Gaza protests at U.S. campuses took me back to memories of 1978 when I covered demonstrations by Minnesota farmers protesting a powerline being put up by the Cooperative Power Association (CPA).
I donned suit and tie to interview CPA executives who defended their decision to erect a 427-mile, 400-kilvolt powerline stretching from Underwood, North Dakota to the Twin Cities. They gave me permission to go for a test drive inside a massive coalfield dragline in North Dakota nicknamed Old Ironsides.
I also ditched the tie attending meetings of central Minnesota farmers opposed to the powerline because they feared their families risked long-term health problems.
At the first meeting, a spokesperson demanded to know if any reporters were in the room. I stood up, somewhat defiant. This also had happened when John Birch Society organizers confronted me while I covered a meeting in New York State.
The farm activists demanded my credentials, which I produced. I learned the Co-op had hired four private detectives to infiltrate the protest group.
My astute editor for The Nation, Kai Bird, advised me to keep journalistic distance from my sources. Thus, I refused an offer from a 20-something male protester who wanted to inform me when he with law-breaking protesters planned to topple a tower. To accept the leak, Bird stressed, would remove any protections I had as a journalist.
Thus, my refusal spared me involvement when a farmer shot and wounded a CPA security guard, and farmers with clubs attacked outmanned troopers. I already had filed my story before protests became violent.
You may have noticed Bird’s name on the credits for Oppenheimer, the story of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb. Two decades before the movie gained applause, Bird co-authored American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film adaptation rekindled interest in the biography.
The main event I attended was a peaceful protest on powerline property in Delano, Minnesota attended by folk singer Dean Reed who originally hailed from a conservative Colorado family. Reed also acted in movies, including a Euro-western flick based on Jack London’s Smoke Ballew, featuring fictional Alaskan adventurer Christopher (Kit and Smoke) Ballew. Reed’s co-star was his wife Renate Bloom, a European actress (now 80 years old) during the Cold War.
Minnesota State Troopers attended the Delano protest. I approached an officer in charge and flashed my press credentials. Unimpressed, he advised me to watch proceedings from a nearby hill. He said if violence erupted, I might get tackled and arrested. “You look like them,” he said, pointing to my heavy coat and hat.
I watched, notebook in hand, as a mass of protesters sang a slave spiritual, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” led by Reed, then age 40. Immediately after the song, a trooper with a bullhorn told the crowd to move back behind a line or face arrest. From my safe hill, I watched most attendees move back, while Reed and 18 other non-violent protesters stayed and were cuffed.
I followed the troopers to a local jail and obtained permission to interview Reed behind a glass window.
Tragically, Reed died in an Eastern Germany lake under mysterious circumstances in 1986 after comparing President Ronald Reagan to Joseph Stalin in a “60 Minutes” broadcast. Renate Bloom doubted the verdict of suicide and thought he had run afoul of previously supportive Iron Curtain authorities.
I wrote a second protest story for Us magazine on a charismatic, peace-loving farm organizer named George Crocker, a Quaker who previously opposed the Vietnam War on moral principles. (Crocker today is a respected expert on electric utility management and regulation).
My editor on this and a second Us story on a homicide behavior expert was a then-unknown writer named Anita Shreve. She became a favorite editor, our phone conversations marked by humor and laughter.
In our final phone call, Shreve told me she was quitting to take the plunge as a novelist and nonfiction writer.
After some minimal success, she became a celebrity, particularly with her Oprah Winfrey-endorsed novel The Pilot’s Wife.
Shreve, 71, died of cancer in 2018.


First published in the Winchester News=-Gazette