ON A LATE MARCH EVENING in the Mission District, the line stretches down the block. Hopefuls are anxious to make the cut at $10 a head; the auditorium in the Women's Building only seats 400. It's an explosively colorful structure featuring murals of warrior poets and others who've been lodged in the tread of the jackboot of oppression, like Audre Lorde and Rigoberta Menchu. From the feverish intensity of those standing in line, you might think they'd turned out for the Vagina Monologues or American Idol auditions. Instead, they've come to hear a craggy-faced ethnic studies professor from the University of Colorado-Boulder liken 9/11 victims to Nazi war criminals.
The professor, Ward Churchill, became famous in late January, when a college-newspaper reporter dusted off a previously ignored three-year-old essay Churchill had written for the Internet entitled "Some People Push Back." The essay was later expanded (complete with footnotes), and included in Churchill's book On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. In the essay, Churchill advanced the provocative thesis that the amoral money-changers who worked at the World Trade Center, the materialistic purveyors of third-world exploitation and genocide--or "little Eichmanns," in his signature formulation--essentially got what was coming to America after years of military aggression and unjust foreign policy. It wasn't some senseless tragedy, but a natural plot progression. We can delude ourselves by boo-hooing and wearing Stars and Stripes lapel pins, but the big karmic wheel keeps on turnin' (I paraphrase, but barely).
As is always the case when Hitler's minions are invoked, it was all-hands-on-deck on the cable chat shows. Churchill was the most exciting thing to come out of Colorado since Columbine, or maybe even JonBenet Ramsey. (Churchill himself says his favorite show is The Ward Churchill Factor, since Bill O'Reilly has done no less than 31 segments on him.) Predictably, the political right--everyone from Colorado governor Bill Owens to Rudy Giuliani--called for Churchill's head to be stuck on a pike. Even more predictably, the left did what the left does best: sign support petitions and compare the right to Joe McCarthy.
As a result of all this controversy, Churchill's popularity is soaring. Already required reading at over 100 universities, Churchill is a prolific, if not downright logorrheic, author. He's written or edited over 20 books, and while his specialty is Native American studies, whatever he writes tends to be of a piece, with titles such as A Little Matter of Genocide, Fantasies of the Master Race, and Agents of Repression.
Having headed the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM) for several decades, having boasted of his affiliation with the Black Panthers and his days teaching bomb-making to the Weathermen, he's more than just an angry professor. He's a nostalgia ride at the Aging Radical Theme Park. Pay ten bucks, and it's like watching your parents' college yearbooks transubstantiated into flesh and blood. Pre-controversy, Churchill already did about three speaking gigs a month. But since, the number of invitations has tripled, and his fee, when he's not doing pro-bono work, is at five grand plus expenses.
Then there's all the pregame hype, with blustery death threats, angry editorial denunciations, and the occasional SWAT team working security on the roof. It's not a bad quarter's work for an academic who just a few months ago was heard mainly within the walls of his "Indians in Film" class, and who was lucky to move a few units of his "In a Pig's Eye" lecture CD. At this clip, he might surpass Che Guevara in commodified outrage, the latter having posthumously set the standard with www.thechestore.com "for all your revolutionary needs" (Che shooter glasses are only $11 plus shipping).
I CAME TO SAN FRANCISCO to soak up Churchill's rising-star aura. His perfectly pleasant fourth wife, Natsu Saito--his de facto publicist and fellow ethnic studies professor--permits me to shadow Churchill off-and-on during his four-day stand in the Bay Area. Right before he goes on for his Women's Building speech, I'm escorted to a spare upper room. Churchill is there ministering to his disciples, a couple of his students who've followed him out on spring break, as well as some functionaries from his publisher, AK Press--a "workers' cooperative" that cranks out beach-reads like Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, along with inspirational T-shirts suggesting "Whitey Will Pay."
Churchill is sitting at a table, winding up a funny story. I miss the setup, but am just in time for the big closer in which he cites Tom Wolfe's riff on the "shiny-black-shoe" cluelessness of undercover cops. I grab a metal folding chair behind him, silently taking in all 6'5" of him.
As on most days, he is denim'ed and boot'ed, his hair featuring two gray racing stripes down either side that tuck behind his prodigious ears, pushing them out as if he were trying to receive The O'Churchill Factor on twin satellite dishes. He has the lived-in and leathered quality of Nick Nolte in a post DUI-mugshot, and the Sunday-Morning-Coming-Down, outlaw Zen of a Kris Kristofferson.
Like Kristofferson's "Pilgrim," he's a "walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." (More on the fiction later.) He's steered so far left, he's right again, and one of the ways in which this manifests itself is his stubborn insistence on jettisoning politically correct niceties, like bans on smoking indoors. He reaches for an unfiltered Pall Mall, his three-pack-a-day habit likely to do the 57-year-old in before cranky talk show hosts or tenure committees can.
Perhaps sensing that I am starting to feel like a pair of shiny-black-shoes myself, he turns to work me into the conversation. "So, how are my friends at The Weekly Standard?" he inquires. We small-talk for a few minutes, and when I start interviewing his disciples, we're shown the door by his wife, so he can collect his thoughts. I ask Churchill what his pregame ritual is. "Just the ceremony of the sacred cigarette," he says.
The students are rather media-friendly. "I was arrested at the regents meeting saying, 'You all are starting a new era of McCarthyism,'" one boasts. "Just Google my name and you'll find it all." Another was on Bill O'Reilly's show, though he seems disappointed that John Gibson was guest-hosting. When I ask what Churchill's appeal is, one says, "His work has inspired us. His words are weapons because they show what the United States government is guilty of throughout its whole history."
"He's fighting against terrorism," the other says. "We are destroying whole peoples, nearing levels of genocide, that's how bad the U.S. military is." The kids are excited, but are calmed down a bit when a cooler head interrupts. Daniel Burton-Rose, a guy with hoop earrings and an AK Press T-shirt, is sitting in a nearby chair, reading a book on Chinese medicine. He is himself the author of Confronting Capitalism, and when I carelessly identify him as an anarchist, he corrects me, saying he's an "anarcho-daoist." Clearly I've reached the rarefied strata where even people's shorthand IDs contain dialectical disputes.
To grossly dumb down Daniel's argument, which would take several pages to replicate, Churchill is precisely the galvanizing public intellectual the anti-globalization movement needs. For while many elements of the movement seem contradictory--the neo-Marxists agitating for a transformed and all-controlling state, the anarchists espousing the obliteration of the state altogether--all sides, including the boutique'ers in between, are unanimous on one tenet: America, as it's presently constituted, sucks.
Ward makes arguments against American injustice more effectively than others, says Daniel, partly because "he's a Native American--there's not really that many people who are going to deny . . . genocide against the Native Americans. So how are they dismissing him? They're saying he's white." And herein begins the fiction portion of the Kristoffersonian equation.
THE WEEK I CATCH UP WITH CHURCHILL, he has just dodged a bullet while simultaneously getting fitted for a noose. His university's board of regents spent seven weeks looking into his incendiary comments, then released a report (after three delays) exonerating him on First Amendment grounds. But over the course of the investigation, so many other allegations came to the fore--from academic fraud to fake Indian-hood--that Churchill is now being investigated by the university's Standing Committee on Research Misconduct. He tells me, "I ain't goin' down on that, man." But if he goes down--and it could easily be several years before this scenario plays out, long enough for the Pall Malls to run their course--it will be in the manner of Al Capone, who went away on tax evasion, not for the original murder and mayhem.
Churchill not only likes the sound of his own voice, he likes the sight of it. His CV runs 41 pages, and lists everything he's written from obscure articles to dustjacket blurbs. But even with all that detail, there're still plenty of holes in the narrative. For over a decade, his bitter rivals in the national American Indian Movement (distinct from his own excommunicated Colorado AIM chapter) have sniped at his claimed Indian ancestry, as have a raft of fellow Indian activists, journalists, and even the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, to which he claims affiliation. (They say it was merely an honorary membership, the same kind extended to "Indians" like former president Bill Clinton.)
While Churchill has said he's everything from 1/16 to 3/16 Indian, reporters have uncovered a lily-white upbringing in Illinois. Also, the one Indian ancestor he's named appears to have been white. (The man's mother was killed and scalped during a Creek Indian raid.) Considering that Churchill's ancestry (the non-English/Swiss-German part of it, that is) is allegedly responsible for his receiving fast-track tenure, and that he embraces it so wholeheartedly as to refer to "Ward Churchill" as "my colonial name," his critics have not been kind. They've called him "pseudo-Indian" and "Iron Eyes Cody" and even "Tonto." In the News from Indian Country newspaper, cartoonist Marty Two Bulls recently depicted Churchill's head on a chicken's body, peering into a "Real Injun Kit!" '70s activist model, complete with AIM T-shirt, shades, and Mingo-style wig.
As if the guy isn't already getting hit where it hurts, a spate of scholars, some of them Indian, have likewise opened up an academic front in the Churchill wars, charging he's guilty not only of plagiarism but of fabricating facts, such as that the U.S. Army deliberately distributed smallpox-infested blankets to Indians. Then there are the discrepancies in his Vietnam service. Did he wield a .50 caliber machine gun and walk point with the nickname "Chief," as he's claimed? Or does he suffer flashbacks only when a projector blows a bulb, since old records and résumés suggest that he was a projectionist and "public information specialist" in Vietnam? On and on it goes, each allegation becoming more inscrutable.
Churchill strenuously denies everything that doesn't square with his accounts, even the portions of his accounts that seemingly don't square with each other. And his lawyer has likened the Indian inquiry to "the Nazi standard for racial purity." But despite all the bad juju coming his way, such attention has delivered him a gift that a guy in the book-a-year business can never have too much of: good material.
INSIDE THE WOMEN'S BUILDING AUDITORIUM, I take my seat in the media balcony, "media" being used loosely to describe the people who point their cameras Churchill's way, then applaud everything he says. Below us is a mass of the usual suspects: the masked banditos, the grown men wearing chicken heads in homage to Churchill's book title, the tie-dyed frizz-balls who look like spokesmodels for Cherry Garcia ice cream, all emitting the dank human musk that is common in rooms full of people who are so concerned about the military-industrial complex that they don't have time to concern themselves with doing laundry.
Churchill takes the dais, uncoiling his long frame like a python warming itself in the sun, and lets his pearl-buttoned denim shirt drop to the floor, giving it an angry kick. He's wearing a stained T-shirt. In an over-pronounced Indian cadence (what Indian activist and longtime Churchill nemesis Suzan Harjo calls his "Tonto talk"), he brings greetings from the elders of the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, and uncorks his customary tribute to Leonard Peltier, still rotting in a cage on false charges.
He tells the people that he hasn't come to speak "truth to power," since "power never listens. Power knows everything I'm going to say better than I do." Instead, he's speaking "truth to people in the teeth of power, and that's the only truth I know." At this point, Churchill could be enjoying the love-bombing he gets from the expectant audience. But instead, he'd rather throw a fragmentation grenade. "Charlie Brennan, are you here?" he asks in his low, tomcat growl.
Brennan is a Rocky Mountain News scribe who has done some of the most exhaustive reporting on the Churchill saga, even unearthing ex-wives who've called Churchill a bullying control freak and worse. Brennan is in the audience, and the room turns to see him scribbling away furiously without looking up. "Yeah, Hi Charlie!" bellows Churchill. "Having a nice day now? My turn. I got the high ground. . . . Are you still beating your wife, Charlie? Answer me yes or no, please. And remember, I got nine people who hate your guts and are going to comment on whatever it is you have to say." After demanding to see proof that Brennan is white (he'd probably never felt whiter), Churchill pushes the assault: "And you purport to be a man, . . . yet only one of your parents was, and you know it! . . . I'm practicing the journalist trade. . . . I expect a job at the Rocky Mountain News when I get back."
The crowd might've yelled "Off with his head!" but it was hard to tell since they were speaking in tongues. And this was all before Churchill got to the Eichmann charge, which had been grossly misinterpreted the first time around. Of the World Trade Center victims, Churchill needs to make one thing clear. "I didn't actually say they were Eichmann, I said they were little Eichmanns." By that, he means that like Eichmann, who didn't directly kill anyone, and who was merely following orders by overseeing Jewish transport operations and other logistical concerns, they were good Germans, "the technocrats of empire," who participated, perhaps even unwittingly, in the immiseration of countless cultures.
Forget the sloppy historical analogy, since even if you favor a heads-up comparison between modern-day America and Nazi Germany, Eichmann was a bit more proactive than Churchill allows, recounting in his own words how he witnessed a mother shot with a baby in her arms, "his brains splattered all around, also over my leather overcoat. My driver helped me remove them."
Forget, also, that if you page through the obituaries of Cantor Fitzgerald financiers--that company being Churchill's oft-cited embodiment of American complicity and callousness--you discover all sorts of examples that complicate Churchill's line: There were people like Juan Cisneros, who volunteered as a Big Brother, and who only wanted to be a bond trader until he could sock away enough money for his parents, who'd immigrated from Guatemala. Or like Matthew Leonard, Cantor's director of litigation, who helped the homeless and did extensive pro bono work for poor people in Chinatown. Such lives couldn't possibly be as noble as getting paid out of the same compulsory-taxes kitty that finances our unjust wars, or cataloguing the stereotypes in Dances with Wolves, or collecting five grand a throw to feed discontent to roomfuls of emaciated anarchists, when what they most need is a hot shower and a cheeseburger.
What Churchill is really trying to say is that from Wounded Knee to the Tokyo Firebombing to our sanctions starving half a million children in Iraq (his favorite talking point), we are guilty of an "uninterrupted stream of massacres." Saddam Hussein--who cared about Iraqi children enough to tie them to tanks as human shields, who skimmed $20 billion from the Oil-for-Food program after it was implemented in 1996, and who before that turned down deal after deal for humanitarian aid if it came with monitoring conditions to ensure it was being used for food (all while finding the scratch to build 48 palaces)--doesn't figure in Churchill's narrative.
I spend another hour or so watching Churchill stoke the fire, telling the assembled that they should get serious: "Untangle your head from the jewelry, fill in the holes with body putty, put on some straight looking clothes so they can't see who you are. Get inside. Bring your weapon to bear." He then walks it back from being an endorsement of violence: "Oh my God, he's advocating people turning themselves into suicide bombers! No, I don't think suicide is the constructive approach. . . . Maybe it's your ideas, maybe you can convince people."
But violence is certainly something he hasn't foresworn in books like Pacifism as Pathology (1998), which argues that sit-ins and Smokeouts just aren't cutting much ice. Leading by example is Ed Mead, who wrote the book's introduction, and who spent 18 years in prison as a member of the George Jackson Brigade, which bombed, among other things, three different government buildings in the 1970s. Churchill claims in the book that he once taught a hands-on workshop entitled "Demystification of the Assault Rifle" (a group of lesbian feminists showed up and denounced it as "macho swaggering"). And he admits to me, "I have more guns than the average liberal and less than Charlton Heston," and, "yes, I've participated in armed struggle," since the "right to engage in the use of armed force to counter the forcible usurpation of rights . . . is rather prominently enshrined in both domestic and international law."
On a later occasion, I press him on this subject, citing a 1987 Denver Post piece in which he bragged about teaching the Weathermen (largely known for property destruction) how to make bombs and fire weapons--"which end does the bullet go, what are the ingredients, how do you time the damn thing." He freely admits that he was involved with the Weathermen for six months, even giving them firearms orientation, before three of them accidentally blew themselves up (with a bomb that was intended for a Ft. Dix military dance, where more than punchbowls would presumably have been targeted).
But about explosives training specifically, he now hedges. "I wasn't really qualified to provide it. There were army field manuals floating around and I was undoubtedly asked--and answered as best I could," he wrote me in an email, "but that doesn't really constitute training." He adds that the FBI, after investigating him, concluded as much. Though that may be true, I ask him, wouldn't answering questions about explosives be the same as "teaching"--he needn't have organized a formal weekend workshop? On this, he failed to respond.
Churchill, it seems, likes to play at being dangerous, then gets miffed when people take him at his word. Whether he regards the overthrow of a totalitarian maniac like Saddam Hussein as the above-mentioned "usurpation of rights" warranting a call to arms isn't entirely clear, though I doubt it. But what is, as I look down on the rhapsodic crowd, is that the row of guys in chicken heads are all clucking in unison while Churchill affects his revolutionary pose. It's enough to recall the words of Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, who said, "The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience, so they believe they are as clever as he."
THE NEXT DAY, we're set to meet at the 10th Annual Anarchist Book Fair in Golden Gate Park. Only a cynic would suggest Churchill's full-time controversialism is a marketing gimmick to move product (he's addressing the anarchists for love, not money). Still, material wealth can be an unfortunate byproduct of the work. At the vending table at last night's event, one of the AK Press employees told me Churchill's "Chickens" book had nearly hit 100 on Amazon.com--"It was ahead of Stephen King's new novel!"
Here at the book fair, too, anarchists are doing convincing impressions of happy little capitalists, pushing tens of thousands of products, from "Murder King" T-shirts (featuring the Burger King logo) to "Serfs up!" bumper stickers to pamphlets like "From Knapping to Crapping--Running Riot Through the Supermarket of Skills! . . . starting points for self-emancipation."
The courtyard of the park's agriculture building is decorated with red and black balloons, as if a birthday party were being thrown for Satan, or maybe the Chicago Bulls. And again, the musty ferment reminds me of a sweat sock in a junior high gym locker, while I'm left wondering how so many people can wear so much black and still be mismatched. Outside, the Radical Cheerleaders give their hairy-legged all, performing cheers with onanistic themes: "Masturbate, don't detonate / Orgasms are really great!" While inside, spoken-word artists are in need of rhyming dictionaries for something to couple with "genocide" (refried, bromide, walleyed--one wants to scream at the lack of imagination).
In what I assume is the speakers' green room, since it has lots of Darjeeling tea and eggplant sandwiches, some graybeard is yelling over a really loud film he's screening about the Landless Farmers' Movement. "They're the poorest people in Brazil." "What?" says a girl, in between bites of eggplant, "They're the forest people of Brazil?"
I run into Churchill and his wife outside and, to get his goat, tell him I just saw his bête noire, the Rocky Mountain News's Charlie Brennan. Churchill glowers, or at least I think he does since he tends not to remove his Dolce & Gabbana wraparound shades. He's still smarting over Brennan's latest effort, and about general attacks on his Indianness, so he says of Brennan, "What's it like to be an Irishman--can't document the Irish, or the man. He made it up."
All this anarchism has made me thirsty, so I cross the street to get a Diet Coke, and take a coffee order from Churchill and Saito. All I can find, however, is a Starbucks. When I come back to the fair with two venti something-or-anothers, surly anarchists look like they want to kick my windows in, just like they did the Seattle Starbucks back at WTO '99.
Churchill, to his credit, doesn't subscribe to any meaningless "praxis of personal purity," so he takes his coffee (black) with a shrug and lights a Pall Mall. I ask if he's an anarchist, and though they have an affinity, he says no. He's an Indigenist. Not quite sure what that entails, I ask him to explain. He's a wordy bugger, and goes on for a good while about a "consciously synchronous level of population" and a "latitude of action that is governed in a self-regulating manner" and a "unity in the differentiation that's consonant with natural order." I figure this would all go down a lot easier if I'd first eaten peyote.
Later, on my own, I explore his philosophy in a manifesto conveniently titled "I am an Indigenist." While Churchill generally shies from being prescriptive--much more fun to talk about what others have done wrong--this essay is the exception. The "highest priority of my political life," he writes, is "the rights of indigenous peoples," for whom he foresees the restoration of land. He envisions a "North American Union of Indigenous Nations" that would comprise "roughly one third of the continental U.S." Ever the pragmatist, Churchill says the region would enjoy as much autonomy as it wanted, and that with Indians controlling all those natural resources, much-needed conservation will prevail in a land now completely overpopulated. (He cites an ecological demographer's estimate that North America was "thoroughly saturated with humans by 1840," and figures we're due for a good dose of population control, possibly through "voluntary sterilization" and "voluntary abortion.")
As for the natural resources controlled by the new autonomous nation, they would be shared with others only to meet "basic needs." "What I'm saying probably sounds extraordinarily cruel," he writes, but to "those imbued with the belief that they hold a 'God-given right' to play a round of golf on a well-watered green beneath the imported palm trees outside an air-conditioned casino at the base of the Superstition Mountains . . . tough. Those days can be ended with neither hesitation nor apology."
Churchill tells me he fancies himself a "true conservative," in that he's a strict constructionist who believes our government should abide by its laws and treaties--including the 400 or so we've broken with the Indians. And he also wishes me to know that he puts his anti-Communist and anti-Marxist credentials up against anyone's. But after reading his Indigenist platform, I'm yearning for the carefree kegger that was Das Kapital.
CHURCHILL GOES INSIDE and, without ever removing his shades, gives another slam-bang rendition of his Eichmann spiel, punctuating his sermon with a raised fist and a "Power to the people!" (no kidding). Afterwards, he can't get outside fast enough to light another cigarette. I follow him backstage out to a semisecluded courtyard, and compliment him on bringing his A-game. As 9/11-victims-are-Nazis speeches go, it's one of the most forceful I've heard. He shrugs like it was nothing, telling me how he does it. He uses "the intellectual grounding . . . to make the articulation," but then delivers it in terms "that will be understood by the brother on the block."
As he breaks it down for me, a small throng of admirers encircle us. A woman with a foamy cow-head on her hand steps forward. She introduces herself to Churchill as a "video activist and puppeteer." Her little friend is "Barbara Bovine, a reporter for NO-BS news." She asks him for an interview, and he motions to me with some relief, telling her he's busy. But I refuse to let him off the hook. "It's all right, have at it," I say, "Don't want to miss this." Churchill looks pained, but consents to the cow interview.
Barbara Bovine starts in, saying she's a mad cow, not because she's diseased, but "pissed at how my species has been treated." When she questions him on the morality of paying taxes on things you don't want to support, such as food, he responds, "I'm going to have to eat you, aren't I?" Barbara looks perplexed, as much as she can for an inanimate object. "Are you not a vegetarian?" she asks. "Of course not!" he thunders. "I'm of the planet of the carrot. Why would I eat my relatives?"
Churchill's general surliness, however, doesn't deter well-wishers. A free-radio geek steps forward with a microphone asking him to cut some promos for various stations. A Middle-Eastern looking gent, who says he's on his way to jail for perjury after "someone kinda rolled on me" (adding sheepishly that it has something to do with "terrorists recruiting fighters, which is all I'm gonna say"), wants to thank Churchill for telling "us what's wrong. . . . We'll go from there." A fat guy in shorts says, "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have our freedoms." Churchill looks embarrassed, saying, "That's a lot of weight to bear. . . . Maybe we ought to spread that one around a little."
Then a senior citizen in sandals approaches, saying that, while he loved everything Churchill said, it's the same thing he's "heard for the last 45-50 years. . . . I was waiting for a plan, I was waiting for specifics." At this, Churchill grows visibly agitated, even more so than when he complained to the puppeteer that her "cow's eyes look absolutely demented when you shake its head in stupid, swinging little circles."
Churchill straightens his back, momentarily forgets his smoke, and fixes the old geez with a hard stare: "Well, I'll tell you what, my man, that is my part. Now you got some place you want to take it beyond? That's great. Get to it. . . . But I am sick unto death of people telling me what I should be saying when they're not saying it themselves. And most of the people in that room haven't been around 40 or 50 years, okay?"
Afterwards, I lean over to Churchill, asking if he's comfortable being the new Che. "I'm not him, I'm not any of those people, I'm just me," he says. "But they're trying to make you that," I add. "I understand that," he says, "But I don't have a focal theory, okay?" I ask if he's comfortable with the performing-monkey obligations he's now shouldering, since three months ago, he never contemplated talking to a cow puppet on camera.
"That is actually true," he nods wearily. "Three months ago I was not talking to a cow puppet. If I get my karma burnished right, I will probably not ever be talking to a cow puppet again."
IN THE MIDST OF CHURCHILL'S CALIFORNIA SWING comes Easter Sunday, and I'd like Churchill and his wife to attend services with me. But I don't take them for the Easter-bonnets-and-lilies type. So I invite them to a uniquely San Franciscan institution: the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, a Christian sect that both worships and teaches from the works of the late jazz saxophonist.
Churchill is intrigued, but begs off, citing the need to visit his dear friend, the 83-year-old civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, who cradled Malcolm X's head as he was dying in the Audubon Ballroom (Kochiyama recently compared Churchill to Malcolm and Che).
That night, Churchill, his wife Natsu, and I meet up at the Hotel Durant bar, just off the Berkeley campus. I am feeling spiritually renewed and nurtured in the bosom of A Love Supreme. Having attended the three-hour worship service, which featured so many saxophone players that one or two could slip off to the bathroom in the middle of a solo and not be missed, I present Churchill with a Saint John Coltrane T-shirt. He is extremely grateful, and we tuck into a bay-windowed nook with a no smoking sticker displayed prominently. "I usually put that right over my ashtray," he rasps.
Seeing as how we're getting along so famously, I pop out my tape recorder and start with a softball. "Why do you hate America?" I ask him.
"Next question," he says. "Why do you beat your wife? When you answer that, I'll answer yours."
I go with a different approach, asking what Easter means to him. "Easter?" he says, as if he's just heard the word for the first time. "That's when that poor man was crucified. Is that after he'd been entombed, and they rolled the rock back, he ran out, saw his shadow and ran back in?"
I take the Punxsutawney Jesus crack to mean that Churchill is up for a good mud-wrestling match, so I order fire-waters all round (he's a Jameson's Irish Whiskey man), and we hunker down for a three-hour duel. Churchill is plenty riled from a Charlie Brennan report the day before, which suggested that Churchill thinks he's Indian because his grandmother told him so on her deathbed. His grandmother did tell him, but not on her deathbed, he says. "How can you take something that goddamned simple," he asks, "to make it mean something other than what was said? My grandmother didn't die for another 20 years. How could she possibly have told me on her deathbed?"
Seeing he's a wee bit sensitive about his Indian identity, I go right for it, asking just how Indian he is. "I am not going to get into pet poodle pedigree," he says. "I've done this twice and I'm not doing it again. It is absolutely racially affrontive." But everybody wants to know, including his university, I respond. "And everybody can go f--themselves," he snaps. I point out to Churchill that among other numbers, he's already on record saying he's 1/16. "I'm on record, quote me on it," he says. "Fine, that's what I said, say it."
I point out that I am half-Italian. But if I were, say, 1/16 Italian and heading the National Italian American Foundation, wouldn't people think me some kind of poseur? "No," he says flatly. Natsu, who is Japanese-American, pipes up that there is a history of racist blood-quantum policy in America, and that such policies are "part of the attempt to exterminate American Indians." Of the attempts to question his identity, Churchill chimes in, "If I am not an Indian, the Indian will be gone." "Kill the Indian, save the man," seconds Natsu, bringing up the slogan of the old racist residential school system. "They are trying to kill the Indian in Ward Churchill."
MOVING ON TO LESS CONTROVERSIAL FARE, I ask him about the discrepancies in his Vietnam record, in which he's made himself sound like a ground-pounding trigger-puller, while records suggest he drove a truck, and a résumé claims he worked as a public information specialist. "I performed infantry functions, I ended up in a transportation battalion," he rolls, before abruptly stopping. "Actually, I said I wasn't going to do this with anybody, and I'm not."
Why--it's under question? I ask.
"I don't care. Show me some possible relevance to it. . . . I'm not running for f--ing office. I don't have to vet my life back to potty training stage in order to be entitled."
I suggest that since people are alleging deception in several areas of his life, doesn't that go to his credibility as a scholar? "My academic work is subject to being assessed like any other academic work, and it doesn't matter if I think I'm goddamned Napoleon Bonaparte," he says. "This is not the National F--ing Enquirer, though it's been turned into that." He says no one contests that he's been in Vietnam, and no one contests that he's decorated (with a Cross of Gallantry and "this and that," he adds). I offer that when he waves the red cape, he shouldn't be surprised that people charge.
But Churchill sticks to his line. "I've made statements on Vietnam service, and I'm not going to parse and equivocate on them." I tell him that for someone who's not running for office, he sure sounds an awful lot like a politician, and that he's in violation of my 90 percent rule, which states that 90 percent of people who say they have no response to a charge are guilty as charged. Churchill vehemently disagrees, citing prisons, in which "90 percent of people don't belong there."
"You don't believe that," I scoff.
"Wanna start counting them?"
I don't. I'd rather order us more drinks.
As the night wears on, I feel transported back to my college days, when, on any given evening, you could end up in an off-campus bar with some batty radical professor, drinking, arguing, and throwing darts--at each other. Churchill and I, in repeated cycles, suffer through the classic three stages of happy hour: boozy bonhomie, injurious repartee, then schmaltzy reconciliation.
We find common ground on a few things. We agree that singer Townes Van Zandt is God, or was, until he drank himself to death. We resolve that Paul Newman characters make for good children's names (Luke, Hud, etc.). We concur that one of the most satisfying lines in the English language (Churchill's favorite) comes from Dashiell Hammett in The Dain Curse, when he describes a woman's face as a "dusky oval mask between black hat and black fur coat."
We disagree on nearly everything else, sometimes violently. He seems to think that there is no greater evil than American military exertion, and I make the case repeatedly that without it, the world would be lost. He recites his litany of massacres like Nagasaki. I point out that those innocent Japanese came from the same nation that killed 300,000 people at Nanking, forcing fathers to rape their own daughters, so that should make them Little Eichmanns, according to his own bent logic.
He insults my helter-skelter interview techniques, and questions whether I know anything about history. I insult his books, suggesting real scholars cite people other than Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark in their footnotes. Twice, Churchill storms out as if he's ended the interview (in fact, he just needed a Pall Mall). After growing frustrated at my increasingly frequent interjections, as I attempt to turn his dreary monologues into robust dialogues, he grabs my tape recorder once, and lunges for it another time, before I tell him to step back. When I follow him outside for a smoke break, he grows so frustrated at what he regards as my complete ignorance that he commands me to turn off my tape recorder, orders us off the record, and engages me in an exchange that journalistic convention forbids me to report, but which involves lots of colorful language on both sides.
We patch things up, for the most part. And by the end of the evening, I again posit to Churchill that he knows no transgression unless it's American transgression, that his calculus considers only the wars we've fought, but never the wars the world never had to fight as a result of American might. I tell him that communism, which set into motion so many of the American policies he detests, was no joke--it took the lives of 100 million people. At this, he blanches. "You don't really want to sit here and get into an arithmetical tally of who killed more people. Both have killed astronomical numbers of people in order to maintain themselves. Neither is defensible. The Soviet Union, however, has the virtue at this point of not being here anymore. The United States cannot claim that credit."
As I settle the check, and Churchill and his wife get up to leave, he says offhandedly, "Oh, and one more thing: F--you." I think he's joking, but in case he's not, on behalf of the little Eichmanns, I offer back with relish, "F--you too."
IN THE BERKELEY STUDENT UNION the next afternoon, it's the usual fun and games, as Churchill speaks on a panel about academic freedom. Just outside the hall, a concessions kiosk does brisk business, pushing Churchill books and T-shirts with inscriptions such as "My heroes have always killed cowboys." Revolutionary Worker Communist newspapers are passed around among students, while McCarthyism is decried. During the Q&A after Churchill and several other professors speak, he is given a tongue-bath. One interrogator actually asks him to sign her term paper, which was written about the Churchill saga.
Afterwards, as Churchill disappears with six or seven television cameras pressing hard behind him, I step out into Sproul Plaza, where Mario Savio launched the Free Speech Movement in 1964. I head toward the GAP, which now sits adjacent to it, to check out the spring sales. But on my way I run into a lone Churchill protester, a Bay Area AIM activist named Earl Neconie. He's dressed in a Pendleton vest, a black Stetson with beaded headband, and a 2nd Marine Division pin. Beside him sits a placard that says "Ward Churchill speak with forked tongue."
I ask him if he'd encountered Churchill today. He says no, but he did around a decade ago when Churchill and he were at a tribunal, one of the many bloody battles in which their respective AIM organizations were trying to hash out something or other. He says he distinctly remembers Churchill, because he wasn't wearing any shoes. "Why are you barefoot?" Neconie asked. He shakes his head and laughs, remembering what Churchill said: "It's the Native in me." Neconie says he offered to buy Churchill some moccasins, before Indian-giving the offer with, "Oh wait, you're not an Indian."
I ask Neconie what his Indian name is. "Just Neconie," he responds. "It's an old Kiowa name. I don't have one like Standing Water, or Leaky Faucet, or anything like that." I ask him what he thinks of Churchill's Indian name, which is "Keezjunnahbeh," meaning "kind-hearted man."
Neconie shrugs. He hadn't heard of it. "But Bay Area Indians, we have our own name for him. We just call him Walking Eagle."
"Why?" I ask.
"Because," says Neconie, gathering up his placards, "a Walking Eagle is so full of s--that it can no longer fly."
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.