Conn's Anti-Nuclear Cry Stirs Protests--About His Methods

Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica Mayor James P. Conn, who was arrested for trespassing during a highly publicized Nevada Nuclear Test Site protest last week, said he will urge other Westside officials to join him at future anti-nuclear rallies.

Conn called the nuclear freeze effort a "matter of conscience" and said more politicians should participate in organized protests, even if it means being arrested for committing acts of civil disobedience.

But the mayor's call for support may go largely unanswered. Most of the Westside politicians contacted by The Times said they opposed Conn's method of protest and that elected officials should try to work within the law.

"There are ways to make your positions known," said county Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman. "I have spoken loud and clear on many issues. But I don't think I would put myself in the position of being arrested. I respect the law and I believe you can (bring about) changes in other ways."

Los Angeles Councilman Marvin Braude said he respected Conn's "courage," but added that he probably would not intentionally break the law to publicize his opposition to something. Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D-Tarzana), whose district covers part of the Westside, said civil disobedience should only be used sparingly.

Assemblyman Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the Vietnam-era protest movement, said politicians can do more by working within the system.

"I understand the frustration a local official feels in being unable to do anything about nuclear war," said Hayden (D-Santa Monica). "But I have a commitment to elective office and that pretty much focuses my actions."

One of the few officials who endorsed Conn's action was West Hollywood Mayor Alan Viterbi.

"We have a responsibility as human beings to fight for our rights," Viterbi said. "When someone is willing to suffer arrest and brief imprisonment, it shows to society that this is an important issue." Viterbi said he will consider joining future protests if he is asked.

No Regrets

Conn, a Methodist minister, said he has no regrets about joining 157 other nuclear freeze advocates who were booked and released without further penalties Monday after they tried to block the path of a bus carrying workers into the nuclear test site. But he added that he understands why other politicians would be hesitant to do the same.

"Once you decide your conscience is more important than a misdemeanor, the question becomes: What does it feel like to give control of your life over to someone else," Conn said. "Because once they arrest you, they get to decide what to do with you. You don't know whether you will be (in custody) for 15 minutes or hours or days. I could still be in Nevada for all I know."

Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers and five other city officials were also arrested at the test site last Monday. It was Myers' second arrest in as many months. The city attorney argued that officials who commit civil disobedience make an important point.

"Working for peace and social justice is fully consistent with my duties as city attorney," said Myers, who has a reputation for outspokenness. "If officials were less concerned about their political careers and more concerned about peace and social justice, we would have a better world much sooner."

Civil disobedience in the interest of a political cause is nothing new. India's Mohandas K. Gandhi was among the most famous practitioners of passive resistance, and civil disobedience was also widely used during the civil rights movement. More recently, congressmen have committed civil disobedience to protest South Africa's apartheid policies.

Sheen Had Role

Supporters say acts of nonviolent protest such as trespassing are an effective way of focusing attention on a cause, especially if politicians or entertainment figures are involved. Actor Martin Sheen was arrested at Monday's nuclear test site rally and West Hollywood Councilman Stephen Schulte was among those arrested recently at an AIDS protest in Washington.

According to Viterbi, community groups in West Hollywood, which has a large gay population, said Schulte should be given a proclamation of commendation.

Santa Monica City Councilman Dennis Zane is another supporter of nonviolent protest. Zane said he will attend the next nuclear freeze rally at the test site. "It is a very legitimate form of protest," he said. "Having local officials act on issues of this scope helps to ensure that there is a healthy debate. . . . Public officials should take the lead in helping to provoke the debate."

The Westside SANE/Freeze is one of the groups that organizes anti-nuclear events. Director John Murphy said there is growing support for the cause because people such as Conn and Sheen are participating.

But Santa Monica City Councilwoman Christine E. Reed said Conn is making a mistake. "Throwing your body in front of a truck in Nevada is just an attention-getting venture," she said. "It is ego-gratifying for those who do it because it gets them a lot of publicity, but it doesn't do much else."

Called 'Simplistic'

Other politicians such as Culver City Mayor Paul Netzel said they support Conn's right to protest, but stressed that they would not follow his example.

"I don't personally subscribe to that approach," Netzel said. "I respect his right to do so, but I don't think it's necessary to set a pattern of civil disobedience. As elected officials, we have a high enough profile as it is."

Netzel said an act of civil disobedience is a simplistic way of responding to nuclear concerns. Assemblyman Friedman said nuclear issues should be addressed by national officials, adding that local politicians have little impact on the debate, whether they protest or not. "If I felt that my presence would make a difference, I would readily re-evaluate," Friedman said.

Hayden said officials can endanger themselves politically if they become professional protesters. "If it becomes a crusade, it is an indication that the (official) is weary of holding office," Hayden said. "Because you can do a great deal within the system. . . . If one wants to really embrace Gandhi or the . . . philosophy with the total life commitment that it entails, at a certain point holding office becomes hollow and it's hard to continue."

But Conn, a liberal Democrat who was arrested once before in 1973 for participating in a United Farm Workers grape strike, said he is proud of his moment in the Nevada sun. In a statement released after his arrest, Conn said: "In our time, there's no greater call than to preserve the planet."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World