Warren Langley is an unlikely activist. President of the Pacific Stock Exchange from 1996-1999, Langley is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and graduate of the Air Force Academy. After leaving the Air Force he worked for a defense contractor developing nuclear weapons systems. His career in business took him to various corporations and financial service companies and finally to socially responsible investing.
Last month Langley spoke out against the war in Iraq on the steps of his former employer, the Pacific Stock Exchange. He was arrested for non-violent civil disobedience along with other activists. Recently, Langley took time to speak with CorpWatch about his speed of light transformation from business executive to peace activist.
CW: What led you to come out publicly against the war in Iraq?
WL: The decision to change how I act really comes from small things, not large things. In December, we were over here at Christmas, and my dad, who was a POW during WWII, lives in Alabama, spent his career as an engineer and was in the army reserves, was talking about how he thought this war was really a bad thing, and how it was being proposed by people who had never been in a war. I was a little bit taken aback by the strength of his feelings and I thought, "Gosh, if my dad, with his background thinks it's a bad war, and I have all these uneasy feelings about it, maybe I better think harder about it."
I turned 60 on January 18, and my wife asked, "How do you want to spend your birthday?" And I said, "Well, let's go down to the farmer's market like we always do, and then they are having this march downtown, so let's go march in the march." We went down and that was my first active engagement in any type of protest activity. We walked along Market Street and went to the Civic Center Plaza, listened to the some of the speeches. Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt were there.
I looked around and I thought, these are not just the standard protesters, some young people and some old hippies, there's a lot of just ordinary old people just like me down here. So, it gave me courage to think, it's not just me, there are a lot of people that think this way.
Then we went to the second (march in February), and it just reinforced it. As I walked along, I thought that if during my lifetime, if people had not had the courage to take to the street to protest the Vietnam War and to protest for civil rights our country would not be better off today. Because people had the courage to go do things, and go way beyond what ordinary people usually do to protest those things.
CW: Was the January march the first time in your life you have ever been in a protest or demonstration?
WL: Yeah, that was our first experience doing that. It was a pretty fast journey.
In November I had written (California Sen.) Barbara Boxer, (Rep. Nancy) Pelosi, and (Sen. Diane) Feinstein saying, "This really seems wrong to me, why aren't you people doing something? You are the people I vote for. Why aren't you standing up against (the war)?"
I got back the typical e-mail response that they sent to everybody. It had nothing to do with what I had said. So, I felt like I wasn't being heard by the people who I was supposed to tell. So I wondered, "What more can I do?"
A friend of mine said, "Why don't you look at this website." It was a web site for direct action to stop the war. And having grown up in the south, and having a sense of why didn't I know about segregation when I lived in it, civil disobedience appealed to me as an appropriate next step beyond just marching and writing letters.
So, I wrote them an e-mail saying, I am Warren Langley and used to be the president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, went to the Air Force Academy, and gave them a short snapshot of who I was.
One of the things they said on the website was they were going to blockade the Pacific Stock Exchange. It seemed to me the organization was going about the protesting in an appropriate way. So I said, "I would be happy to do something with you." So, on the 4th of March, we held the press conference (on the steps of the Pacific Stock Exchange), and I was one of the speakers.
CW: That is a rapid journey.
WL: I have to say it has been quicker than I thought. And that has gotten me way more media attention than I thought. I guess I never felt of myself so different, but as it turns out, that coming from where I come from, and being sixty, gray hair, and wearing a suit differentiated me enough that it caused different media to want to talk to me.
CW: How have your friends reacted? I assume that many of them are people who may not have engaged in protests throughout their lives.
WL: Primarily, my friends fell into three categories. One group said, "Great, wonderful that you are doing this. It is really courageous, thank you."
Many in the second set are from my Air Force Academy background. They sent me e-mails saying, "I respect what you are doing, I respect your right to do it, but I don't agree with you."
Then, I got a few, not many, from people I knew not as close friends, but knew reasonably well, and they basically said, "You are crazy, why are you doing this? You are renouncing all your values. You are violating the oath you took as a cadet in the Air Force." They are violently opposed to what I am doing. So I have seen the spectrum.
CW: And your family, how have they reacted?
WL: I have two daughters, one lives in Baltimore and one lives in Seattle. They are both very supportive. They tend to be what I would call social values oriented. They are not in alignment with some of the values of the Bush administration and the war seems just totally insane to them.
My parents have been very supportive. My mother has been agitated because they live in Huntsville, Alabama, which is a very conservative military town. A number of their friends saw either one of the articles that ultimately came out or one of the TV shows. They would call up and say, "Why is your son doing that?" and then go into how wonderful Mr. Bush was and why it is important to support the military. She is 81 and her friends are all in that era too, so I don't think they are really terrible to her, but it just causes her some social agitation, I would guess.
My brother is a pilot for Southwest Airlines and went to the Air Force Academy three years after I did. He and I just don't talk about it much because we don't agree.
CW: How do you see the role of the oil industry in this war and the crossover between the oil industry and the Bush administration?
WL: Cheap oil is critical to how the US economy runs. Everybody is fairly well aware -- given how many people we have -- of what portion of the world's oil resources we spend. Of how much more expensive gasoline is in Europe and other parts of the world because they tax it very highly. I think that generally influences (the administration) to say we want to have a stable Middle East and because we want a stable source of cheap oil from there.
CW: Do you think the war is helping stabilize the Middle East?
WL: No, I actually think it is de-stablizing it. This war is creating, not just in the Arab world -- certainly in the Arab world I think it will exacerbate terrorism -- but I think it will be a long time before we recover from the damage we have done to the UN, and to the view of other nations about us. I think (the Bush administration) assumes that it doesn't matter, if we have the power and the economics, it doesn't matter if other nations like us or not.
I think it is important that we are viewed as a good citizen and that we look and value other peoples opinions and values and cooperate with them rather than just bully them. That kind of disruption to the international community is going to be a price we pay for a long time.
CW: Would you describe yourself as an "unrepentant capitalist"? Has the change in your political views changed your vision of the economy or how the stock market works?
WL: I have been on a separate track for a good while. For the last ten or twelve years, with a couple of close friends of mine, we sort of spent our time exploring how you could use the capital market system and corporations to do good, as well as make money and combine the two. I think that is very possible. I haven't changed my view of that relative to Iraq.
Some say that is just lip service, or greenwash, or PR, but it is becoming much more embedded in how corporations feel that they have to work. That is a move in the right direction, we just haven't moved far enough.
I think the government's role is to generally push in the right direction. I think government's role is to try to regulate and shape markets in ways that will be better, but still letting the choice part of the markets work for the most part.
CW: And, what about the tax structure?
WL: I think if you could get rid of all the corporate loopholes: the structure that we have where many corporations pay no taxes. I think that all the loopholes are all a result of the corruption of our political process. Here corporate money buys favors. If you had a tax system where that wasn't a part of it for corporations, it would be much more appropriate and probably bring in much more revenues.
CW: Returning to the war on Iraq, do you have any final thoughts?
WL: I have been thinking about two or three things. One, because I have gotten so much positive feedback from people who have said, "Gosh I believe what you do, I just haven't felt comfortable being identified with those protestors." I am trying to think of a way to create a place where people who are concerned about being identified with the various other groups that are protesting the war, can come and speak out. It will be a stronger political voice. It will not be marginalized.
I also have tried to think about the near term. I want to do anything I can to be sure that this is not the first of several pre-emptive wars that (that former military advisor Richard) Perle and those guys have laid out in their plan. We need to use all the political pressure we can to get Democrats as well as Republicans to say, "Okay, Iraq is over. We are not going in to North Korea. We are going to use diplomacy in the UN. We are not going into Iran or the other places they have said we need to have a regime change."
We also need to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire where they talked about having the UN be involved in the reconstruction of Iraq and now they seem to be backing away from it. And they talk about a Palestine-Israeli peace solution, but they have never done anything. They used both of those as media hype to get into the war, and I think we need to keep their feet to the fire.
Julie Light is editor or www.corpwatch.org
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