Historian Howard Zinn lets ‘The People Speak’

Polemical historian Howard Zinn filled Busboys and Poets, a Washington bookstore known as a haven for progressive writers and activists, for a Monday night discussion of his latest project — a celebrity-filled documentary on political activism.

Zinn, also a civil rights activist and political scientist, is most famous for his controversial tome A People’s History of the United States. But he recently co-directed an independently funded documentary, “The People Speak,” which features celebrities like Matt Damon and Rosario Dawson reading the works of lesser-known activists.

Speaking on a broad range of subjects for 40 minutes, Zinn touched on military policy, the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Obama becomes president at a very special time, and the special time is when the American capitalist system is falling apart,” Zinn said. “Good, I’m glad it’s falling apart.

“Unless the system falls apart, we’re not going to do anything about it … we have to have fundamental changes to the economic system.”

The documentary, which has a trailer on YouTube but not enough financing for theater distribution, features musical performances by John Legend and Eddie Vedder, along with the celebrities reading the words written by rebels throughout U.S. history.

“I’ve lost a great deal by this man, that man and the other man, and the great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it,” Viggo Mortensen proclaims, reading farmer Plough Jogger’s words from the run-up to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786.

The venue was filled to capacity about an hour before Zinn’s scheduled appearance, said Michael Woods, manager of Busboys and Poets. Between 75 and 100 people stood outside in the 37-degree weather, listening to Zinn’s talk via an amplifier. As people shivered but stood silently and attentively, employees handed out 6-ounce cups of free coffee and hot cider, along with discount cards for 10 percent off items in the bookstore.

Inside were some faces familiar to the liberal and activist flanks of the political spectrum, including former 2008 presidential candidate Mike Gravel, representatives of Code Pink, the anti-war feminist group, and Dorie Ann Ladner, a key member of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

However, much of the crowd was young. Teens lined the street and filled the tables at Busboys, sitting side by side with middle-aged and considerably older activists. “It was lovely to see such a great following from such young people,” Woods said.