Edwin L. Laing was born in 1933 in the small rural town of Algona, Iowa, during the depths of the Great Depression. The memory of the kids who wore the same clothes to school every day left a lasting impression. Ed — like his father, who was a teacher — would stand up for “the underdog” for the rest of his life.
Ed graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1953, majoring in philosophy and journalism. He loved poetry and became the editor of the student newspaper. Ed was a student activist a decade before the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which began in 1964. In the student paper, he wrote an editorial criticizing the administration and faculty for not supporting a student constitution that would have given students more autonomy. He was fired as editor by the college because he wouldn’t back down.
After college, in the midst of the McCarthy era, Ed enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His enlistment was held up because of his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had been listed as a subversive organization since the early 1950s by the Tunney Commission. After being sworn into the Navy, Ed served as a public relations liaison officer from 1954 to 1958.
In 1958, following his stint in the Navy, Ed enrolled at Stanford Law School. He helped organize one of the first ACLU chapters in the San Jose/Monterey area. After Stanford, Ed was hired by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office in 1961 and went on to become the assistant district attorney. He opposed capital punishment, which he called state killing.
While living in Ventura during the ‘60s, Ed supported the local Oxnard/Ventura United Farm Workers, upholding their right to strike and collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. He helped found the first credit union for farmworkers in Oxnard’s La Colonia. Ed’s daughter, Karen, remembers going with her dad to Delano, California, where César Chávez was leading and organizing farmworker boycotts.
Ed left his job with the Ventura District Attorney’s Office in 1968. He was hired by the Peace Corps and served as the deputy program director in the Dominican Republic for a couple of years.
After the Peace Corps, Ed moved to Santa Barbara and went into private practice. I met Ed and several other attorneys who volunteered to defend a group of protesters who had committed acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the Reagan administration’s support of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The protesters had sat in at the offices of Republican congressmember Robert Lagomarsino and refused to leave. They were charged with criminal trespass. The jury trial resulted in an acquittal and dismissal by the district attorney of the charges against the protesters.
In the 1960s, Ed had opposed the war in Vietnam. In the 1990s and 2003, he marched against what he called the “Oil Wars.” Ed supported the Santa Barbara Legal Defense Center and its effort to obtain the vote for the homeless in California. He was a boardmember of the Committee for Social Justice until he died. He stood with the Occupy Movement and the 99 percent. He had been active with the ACLU for most of his life, finally breaking with the local Santa Barbara chapter in the ‘80s after his unsuccessful attempt to introduce a resolution to the board condemning the violence by the Israeli military against the Palestinians during the First Intifada.
Ed was a democratic socialist all his life. He quoted Albert Einstein, saying the choice was between “the economic anarchy of capitalism or socialism.” He joined the Socialist Party in 1973 and wrote a pamphlet titled, “You Don’t Have to Be a Saint to Be a Socialist,” which is posted on the Socialist Party U.S.A. website. The pamphlet describes the driving force of capitalism as the invisible hand of maximizing profits at all costs. He said capitalism created a class system benefiting the one percent, resulting in an unsustainable economy for small businesses, low wages for the working classes, and an unemployed underclass, the 99 percent.
Ed never gave up on the socialist project, arguing that democratic socialism has never been implemented. He never gave up on the possibility of a second American Revolution that would democratize the workplace and the economy, replacing it with a political economic system that would produce goods and services in a green-sustainable way for everybody’s use and benefit; a system of economic democracy that would provide individuals the opportunity to do meaningful work and decide how the profits from their labor would be shared and invested; and a just economic system that would ensure that the minimal necessities of life, food, housing, education, and universal health care would be available to everyone.
Up until just a few months before his death on August 7, 2016, Ed continued to host a study group for Jacobin Magazine, a leading voice of the American left, at Maravilla retirement community in Santa Barbara, where he died.
Ed is survived by two daughters from his first marriage to Mary Laing Pease, Karen Kathleen Laing and Barbara Christine Laing, and two grandchildren, Maryemma Sikes Warfield and William Henry Sikes. His second wife, Margaret Stuart Dunlap, preceded him in death in 1992. Marge Dunlap was a well-known local artist whose works are located in and around Santa Barbara in public and private places. Ed continued to promote her work after her death.
“Earth, receive an honored guest, [Edwin Laing] is laid to rest.” W.H. Auden
Ed was my friend. I miss him.