Televising the Revolution
Ed Everts recalls a life of activism
Four score and seven years ago, Ed Everts was brought forth on this continent, conceived in Berkeley, California. In the years since, he's become increasingly dedicated to the proposition that war seldom solves anything and must be resisted.
Throughout the long run of his alleged "retirement" years in Vermont, the Charlotte resident has worked relentlessly for social justice as well as for world peace. Everts' contributions to those causes include producing 660 weekly shows on Burlington-area public-access television featuring talks by local and national activists (see accompanying story).
"Other people would get tired, but Ed never has," says Wendy Coe, office manager of the Peace and Justice Center on Church Street, where Everts sat for an interview last week. "Ed's an inspiration," Coe suggests. "If he can keep going at 87, I figure I can keep going at 54."
But while his mind shows no sign of diminishing, Everts' physical capabilities have slowly succumbed to the passage of time. He totters stoop-shouldered now. And after recently falling asleep at the wheel and swerving into a ditch along Route 7, Everts depends on others for transportation.
"I've begun unplugging all connections to life," he says with a slow shake of his white-haired head. The installment of "The Peace and Justice Review" scheduled to air late this month on Channel 15 will be his last. "We're hoping someone will carry it on, maybe less frequently," Everts says. "I've done it singlehandedly for the past 10 years and I can't do it anymore."
He's hardly housebound, however. Everts and his wife of 40 years, Raven Davis, are planning bird-watching trips in the spring to Puerto Rico and Africa.
"Color-confused and nearsighted" himself, Everts says he regularly travels to the tropics not to see indigenous species but because Davis, a birding enthusiast, asks him to accompany her.
Wanderlust still compels him as well, though. Before moving to Vermont in 1973, Everts notes, "I never lived in one place for more than a couple of years." At age 44, after divorcing his second wife, for example, he embarked on a round-the-world hitchhiking jaunt. "I thought it'd take a few months," he says, "but I was gone more than three years."
That journey advanced a political evolution that has taken Everts far from his Republican roots. During a stopoff in Egypt, he recalls, "I was impressed by how that culture required people with money to support those who don't have much." And throughout his travels in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Everts adds, "I learned that the poorer the country, the nicer the people."
He practices charity in his own right, though he doesn't advertise it. Coe, not Everts, points out that he donates his U.S. Air Force pension to the Peace and Justice Center.
That money was hard earned, too.
Drafted in 1940 after graduating with a chemistry degree from Berkeley, Everts rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His five-year military career began with an assignment to a chemical-warfare unit, but "I realized pretty quickly that wasn't something I wanted to do," Everts says. He was transferred to a meteorology training course at UCLA, which prepared him for the scores of weather-forecasting flights he would make in the South Pacific and over Tokyo. Japanese anti-aircraft batteries frequently fired at the planes that were checking weather conditions prior to bombing runs. "They were ineffectual, though," Everts notes nonchalantly. "Their guns couldn't reach our altitude."
He nonetheless wound up in the water one night in February, 1945. Everts and 11 other U.S. servicemen fell from the sky after a propeller sheared off and tore into their plane's fuselage. Four of the fliers were killed. The survivors floated in a life raft for three days as sharks circled and occasionally bumped them from below.
His World War II experiences pushed Everts, by then a Democrat, further to the left. "I came to see that war is no solution, that negotiation makes much more sense," he explains. While condemning state-sponsored violence, Everts isn't sure he's personally a pacifist. "If put to the test, I don't know which way I'd go," he confides.
After the war, Everts worked for a while at an aviation company in Los Angeles. "It was like 'Dilbert,'" he recalls, referring to the newspaper comic strip that finds the funny side of workplace alienation. "I didn't want that kind of job."
Instead, he took a nighttime job at a meat-packing plant. Like many living within sight of the Hollywood hills, though, Everts wanted most to make movies. He helped start a production company, but when its bankrollers died, the film business failed. Everts kept his blue-collar job in downtown L.A., and eventually was elected president of the plant's union local; he led his coworkers on a 102-day strike that comprised an important chapter in Everts' political education.
"A lot of the guys at that plant were blacks or Chicanos," he says. "It was obvious that if you wanted something decent, you had to work together to get it."
After experiencing the Third World and California, Everts had a well-developed awareness of racial injustice. His commitment to equality impresses Larry McCrorey, an African-American professor emeritus at the UVM College of Medicine who has often appeared on Everts' TV show.
"Ed has always been on the right side of history," McCrorey says. "It took courage for him to film all those sessions with me and John Tucker" (the former director of the racial justice and equity project at the Peace and Justice Center). "Those were controversial areas, because Vermont is in denial as far as racism is concerned. But Ed never flinched."
In addition to what he learned in war, on the job and through his world travels, Everts acquired an academic understanding of social issues while studying at Boston College Law School in the late 1960s. He had moved to Cambridge because Davis, whom he met in Tokyo in 1965, had received a grant to study at Harvard. Everts earned a law degree but never became a lawyer, partly because he inherited a substantial sum in 1970 following the death of his grandfather, who owned a lumber mill in Berkeley.
In a profile of an octogenarian activist, readers might expect some upbeat prognostications, but Everts isn't going to supply them. To him, the future looks "terrible." The global population of 6 billion, heading for 10 billion, is "at least three times what the Earth can support," he declares. "We just keep spreading out like a Banyan tree on top of a mountain."
He also doubts that the United States will become a more peaceful country. "Our leaders are very vindictive, very militaristic," he observes. "I don't think that's going to change." Even so, Everts adds, "I've always felt obligated to do the best I can."
Pressed to offer at least a hint of hope, he comes back to the television show that's been his focus since 1992. "If it convinced just a few people to try to change the way things are," Everts muses, "I guess you could say it's been a worthwhile experience."
It's July 2003, and four members of Green Mountain Veterans for Peace are doing a live call-in show in the Burlington studio of Vermont Community Access Media, the local public-access TV station. It's an episode of the "Peace & Justice Review," produced by local activist Ed Everts for the nonprofit Peace & Justice Center in downtown Burlington.
Since Everts himself is a vet - of World War II - he's part of the four-person panel of talking heads on-screen. His presence is low-key compared with that of (now late) University of Vermont philosophy professor Will Miller, who chairs the discussion. But when Everts speaks, he stands out. After showing an excerpt from Metal of Dishonor, a film about the dangers of depleted uranium, Everts says he's personally witnessed the disastrous effects of Agent Orange in Saigon and of depleted uranium in Basra. "This country doesn't seem to have much compassion or care much about what we do to other countries," he says, a hint of country twang in his voice. "There has to be a time coming when we draw the line and say, 'No more.'"
The vets solicit callers. Only one viewer responds, but he seems to have been thinking hard about the panelists' message. "I agree with some of what you're saying," he says hesitantly. "But didn't Saddam also experiment on his own people with nuclear devices? To put all the blame on the [Bush] administration doesn't seem quite fair."
"You're taking a lot of what the government says as true," Everts objects. Then he takes a different tack: "We have to criticize or try to manage or educate or do whatever we can do to our own government. We're not in the position to do that in Iraq." Demonizing Saddam, he claims, allows us to think our actions in Iraq "aren't all bad. But it is all bad."
A glitzy CNN call-in show this isn't. It's 180 degrees removed from the politics of Fox News, or the aggro energy of "Hardball" or "Crossfire." But its run rivals theirs. For the past 14 years, the weekly "Peace & Justice Review" has brought radical Left voices to Burlington's airwaves. That's primarily the work of Everts, who retires from producing the show this month.
The "Review" didn't start as a solo project. When it premiered in 1992, a 12-person committee produced it, Everts recalls. Eight or 10 activists were interested in continuing with the project, so they set aside an hour each week. But "gradually people fell by the wayside - getting pregnant, divorced, graduated, whatever," Everts says. The fresh volunteers he recruited "never showed up."
The staff dwindled to two or three, then to just Everts, who has helmed the show alone for the past 10 years. In 2002, he began producing "Veterans for Peace," a monthly call-in, editing both shows at VCAM using the station's equipment. "It's hard to imagine VCAM without Ed; he's such a pillar," says VCAM Executive Director Rob Chapman.
The show's back catalogue stands at a whopping 660 hour-long, commercial-free episodes. Ten or 12 have been lost, Everts says. Videotapes of the others can be found shelved chronologically in the Peace & Justice Center, each painstakingly hand-labeled by Everts with a date and often lengthy description. "They were going to get some computer guru" to work with him on cross-indexing the tapes, Everts says, but it never happened.
In early episodes, PJC director Robin Lloyd hawked products from her store on the air, but the producers soon axed this commercial aspect. The show generally focused on "a visiting name, an action, a vigil, a protest, an interview with a local activist," Everts says. In other words, it covered a lot of territory.
Some episodes are shot in the VCAM studio, like the call-in show; others consist of video of a local event. Some are excerpts from professionally produced documentaries available on VHS, while others are amateur docs, such as a record of the 1993 Freedom to Travel Challenge, when 174 Americans defied the ban on travel to Cuba. (Though Everts only appears fleetingly on that tape, his memory of the trip is vivid. "I hugged Fidel," he says.)
But one thing the "Review" isn't, unlike many political public-access shows, is a soapbox for its producer. As he demonstrates in the call-in show, Everts can "preach it" with the best of them. But he can also sit back and let his guests, or his subject, take center stage.
One early episode is a conversation in the studio between Everts and Dave Dellinger, the lifelong activist and member of the Chicago Seven who died in Montpelier in 2004. In the episode, Dellinger has just finished fasting for 42 days on the U.S. Capitol steps for "peace and justice in the Americas," he says.
As Dellinger tells anecdotes from the '60s, the camera only occasionally cuts to Everts, who sports a Maynard G. Krebs goatee, a full head of white hair and a blue-checked shirt. "When you're violent yourself, it's easier to deal with violence," he chimes in, as Dellinger discusses how FBI moles tried to goad activists to violence. When Dellinger says the only choice in that year's presidential election is "none of the above," Everts says with a chuckle, "I put that on my absentee ballot."
In other episodes, Everts shows a commercial video excerpt and follows it with personal commentary. They Can't Break Our Union, a documentary about the strike at Sterling Radiator in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1981, prompts Everts to reminisce about his role in the nationwide strike against Wilson Meat Packers in 1959. Banned from the plant for six months, he took a job offered by the local longshoremen. "After the first day of loading bananas I could hardly walk," he recalls.
Another episode presents Everts' homemade doc of a visit to South Africa's Robben Island, the desolate rock off Capetown where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Everts appears only as a voice, but his singsong, homespun narration is oddly evocative. "There's Robben Island in the distance. Just a flat pancake surrounded by really rugged rocky shoreline," he says, following a lengthy, silent view of the ferry crossing.
The "Peace & Justice Review" jumps around the globe, but it's also a record of Chittenden County's activist legacy. A 1994 episode documents a 10-year reunion of the "Winooski 44," who invaded Senator Robert Stafford's Winooski office in 1984 to protest U.S. involvement in El Salvador. Besides Everts in his familiar blue-checked shirt, the Congregational Church gathering features a young "Debbie" Markowitz, wearing round glasses and dandling a toddler. (The current Vermont secretary of state was there with her husband Paul, one of the 44.)
Another episode preserves a 2001 Burlington panel discussion called "Politics, History and the Media," moderated by Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven and featuring historian Howard Zinn, journalist Gwenda Blair, and Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio.
Though thought-provoking, such discussions among activists don't tend to feature strongly opposing viewpoints or intense debate. That's why it's a surprise to come across a December 2001 episode documenting a "Palestine/Israel Forum" in Lafayette Hall on the UVM campus, which offers a rare moment of drama.
After a student gives an impassioned speech decrying Israel, religion professor Richard Sugarman disrupts the gathering, calling it an "exercise in anti-Semitism" because no Israeli speakers were invited. "I'm going to tell you something, and I'm not leaving until I'm done," he bellows. "I have friends who were killed in those restaurants [by suicide bombers]. There's no debate here, there's no free speech here, there's no justice here, and there's no socialism here." When someone suggests calling security, Sugarman retorts, "I am security. Congratulations, you're handing a victory to the Right. You've been co-opted, and God forgive you. Don't allow the Left to be perverted in the name of anti-Semitism."
It's a powerful moment from a turbulent time, when even academic civility couldn't restrain people's emotions. But perhaps more powerful is what happens after the professor leaves. Peace activist Sister Miriam Ward rises and, voice shaking, recites the numbers of Israelis and Palestinians killed in the past few days of violence. "My message tonight, contrary to what Professor Sugarman said, is . . . end the cycle of violence," she says, holding up a battered protest sign bearing those words.
All these moments are part of Ed Everts' legacy. At its annual dinner In 2005, VCAM gave him a Director's Award for his lifetime achievement. Serena Chaudhry, current director of the PJC, notes that Everts was also runner-up for the United Way's Hometown Hero award. "Service organizations pull on people's heartstrings, while advocacy and activist groups nudge people's intellect and conscious[ness]," she writes in an email. "The work we do is not always tangible. Ed's Hometown Hero [nomination] helped our work to be recognized."
Chaudhry says the PJC will conduct a marketing survey this spring to determine how best to "carry on Ed's legacy." "We're pretty committed to doing the show," she says. "It's a question of figuring out what kind of format we'll use."
The currently running episode shows that Everts is still on the move: It consists of footage he took at the recent national convention of Veterans for Peace in Seattle. Does he ever sit on the couch and contemplate the fruits of his labor? Actually, Everts says, he's never watched the show. "We don't get cable TV."