July 28, 2014

Can you each share your history with PSR?

Harry: I became a member around 1983 when I moved to Sacramento to do my training in child psychiatry. One of my clinical supervisors, Dr. Ed Rudin, was one of founders and leaders of PSR Sacramento, which was formed in 1980. I participated in some of the early activities in the 80s but, because I had young children at that time I didn’t do that much. I later got involved in a project in the mid-90s focused on domestic violence, violence in the community, and gun violence.

Bill: It was actually a fairly extensive project: they published a 50-page monograph, which we still have copies of. They got people together from the medical community, law enforcement, and NGOs. The study looked at root cause of violence and approaches to reducing youth and domestic violence. It’s a monograph I still refer to it from time to time. Harry was one of the co-authors on that along with Dr. Ed Rudin.

Harry: That was one of our last major efforts. Our chapter faded away in late 1990s. Then I met Bill at an anti-war rally in Dolores Park in September 2002. He still had a PSR banner! He had been on the Board of SF Bay Area PSR because we had no active chapter in Sacramento at that time. When we met each other and started chatting, it was exciting to find out that we were both members of PSR Sacramento, and that’s when we started meeting and organizing. It really came out of the anti-war movement and our reaction to the impending war on Iraq and US policy and approach to “terrorism.”

Bill: My first contact with PSR was also in 1983. I had finished a residency in internal medicine in San Francisco, then had done a residency in Emergency Medicine in Fresno, and came to work with Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento. I got to know an anesthesiologist on the Kaiser Staff named Gene Reams, and he introduced me to PSR. I wrote a check to join but, like Harry, had a young family and did not have much active involvement until our kids were older and more independent. That’s when I started working on the gun violence issue.

I was in combat in Vietnam and an expert marksman in the Marines. When I did my ER residency in Fresno and saw all those civilian gunshot wounds and learned that every two years more US civilians are killed by guns than all the US soldiers in the entire eleven-year Vietnam war, I decided to do what I could to try to curb this epidemic of gun violence in our country. So I looked for organizations to work with. First I worked with the California chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, became their injury prevention chairperson, and served one term on the Board of Directors. I tried to publicize the fact that gun violence is a serious public health problem in our country and much more common in the US than other democratic high-income countries; and guns in our homes and communities are much more likely to kill or injure innocent people than protect them.

We supported sensible gun laws in the California legislature and opposed bad ones. We came very close to getting a law passed (AB 944) that would have required a warning similar to the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes that basically said guns in the homes are much more likely to kill or injure a household member than protect against an intruder. We were about to get it passed and then the author suddenly pulled the plug for reasons he’d never reveal.

I knew Bob Gould fairly well because he was also a Kaiser physician and he recommended me for the SF Bay Area PSR Board. I was the firearm prevention champion on that board. Harry and I chuckle that we have to give George Bush credit for bringing us together because, after the September 11th terrorist attack, I printed the banner Harry mentioned. It said “Security and justice, not revenge” and had the PSR logo on it. I’d take the banner to the Tues night demos at 16th and J in Sacramento and meet a couple other docs there who’d been with PSR during the active years. We had the idea of re-starting the Sacramento chapter. Then we went to the rally that Harry mentioned in Dolores Park in SF, opposing the buildup toward war in Iraq. I had the banner there; Harry walked up and said hello and that he was a member of Sacramento PSR. That was the beginning of our longtime collaboration and friendship. Shortly after that, Harry and I decided to re-start the Sacramento PSR chapter.

What were some challenges and successes in reforming the chapter?

Harry: We had not met as a chapter for a long time, so it took us a while and going to a lot of events to recruit a core group. Fortunately, there was quite an activist community and we were eventually able to attract quite a few people who joined and have now been members for the last 10 years. We currently have 700 members and had gotten up to that number within a year or so. We had to decide whether to become a formal PSR chapter or not. It took about 9 months to decide to approach national PSR and go through the process to re-become an official chapter. There were organizational challenges of getting a chapter restarted. We were fortunate that we got some help from Marj (Plumb, Co-Executive Director, SF Bay Area PSR) and Ira Shorr from national PSR.

The biggest challenge is that doctors are busy; it’s hard to get time and commitment. Yet we were able to have monthly meetings at the medical center for 5-6 years. We had a nice core group of interested physicians. Like other chapters, we’re about 18% physicians, with the rest being other health care professionals and concerned citizens.

Bill: There was an episode that didn’t seem funny at the time but seems funny now and helped us immensely. We were issuing press releases saying why it would be crazy to invade Iraq. We leafleted to delegates coming to the to state Democratic convention asking them to oppose the invasion of Iraq. At that time, the US weapons inspectors were searching for weapons of mass destruction and finding none. I put up a UN flag up outside our house. No one paid much attention to it. A Sacramento Bee reporter found out about PSR Sacramento and our opposition to the war and wanted to do a story about us. She took a picture of me with the UN flag outside our door and it was published with the story in the Sacramento Bee the next day. The title was “Practicing peace: Physicians for Social Responsibility mobilizes against the war.”

The next day our homeowners association said that we had 24 hours to take down the UN flag. My wife and I said, “We don’t think so. There’s something called the First Amendment.” We had a rally in the park of our development where we had the flags of all countries; it actually became national news and gave our chapter a great deal of publicity. We were able to elaborate in more detail why we opposed the invasion of Iraq.

It turned out shortly after that a bill was being considered in the California legislature to limit homeowners associations’ ability to harass their residents, and so we got a clause tacked on saying they cannot limit the display of flags, banners and other such items traditionally associated with free speech. So within a couple of months, we had a California law saying they could not force us to take down the flag, and we had gotten a great deal of publicity for PSR Sacramento and the issue of the invasion of Iraq. We owe a debt of gratitude to George W. Bush and our homeowners association!

Bill: Another success has been our student essay contest. We realized that for every year the graduating class of 2005 had been in high school, the US had been involved in a war with Iraq, Afghanistan or both. We decided to have an essay contest with a prompt to stimulate high school students to take alternative points of view to the ones they were hearing in the mainstream media and from military recruiters on campus. The first year we used a quote from John F. Kennedy who said, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” We got about 50 entries that first year, and offered $5,000 to the top 10 winners. It was very well received and we’ve done it every year since then, and now have moved up to $15,000. All the money is contributed by members. As of 2014, we’ve given out $100,00 in scholarships and the number of students has steadily gone up to 174 students who entered this year. Initially the prompts were all related to war and militarism but then we used some prompts concerning the environment, gun violence, social justice, and then this year the prompt was a quote from Nelson Mandela who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Harry: Each year, we’re getting a broader group of students from different schools. One of the positive things about the scholarship contest besides the students and families who come and hear the essays and learn about PSR is that we have five community members who serve as judges. We’ve been able to attract quite a few judges who are prominent in the community, and it’s a good way for them to find out about our organization. It’s been a good exchange with individuals like the Sacramento County public health officer, head of the food bank, and head of one of our homeless program.

Bill: Yes, and we’ve had two Sacramento mayors, a former Sacramento police chief, and a former California State Supreme Court Justice serve as contest judges. We have a dinner at which the top 10 finalists present their essays, and their families, community members and PSR members are all invited. Everybody leaves with wonderful feelings because the students are so refreshing and inspiring.

Another thing was I was asked to run for Congress in 2006 because people knew of me through my work as President of PSR Sacramento. In January of that year, I moderated a town hall forum regarding reasons to withdraw from Iraq. The actor Sean Penn and activist Cindy Sheehan were there, and after that high-profile event, a search committee looking for a Democratic candidate to run against a right-wing Republican candidate in our district approached me and asked if I’d run for Congress. Initially I said no and tried to find someone else but found no one was willing to run; that meant the Republican candidate was going to run unopposed. So Harry and I discussed it and we figured that if we stuck to the same issues we focused on with PSR, which included prevention of nuclear war and other forms of war and militarism, prevention of interpersonal violence and gun violence, and getting true universal health care, running for Congress might provide a bigger platform for these same issues. At that point I stepped down as President of PSR and Harry took over. We ran the Congressional campaign, met a lot of wonderful people, and also learned the pitfalls of the political process. We didn’t do very well in 2006. No one would run in 2008, so I ran again. This time we came a lot closer; we got 44% of the vote and the incumbent got 49%. A lot of the people we got to know through the campaign stuck with us on PSR issues. I don’t have regrets having done it. We were able to have a larger platform for the same issues we were talking about in PSR.

Harry: So with this transition, we are stepping back into our previous roles when Bill was President and I was vice President.

Bill: In the Congressional campaign and working with PSR, you meet so many great people who are paying attention to the major issues of the time and doing what they can to make the world a better place. We’ve had tremendous amount of support from the people on our Steering Committee, from the membership, and members of the community in general.

What has been the nature and benefit of having a “Sister Chapter” relationship with SF Bay Area PSR?

Bill: I got my first experience being on the Board with SF Bay Area PSR and learned quite a bit about how to run a chapter. And then with all the logistics of starting our chapter, Marj and Bob and others were all tremendously helpful and supportive. Bay Area’s got a focus on environmental issues that was beyond our expertise; with us being close to the State capitol, when there have been environmental bills that SF Bay Area PSR was supporting, Harry and I have been able to stick our necks out to testify, taking the notes we got from SF Bay Area PSR. Bay Area has been supportive on some of the gun bills we’ve been supporting. The LA chapter was very involved in the gun violence issue earlier on and so we’ve had a good working relationship with the LA chapter as well over the years. We hope to continue to improve relationships with both chapters.

Harry: SF Bay Area PSR has been a good resource for us, and we’ve been able to collaborate on a variety of issues. Through our introduction, Lucia (Sayre, Co-Executive Director) organized a Pediatric Environmental Toolkit training for Sacramento County Child Health and Disability Program physicians

What has been a highlight of your involvement in PSR over the years?

Harry: It’s given me a necessary outlet to take some action against everything that’s happened since 9/11 and to feel like we’ve been able to do what we can as a group. It’s given me a great personal outlet. The friendships and meaningful relationships have been important and a way to survive everything that’s happened.

Bill: Like Harry, my highlight is meeting so many wonderful people and feeling that we can have an influence on the course of our country and the course of history. That’s one thing about the latest essay contest with the quote from Nelson Mandela; education is the main weapon that PSR uses, and thinking of his example, you can imagine how hopeless it seemed when he was in prison and yet he maintained self-discipline and a sense of humor and hope through what he endured; that’s an inspiration to all of us to keep working on the issues we believe in.

Outside of PSR, Harry and I found that we both love the Giants. Harry is a great piano player and my wife Diane is a very good singer, so in-between working on all these serious issues, at the end of get-togethers, Harry will play the piano and people will sing and watch the Giants game! Harry and his wife Janice are our closest friends, and we owe it to George W. Bush because we met at the rally against the war!

Harry: Our friendship is a good thing that’s come out in addition to the work we’ve done. When you have an organization, you meet so many people. It’s been a good experience, but especially getting to know Bill and Diane.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us in this transition?

Bill: I’d like to say what an incredible job Harry has done since he’s been President in 2006. In my experience with a lot of different organizations and political campaigns, too many times you find that people’s egos get in the way of the mission of their organization. Harry is the type of person who always gives other people more credit than they deserve; being able to work with someone like that for me is definitely one of the big highlights of being involved in PSR Sacramento.

We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing, trying to move things forward however we can, though not necessarily in the same way. A while back I met Dolores Huerta from the United Farm Workers. She talked about their struggles and how the UFW tried so many tactics and nothing seemed to work; then they came up with the idea of the grape boycott. So we at PSR Sacramento are still in a stage of trying to find something that will really work to stop gun violence and to get universal health care, and to basically change course from this huge dependence on militarism to a more sensible approach to terrorism and defense.

Harry: I’m just so happy that Bill is able and willing to become President again. Bill has a great vision and great ideas, and he can analyze a situation and think of something big that could help a problem area; that’s really a great quality to have in a leader of an organization. I look forward to continuing to work with him and where we can go.