San Francisco native Danny Glover was raised by union workers front and center of the West Coast Counterculture movement, so resistance is in his blood. The lifelong progressive has led protests and strikes – not unlike the anti-war demonstration depicted in his latest film, The Drummer, which he also produces – since the Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968.
Like his The Drummer character, Vietnam veteran Mark Walker (who parallels Glover’s late brother), Glover has never shied away from speaking out against the shortcomings of humanity. Protesting often confronts the shunning or mistreatment of a people. The Drummer, an intersectional story of desertion, mental illness, and redemption, examines the growing issue of the poor treatment of veterans are in the United States.
Protests can beget better education, better working conditions, and better government programs such as universal healthcare. However, they can last anywhere from five minutes, to five months – like the Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968 – to five decades. The U.S. just exited a needless 20-year war – one that was already brutal, but the unharmonious end of which has compounded the mental health struggles of its surviving soldiers. Will the U.S. ever get it right?
On the eve of the release of The Drummer, I had a lengthy discussion with Glover about The Drummer, the evolution of war – its imperialistic and political motives, weaponry, and philosophical underpinnings, why people don’t hit the streets to protest as much as they used to, San Francisco’s influence on him, and his progressive politics.
Alex Arabian: Congratulations on your new film, The Drummer. You gave an excellent performance in a great film.
Danny Glover: Oh, thank you. Thank you for that.
AA: What drew you to this project?
DG: I thought it was a very important film. The kind of cultural production that we’re capable of doing at these particular moments – the conversation’s certainly necessary to have. The men and women who face conflict in battle, as we see now in this period, it’s pretty dramatic for a number of reasons. Certainly, the distinction between civilians and also those combatants are often blurred within the context of war. It’s not like we were making war movies from war itself. The victims become not only those who died, but also the ones who survive it – what they see, the mutilation of bodies. The policy of the military has been, basically, that there are no open caskets. But sometimes, the body parts that are put together at a particular point in time at someone’s death are not the actual body parts, even. So witnessing that, surviving that, has an enormous impact on people, men and women, young, at that, very young people, and we don’t address that. We don’t take that up into conversation. The conversation has to be taken up. The mental trauma that they face and what they saw and what they experience is something that has to be taken into account. What is the healing process? What are the ways in which people now carry or absolve themselves of the guilt and the pain of what they saw?
AA: Is this trauma justified?
DG: We talk about World War II and certainly, the national narrative and all those things for this war and everything else and the justification for it, and there’s a different kind of experience. I’m not saying that men and women weren’t traumatized by that war and previous wars. But now, we have wars that are so devastating because there’s a national consensus around the war. But it’s hard to find at this particular point in time; at any time, but you can argue that there’s a national consensus about the war, and the war is based upon certain ideas – winning and losing the war. But on one hand, some point in time, what about the wars that we see now where we see unknown casualties on both sides? And there’s a national argument about the justification for the war. Certainly, this one’s based upon 9/11. It’s a 20-year war that’s just ending now. It’s the longest war in U.S. history. And it has laid to devastation countries that have been subjected to some sort of colonial rule, whether it’s British colonialism because of their oil and resources and everything else, and yet the history of that has affected the whole region, certain other struggles within that, and internal struggles within that, and it’s affected the entire region. In terms of devastation, same for Egypt, to a certain degree, and Israel. And you can look at the history of these countries. They had early democratic states in places like Iraq, where the majority of the teachers and civil servants were women – large numbers of women. You can take Syria the same way, and the general evolution of these countries. You take Iran – the country who elected a socialist as president in 1954, and they were overthrown by the CIA, one of the first missions in 1955. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran was the first explosion, and began the Islamic fundamentalism. All these particular things have a history to it.
AA: Right. And one can look at history as a series of wars. Is it really written by the victors?
DG: Before the Shah was installed into power, Iran was a functional country. It had elected a – we would call in our country – democratic socialist who basically wanted to nationalize the oil of Iran. And we have to understand U.S. policy. Before the end of the war, U.S. policy was that the two areas that were important strategically for the U.S. – and that’s as far back as 1939 – were the Middle East and also Southeast Asia because the major power, and rightfully so, was going to be the Chinese. It’s a 3,000-year-old continuous civilization. It’s not a settler state. The Chinese revolution was destined to win. The U.S.-supported Chiang Kai-shek was destined for victory, and I’m sure the U.S. forecast just knew that Chiang Kai-shek was not going to defeat the Red Army. There’s history behind all of this, and I said all that to say that how we interpret the history and how we determine the U.S. role at that particular point in time was that it was going to be – and it certainly became after World War II – the major empire of the moment. It had been the British Empire. The saying at the beginning of the 20th century is that the sun never sets on the British Empire. So the British Empire had found its roots in colonialism and, certainly, there’s a country that we know well that was part of the British Empire at one point in time: Us.
So history is not words within the moment that we report it and it gets the attention. All the history that scholars know – what are the vulnerabilities, what are the assets – there is a strategic history which is centered on the demands of the powerful nations in the world. And certainly, the real victims are the ones who have experienced the physical devastation. The physical devastation is what we ought to talk about because the Euphrates was the home of modern farming. That doesn’t just belong to the Iraqis. Modern farming belongs to human history. It belongs to all humanity. Now Danny Glover’s talking off of some sort of euphoric attitude about the world. But it belongs to all of us. So when we destroyed the artifacts, the lived history of human beings in a place has certain values. We should understand that by our own evisceration of First Nation people. They were here first. That’s why they’re First Nation people. They were here first, and then settlers came and found, at a particular point in time, a group of people who lived here who were deemed to be uncivilized in the relationships that we had, who had been living here on this area that we live in the United States for 15,000 years through the great migrations. And they’ve lived here for that long, and all of the sudden there was some point near the end of the 19th century that they may become extinct. There was really concern about them becoming extinct through expansion and, I would say, genocide. In a way, they were almost extinct. And yet we should understand that another way of looking at history is human development – the history of human development – and not simply connected to what global powers’, at the time, needs are.
AA: And sometimes, throughout history, imperialist countries’ needs and human development overlap. It’s happened many times over the past 400 years here.
DG: This is the country that we live in. It’s powerful – it is – and certainly the most powerful country, the wealthiest country in the history of the planet. It’s a severed colony, and it’s expressed by the 1619 Project, and nobody wants you to be taught 1619 because it would be, quote-unquote, divisive. And yet, it’s been very devastating for the rest of the world. It was not an empire. It became an empire long before its ascension to the role, supposedly, at the end of World War II. It did become an empire because of cotton. It did become virtually the richest country in the world within a half a decade of its installation as a government, as Edward Baptist’s research, historic economist, and it became that. Cotton became the fuel – the first fuel of the Industrial Revolution – making cotton, which had been grown for centuries in so many places, a very important instrument for the industrialization of Europe, England, and the US. The first economic engines of this power were in the Northeast, where women worked in these factories, unrepresented by any organized labor, and were, for hours, working this item, which had become a disposable item. It’s not like you’re growing wool. And it’s a cheap item as well, wool, and you need land. So, in England, you have the enclosure period, where you remove people from the land so that you can grow sheep and wool. You have reproductive skills. All this in the general sense of human development and growth and everything else.
AA: In The Drummer character mentions that this is 2008, not 1968, when he’s talking about the size of protest crowds. In your opinion, what are some of the reasons why we might not hit the streets to protest as regularly as we used to in the Civil Rights Era and Vietnam?
DG: Well, it’s the one active vehicle that’s been used in so many different ways throughout this country’s history. In protest, people hit the streets. People march. We often associate it with organized labor, and these unions began. People began to resist. Protest is a form of resistance, in that sense. It has happened in strikes, in a sense. I don’t know if you know, but post-Civil-War, with the establishment of the Buffalo Soldiers, black soldiers, most of them formerly enslaved Africans, were used as a force to break up strikes and to break up any kind of resistance from, often, white workers because you couldn’t expect white soldiers or white infantry to use the National Guard to fight. You can’t entrust them to fight against their cousins and their relatives and everything else in what was in justifiable protests against the ravages that happened with early organizing, and people, women and men, who become instruments now. They were moved off the land. They began this whole process of moving off the land. The history of the country was becoming a different kind of history that would move people from the land to urban areas for industrial needs. You were self-sufficient on your little, small farm and were forced to move off that farm and find work in the cities. We know all the cultural novels, reading about that through the 19th and 20th century, the late 19th century and the early 20th century. We know all that and how it’s not the romanticism of the West. We often were a cultural engine, but there were other kinds of ways in which there were this whole idea of protesting, and it became violent in those cases.
And certainly, mass protest, whether it’s political or whether it’s for economic sense, it’s always been a form of resistance and a form of acknowledgment of those people who were powerless and needed some tools. In fact, the only tools they had, they were non-violent in that sense, such as walk off the job. And we’re well aware of that. In San Francisco, where I live, one of the great moments was the 1935 strike after the collapse of the world economic system with the Great Depression. And Harry Bridges, the great Australian socialist and union leader, walked off and went around to all the black churches. And by then, you didn’t have the bridges that connected certain parts of the city, and the Bay Bridge. And he went around by the Ferry telling black workers, If you don’t cross our picket lines, if you don’t become scabs– and people felt very comfortable using the word scab, try to break our protest for better wages, everything, if you don’t do that, I promise you that Black men will be on the docks when we win. And in a sense, they said, We will win. And they were, exactly it was. I grew up with a generation of men and women whose fathers worked on the docks and who would come to the docks after in the late ’30s and the early ’40s and who were dock workers and were able to buy homes in San Francisco and move out of the areas that had been decimated to African Americans and in other areas of the city because of that.
So protest was a major, major form of resistance to what was happening. So with the former resistance within the Civil Rights Movement, mass protests, notably, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and because of the new instrument of disseminating information, the television, it was not only associated with that particular moment in that particular place, but it got worldwide attention because of that. And that’s a tool. You not only have interpretations of what the country really is like through protests, what is really happening through mass protests. And so the use of that against the war in Vietnam was in itself defined by the level of resistance and protest that was ignited in a public space.
AA: As a lifelong progressive, how do you feel about the state of activist movements at this moment and the potential for meaningful change?
DG: I was born at a particular point in time, and so I actually remember, at nine years old, watching the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the impact that my parents, as postal workers, had on me and the whole ideas around organized labor was shaped by that. They became union members for the first time, and their involvement in NAACP. So at one point in time, I thought the labor movement that my parents were involved in was synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement. This is where they came of age, young parents in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time they were really, really engaged in the United Postal Workers Union. They were very much engaged in that at the local level. So I saw their activism. I was nurtured by their own activism by simple observation and listening to the issues that they talked about. And so I had a – how would you say it – a firsthand view of that within my family, both my mother and father. There’s pictures of them at conferences, and pictures with them in meetings, and such that that was the integral part of my upbringing. And I remember, when I came to middle school in January 1958, I remember my lesson was taking typing. On Saturdays, I would listen before automations. I would use a typewriter. You put little labels in, and you would type the name and address of those union members on the labels. And then you take the labels off, and then you tape them on the paper, and then go to their relative address. I remember doing that in the seventh grade and the eighth grade. In the midst of that, in 1958 – this is all before the march on Washington – the Montgomery Bus Boycott had happened. There’s this new kind of attention paid to the Civil Rights Movement, and I was right at that age where it would have some resonance with me. I’m not saying I was a child activist, but it had some resonance with me. I had a paper route. I had the Call Bulletin, that first paper route I had. I got that in 1958. Then I had The San Francisco Chronicle. That’s where I discovered Bob Moses and Diane Nash and Fannie Lou Hamer and all those young activists who were maybe a decade older than I was, and they were involved in that. That was my major acculturation.
And since my mother was from the south – from rural Georgia – I knew the experience of having to drive across the country. We’d usually go the route through Albuquerque, head northward up toward Arkansas. In Little Rock, Arkansas, we would fill up for gas and drive all night long till we got to my grandparents’ farm – my mother’s parents’ farm – in Jefferson County near Louisville, Georgia. And we’d drive all night long because we had a California license. I know that feeling. I knew it from the time that I was eight years old, so it was 1954. We couldn’t stay at places. We couldn’t stay because we were Black. There weren’t places to stay on the journey down. So we either slept at a motel – out of the three or four nights that it took us to drive across the country – in the North, one or two nights, or slept crowded in the car, six of us in a two-door. A two-door Oldsmobile, a yellow-green Oldsmobile, with some kind of green top and yellow base. I’ll never forget that experience. Even as we’re talking about lifelong, I’ll never forget that experience. I’ll never forget us hitting a car when I was eight years old in the Rockies. We had gone late that year, and we’re in the early winter, and we went into a skid. And my dad hit something in the Rockies, and I’ll never forget that windshield wiper, crack over crack. But all those things have resonated – some reason why I am who I am.
AA: This is fascinating. Understanding one’s heritage is also integral in dissecting world history. We’ve gone from macro to micro with your personal history. Was San Francisco a culture shock for you?
DG: I never found anybody who loved their mother and father like my mother loved her mother and father. My grandmother was a midwife, and they still talk about my grandmother as a midwife in Jefferson County. My mother tells us a story about my grandmother ’cause my grandparents started out as sharecroppers. My grandfather was born in 1892. My grandmother 1895. They both lived to be 99 years old. And my mother would always tell us as part of my moral underpinning as a child – my mother would refer to them in a way where she said that, I’m eternally grateful for them because I didn’t pick cotton. I went to school in September, and consequently, my mother graduated from Paine College, and both of her siblings went to college. And because of that, we would symbolize for her the importance of that, and everything that she did – an expression of love. It was visible. It was visceral love for them and care for them, and that was organized by that because I knew what she had saw, the opportunity she had accrued from first teaching in high school – the high school that she went to before she left one summer to go to New York, and she met the most beautiful man I ever met in my life. He was fabulous. I was in love with my dad. I was in love with both of them, but I was in love with my dad. And my father was just the best. Special. And so, now, all of that is a part of that experience coming up at that certain time that puts me in San Francisco State in 1968 in the middle of a student strike. But before that, a member of the Black Student Union and a member of the Third World Coalition that formed the strike of Asian students, African-American students, Latinx students, progressive white students, and First Nation students.
AA: I remember speaking with Boots Riley who mentioned his father participated in some of those student protests with you.
DG: I know his dad, Walter. We have different backgrounds, but we both ended up at San Francisco State. A member of the Progressive Labor Party and, certainly, a progressive lawyer, his father was a part of that particular moment, yeah.
AA: How has San Francisco shaped you as an artist?
DG: San Francisco is unique. For a city that has so much cultural, what I call diversity in population, it’s only 800,000 people, you know what I’m saying? There’s only seven square miles each way. There’s only 49 square miles, so it takes me 10 minutes by car to drive from my house where I live – I’ve lived in the same neighborhood, Haight-Ashbury, since I was 11 years old – to go to The Mission, which is one of the first settlements. So when I went to school, even when I lived in the housing projects, in 19th Street Housing Projects, I went to school with Latinx kids. I went to school with Black kids, Latinx kids, white kids. I remember Johnny Ortega was my best friends when I was growing up. We were going to Daniel Webster Elementary School together. His father worked the post office with my dad. I’ve been going to Chinese New Years up until COVID happened three straight years because a friend of mine who retired from Delta, Roy G, invited me to come. And I get there – the first thing when I walked in there is that they say to me, We know Jimmy Glover. That’s my dad. He trained us in the post office. My dad had retired from the post office in 1980. He got his quick 34 years and he was gone, you know what I’m saying? But he trained them, and that kind of relationship you can have in San Francisco because you have a distinct community within the Asian community. You have a distinct community in the Latinx community.
I used to love to take the bus to The Mission when we lived on the 19th Street Projects when I was 10, 11 years old, just to be around The Mission, to be around just another culture. So San Francisco is unique in that way, that it has, in close proximities, this conundrum of people. And then, for me – Haight-Ashbury – I’m right smack in the middle of the Counterculture in San Francisco. Then I’ve got the Black Panther party across the Bay in Oakland. At that time, a large division of Oakland was African American. San Francisco has always had a small African-American community – smaller now than the national levels at some point when I was growing up. Maybe a little bit over that – 13 to 15 percent of the population – and now, it’s less than that. So all of that. And the beautiful thing, of course, in Haight-Ashbury having access to, at one time – I don’t know if it still is – the largest manmade park in the world, and that’s Golden Gate Park. We lived right next to Golden Gate Park. We lived a block from Golden Gate Park, what they call the Panhandle, right in there. And the African Americans that settled in there moved out to both sides of that before gentrification. I saw a wonderful production that was done by a group of people saying that, We lived here one time, and he was talking about Black people living in the Haight-Ashbury. I knew guys I went to school with who lived on the corner of Masonic and Haight, right in the midst of it. Even people that I knew lived around the corner. So when the Counterculture hit, it was a worldwide phenomenon, at least in this sense of phenomena from the United States. You heard it before, the music and everything else. But it’s amazing, and it’s such a small place. It gave birth to the kind of progressive movements with the longshoremen and the legacy. In fact, when we were on the strike in 1968, who comes out on campus in support of the strikers? Harry Bridges himself. Harry Bridges came in support of striking students: Latinx students, black students, Asian students, progressive white students. Five-and-a-half-month strike that shut the campus down.
AA: That’s incredible.
DG: Yeah. Yeah. And that is still – if I’m not mistaken – the only school of Ethnic Studies in any major college in the country still there.
AA: As you mentioned, war has grown more brutal since the Counterculture movement. What do you think the best solution is to improve the way our veterans are treated in this country?
DG: We do nothing for them, virtually. We don’t do as much as they need. Because what happens when you draw the kind of attention, the devastation – the mental devastation, let alone the physical devastation – that veterans have experienced through continuous wars? The U.S. has been in continuous wars since the Korean War. I mean, come on. It’s World War II, then – let’s not fool ourselves – they did operations. The CIA is a post from World War II. It was the Office of Strategic Affairs, initially. It became the CIA after World War II for a reason. Do you know what I’m saying? For a reason. It was not socialism or communism that brought us into the world’s Great Depression, the first Great Depression. It was not socialism or communism. We know what system it was. What way of organizing production? By the end of the 19th century, you had a socialist because of these contradictions run for president, Eugene Debs. Right? So, basically, what are the instruments around production itself, wealth itself, accumulation of wealth, the devastation of the natural resources in here, and extracted before that? What is it? It wasn’t socialism. It wasn’t communism. It was capitalism. And that’s the reality. I mean, we don’t have to have a debate. The first time there was any danger to the system was with the Bolshevik Revolution right in the middle of World War I in a nation least prepared in terms of its economic history – part of Russia was, to some extent, a feudal state. It was feudalistic, in its form, its shape, and institution. It had been used as a stepping stone for Western Europe for a long time. So you have a revolution that overthrows that and everything else it institutes. It became dangerous to the system of capitalism because it demonstrated a different kind of power that people have. I can’t say what it is depending on what people think the Soviet Union is and China is right now. We can go on for days arguing what it is. We can call them both state capitalism, if you really want to say that. But the example when Chinese and organized production capacity starts taking advantage of the West by creating consumer goods is phenomenal – what it does since 1949 – It’s phenomenal. And any of the words – you can call it Chinese slave labor or whatever you want to call it and stuff like that – but it’s phenomenal, this development. It’s either the first or second-largest country in the world outside of India. It has a continuous history over 3,000 years. The Chinese came to the West Coast in the 11th century. They didn’t stay and colonize it. They went back.
AA: No. They were there just visiting.
DG: They were just visiting. Yeah. But that’s what needs to be noted. We have witnessed Chinese history. Outside of the scholars or those people who use history as a way of pre-determining or trying to pre-determine what are the responses of masses of people who feel impaired and feel as if they’re going to resist the existing system. That’s what most of our research comes about. Where do you see the moment in Latin America just a few years ago, and how do we crush that? How do we undermine that? The major problem had to be reported. The major revolution that took place post World War II is the Cuban Revolution. We saw all the military dictatorships, every single country. It all happened after 1959. Every single country in Latin America had a military dictatorship to thwart or undermine any of those aspirations that the Cubans had laid out there. You can defeat an empire’s surrogates.
The Drummer will release on all digital platforms on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 in honor of Veterans Day.