years taking a stand on those tracks.
”I think the community of people that gathered there, not only that day but for the following years -- who literally were willing to risk months in jail, getting run over, getting arms broken, being in the freezing cold and the boiling sun -- that was an amazing community of people,” Hartsough said, adding that he hopes to see many of the same faces today.
Hartsough said the theme of today's event is “remembering, reflection and re-commitment,” but it seems that Willson's level of commitment has never wavered.
Willson will be traveling to Concord via his bio-diesel car, which is symbolic of the change of direction his life has taken. In the place of traveling globally to see firsthand the impacts caused by United States military interventions in foreign lands, he has committed himself to living simply and reducing his impact on the environment.
He has also been toiling away on his memoirs, which he hopes will be released in the coming year. His life is also the subject of a play, “On Track,” written by acclaimed playwright Jeanmarie Simpson, which was originally scheduled to debut today in Blue Lake. The play has since been delayed, but Willson said both Simpson and actor Judd Nelson remain committed to the project, and he hopes it will be released in 2008.
Since Willson last stood near the tracks in Concord 10 years ago today, the naval base has closed. But he and Hartsough said there is a phenomenal amount of work left to be done. They said the war in Iraq needs to end, and citizens need to do everything in their power to stop a war with Iran.
”It's about what it means to be a citizen of the world,” Hartsough said.
Willson said it's a simple matter of equality.
”Our lives are not worth more, and their lives are not worth less,” he said.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or email@example.com
Brian Willson and about 100 of his friends, admirers and fellow activists stood in a circle Saturday around a vase of red roses that marked the spot where a munitions train 20 years earlier rolled over the 46-year-old Vietnam veteran and sheared off his legs.
"It's a metaphor for what happens if you get in the way of the Yankee train - it runs you over," Willson, standing firmly on artificial limbs, told the gathering that had come to remember a catalytic event in the peace movement of the 1980s.
Gray hair was abundant, along with other evidence of the passage of time.
The Concord Naval Weapons Station, which once shipped armaments to U.S.-backed forces in Central America, shut down eight years ago. A speaker read a list of the dead - protesters, friends and the engineer of the weapons train - prompting the ceremonial chant for "present" in Spanish, "Presente," after each name.
The once-robust police presence was replaced by an occasional passing Contra Costa County sheriff's patrol car and a lone officer who exchanged waves with the crowd and snapped photos from across the street.In contrast to the hostile atmosphere that participants recalled from the 1980s, peace signs and approving honks from passing motorists far outnumbered angry shouts and gestures Saturday.
But the remnants of the loose-knit organization that grew up around the Concord protests were looking to draw a connection between then and now.
"They didn't kill Brian and they didn't kill our movement," said David Hartsough, 67, who was knocked to the ground by the train that ran over Willson, then went to his friend's side and cradled his broken body. Hartsough arranged Saturday's commemoration in the name of Nuremberg Actions, the group that organized the 1980s protests, and ended it with an invitation to the monthly "die-in" this Thursday at the San Francisco Federal Building to protest the war in Iraq.
"We're still sending munitions to kill innocent people," said Duncan Murphy, 87, who was standing with Willson on the tracks as the train approached. Murphy - who said they had expected the train to stop - was able to jump onto the engine, cling to the cowcatcher, then leap clear.
Willson said the face of Murphy, standing over him and talking to him, is one of the last things he remembers before waking up in the hospital.
Charlie Liteky was then 3,000 miles away, beginning his second fasting vigil at the Capitol to protest U.S. military aid to Nicaragua's Contra rebels and El Salvador's rightist government. A year earlier, Liteky had taken the Medal of Honor he won for heroism as an Army chaplain in Vietnam and had left it at the Vietnam Wall along with a letter for President Ronald Reagan, whose policies he was protesting. Liteky and Willson, who had been an Air Force captain in Vietnam, then began a 47-day fast.
"The strongest statement you can make is with your life," said Liteky, 76, who now lives in San Francisco.
Movement icon Daniel Ellsberg also appeared and recalled how he had decided not to attend the Concord protest on Sept. 1, 1987 - to the relief of his wife, who reminded him that he had missed their son's first birthday while being arrested in an anti-nuclear demonstration. When they heard about Willson, Ellsberg said, they headed for the site the next day and saw the tracks covered with blood.
Willson is "a hero and a prophet," Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War to the press, told the gathering.
Claire Englander, 62, of Oakland carried a placard showing a photo of Dick Allen, "my college love," who was killed in Vietnam in November 1967.
"It's a reminder that many of us have sacrificed for this country more than George Bush or Dick Cheney ever did," she said.Continue reading »
Nuremberg Actions' Brian Willson celebrates 20 years of resistance CONCORD Activist hit by train while protesting arms shipments to Central America celebrates lifetime of resistance
Nuremberg Actions' Brian Willson celebrates 20 years of resistance
CONCORD Activist hit by train while protesting arms shipments to Central America celebrates lifetime of resistance
Twenty years ago today, a 46-year-old former Air Force captain sat down on the tracks in front of a train loaded with bombs at the Concord Naval Weapons Station. As the minute hand swept past 11:56 a.m. and the blazing summer sun beat down, he calmly held a plastic jug of water and listened to the metal wheels grinding toward him from 600 feet away.
The ex-captain's name was S. Brian Willson. He was there to block the train, with about 50 other demonstrators gathered around him, to protest U.S. arms shipments to Central America.
But nothing was blocked that day.
Instead, the train barreled into him at 16 miles an hour, slicing off his legs and one ear and laying open his skull - and igniting what quickly became the nation's biggest anti-war movement in the decades between the Vietnam and Iraq eras.
Within a day, the barren stretch of railroad tracks at the weapons depot just north of Concord became a camp for thousands of protesters rotating in and out of a round-the-clock "vigil" in Willson's name. Celebrities from Joan Baez and Jesse Jackson to Martin Sheen made pilgrimages to the spot, and politicians from Sen. Edward Kennedy to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega jammed his mailbox with support letters.
Four weeks later, fitted with artificial legs, Willson hobbled back to the tracks amid demonstrators' cheers - but the vigil did not end there. In fact, it never totally ended - even after the base closed eight years ago and stopped shipping arms - because one protester from the old days still shows up every Monday to kneel and say a prayer for Willson.
Today, however, there will be more than a memory on those dusty tracks.
On the 20th anniversary of the maiming that left an indelible mark on both his life and the nation's peace movement, Willson plans to come back to the spot where he lost his legs to remember and pray for global harmony. It's a different time, with different wars, but he says he feels just as passionate as he did back then. It will be the first time he's been back since the 10-year anniversary in 1997.
"Maybe we'll have 10 people there, maybe 30, who knows?" Willson said by phone from his home in Arcata (Humboldt County). "I guess it'll be whatever it is. I do know this, though: We have to preserve our history. That's one good reason to be there, as painful as the memories will be for me."
David Hartsough, who was standing on the tracks with Willson in 1987 and helped cradle his battered body, is organizing a ceremony at 10 a.m. today with his friend that he is calling "Remembering, Reflection and Recommitment." The idea, he said, is to exhort anyone who shows up to get or stay involved in anti-war activism, as most of the people from the halcyon days of Nuremberg Actions, the peace group Willson co-founded, appear to have done.
"We made an important political statement back then by putting our bodies in front of bombs, and we continue to believe that we can't remain silent while our government sends bombs overseas to kill innocent citizens," said Hartsough, 67. "Back then it was Nicaragua. Today it's Iraq. But it's the same problem."
Willson still regularly gives speeches decrying American military involvement overseas, and Hartsough leads monthly protests at the Federal Building in San Francisco. Hartsough also heads up the Bay Area-based Nonviolent Peace Force, which has sent nearly 100 protesters to 19 different countries, including Sri Lanka and Guatemala, to organize anti-war demonstrations.
"I have to look on life as a journey, and all I can say is I'm still on track," said Willson. "Running me over with a train wasn't just criminal, it was stupid. But it has not in any way stopped me."
These days Willson has expanded his causes to figuring out how to become more ecologically sensitive. The house he shares with partner Becky Luening - who helps run the Friendship Village Project, which gives overseas aid to Vietnamese victims of war - runs entirely on solar power, and they use recycled water to grow food. Willson refuses to drive anything using oil, and instead logs 100 miles a week on a three-wheeled cycle powered by hand ("my leg stumps don't do well with pedaling," he said).
For income, he draws on Social Security, a military disability check (for post-traumatic stress disorder from service in Vietnam) and the remains of a $920,000 settlement he got from the U.S. Navy for the train incident. He banked less than half of the money by the time the attorneys and others in the case were paid.
"My life is good," he said. "I like the whole idea of pursuing what I call right livelihood, reducing my footprint on Earth. I enjoy it."
Part of that enjoyment also comes from working on his long-term legacy. He is collaborating with playwright Jeanmarie Simpson on a play about his life, due to premiere in California in the coming year with actor Judd Nelson in the title role. Willson himself is also finishing a 2,000-page autobiography, which he hopes to split into several volumes.
"I'm 66 now, so I can't take anything for granted," Willson said. "I want to get this biographical stuff out before too much time goes by."
All of this is a far cry from the life Willson would have imagined when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1966 at the age of 25. Born on the Fourth of July, he considered himself a quintessential patriot, professing a belief, he wrote, that the U.S. had a responsibility "to preserve democracy from Godless communism."
Being on the ground in Vietnam as an intelligence officer began to erode that fervor, and then his entire belief system transformed in 1969, when he led a post-attack assessment team to a village that had been bombed nearly flat. At one point he knelt down to talk to a woman who was clutching three dead children and looking, he thought, toward him. Willson only realized she was lifeless when he figured out her eyes were open because napalm had burned away the eyelids.
"That was the first of several epiphanies I've had," he recalled. "Since then I've been trying to figure out how to stop the killing."
That quest led him to becoming a lawyer after his honorable discharge in 1970, working with prisoners, leading fasts against war - and then, in 1986, leading the protest at the Concord weapons tracks. The naval station was the nation's main munitions shipment center to U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, just as it had been during the Vietnam War.
In the months after Willson was run over, the vigil in his name grew so big that protesters took up residence nearby in a donated home they called the "peace house," and every national anti-war group lent supporters.
"I guess people thought we'd go away after a while, but we didn't," Willson recalled. "It was too important to us all."
The protest camp, run by Nuremberg Actions, the group Willson co-founded just before his maiming, existed for three solid years with 24/7 tents, hippie-style protest flags, daily blockages of munitions trains, and prayer and folk song gatherings. Navy officials and residents of the tiny nearby town of Clyde were at first annoyed, then somewhat amazed at the tenacity of the group, and after a while the ongoing camp came to be regarded as a part of the landscape.
Even though the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua faded into distant memory and the weapons station ceasing shipping munitions eight years ago, the protest never truly ended. A couple of times a year, peace groups use the tracks as a setting for small anti-war gatherings - and every Monday, just as he has for the past 20 years, 53-year-old Concord resident Greg Getty, sits at the tracks at 9 a.m. and says a prayer in Willson's name.
Not everyone is nostalgic.
"It was a real pain in the neck back then," said Larry Palen, superintendent of Eagle Iron Works, which is across the street from the tracks at the entrance to Clyde. "Those protesters would have traffic backed up to the freeway when a train came by and they'd block it. They used to park all their crappy old hippie vans everywhere.
"I was glad when it ended, and I haven't thought about it since. Thank goodness we're not open this Saturday."
The Contra Costa sheriff's office estimates that in the first three years of protest, deputies spent $400,000 making more than 2,000 arrests, hauling demonstrators off the train tracks. Deputies will be on hand once again today along with Navy police, but nobody really expects much trouble.
"Last time they (demonstrators) did a commemoration out there, in 2002, we were very nice and let them stand on the lawn here at the base," said Naval police Lt. Edwin James. "There was no problem.
"But just in case, we'd better get some overtime ready."
Getty, who delivers The Chronicle for a living, intends to be there again today, and wishes he had never left. He lived out of a broken-down trailer at the tracks for 15 years, keeping a daily protest vigil, until county officials finally forced him to move the vehicle.
"I think this protest should never end," Getty said. "I knew Brian when he had legs, and what he did was very powerful. I'm just trying to follow his model."Continue reading »