Studs discusses energy policy and civil disobedience with Paul Wellstone
BROADCAST: Aug. 17, 1981 | DURATION: 00:54:15
Discussing the book, "Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War," with the author Paul David Wellstone. Topics discussed include U.S. energy policy, civil disobedience, corporate power, the role of American family farmers in the democratic process, and the possible dangers of electric power lines.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel You know, there are some remarkable happenings in our country that six o'clock news doesn't cover, and one is an event or a series of events in western Minnesota along the Dakota border. It involves farmers of the community as against the utilities. Seemed like a David and Goliath battle that turned out to be something really powerful, and there's a book about it, about this particular event, a series of events. Farmers and a utility company and powerlines built over their land. And a book has come out: "Powerline", and the word "power" has a number of dimensions, a number of meanings during this conversation, or for that matter as the subtext of this book. The subtitle is "The First Battle of America's Energy War", and Paul Wellstone, my guest, who will recount the event, his reflections, and what it's about. And, of course, just as important, its significance for the rest of the country. In a moment, "Powerline", and my guest, Paul Wellstone.
Paul Wellstone "Perhaps more significant is what happened after their protests failed to stop the line. When construction was completed, the governor and the media declared the protest over. The democratic process had worked its will. The farmers had participated fully but had lost, the will of the majority should be accepted. But a strange thing happened. The farmers did not stop protesting. A kind of guerrilla warfare broke out on the western plains and 430 miles of powerline proved difficult to defend. At night towers were attacked by 'bolt weevils' and fell to the ground. The land was littered with glass as an epidemic of 'insulator disease' broke out, and high-powered rifle bullets, or was it 'worms', splayed open the conducting wire. Local sentiment was with the farmers, and law officers made no arrests. Even with the most modern technology, including high-speed helicopters, utility security personnel and state police were frustrated. What happened in Minnesota and why it happened may have a significance for our nation's energy policy far beyond the questions involved in building just one powerline. A potent new force, rural Americans, has something to say about what that energy policy should be, and they may have discovered a source of power that will make all America listen."
Studs Terkel That's Paul Wellstone reading an early passage from the book "Powerline". I deliberately asked him to start with that as though it were, indeed, the beginning of a John Steinbeck novel. So, you just described a situation, that was very dramatic. Suppose we go back to the beginning. What was it about? How did it begin?
Paul Wellstone Well, the story begins in 1974. In June of 1974, a young farmer by the name of Jim Nelson living in Elbow Lake in western Minnesota found out quite by accident that two large cooperatives, United Power Association and Cooperative Power Association, had planned the largest direct current line in the United States of America to go right over his land and his neighbor's land. When Jim Nelson found out about this, he began to talk to his neighbors, and the farmers began to organize locally and began to fight this project tooth and nail. They first worked through the system, organized locally, went to their county board meetings, and as a matter of fact, in Pope County they more or less stopped this project. They got the planning commission to attach so many conditions that the power companies felt that they couldn't go through those local authorities any longer. Then the power companies asked the state to intervene, and the whole decision-making process was switched to the state government level as opposed to a local government level. The struggle then moved into a civil disobedience phase after the state agencies approved the project, culminating in the winter of 1978 in, really, a dramatic several months of civil disobedience. One half of the state patrol was sent out by the governor to build
Studs Terkel Now, we're talking about farmers, aren't we? We're talking about farmers, farmers generally considered a conservative kind of people. Of course, as someone said, the closer to the land you are, that you've got to conserve, the word "conserve." Yet we do know in the '30s, during the Depression, there were farmer strikes, quite militant, the Holiday Association turning over trucks and stopping from going by. We know that. Now, the question: What was the objection to the building of powerlines by these farmers?
Paul Wellstone Some of them are. If you talk to the farmers, and we tried to have long interviews with the farmers, you find a tremendous amount of diversity. But some of them most definitely come out of that past. I think that the farmers resented being sacrificed, as they saw it, while other people benefited. They challenged the need for this project from the very
Paul Wellstone Well, the danger, I think you have to look at danger in a broad way. At the beginning the farmers didn't talk so much about health and safety, although we need to talk about that today because that's become a pivotal issue now. They were worried about the line. They feared it, it was a new technology, a high-voltage direct current line, and they were worried what it would do to them and to their families. They also viewed this project, this huge powerline covering 430 miles of farmland going right over their farms--
Paul Wellstone What we're talking about is, we're talking about near Underwood, North Dakota, a huge strip-mining project, two large coal-burning plants, and then that electricity is taken via a huge powerline across western
Paul Wellstone Strip-mining and coal-burning plants. This is really a coal struggle. That's what it is, it's a heartland coal struggle because, of course, that's where the coal is going to be developed in this country, is right in the heartland region of the United States of America.
Paul Wellstone That was one objection. Another objection, and of course many people wouldn't listen to the farmers when they said this, but something that came out pretty loud and clear from the very beginning was, "This is an intrusion on our rural environment. We not only work on our farms, we live on our farms and we love it out here, and these 180-foot steel towers across our land are ugly. They're an intrusion. We don't want them." And the other thing that the farmers did from the very beginning is they challenged the need for it. They questioned whether or not the utility companies had been accurate in their projections. They felt they hadn't been using that much more electricity. They talked about the need to conserve. They talked about solar energy. They talked about renewable types of policies, and so there was that challenge as well.
Studs Terkel So, the farmers raised the impertinent question, the one: "Do we need these lines, are there not alternate sources of energy that would not cause these towers, do we not need for these towers to trespass, you know, upon our
Paul Wellstone That was and is a fundamental political question. Another thing that, if you want to talk about what set this explosion off, this is, really has been Minnesota's most dramatic struggle since the 19th, late 1920s and 1930s farm labor movement. Another thing that really enraged the farmers was just the way in which the decision-making process took place. For example, earlier in the book we show a chart. This planning started in 1969 by their cooperatives. They're supposed to only control their cooperatives. 1972, the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) people, that's another important angle to this story. This is the largest funded project by the National Rural Electrification Administration in the history of that agency. They come out and meet with the management of the co-op. And then there is an environmental study done in '73, it's not five years later that the farmers wanted out--
Studs Terkel Let's stop for just one moment there. There are so many dimensions to this, we'll be taking detours, digressing, coming back. You mentioned REA, this was a great event out of the New Deal days, bringing electricity to places that did not have electricity, to the farmlands, our Rural Electrification Administration. You mentioned cooperatives; we think of cooperatives as something that involves farmers and speaking out and a communal feeling. Now you're saying something has happened that has turned it on its head. The cooperatives are working with the utilities, as is REA.
Paul Wellstone It's an incredible history to go over, and some of the old farmers just shake their head in disbelief as they talk about this REA project, because they remember the REA as a New Deal populist program. They remember the REA has been a program that would bring power to rural people when the private investor-owned companies wouldn't do it. But what you see with this huge project is, number one, REA, rather than thinking of its mission as one of promoting efficient energy use and renewable resource policies which would be more decentralized policy, make people more independent, viewed its mission as developing lignite coal, more strip-mining, huge technology projects, and number two, this planning for this project, you see, is, it's a very complicated business is done by a consortium called MAPP in seven Midwestern
Paul Wellstone Mid-Continent Area Power Pool, and we're talking about forty-five companies, private investor-owned as well as cooperatives, and so you can't, so, really what's happened is that the REA, the cooperatives become part and parcel of the private utility
Paul Wellstone Very much so. Very much so. And the farmers speak of their loss of innocence throughout this struggle. And part of that loss of innocence was to come to see that their management, which was supposed to be accountable to them, was much more accountable to the private investor-owned company management than to the rank and file.
Studs Terkel Aren't we also--see, this is dimension on dimension, level on level, also talking about a new kind of being has come into being, the manager, a new kind of manager, the expert, and these are the managers of the co-ops that would represent the farmers, and in the technological world as it increases technologically, there are more and more of these managers, the experts.
Paul Wellstone Well, sure. I think that to the extent that energy policy becomes based upon large technology projects, very complicated projects under centralized control, you see centralized management and you see the people themselves not having a real understanding of that technology, and pretty much to find out of the decision-making process. One of the exciting consequences of this struggle, and I'm jumping all the way from 1974 to right now, is a broad-based movement in the state to begin to take over some of these local cooperatives throughout the state and make them once again accountable to the farmers themselves.
Paul Wellstone Right.
Paul Wellstone Well, in Jim Nelson's county, they didn't win. What happened Jim Nelson's county, we need to talk about two counties, in Grant County was, they went to the planning commission, the farmers did, large numbers of them showed up at the meetings, but the planning commission ultimately was very concerned about the power companies, the cooperatives threatening to sue them, and they more or less approved the project. What happened was that Pope County, which becomes the heart of this protest, some of the local officials, that no one ever talked about in the press, one of the real pleasures of writing this book was to get a chance to talk to local officials that no one really knew, that no--the media never talked about as sort of being protesters, but some of those local officials who were real environmentalists in the true sense, began to really look into this project, and the more they looked into it, the more questions they had. For example, they found out that Commonwealth Associates, which had done the environmental impact planning, had a very quantitative sophisticated study of how to route the line. And they--and you can--we have in our book a chart of that. Well, in this study they assign values. They assign a five to a highway, a four to an airport, a three to a town of appreciable size. What that means is, those places have higher values, you want to keep a line away from them. Zero for farmland. Well, that began to enrage local people. Another thing that's a kind of interesting story, but it's a kind of important story, is that when they looked at this environmental impact study, very sophisticated, fancy study, local people on the planning commission noticed that Pope County, which is a very agricultural county, that Commonwealth Associates people from Michigan listed the major export product as being strawberries. Well, that's pretty weird for a major agricultural county, and they did not list as a major game fish walleye. Well, that's one of the great walleye fishing counties in the state. People might laugh at this, but local people begin to say, "Hey! They don't know this area."
Studs Terkel So wait now, the experts, then, could not fool the local people. We come to another learning aspect of the story you're telling, is that these farmers suddenly realize that they knew, certainly, much about their land and more than what was right for them than the experts
Paul Wellstone Well, the way the state comes into this is interesting. United Power Association and Cooperative Power Association asked to be grandfathered from state legislation in 1973 and 1974, which said that the state should begin to be a part of the whole planning and looking into the environmental impact of these projects. Why did they ask to be exempted? They said, "We started this project before the legislation was passed in '73 and '74," and I think that there is a tremendous amount of evidence that points to the fact that UPA and CPA figured the path of least resistance was the local people. Then when that wasn't the path of least resistance, they turned back to the state and they say, "We no longer wish to be grandfathered," and they asked the state to take over jurisdiction.
Paul Wellstone Meaning that the legislation was passed in '73, '74 saying the states should have a role. But UPA and CPA said, "We started on this project before, so we want to be grandfathered." So now the state comes in starting in the spring of 1975.
Studs Terkel So we're really talking, aren't we, this is funny how the implications are beyond Minnesota, we're talking about farmers challenging private companies' right to public domain. Isn't that we're doing? This Is Poletown, you know, what's happening in the tribe.
Paul Wellstone Sure.
Studs Terkel You know, General Motors took over a certain community and the people of Poletown are being kicked out, and the question of, can a private corporation exercise the right of public domain?
Paul Wellstone That's
Paul Wellstone That's right. And that whole issue of eminent domain is one that's being debated throughout the state of Minnesota. And what the farmers ended up saying was, this idea that a private company, or for that matter a government agency, has that right of eminent domain for the public interest, we might believe in that if we thought that number one, it was in the public interest, and that number two, people really had a voice in that whole process. But we don't think people have a voice.
Studs Terkel Who
Studs Terkel You know, you have some remarkable scenes, is very dramatic. It reads like a novel. A cross-examination of some of the farmers by the experts in which they try to trip them up. Indeed they do in the beginning, until the farmers and their friends get wise. So now wasn't there also a danger of divide and conquer? Using this, "Not on my place. Someplace else." We hear this BMX missile in Utah. "Not on my place. Someplace else." That was a danger, was it not?
Paul Wellstone That, well, we have a chapter called "The Public Participates, The State Decides". Once the state took over jurisdiction in the spring of 1975, we go through about a year of hearings, whether it's needed and where will it be, and that was I think, Studs, one of the major sources of disillusionment to the farmers was that they went through this public hearing process which they hoped would be very democratic and they realized that ultimately that public process, it was a foregone conclusion a) that the project would be built, therefore the question of need was never looked into carefully, and b) therefore, what it all boiled down to is that in testifying about the only thing they found themselves channeled in the direction of having to say, "Put it on my neighbor's land." Now there were some dramatic hearings, at one of them, during one of the hearings for example, the state officials went through different segments of a corridor, segment A, B, C, D, and they went through all of them. They'd say, "Segment A. Is there any testimony?" Nobody stood up. Said, "Segment B?" Nobody stood up. Went through a number of segments and finally this state official looked out at the farmers and they said, "Is there no testimony?" One farmer, Jim Nelson, stood up and said, "We are opposed to all the routes. We're not going to say put it on our neighbor's land." So the hearings were kind of a charade, but they were--the one thing the hearings did do is they brought people together who had never met one another, and people began to get a sense of confidence and I think a sense of unity, which has sustained them. This struggle goes on now.
Paul Wellstone Well, I think that by and large the two agencies that had the major jurisdiction, the Environmental Quality Board and the Minnesota Energy Agency did not operate independent of the utility companies. There were some state officials that were sympathetic to the farmers and if you look at that chapter carefully you can see that the hearing officer went out of his way to try and be fair. But all in all, there was there was a set of shared assumptions between the state officials and the
Studs Terkel Oh, that's what you point, I remember that one thing, it's just so vivid. The experts, even though they didn't know each other, did know each other. There was an understanding these farmers are dumb, really. We have a job to do. They're just holding back progress. And they had this community of interest. You have a whole sequence here on the new kind of expert who's entered the picture. The new managers who are removed entirely from local need, and just--they're technocrats.
Paul Wellstone Yeah. It's not a kind of a quote "corruption" the way you think of corruption. It's a different kind of corruption of the political process. People all with basically the same training, all with the same kind of view, all sharing the same kinds of assumptions. And certainly, at the beg--especially in the early years of this struggle, the farmers were viewed as people who were stupid, who couldn't possibly have anything intelligent to say about such a technical matter. But it was never a technical issue, it was a value issue. And it's just, the farmers were eloquent in what they had to say about why farm land's important, about why they want to hold on to their way of life, about why they wanted to hand the family farms to their children, and about why they wanted to continue to stay in existence, and they felt that this project really symbolized a threat to their
Studs Terkel And by the locally, in almost all the cases the local officials, who knew them and were sympathetic, as there was a sheriff, Ellering, quite remarkable. I suppose you recount that incident, and then we'll come to the big event the learning of the farmers and what happened to them, how they changed. That one about Sheriff Ellering--
Paul Wellstone Yeah.
Paul Wellstone Right. Well, what happened was the state approves the project in June of '76, and the power companies send their surveyors out. The farmers weren't sure what to do, and a young farmer by the name of Virgil Fuchs engaged in what I guess you have to call an exemplary action. He himself engaged in his own act of civil disobedience and this set off, really, a number of incidents of civil disobedience where the farmers chased the surveyors off the land. The power companies went to the judges and the judge went to the sheriff and they said, "We want you to, the state has approved this project. We want you to enforce the law." Tremendous pressure was put on the sheriff and there was a very dramatic meeting held, one out on Alice and John Tripp's farm another at the Stearns County Courthouse in which the sheriff said, "I simply cannot go in there and enforce the law in such a way that I think people are going to be hurt, that there's going to be violence. I can't see, see this happening to my neighbors. I'm in the middle and I think that you people, the power companies, by bringing this project out here in the first place are the ones that are the biggest cause of"--
Studs Terkel "I will not," quoting Sheriff Ellering, very dramatic walk to the room, refused to answer questions and read this one-page statement and said what you had just said in his words, and then, "I will not point a gun at either the farmer or the surveyor." And of course there were cheers from the farmers, and the utilities were furious at the sheriff. And so we're talking about something, we're talking about a real battle of fundamental rights and battling against authority way up. And for the first--I imagine many of these cases they challenge authority for the first time
Studs Terkel That he says, "The only ticket, I didn't even get a traffic ticket. And here I am, I want one of these tickets." He meant for violating what was the law set up then by the state and the utilities. That is, we'll come to what they did, the events and what happened.
Paul Wellstone Well, John Tripp was one of the farmers who lived near Elrosa. He and his wife Alice, they're both in their early 60s, were very, very important to this whole protest. John was, when I first began to go out and interview the farmers they would always tell me, "John Tripp is the one who is so honest, go see him." Everyone trusted him. Just to show you how powerful this was, when John Tripp was arrested--
Paul Wellstone They turned on buzz saws so the surveyors couldn't hear one another. They parked their big trucks in front of the surveyors so the surveyors couldn't see where they were trying to survey. They took--drove their manure spreaders upwind and turned them on and blew it back on the surveyors. They rode ponies, like somebody said, "Here comes the Pony Express again," and swooped down on the surveyors and chased them all off the land. There were a lot of kinds of fairly creative things that the farmers did by way of civil disobedience, but it was never--it is funny, but it was very difficult for the farmers to do this. And one poignant example of this is that there was one very rough incident in Alexandria, and I saw this
Paul Wellstone Alexandria is a town out in western Minnesota. And I saw this on television, I--here was John Tripp being carried off on a stretcher, and they said that John Tripp was reported to have had heart trouble. Later on I found out in talking to John and Alice Tripp that what really happened, was that in this particular occasion, this arrest, and this isn't really in the book but it's certainly part of the story, when John was arrested for trying to block some of the, this wasn't really surveying, but this was a truck that was going to carry some cement out to the surveying crew, when the police came to handcuff him, he could not bear the thought of being handcuffed. It was so upsetting to him that, I'm not saying he, he didn't fake a heart attack, but he became sick and he didn't, and he didn't, he just could not bear the thought of--
Studs Terkel And so, these by the book is full of these dramatic events and occurrences. You describing the tactics, too. Mostly it's the learning of these farmers and they're suddenly realizing someone else feels as they do. And we're talking to Paul Wellstone, co-author of this recounting. It reads like a novel. It's called "Powerline" and the subtitle, "First Battle of America's Energy War", and it's published by, what university press?
Studs Terkel University of Massachusetts Press. We'll resume in a moment with Paul Wellstone and what happened to the individuals, to the groups, and to the powerlines. After this message. We're resuming the conversation with Paul Wellstone and "Powerline". Okay, so now the issue is joined. Now, how did word spread? How'd--now we're talking about the utilities companies, a consortium, building how many powerlines? Would go 430 miles from North Dakota through western Minnesota. And when you say powerlines, it involves hundreds of them, doesn't
Paul Wellstone Yeah.
Studs Terkel You were talking about the--at first, I suppose at first farmers thought, "We don't have a chance." At first I suppose they thought it's a fait accompli. How are you going to buck--let alone City Hall, how are you going to buck big utilities?
Paul Wellstone That's right. That's right. And he just was angry. That's really why he did what he did. And then you go into a phase of civil disobedience. And what happens then is, you--the governor then was Wendell Anderson who was about to become the United States senator in Minnesota with Walter Mondale running as vice-presidential candidate with Jimmy Carter, and the farmers had stopped the survey crews, the power companies couldn't build the line unless the state came in, the state patrol, and Wendell Anderson was not about, as his last act as governor, to bring in the state patrol or National Guard against the farmers. So, really, you go through a period of time, this is kind of, it's hard to summarize so much of this history, but you go through about a year and a half of civil disobedience and also the farmers waiting to see what's going to happen in the courts where the project is pretty much stopped. And then finally you, this culminates as I said in the winter months of 1978 where you have a new governor now who has been in
Paul Wellstone Well, once the governor gets into office he had his own style. He takes kind of a mystery trip out there, he's giving a speech in North Dakota, and on the way back home he shakes some of the security guards and goes out to west central Minnesota on his own and goes to a bar to try and find out where the Rutledges lives and farmers he wants to talk to, and the guy at the bar says, "Who are you?" And he says, "I'm the governor." So the guy calls up the Rutledges and he says, "Hey there's some guy here, some joker here who says he's governor." And the Rutledges say, "Well, we don't know who he is, but send him out here." Well, sure enough, it was Rudy Perpich. He tried to talk to people. I think he felt that he through his own personal initiative could work it out, but there's not a nice way to build a line. And ultimately what happened is, Rudy Perpich was faced with a choice and he finally made his decision in January of '78.
Paul Wellstone Well, the precedent was that Olson had put through a moratorium on foreclosure, bank foreclosures, and would Rudy Perpich do something like this? Would he declare a moratorium on this line until it was proven that it was needed and the health and safety concerns had been put to rest, or would he ultimately succumb to tremendous pressure that he had on him from the utility companies, and he did succumb to that pressure. He sent in the state patrol and, with the assistance of the state patrol even though hundreds of people now are arrested during those winter months of 1978, the project's built, but then, when the media said it's all over, when the governor said the project is built, please go back to the fields--
Paul Wellstone The project was completed and finally becomes operational in the summer of '79. But in the summer of '78 it's built, it's up, and the governor and the media and many, many influential people are saying to the farmers, "You put up a tremendous struggle. We're sympathetic. We understand why you don't want that project, but it's over." But that's what's kind of unprecedented about this story, it didn't end. It then, the struggle moves into--
Paul Wellstone They take the bolts out of the base of the towers. I don't know too much about exactly how it's done. People don't talk much about it. The FBI has, you know, has now assumed formal jurisdiction over this project, and there is a $100,000 bounty leading to, for information leading to an arrest of someone who--people don't talk a whole lot in specifics, but it's really done through the wrenches, that's they're called the bolt weevils, and it's dangerous. These 180-foot towers come crashing down to the ground in just a matter of a few seconds.
Studs Terkel So the towers sometime, we don't know when during that, because certainly the neighbors won't talk, how? We know a lot of people were involved in doing this, 'cause many towers toppled. How many, do you know?
Paul Wellstone That's right. And the interesting thing is that, I mean, I feel quite safe in saying that that surely not, this is not a broad-based political action. But what's important is that no one has been apprehended because the people do support it because they say they were shut out completely.
Paul Wellstone That's right. The farmers say, I should have double-checked this, but I once was at a conference where there was a debate and someone said, "This is vandalism," and the farmers said, and I, we have to check this out, the listeners would have to check this out, the farmers said, "No, it's not vandalism, because if you look up vandalism in the dictionary, vandalism is a random act against a thing of beauty. And this sure as heck isn't random. We know what we're doing, and it's certainly not a thing of beauty. It's sabotage." So they call it sabotage.
Studs Terkel And so, how many farmers roughly? I know you visited a great many who became involved who had never been before, outside of working the land and trying to make a living--there's an old man named Herickoff.
Paul Wellstone Well, again from the beginning, the farmers had these health and safety concerns and the companies pretty much laughed those off, did laugh those off, and the state hearing offices essentially said to the farmers, "You're not experts." Now, what's happened, and this is what Ben Herickoff was concerned about at the very beginning is that this--
Paul Wellstone Ben Herickoff is a legend in the area because he's one of the most successful farmers in Stearns County. He came over here from Germany at a very young age, he's now, I think, in his late 70s. That's right. And has lived there for many, many years. And Ben Herickoff was very much concerned about the health, of his health and his family's health and the health of other people. What's come to light is this: This is a large direct current line. This is a new technology. It gives off what are called "air ions," and these air ions cause the body's cells to secrete an abnormal amount of a hormone called serotonin. I know this sounds very technical, but to make a long story short, the symptoms then are dizziness and numbness and shortness of breath, and many farmers since this line has become operational have experienced these symptoms. One state official, Arthur Sidner, who is the head of the Environmental Quality Board, is very concerned about this, has said that he doesn't want it to be another Thalidomide. You remember the drug Thalidomide that women took, I think to deal with morning sickness and ultimately we had just terrible tragedies with children that were born. And, so, now in the state you have a major debate. Now the farmers say, and they're right. Looked at the scientific literature. They've said, "We don't know what this is doing to us. No one knows. If you don't know, it should be shut down." And the companies, who have invested $1.4 billion dollars say, "Well, there's ambiguity, but we say unless they can prove it's unsafe, you go on with it." So this has become a major debate.
Studs Terkel So that's the big debate. What--now, we haven't talked about the newspapers and the media against what is public opinion in Minnesota, western Minnesota. You point to a headline of the Minneapolis--Minneapolis "Tribune"? And of course, it's very anti the farmers.
Paul Wellstone The "Tribune", the "Tribune" was all in all, fairly treated the protest either with bemusement or, I think, hostility. Some of the local papers did some incredible investigative research and the public, as a matter of fact the public radio, I gave it an awful lot of courage.
Studs Terkel The Minneapolis "Tribune", which is the largest paper in Minn--had a headline story, here's a funny headline: "47% in Survey Believe Powerline Has Not Hurt Their Health." What a funny headline: "47% Believe Powerline Has Not Hurt Their Health." That means 53% believes it has. But the headline, and then 47% and throughout. But the local papers and public radio came through. But coming back to the farmers, 'cause they're the, really the heroes and heroines of this story. Now there were a lot of obstacles. They were suddenly subject to damage suits. Won't you tell about that scare, and enter George Crocker. How to come about that. What are the damage suits?
Paul Wellstone Well, in the fall of 1977, you had a wave of civil disobedience in the countryside, and the farmers had pretty much chased the surveyors off the land. The power companies retaliated with a very, very effective tactic. They issued $500,000 civil damage suits against several of the key farm leaders, just scared people to death, because $500,000 to someone, now, those--it's--I think that it's pretty clear to me that probably the companies were not going to follow through on those damage suits. But it really intimidated farmers. I mean, it's very scary to any of us. So for a while they didn't know what to do. Enter George Crocker--
Paul Wellstone Well, George Crocker becomes a real visible figure in this whole protest. George Crocker is referred to in the media as this sort of bearded radical. George Crocker was an anti-war demonstrator, had served 18 months in prison for draft resistance, was a pretty well-known urban radical in the state, strongly involved in the anti-nuclear movement.
Paul Wellstone Sort
Paul Wellstone That's right. Now, George Crocker had been working with the farmers, he had seen them come to the Twin Cities to demonstrate, the legislature had gotten to know some of them, had done some writing for them, had gone out to their farms and visited with them. But now he comes out to west central Minnesota with some of his other friends. Let's quote use the word "hippies" who had no money, and so they began to engage in civil disobedience. And then they said to the power companies right in front of the farmers, "Sue us! Because we don't have anything." And I can't quite explain the effect that had on the farmers, but basically what seemed to happen was the farmers began to look at those civil damage suits as a bluff when they realized that no action was taken against Crocker. I mean, they were arrested. And all of a sudden, I think some of the farmers began to do this as well. They did do it as well, and people like John Tripp and then there's also Stefan Peterson, who gets--who lives in Pope County and he sees John Tripp, who lives in Stearns County getting arrested, and he gets real worried because he says, "My gosh. Nobody from Pope County has been arrested and I better beat him to the punch," and he goes up to a young patrolman who he's, whose dad he's known for all of his life, and he says, "Can I have one of those tickets?"
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Paul Wellstone We do, and in a broader scope, I think maybe I'm getting ahead of the story, but I think that, you know, if you look at the United States energy policy and you see that the efficient energy use is out, renewable resource policy is out with the Reagan administration, what the supply-side planners like James Watt don't understand is that their opposition with a headlong development of coal or nuclear power doesn't just, is not just going to come from the environmentalists or from the public interest groups in Washington, D.C. It's the rural people like the rural people in west central Minnesota who are the ones that are really going to be targeted. And it's not just going to be in Minnesota, and indeed it isn't just in Minnesota that we begin to see this opposition.
Studs Terkel You see, this is what is not covered, really, in national news, for this event itself is so dramatic. By the way, some of these farmers also recognize the nature of anti-nuclear plant protests such as Seabrook? Do they see the connection, too?
Paul Wellstone At the beginning, no. You know, the farmers, that was one of the--I guess as, I can say this on the air for someone influenced by your work, that one of the advantages of being able to talk with people and have these interviews, is that you begin to see the way people began to change the way they were thinking about. The farmers talk about the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement in the way they viewed it then and now. And the same thing can be said for the anti-nuclear movement. But once the anti-nuclear activists in the cities came out there to west central Minnesota, and stayed out
Paul Wellstone And George Crocker and stayed out there and worked with them and even were willing to become arrested, then what happened in Minnesota was an alliance. Another alliance that took place that I wish we had talked about in the book that we really should have spent more time on, was the alliance between the farmers and I'm not trying to romanticize this, and the Indian activists. Farmers began to meet some of the Indians who came
Paul Wellstone Well, the urban Indians in the Twin Cities, Indians that lived on the reservations, the Indians that lived in the Black Hills, and they began to talk about what they had in common as rural people who were trying to protect their way of life living off the land, and you see a lot of exciting alliances and farmers just shake their heads and they'll say, "We never would have dreamed that we would know these Indian people, that we would work with people like George Crocker, that we would come to see things the way we see things." It's incredible.
Paul Wellstone In the Democratic Farm Labor primary. She spent $5,000 on her campaign. She went across the state in a state with a solar-powered megaphone and a gasohol-powered pickup truck from one end of the state to the other, and she got 100,000 votes, which was 20% of the primary vote. It was a pretty exciting and I think, you know, important campaign.
Paul Wellstone It's the most controversial struggle. It's very visible in the state. The public opinion polls show that the people were very sympathetic to the farmers, less sympathetic to their tactics of breaking the law. I think it's completely changed. This struggle has completely changed the way in which decision-making in energy policy is taking place. Now, I don't want to exaggerate all the positive benefits, but I will tell you this: that the state agencies have become more independent. They're now doing their own energy forecasting about need, and people say all the time, "We don't want to repeat this struggle. We don't want to repeat this kind of turmoil."
Studs Terkel Kakac.
Paul Wellstone She's a young farm woman in her late 20s who didn't live, doesn't live under the line. There were a significant number of farmers who were active who didn't live on the line, but she was upset.
Studs Terkel Is kind, gentle, outspoken young woman, lives on a farm in Douglas County several miles from the powerline. I'm going to quote her: "When I hear about a tower going down, I rejoice. I report it to all the neighbors as good news. You know, it's a hard thing to explain why you feel that way about this thing. You're raised on a farm very strongly to respect property. You have to, otherwise you couldn't exist. You couldn't have all your machinery, all your equipment, all your cattle, your animals, everything is worth money. People could come and take it time they want it. See, you learn that, it's instilled in you. And, yet, something in us just rejoices every time that powerline tower goes down. Neighbors feel the same way. It's hard to explain. I guess because what the powerline means, what it is. People in the country are so afraid of some power coming and taking over them. It's been happening slowly over the years." And then she goes on, asking, "What's going on here?" And then there's Anne and Mike Fuchs. Are they the parents of Virgil?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel And there's Gene Quinn. And well, anyways, this is very moving. So the obvious question is, and we haven't talked about the utilities and their efforts to confuse and fake a newsletter put out by the
Paul Wellstone Yeah.
Studs Terkel So what, what does this, where is it now? What situation now? Obvious question. What is the situation now? It started in 1974, reached its height in '78. What about the powerlines and the land now?
Paul Wellstone It's working, and the struggle goes on, and its shape and form now is, I think, in three directions: One, we still are in a sabotage stage. Two, there is as I mentioned before a rather broad-based and, I think, exciting democratic movement on the part of the farmers to take over their local co-ops and make them more accountable. These are, after all, populist institutions. And three, there is a major debate taking place right now concerning the health and safety of this project, and the state government has just commissioned another health study. Now, will that study be independent? I think it might be. Will its conclusions--will there be any closure? I mean, will the conclusions of this study, if found that the line was indeed unsafe, be binding? Would it bring the product to a halt? I think that's a big question mark.
Studs Terkel Gene Quinn in his mid-50s, having lived on the land for several generations. Very successful farmer, 500 acres in Meeker County, known as a moderate man, highly respected in his community. Quoting him: "Do I approve of it? Do you approve of the Revolutionary War? I just feel the rights I had were sorely abused. It was an insult, was what it was. Just a plain insult. As an individual, they had no respect for you. They don't care what they do to people or land." And he goes on, he says, "I think people sense guerrilla warfare." The phrase he uses, this man, Gene Quinn. "As a way of making themselves heard, even to powers that would be ignored them." And he talks to the boss, a guy named Dick [Hansen? Hanson?], talks of the Boston Tea Party. And so there's, I suppose, a common--
Studs Terkel Alice Tripp says something, perhaps you could read that. And well, I suppose the significance of this is pretty obvious. This is reflecting something happening in so many quarters throughout the country, whether it be Seabrook and the anti-nuclear protest. Again, sympathetic local people, officials, too, and here and in different parts of the country in different ways. So what are your thoughts now? As, before I ask you to read Alice. Perhaps you could read Alice Tripp. This part. Alice Tripp
Studs Terkel Sixty-three. "To a certain degree it might be." Self-interest. "I don't think there would be many people here who would pick themselves up and go to Wyoming to protest strip mining. I would say there would be more to do it now than three years ago." More--yeah, more now. "Now there are certain ones who are more interested in what's happening as a whole, than they would have through. As you see, the system will destroy the system if this continues. Another ten years you get those people affected by this, you get people affected by other things--coal mining, nuclear plants, mushrooming with their families and their children. Somebody says, 'Well, why are you protesting the nuclear plant?,' and you don't really know why, but there is some reason somewheres along the line when you were a little kid or something you heard something happened to somebody else you didn't like what was done to these people. That's why you are against something. The system is trying to jam down somebody else's throat. Like those little kids here--who knows what they're going to turn out to be? I would suspect they'll probably be a lot stronger on things like what is happening to people when they get to that age because they have gone through it in childhood."
Paul Wellstone Well, I think that--I guess I have two reflections: One is that we've seen a lot of eloquent studies that have come out in the last four or five years that have talked about the promise and the potential of efficient energy use, conservation and renewable resource policy, that it could be more democratically controlled, more respectful of the air and the land and the water, cheaper, less expensive, so on and so forth. But those studies I don't think, as we barrel down the hard energy path in the United States, I don't think those studies are going to really blunt that momentum. This kind of resistance, again, resistance by people that I don't think that the decision-makers in Washington have any sense of the kind of opposition that there's going to be in rural America to this hard path energy policy that asks them to sacrifice and that sacrifices them, and I think that, thus the subtitle of the book. We're going to see more of these energy wars fought. I'm not gleeful about it, but I'm just trying to make an analysis of what it is that's happening in the country and the way in which it's going to shape the existence of people. And the other thing I guess I'd like to add real quickly is that I think we see people very disillusioned about government. And that disillusionment can go in a number of different directions, and in this particular case, I suppose if we had to put a label onto it, it's gone in a populist radical direction.
Studs Terkel Of course, and we haven't pointed out the fact that some of these farmers have written songs. They've written songs themselves and, just one just four lines, we'll end with that. "They claim the people have a right to power." This should be sung. "But only the electric kind. We're supposed to be quiet while they build their towers across land that's yours and mine." And Paul Wellstone, thank you very much indeed for this excellent bit of investigative journalism. Makes for very powerful reading. You and Barry Casper wrote the book "Powerline" published by the University of Massachusetts Press, available. And thank you very much.