Arts & Events

The Times, They Were A-Changing. Paula Friedman Tells a Sixties Tale in The Change Chronicles

Gar Smith
Friday November 09, 2018 - 12:17:00 PM

Paula Friedman's new book, The Change Chronicles: A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, is firmly planted in the soil of Berkeley and rooted in the anti-war struggles of the era. This is a special book that will invite older readers to relive (and younger readers to marvel at) the heady days on the frontlines of anti-war peace activism in the Bay Area. As Friedman notes, the book offers a "rarely told story of that 'peacenik' generation between Beats and hippies, who first hesitantly seeded what would become known as 'women's consciousness.'" 

The late 1960s were a time of radical change. Urban riots had set cities aflame while America's cultural cauldron was bubbling over. In the liberating aftermath of the Free Speech Movement, history was no longer being directed by the Oval Office, the Hearst newspaper empire, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In the Bay Area, at least, history was being hijacked and re-tracked by agents of progressive change—including the street-smart reporters from the Berkeley Barb, the daring and defiant Vietnam Day Committee, and the nonviolent martyrs of the Port Chicago Vigil—looking militarism straight in the face and being threatened, beaten and jailed as their reward. 

In August of this year, Paula Friedman—a long-time Berkeley resident who now resides in Gresham, Oregon—made the long drive back to the People's Republic for a book reading at the Berkeley Historical Society (BHS, 1931 Center Street). 

The event was originally set for Sunday, August 5, but it had to be rescheduled due to an imminent confrontation between Alt-Right and Antifa demonstrators in the adjacent city park. 

The new date turned out to be propitious. As Friedman pointed out at the start of the reading: "Today, August 7, is the anniversary of the start of the Port Chicago vigil." It was on August 7, 1966 that a band of peace activists gathered at the Main Gate of the Naval Weapons Station in an attempt to block trucks carrying napalm bombs for shipment to US pilots flying incineration-missions in the skies over Vietnam. Several protesters were injured by the trucks and by the blows of the Marine guards. 


Paula Friedman first came to the attention of local booklovers with her 2011 novel, The Rescuer's Path, which Ursula K. Le Guin called "exciting, physically vivid, and romantic." The Change Chronicles is equally involving, especially since it is rooted in Friedman's personal experience as a reporter for the Berkeley Barb and a participant in what became known as the "Port Chicago Vigil." 

As Friedman noted during her BHS reading, her novel covers a period of critical historical transformation—following Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, paralleling the anti-war movement, and anticipating "the junction before the women's movement." 

This new tale of love and political struggle begins in 1965 as it follows the political and emotional adventures of a young Berkeley Barb reporter named Nora Seikh. After bravely disengaging from an abusive relationship, Nora falls for a "flamboyant activist" who sweeps her off her sandals only to bid a fond adieu when he discovers he's left her pregnant. 

The challenges of being a woman, an anti-establishment reporter and an activist are now compounded by the demands of motherhood. But Nora's dilemmas are soon steadied by a developing relationship between Ted, one of the leaders of the Port Chicago protests. 

As a Barb reporter, Nora's has become used to police harassment but the prospect of carrying an unborn child must steer her decision to participate in a nonviolent protest aimed at stopping speeding weapons trucks. Can Nora find the courage to face arrest and risk possible injury or death? Is this fair to the child? 

The blockade at the gates of the Weapons Station, becomes a metaphor for "breaking through" the expectations of society and self—and overcoming "the Marines of your mind." Nora's story becomes a tale of one deeply aware woman facing and overcoming barriers—finding the strength to walk down a rural highway and face the menacing glow of the "five yellow lights" atop an approaching napalm truck. 

In many ways (and despite the commitment and the camaraderie), the Port Chicago peace vigil existed within a grim aura suggestive of a detention camp—isolated, remote, surveilled, and dangerous. People on the small, exposed and unprotected vigil line were verbally abused, targeted by passing cars, and subjected to occasional beatings by local thugs and soldiers. And there was that one night when exhausted vigilers, trying to catch some sleep at a local safe-house, nearly died when unknown parties pushed a stolen car over a neighboring road and sent it rolling downhill, crashing into the sleeping quarters. Fortunately, no one was killed that night. 

For those who lived though these events, part of the pleasure of The Change Chronicles lies in recognizing special connections to the incidents and individuals described. In addition to the local landmarks—UC Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue, Caffè Mediterraneum (aka "Caffé Med")—it was nice to see a passing reference to fellow nonviolent peace activist Bob Meriweather. Other real-life participants also make appearances throughout the book—some under their real names, others identified by pseudonyms. 

Reading The Change Chronicles, I was surprised to discover that I had a cameo appearance (on page 115)—as a newly minted Berkeley Barb reporter. (Actually, I didn't become a Barb reporter until some time after the Port Chicago vigil. On Hiroshima Day, August 6, 1965, prior to the mass protest commemorated in the Chronicles, I became the first activist to be arrested and jailed for stopping a truckload of napalm at the gates of Port Chicago.) 

Addressing the BHS audience, Friedman spoke of her own continued activism and noted that, 48 years later, anti-war protests were still happening. On Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2018, 40 people—including whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and author/activist David Kreiger—were arrested at UC Berkeley's nuclear bomb plant at Livermore. One of the event's most prominent chants clearly named four interconnected threats to human life and freedom: "No Nukes! No Walls! No Wars! No Warming!" 

The spirit of rebellion was still ringing in Berkeley that afternoon, as Friedman engaged the crowd in a share-fest of activist memories. 

During the Q&A&R (with the "R" standing for "reminiscing"), indomitable singer-activist Hali Hammer recalled "a major Ah-Hah! Moment" she experience in the Sixties after reading press reports of an anti-war protest she had just attended. "It was misreported!" Hammer harrumphed. She learned an important lesson about media bias that day: "It's not just the USSR that has propaganda." 

Cynthia Papermaster offered an invitation to Join CODE PINK, a spirited group that manages to "have fun" and make a righteous noise while confronting the agents of the Apocalypse. 

One voice in the post-reading conversation offered a memorable observation that: "The #MeToo movement will save democracy in the US." 

Another audience member recalled a day in 1962 when a "peace boat" sailed into a US atomic bomb testing zone in the Pacific in an attempt to halt a nuclear blast. 

Another recalled how, in 1967, 100,000 people gathered in the nation's capital to nonviolently march against war. And 50,000 of them then attempted to storm the Pentagon, resulting in nearly 700 arrests. This event is largely lost to memory. Here is a video: