An interview with Greg Payton

This interview was originally published in Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements. The editor interviewed Greg Payton, an African American veteran of the Vietnam war, turned international peace activist with Vietnam Veterans against War, Veterans for Peace, War Resisters’ League, and Black Veterans for Social Justice. He talked to us about how race and racism have played out in his experience of this activism.

Can you tell us what got you involved in your activism?

I'm a Vietnam veteran. I got drafted, conscripted to Vietnam. And I really wasn't not into politics, I only went because I didn't want to get locked up, I didn't want to go to jail. That was the number one reason I went to Vietnam. <--break- />The military wasn't difficult for me, I was pretty physically active so it was OK. But when I went to Vietnam, I began to understand what the war was really about. I realised we were being used for the benefit of others. When I spoke about white soldiers and black soldiers and the problems of racism in the military, I became a target. I got attacked several times by American soldiers. It lead to a lot of conflict. I had to leave the army, I left without permission and went to stay with a Vietnamese family. It gave me tremendous insight on the war. I got shot at a couple of times by American soldiers.

At the time I didn't realise there was an organised effort of Vietnam war veterans. The movement was a lot of young, white students primarily. They started organising for people not going to war: they never came to my community. We didn't know about conscientious objection, we didn't know that you could maybe go to Canada – we didn't have any idea. I got released from the military and I came back home. What happened was that when I was in Vietnam I started using drugs. I used drugs for about 15 years. In the beginning it was manageable, at the end I ended up being homeless. Doing a lot of different things.

Were there any support networks for you when you came back?

I didn't know anything. I didn't try to link up with any organisations; I kept moving on and tried to develop my life. But I went to the Veterans Administration, to a drug programme. There was some veterans in that programme who were members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War

Was that when you became involved with conscientious objection activism and antimilitarism more generally?

That was a good experience. I hadn't realised it, but Vietnam was the catalyst of my drug addiction. I began to get a real education about what was happening politically, how we were using soldiers and not looking after them when they got back home. I became very involved in the veterans unit. Then through Matt Meyer, I got involved in War Resisters' League (WRL) and started going to different things: there was a link between veterans and the Vietnam war campaign.

You mentioned that the movement against the Vietnam war was mainly white, middle class students – how were the race dynamics when you got involved with Vietnam Veterans against the War and WRL?

A lot of meetings I was the only black person. It was a long time before other black people got involved. There was a brother named Clarence Fitch who was the one who mentored me into the programme, but he was one of only a few. He got AIDS, so again a lot of the time I'm the only black person at a meeting. It was years before there was more black involvement – some peripheral people maybe, but by and large the movement was white.

Why do you think that was?

How many black people are there in your social circle? Not many? That's the problem – people stayed in their own social circle – you only organise with the people that you know. It wasn't a conscious thing where they didn't want to include other people, but they didn't know how to get other people involved.

When you started getting involved, did that raise the white majority's awareness?

There was a lot of denial about white privilege really and how that works. People aren't really confronted with it – having not been involved in situations where race is an issue. They don't understand what it's like to be in that situation where everyone is systematically all white and you're another colour. You're immediately identifiable. I didn't know where they might be from from, but they knew I was black straight away. They could deal with me in a different way.

What would you say has improved or needs to be improved in the way white people deal with their privilege? How can groups be made more inclusive?

Early on there were a couple of people in WRL who knew that their meetings didn't include a lot of people other than those that looked like them. They were preaching to the choir. You have to reach out to other groups – the number one way is you find out what their issues are and you work with them on their issues and then hopefully they work with you on yours.

Militarism is all encompassing – black, white, etc – because of the way militarism works and what it does to a community – you find that white folks that are involved in the peace movement are adamant that whatever their niche is – environmental, CO, nuclear – whatever it is, they are passionate about it, but they don't know what the others struggles are. When you're fighting for survival, like in the Black Lives Matter campaign – we're dealing with a situation of militarism, where the police are killing people: I'm in a community where a black man was shot in the back eight times while running away from police. But what happens is that the struggles we're having with militarism, other folks, white people in particular, come from communities that don't understand that. So for example, WRL was talking about war. There was an issue about the police and police brutality and they didn't know whether or not to talk about it, because their issue is war. That was the beginning of our weekend meeting. That weekend there was a riot in LA about police brutality – they rolled out the army, tanks, all that militarism in front of local citizens. And right there, there was a link between militarism and race. It could have been a war zone in the Middle East or Latin America.

So you would say the problem is a lack of awareness among white activists, and an unwillingness to make themselves aware?

Some of that has been true. It's people from other cultures getting involved in new cultures. I was very uncomfortable in all white communities at first, I had to learn new terminology. What happened was that there was just a need to understand this stuff and I was interested so stayed the course. Some people don't have the time to do that, they're fighting for their lives.

What do you think would help more people stay the course? What might make movements more inclusive?

You have to prove to people that what you're doing relates to what they need done. So for example in South Africa, there were many black South African groups that wanted to support the End Conscription Campaign, but they were also concerned about how that would work. If they don't do their military service, but they still have white privilege, are they then going to go back to their suburbs, become white citizens suppressing black people again – are they going support us if we support them?

As an organisation, you have to go and relate more to other folks, rather than you being central – in many instances, the organisation feels their issues are paramount: 'everyone needs to get on board with our issues'. Your issue is not paramount to other groups. When we were in South Africa for the WRI (War Resisters' International) conference last year – one of the greatest things I've seen happen – you reached out to all these other groups and people began to find out that, for example, homophobia and feminism – all these different things happen in a lot of places. A lot of times, people feel very isolated, but in reality the same pressures are also going on it other places. Prior to that there was very little – there wasn't a lot of direct relating.

Things have come a good way, since I started back in '80s and '90s. Things have got a lot better. But activists still don't always understand or want to understand other situations. What I like about WRI and WRL is that you're reaching out to me, the idea that we have this connection, and I could email you and get instantaneous support internationally. A lot of groups don't have that same mechanism, especially grassroots groups. So for example in the movement for divestment from Israel, a lot of people didn't understand what that was about, but now there's a whole community of people doing it around the world. That's wonderful!

So what I'm hearing is that you feel there's been a lot of improvement and more reaching out and solidarity.

'A lot': how do you qualify that? Things have improved. Still, I think we're facing the same issues. It's coalition building that's important, with other groups you can identify with and move with. Militarism affects everybody in all types of ways, especially economically. We need to reach out to younger people so that they can get a clear understanding of what's going on. Like with tobacco– there was a movement against tobacco 30 years ago. At that time smoking was a big thing. Over 30 years, tobacco activists have changed the culture of smoking. You can't smoke in meetings. Bottom line is that people understand smoking is not a good thing. Little kids at school could tell you you shouldn't smoke.

Greg addresses a group at the WRI international conference in South Africa, 2014Greg addresses a group at the WRI international conference in South Africa, 2014

How do you think the antimilitarist movement could emulate that?

What we did as veterans was link up with people – teachers, for example. We went to schools and talked to the students. We never told young people what decision to make, but we said if you do go to the military, here's some of the things that you should know, like: your life is no longer your own. We have to begin an outreach to young people. You plant the seeds in younger people and when they start making social decisions, it shows. We need to interpret that in terms of language. So for example, I remember WRI arguing about whether they should put their things into Spanish. They were arguing about what kind of Spanish and how not everyone speaks the same kind – but you've gotta try! People will figure it out. We're so busy trying to get it just right that we miss the mark altogether sometimes.

So we need to communicate with people more widely, in a culturally sensitive way, but without paralysing ourselves being worried that we get it wrong?

We all have a long way to go in order to make things better for our children and for ourselves. I've lived in the southern part of the US – the cradle of slavery. There's still a lot of sentiment around that fosters these stereotypical ideas about black people. We're working hard to change minds, and I think we have. Many white Americans never thought a cop would do that – kill and unarmed black man, I mean. The media has portrayed black people in a very negative light. Many whites think 'they get what they deserve', and a lot of people don't even consider us people. And the same kind of militarism that's happening here, where we're getting killed by the police, is happening all around the world. It's horrible the way Muslims are treated in the US too. The US wants to blame everyone else for the violence, never wants to take responsibility for anything. I have to bite my tongue! I know some of the issues and people don't want to hear it, they don't want to be out of their comfort zone.

On that point: earlier I asked about how white people can make 'our' activism and 'our' movements more inclusive. Something that's interesting is to flip that dynamic...

Yeah, so for example, one of the major things that will happen is that white activists will plan a march, say, and then they call the black groups and see if they want to join the demonstration. But they never brought them in at the planning stages. Don't do all the planning and then tell the black groups where to go and what to do. If you want more black involvement, you have to bring them in initially, right at that planning stage. I might have had something to say about the objectives and tactics and all that. But you just want me to show up so you can think you're being inclusive! You're being dominant – you want black people as window dressing, not at the level of organising. And why don't you come and support black activists on issues that concern us? Take some time out of what you're doing and get to understand other people's issues. Don't just read about them – meet them, ask how you can help. It might sound simple, but make fliers and that kind of thing – something your group might be better equipped to do, if you have more resources. Little groups don't have the infrastructure to do that so it could really help them. You need to listen to what their problems are.

Obviously changing that dominant white behaviour is what needs to happen. But what would your advice be to black activists who are coming face to face with that very frustrating behaviour?

You have to understand different cultures. Most Americans look at white people and make an assumption – they assume they're the same. Understanding different groups, different European groups, for example, takes a while. People from different parts of the world have a different outlook on stuff. You have to understand where other people are coming from. I feel very blessed I was able to weather the storm. I had people I could talk to about these things – Howard Clark and I became very close – you have to be honest. We loved each other enough that we could learn from each other. We could ask each other's opinion. I could say I don't know much about x without worrying about being judged. For example, I didn't know much about gay culture, but I had some friends who were patient with me. I also remember being in California at a conference early in my involvement with WRL their was an article in Playboy Magazine about Vietnam Veterans and I was mentioned so I showed it to someone, but they pointed out how sexist that magazine is. It was my first lesson in the peace movement about sexism.

How do you feel about black groups organising on their own?

When you have a war, the draft gets people from all economic backgrounds. Someone I met had never met a black person – everything he knew was from the media. We couldn't even communicate because we had different slang. But black soldiers could talk to one another so we came together. We had a lot of similar experiences. There was a lot of segregation. Certainly groups need to identify with their culture. I don't believe everything has to be homogeneous, not everyone has to be together all the time in everything. You can be in a black group and you have issues and you're trying to align yourself with other groups and everyone is trying to contribute collectively to a situation.

Being welcoming to other groups is hard, people don't understand your history, they might be coming up with things you've already done. Hearing them out is still important though, it's important not to dismiss anybody. If you start being dismissive, then people shut down. I've been organising with Black Veterans for Social Justice – they've been inclusive, but the primary focus is on black veterans: housing, educational opportunities, homeless shelters. They started organising as black veterans, and they're still inclusive. You don't have to lose your group autonomy to work with others. They work with Vietnam Veterans Against the War – many of us have come together for certain things. We've given each other awards! There are lots of opportunities for collaboration.

What about gender awareness and inclusivity?

A lot of my education about gender has been from being involved in these groups. As I mentioned, there were some things I learned about sexism and the exploitation of women in the peace movement. And then when you talk about black women, there's so many nuances. You'd have to speak to a black woman. But she couldn't speak for every black woman. I can't speak for every African American, you have to get some kind of sampling group. But yes, black women are marginalised in a lot of these situations. I remember when I started getting involved in activism, women were picking up on male dominance. They would point out if there were more male speakers than women speakers, or only one woman speaker. I'd never thought about it like that. You start to listen to more voices. When there's only one black woman, you miss the opportunity to get a more inclusive balance. It's not just one token person you need, you need several people.

Originally published in Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements