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Troublemaker: A Memoir From the Front Lines of the Sixties Hardcover – April 26, 2011

4.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Vietnam-era peace activism is as adventurous as going to war in this exhilarating memoir. Zimmerman recounts the radicalization via beatnikism, the civil rights movement, and antiwar protests that led him in 1969 to renounce a promising psychology professorship (he feared his research might somehow be bent to evil purposes by the military-industrial complex) and become a full-time antiwar activist. The switch put him in harness with Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Jane Fonda and gave free rein to his "weakness for audacious ideas": he smuggled penicillin to the North Vietnamese, filmed bomb damage in Hanoi, and, in a hair-raising set piece, air-dropped food to American Indian Movement insurrectionists at the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. Zimmerman's narrative is more focused on politics than is the typical counterculture memoir. It's also more about acting than thinking. Zimmerman has a knack for staging demonstrations and propaganda coups, which he transfers from the politics of confrontation to the politics of manipulation when he becomes a campaign consultant, but his antiestablishment ideology remains confused, emotional, and never very reflective—even in retrospect—about the Indochina conflict. Still, his is a vivid evocation of the romanticism and extraordinary shifts in consciousness that the 1960s unleashed. Photos. (Apr. 26)
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Praise for Troublemaker:

"For almost half a century Bill Zimmerman has labored with intensity for progressive causes as an organizer and political consultant. In this new memoir he looks back on his career with an unwavering commitment to his beliefs and an admirable intellectual toughness and pragmatism.... He has been a key player on dozens of issues including Wounded Knee, Central America, Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign and medical marijuana initiatives and fought with MoveOn.org against the Iraq War. His tense and harrowing account of literally risking his life by flying an airplane to drop food to the besieged American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee gives the book a drama not found in typical ideological memoirs... [His] is a unique and strong voice. Troublemaker is a well-written, passionate story of a personal journey through the Vietnam protest era, and a valuable model for progressive activists of our own time."Danny Goldberg, TheNation.com

"A political activist looks back on an eventful life.

Zimmerman (Is Marijuana the Right Medicine for You?, 1999, etc.), a working-class kid from Chicago who lost relatives in the Holocaust, struggled from an early age with revulsion over the idea that he might become the American equivalent of “the Good German,” a citizen who passively condones the evil actions of his government. His rebellious nature was nurtured in 1960 during a year-long hiatus from studies at the University of Chicago by the sight of French students skirmishing with police on the streets of Paris in protest against the war in Algeria, something unheard of in Eisenhower America. Back in America, he joined a friend working for the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee in Mississippi one summer, during which he witnessed firsthand the sickening effects of Jim Crow racism. Politically ahead of the curve with his peers, he led student negotiations with the university during an occupation of Chicago’s administration building as a graduate student, then as an assistant professor of psychology at Brooklyn College. Soon, he was making a career fighting to end the Vietnam War, whether it involved confronting police or his fellow scientists and academics, shaming them for sharing research that could be used against civilians in the war. Zimmerman reveals here one extraordinary example of his activism: At a critical moment, he traveled to Europe to give North Vietnamese officials some stolen vials of newly developed penicillin that required no refrigeration, an act which, if he had been caught, might have earned him the charge of espionage or treason. The author’s experiences during the war (e.g., recording on film the damage American bombs did to cities and hospitals in North Vietnam) and after (flying a dangerously damaged cargo plane to drop food and medicine for besieged Indians at Wounded Knee) demonstrate that effective political activism requires no less physical courage than that of soldiers and federal agents. Perhaps overpacked with detail at times, Zimmerman’s memoir is, nevertheless, both a thoughtful eyewitness history of America’s war at home and a thrilling political adventure story.

An engaging exhortation to take risks and live a meaningful life."Kirkus Reviews

“A riveting book.  Bill Zimmerman is a shining example of Tom Paine’s ‘winter soldier,’ a patriot his country can count on in dark times to help it end a disastrous policy or realize its highest ideals.  The war in Viet Nam, catastrophe that it was, brought out the best in many Americans, he among them.  This is an inspiring story of a life committed to a better world.  And, what a life!  What a story!”
—Daniel Ellsberg

“Bill Zimmerman gives the lie to the old saw that if you remember the ’60s you weren't there.  He was there and he remembers.  He spent the ’60s making trouble from Mississippi to South Dakota to North Vietnam.  You don't have to agree with his politics to agree he has written one hell of a page-turner.”
—Paul Begala, CNN Political Consultant

“Bill Zimmerman’s memoir is a great adventure story since he managed to be engaged in many of the dramatic scenes of civil rights and antiwar struggle in the sixties.  We travel with him from Mississippi to Hanoi, from the steps of the Pentagon to Wounded Knee and many points in between, experiencing close-up how the events of the time compelled a brilliant young scientist to radical resistance.  Zimmerman’s tales of derring-do are fused with insightful analysis, and a history we thought we knew is retold in surprising and moving ways.”
—Richard Flacks, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara and Co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society

“Bill Zimmerman’s tale is remarkable.  I know him as a close colleague who helped create today’s internet-aided progressive resurgence, but he has a spellbinding story to tell of his political adventures in the 1960s and 1970s.  Activists today will want to read this inspiring story.”
—Wes Boyd, Co-founder of MoveOn.org

“Bill Zimmerman’s wise and rollicking chronicle of his contrarian transit across the sixties and early seventies (a sort of cross between Zelig, Zorro, and Zapata) can help explain the political and cultural passions of that era, both to those who lived through them and to their progeny, better than any such text has yet managed to do.  It’s a vivid tale, elegantly dispatched.”
—Lawrence Weschler, Director, New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Troublemaker lives up to its title in every way.  A smart, tough, incisive look at the politics of the ’60s and how they impact us today.  A look at the past that gives us a lens on the present.  Read it.  Then go out and cause trouble.”
Robert Greenwald, Producer and Director, Brave New Films


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385533489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385533485
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,135,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Eric E. Sterling on October 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For a memoir, this is a thrilling page-turner. Zimmerman demonstrated enormous personal courage in numerous exciting adventures and confrontations in the world of sixties activism.

Even though he was an important participant, Zimmerman provides lucid analysis and accurate context for many of the major convulsions of the 1960s and 1970s -- the civil rights movement and the reaction to the change in the social conventions of race; the war in Vietnam and the movement against it; the rise of drug use and the change in sex roles; the battle within the Democratic Party in 1968 and the destruction of President Johnson's re-election bid; and the conflict between the Nixon Administration and its critics.

I am more than a decade younger than Zimmerman. I was a college freshman of six or so weeks experience when I attended the famous 1967 demonstration at the Pentagon. When Zimmerman was there, he already had his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was teaching at Brooklyn College and was a very experienced activist, organizer and protester, and committed to his life's work for social justice. The youthful experiences I have long been proud of -- my Quaker anti-draft work in the late 1960s -- completely pale in comparison to the sophistication and longevity of Zimmerman's work.

One of the best features of this memoir is the revelation of Zimmerman's continual self-analysis and commitment to effectiveness. This is a model for all of us who think about how to accomplish social change and to achieve justice.

When one considers the activist careers of so many of Zimmerman's peers, his seriousness and intelligence shine brightly by comparison.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Troublemaker is one of those rare books that gives distant political events a compelling personal touch; and why wouldn't it?--its author was at the center of some of the most important movements and events of the Sixties, from the civil rights struggle to the fractious fight against the Vietnam war.

It's full of great stories--the Wounded Knee air drop is worth the price alone!

But more than just a recital of the times, it also delivers important lessons in the value of troublemaking, and in the lasting effects of building movements. The Sixties had an enormous influence on the politics of today, and not just as a foil for the right. This book makes that very clear, and refuses to accept the right-wing idea that it was all for nought.

Troublemaker operates on several different levels, personal story, narrative of the Sixties, good political analysis, and practical manifesto for the future. It will reward you in many ways.
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Bill Zimmerman is Forest Gump cubed. Name the major event and he was there. Drop a name and he collaborated with them (although he's no name dropper). Lots of the scenes Bill engaged in--marches, sit-ins, concerts and protests--were ones I knew about. They're part of our generation's history. But I wouldn't have been able to tell you exactly what caused the event or who its leaders were. Bill tells the stories and gives the background without ever lecturing. This is a great read. Claire Raines, co-author of Generations at Work
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Format: Hardcover
Let me disclose that I've known Bill a long time but have not seen him in about five years. I read the book in one sitting this past weekend (actually in one soaking as I read it sitting in a pool). It's a great read and an excellent taste of what the Sixties were really like. After the spate of ex-Weathermen books of the last decade, I really found this refreshing. Bill had courageous and sane politics back then and he has held the line through the decades. You won't be disappointed. While I found the entire book compelling I was held breathless by his account of the air drop over Wounded Knee. It's something I had known about but forgotten. What a page turner that section is! Good work, Bill.
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As I write in my review at Left Eye on Books, Bill Zimmerman is a strategic thinker. His experience of happiness and fulfillment comes from planning tactics in pursuit of a larger strategy, and then acting on those plans. He never planned to harm anyone, as bomb makers do, nor did he ever harm anyone. His plans were always to do good for others, despite whatever personal risks there may be. His acts, often heroic, have been mentioned by other reviewers; so, I won't list them here.

Unfortunately, this book is not without blemishes. One of them is that Zimmerman gratuitously and inexplicably digresses to savage the hippie movement. Unable to empathize in the least with its spirit, he denigrates it as focused exclusively on "sex, drugs, and rock and roll". Seeing the hippies as socially irresponsible hedonists, he declares that there was an "activist/hippie divide" during the 60s - a divide like that between responsible adults and socially irresponsible kids. Having been a member of both sides of this supposed "divide," I must record my own observations.

The hippie movement, as I knew it, was an extension of the beatnik's anti-war, anti-materialism sentiment, and a critique of our society's obsession with commercialism. Both beatnik and hippie saw our post-WWII consumerist culture as reducing the human individual's value to its mere economic use-value, and upholding the making and spending of money as the meaning of human existence. Unlike the rest of America, the beatniks identified this as a loss of human value and meaning. But the hippies went beyond mere critique, and actually dropped out of that society in the hope of building one more in tune with the deeper needs of the human spirit.
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