Leftie Bag

Even with the lunchtime rush in full swing at Thai Rama, Roland James isn't hard to spot. He's the middle-aged guy sitting alone, with pamphlets spread out on the table in front of him. I sigh as I head toward the booth, bracing myself for a preachy midday meal.

The surprise is that I don't get preached to. James, as many a letters-page editor in the Valley can tell you, is a passionately committed activist in a variety of leftie causes ranging from the local to the international. But as a lunch date, even though he talks in great detail about the injustices he opposes, he's friendly and humorous; there's nothing strident about his manner.

His politics have taken their toll on his life, however. "I had a marriage that failed because of my activism," he tells me. "I guess I've gotten kind of bummed out to American consumerism. I probably just kind of withdraw a little bit; I'm not too enthusiastic about the consumer lifestyle that most people are a part of."

Such sentiments may sound odd, coming from somebody once sufficiently "inside" to have served for much of his career as assistant to a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission. But it appears that James is not kidding; where human rights and environmental matters are concerned, he walks the walk. He chose Thai Rama on Camelback, for instance, because it is bicycling distance from his home -- his bike is chained up in front of the restaurant.

We order, and sip some water. Water, as it happens, is a big part of what Roland James has come to talk to me about. He's just returned from a trip to Iraq, where, as part of a group called Veterans for Peace, he participated in the effort to restore clean drinking water to that country.

"Their water systems were bombed in both the Iranian war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War," says James. "And because of the sanctions, they haven't been able to get parts and chlorine to operate water treatment facilities."

James and his group spent 10 days in Baghdad and Basra, working on a water treatment plant on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Unfortunately, says James, all three waterways have been used for industrial and domestic sewage, especially since the war.

"So there's a real problem with waterborne diseases. Probably one fourth of the children in Iraq are malnourished. You ask a kid on the street, 'How old are you?', and they tell you 12 or 13, and they look 9 or 10."

Our appetizer arrives: a plate of uninspiring deep-fried vegetables and shrimp. In light of what we're talking about, I'm grateful for them. As we munch, I ask James how the food was in Iraq.

"It's not the greatest food," he says, making a face that suggests that this is an understatement. Once again, H2O is the problem. "You don't eat anything that's washed in water. You don't eat vegetables. You eat, essentially, rice and chicken or lamb. If you're vegetarian, it's a little more limited, but there were a number of vegetarians along on the trip, and they got along, I guess."

To the extent that they did work, the members of Veterans for Peace worked as laborers, hauling bricks and helping to build walls. But James concedes that their contribution to the actual construction of the plant was minimal. "We actually didn't do that much work. The Iraqis are perfectly capable of doing this work themselves. There's a lot of engineers; it's a fairly well-educated populace. So we were there primarily at the start of this project to have some solidarity and some connection with the Iraqis. We visited schools and hospitals." He shows some photos he took himself, sun-bleached images of Third World squalor.

"Of course, most people in the U.S. equate Iraq with Saddam Hussein, so they probably think the 22 million Iraqis are just all kind of a version of Saddam Hussein. And Saddam Hussein is clearly a psychopath, but he was our psychopath; we armed him. When he gassed the Kurds in 1988, we didn't do anything about it, he was still our guy then. And the Iraqi people were doing pretty well under him. They had a strong middle class, mandatory education for kids through the age of 16. Now you see a lot of kids on the street. It was a fairly secular society, not a terribly fundamentalist society, though it's become more fundamentalist [since the war]."

Main courses are set before us. James has ordered the Kai Noh Mai -- chicken, bamboo shoots, baby corn and mushrooms in a mild (by Thai standards) oyster sauce. My lunch, a fierce combination of curry beef and green beans called Neva Phik King, leaves me gulping glass after glass of that which Iraq is so short on. Wickedly hot though it is, it's invigorating.

James says he likes his lunch, too. Probably anything tastes pretty good to him these days. He continues to tell me about his travels. "Veterans for Peace established a relationship with Life for Relief." He hands me one of the pamphlets he's brought. "They're a Moslem-based relief organization that works primarily in Sierra Leone and in Iraq, and they have the permission of both the Iraqi government and the U.S. Treasury Department to do work in Iraq. Because we were hooked up with them, when we came back to the U.S. we weren't subject to long prison terms or fines."

I ask James if he has a long record of civil disobedience arrests. "Not long, but two or three," he says. He chuckles as if embarrassed, but I can't tell if it's at having an arrest record, or at having a skimpy arrest record.

Probably the latter. The twice-married North Dakota native and Air Force veteran, who once held a top-secret security clearance as a cryptographic technician, came to Arizona to attend ASU Law School, but left after three semesters. "I got involved in the anti-Vietnam movement," he says, "then in both the anti-nuclear power plant and anti-nuclear-weapons movement."

It was in the course of an effort to stop the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix that he met Renz Jennings, for whom he worked at the Arizona Corporation Commission as an assistant for 15 years.

Now, says James, "I'm kind of semi-retired. I substitute teach, and I go on trips, like, to Iraq."

He also goes to plays and movies -- Al Pacino is a favorite, especially in Looking for Richard, The Insider and Serpico -- and subscribes to "about 30 magazines, from the New Internationalist to The Progressive to Harper's to Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, it's become nearly an addiction."

He has one daughter, a history major at ASU, who shows some signs of following in the old man's footsteps. "She's interested in some of this stuff," he says, as we crack our fortune cookies.

In general, however, James' familial relationships have been turbulent, thanks to his activism. "It's not easy to always be questioning the dominant culture, the way things are done," he observes. "You get a reputation, amongst, like, in-laws, former in-laws, of being a naysayer. Even though you try to be upbeat . . . I don't think I'm downbeat . . . just raising these things is kind of bad form. Thanksgiving, family dinners . . . you have to be careful what you say."

He sighs. "I guess I'm probably difficult in some respects to live with."