Indiana State University Newsroom

Renowned activist to speak at Indiana State April 21 about pot legalization

April 1, 2015

Coincidentally, following a week when many Hoosiers were compelled to take to the streets to protest controversial state legislation, one of the nation's most renowned activists is preparing to visit Terre Haute.

Bill Zimmerman has spent a lifetime protesting pivotal issues such as the lack of civil rights, the war in Vietnam and more recently the nation's marijuana laws. He will speak at Indiana State University's Holmstedt Hall 102 at 7:30 p.m. April 21. The event, which is sponsored by the history department and Center for Community Engagement, is free. A reception and book signing will follow.

Described as a "Zelig of the Left" by The Brooklyn Rail, Zimmerman's activist credentials include work in the pre-Freedom Rides South; the earliest anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1965; leading the dramatic student uprising at Brooklyn College in 1967; participating in the demonstrations at the Pentagon in 1967 and the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968; leading medical aid for Indochina from 1971 to 1974; organizing for the dramatic May Day civil disobedience protests in Washington, D.C., in 1971; filming during the bombing of Hanoi in 1972; flying an airlift of food to besieged Indians at Wounded Knee in 1973, which broke an F.B.I. siege there; and helping to lead the first triumphant campaign for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.

"I was raised to think only the best about this country, but soon discovered I had been lied to," Zimmerman said. "Jim Crow laws in the South and a senseless waste of lives in Vietnam demonstrated that injustice was rampant in the U.S. and could only be ended by an outraged citizenry."

After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, he gave up a promising career as a brain scientist to become one of the nation's most accomplished progressive political consultants, winning numerous candidate races and ballot initiatives in California and across the country. Zimmerman is the author of "Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties."

Of all the campaigns he has participated in and led, Zimmerman says he's proudest of "standing up to the war in Vietnam as soon as it was launched and in defiance of virtually all the voices of authority and legitimacy in the country."

At Indiana State, Zimmerman will describe work he has done over the past 20 years to reform the nation's marijuana laws, which began in 1996 with his serving as the campaign manager for the nation's first successful medical marijuana ballot measure, Proposition 215. He will describe various attempts to reform America's drug laws during that time.

"I became interested in reforming the marijuana laws when I understood how many hundreds of thousands of people could have their pain and suffering alleviated through the medical use of marijuana and how many millions of young people were having their lives distorted by the overly harsh criminalization of marijuana use," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman may have started his activism in the 1960s, but he has fully embraced new technology in the effort to involve younger generations. Between 2003 and 2008, he produced all the television advertising that allowed to expand from 300,000 members to more than 5 million.

"Social media have definitely been a boon to activism, primarily by allowing for virtually free communication with potential constituents. We used to have to pay the cost of a stamp and the paper for a mailing just to reach a single individual," he said.

But clicking the "Like" button or signing an online petition is not activism, he warns modern protestors.

"It's only a start. Many of us fear that while Internet activism is a mile wide, it's still only an inch deep," he said. "We have to find ways to deepen commitment and involvement if the Internet is going to change the balance of power between citizen activists and the forces that shape and control their lives."

Despite Zimmerman's thirst for justice and support of civil disobedience, his sense of balance in life and where he derives his contentment is also an important lesson for future generations.

"My life has been about fighting for justice, so I am most content when I see a well-organized political strategy play itself out and prevail," he said. "But I also love kicking back with a good book and cup of coffee. I try to organize my life so there is a balance between work, family, kids and fun. So far, I've succeeded."


Photo: -- Bill Zimmerman (photograph by Markus Georg)

Writer and media contact: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or