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An activist in transition

Tom Hayden, a leading voice of '60s protest, has a new life: tackling gang violence, embracing L.A.'s evolution -- and catching his kid's soccer games.

July 01, 2007|Jim Newton | JIM NEWTON is Editorial Page Editor of The Times.

TOM HAYDEN -- co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, member of the Chicago Seven and avatar of protest and activism, a man who visited the enemy in North Vietnam during America's war there, one whose break with his father caused them not to speak for 16 years -- is suddenly the bearer of a light spirit.

Hayden, who had a heart attack a few years back, still writes and lectures, and still observes the workings of the political class. But these days, he closes up shop in time to make it to his 7-year-old son's soccer games.

Tom Hayden, America's emblematic youthful activist, is 67.

He wears his new disposition well. Once prone to prickliness, Hayden now exudes a gentle, mischievous sense of humor; he allows himself to think out loud, to glide from one topic to the next without fear of political consequences. In place of the hard glare that longtime acquaintances know all too well, Hayden's signature has become the twinkling eye, the sly grin and -- marvel of marvels -- the giggle.

"I think there's another act, a transition to seeing new leadership come along, taking care of your family, your kids, figuring out what it all meant, writing your memoirs, passing along your knowledge," Hayden said, sitting in his Culver City office, surrounded by a jumble of art and memorabilia, a SpongeBob SquarePants toy and hundreds of well-worn books. "The idea of being a researcher, a writer and a teacher has a lot of attraction to me."

In the middle of the antiwar movement, a close friend of Hayden once questioned whether he was capable of emotion. Now, his eyes water as he considers his consequential life: "I just try to reflect on whether I've done the best with what I've been dealt."

The result: A recent conversation with The Times, intended as a discussion of urban poverty and street gangs, instead mushroomed into an elaborate, meandering, literate and cheerful reflection on Los Angeles history, race relations, protest, the legacy of the 1960s, his time as a member of the Legislature, the performance of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- and the weather.

Hayden's interests have always been eclectic. Few authors can claim to have written books on Vietnam, Irish history and the environmental movement (not to mention the Port Huron Statement, the classic New Left manifesto of 1962). But some of his most resourceful journalism has been on the topic of gangs. "Street Wars," first published in 2004, was built on Hayden's extensive interviews -- in Los Angeles but also throughout Latin America -- with gang members, gang experts, law enforcement officials and political leaders.

In it, Hayden argued for a "New Deal" approach to gangs, the construction of a network of social service intervention programs intended to lure gang members into productive society. "Homies are not demons," Hayden wrote, "but complex human beings capable of changing for the better."

Since its publication, Hayden has watched a former legislative colleague and fellow liberal, Villaraigosa, be elected mayor of Los Angeles, a position that Hayden unsuccessfully sought in 1997. But Villaraigosa has not followed Hayden's recommendations on gangs, and Hayden is increasingly uneasy with the mayor's approach.

Villaraigosa has decried a recent spate of gang violence with regular news conferences, announcements of most-wanted lists and promises of stepped-up police response. Some have cheered Villaraigosa's resolve, although others suggest that his hyperbole is intended to distract from his failed efforts to take over Los Angeles schools. Still another group, including Hayden, cautions that the mayor is risking betrayal of his core principles in order to secure political advantage.

"I don't think very highly of it," Hayden said of Villaraigosa's proclamations. "I think he knows better. I'd like to believe he knows better. He's pandering to fear and to the law enforcement lobby."

Hayden does not dispute that violent gang members need to be arrested and incarcerated, but he argues that a policy that relies too heavily on police and enforcement -- at the expense of intervention -- is doomed to failure. Instead, he touts the need for creating and expanding thoughtful programs, with jobs and opportunity serving as lures to draw gang members away from their destructive affiliations.

Hayden's proposal: "Just as we flood certain areas with police officers, we're going to flood the same areas with jobs and social workers. What you're trying to do is create ... cease-fire efforts. You're going to develop case profiles of individuals in terms of job readiness, educational readiness, substance-abuse efforts. You're going to have a huge rehabilitation program."

Such programs are not impossible to create, Hayden argued; indeed, they exist to some degree in San Francisco, where Hayden credits those ideas with helping to contain gang violence. Moreover, Hayden, no stranger to politics, emphasizes that those ideas are within Villaraigosa's reach.

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