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Battles turn personal for longtime Sebastopol activist


Barry Latham-Ponneck has long been a west Sonoma County activist in the thick of bold, often-strident confrontations that oppose war, imperialism and perceived threats to the environment, social injustice and the abuse of power.

"He's just been tireless," said friend Mary Moore, the regional matriarch of liberal activism and longtime resident of Camp Meeker. "Barry has always been somebody who got in there and did it, rather than talk about it."

Over the decades, the issue at hand might have been a proposed (and ultimately built) Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, U.S. aid to the contras that sought to undermine Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinistas or former President George Bush's inching toward an invasion of Iraq. Latham-Ponneck didn't hesitate to speak out or lead the march.

Today he'd give anything to once again form words clearly and loudly enough to be understood, or to stand without wobbling and take a strong, stable stride. Now 60, Latham-Ponneck has taken on many foes but none as controlling or as immune to reason, rage or pleading as Parkinson's disease.

"Things have changed somewhat," the Sebastopol resident said during an email conversation. With that gross understatement, a flash of the humor that once characterized his politically charged but bemused approach to life shone through.

There's nothing wrong with Latham-Ponneck's mind, and he's still paying attention to what's happening in the world. He was thrilled by the way Occupy Wall Street grew into a tidal phenomenon and sparked a new generation to action.

"Their focus is much more practical in the sense that the earth is considered central to all their activities," said the sidelined veteran of myriad left-wing political movements dating back to the 1970s.

Any more, he has to focus virtually all of his energy on the basics: Getting out of bed, dressing, taking his medications, moving about, communicating.

Known widely as a most sociable, affectionate and energized man, he has slowly but irreversibly imploded.

"This has been a colossal struggle for him in many ways," said Healdsburg's Robert Neuse, whose shared history of protest with Latham-Ponneck dates to the historically huge demonstration of 1981 that sought to halt construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Neuse praised Latham-Ponneck as a spiritual person who's always felt "tremendous warmth toward human beings and this planet."

"He is compelled by his love to act," Neuse said.

Though Laltham-Ponneck still attends the occasional demonstration or political meeting, he can't help but mourn what Parkinson's disease has done to his ability to act. He's someone who savors discussing ideas with others, and singing, so he is especially chagrined that the disease has muted his voice to a whisper.

He can walk, but with difficulty, and for the most part he relies on a wheelchair. To be is such condition is a harsh blow to a former long-distance runner who completed the Napa Marathon in 1982.

Latham-Ponneck recalls jogging more than 20 years ago and wondering why his body didn't feel right. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1990.

"In the beginning I was in a state of denial," he said in an email interview. "I was married with two young children (Erin, now 27; Noah, 23), life was good. To consider even having such a disease that would slowly eat away at the richness in my life was unthinkable."

The seasoned activist, whose day job was working as an assistant to and later an advocate for people with disabilities, mixes gratitude and regret when he speaks of his wife and partner in multiple struggles, Robin. She has cared for him while battling her own non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"Robin has been there for me throughout the years, now she's completely burned out," he said.

Fellow activists said Latham-Ponneck has never lacked courage as he has advocated for what he believes is right, and they trust his courage is an asset to him now.

"He is in a small category of people who are fearless about opposing power," said Rebel Fagin of Healdsburg, who decades ago worked with Latham-Ponneck to organize public events in Cotati that raised money for the former SONOMoreAtomics and other causes.

As Latham-Ponneck fights to maintain his courage and equilibrium, the veteran warrior against war, greed and inhumanity sometimes addresses his medical enemy in raw, evocative poetry and prose. He wrote in one piece:

At my best, I accept this challenge to live in the present, experiencing each excruciating movement as if I were a Zen Master, curious yet non-attached.

But alas, the prison bars grow more visible. The restraints are tightening.

So in the final analysis the question is:

Am I the Zen Master or the inmate?

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.