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Barry Latham-Ponneck, prominent Sonoma County peace and anti-nuclear activist, dies at 71

As one of Sonoma County’s most avid and seasoned activists for justice, peace and the environment, Barry Latham-Ponneck railed against the risks of nuclear power, America’s wars, the harvesting of old-growth redwoods and the abuses of capitalism. The Sonoma State University graduate lost count of how many times he was arrested for civil disobedience.

“We’re not making the world safer, we’re making it more volatile,” Latham-Ponneck said at a 2004 Santa Rosa protest he organized in opposition to the war in Iraq.

Slowed but not deterred by an onset of Parkinson’s disease more than 30 years ago, he died Sept. 15 of complications from the physically debilitating and progressive disorder. The lover of music, poetry, the San Francisco Giants and lively, political conversation was 71.

Friend Rebel Fagin of Santa Rosa, also a veteran peace and justice activist, called Latham-Ponneck a doer, long relied upon to help finance and enact objectives of the local, left-wing political community.

“He wasn’t so much an ideas person as a commitment person,” said Fagin. “He listened more than he spoke.”

Latham-Ponneck turned radical, like many of his generation did, while in college in the early 1970s. It was the era of the Vietnam War, the cynical crimes of President Richard Nixon and the rise of domestic resistance and counterculture movements.

Young Barry Ponneck — marriage would bring a name change — grew up in a blue-collar, Jewish family in West Hollywood. He came north in 1971, following two years at Los Angeles City College, to study psychology and philosophy at what was then Sonoma State College.

Early political awareness drew him to the Zionist movement that promotes and defends the state of Israel. He soon switched his allegiance to the Palestinian cause.

Ponneck had finished college and was working as a teacher’s aide at the former Sonoma Developmental Center, known then as Sonoma State Hospital, when a disaster thousands of miles away sent him into the streets.

It was the partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, of a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. The accident injected new urgency into attempts by California anti-nuclear activists to thwart the start-up of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County, and to shut down the Rancho Seco plant outside of Sacramento, a duplicate of the damaged Three Mile Island reactor.

Ponneck joined a Sonoma County affinity group of the statewide Abalone Alliance, founded by anti-nuclear activists in 1977 to attempt to keep the Diablo Canyon plant offline. Soon, Ponneck met the future matriarch of Sonoma County’s leftist activists, Mary Moore of Camp Meeker.

They’d joined different anti-nuclear affinity groups. Recalled Moore, “I belonged to the Chuckleheads. Barry belonged to the Radical Ions.”

An enduring friendship was forged as Moore and Ponneck threw themselves into the nuclear protests. Moore remembers that newcomers to the movement often needed explanations of the political and economic forces at work and the potential perils of nuclear energy.

“Barry never needed an explanation,” Moore said. “He got it.”

Ponneck was actively opposing nuclear energy when his future wife, Robin Latham, first caught sight of him.

It was late in 1979 or early in ’80. She was driving at the north end of Petaluma and he was hitchhiking. He had long hair and wore sunglasses and really short white shorts.

Latham recalls regretting that the sunglasses hid from her the hitchhiker’s eyes. “The little shorts with the long, tan legs must have gotten to me,” she said. She pulled over.

The two transplants from Southern California went together that night to a party outside the Tradewinds Bar in downtown Cotati, and hit it off.

They married in Latham’s hometown of Rancho Cucamonga, in San Bernardino County, in 1981. They hyphenated their surnames.

Recalled Robin, “A week after we got home from our honeymoon, he got arrested at a Diablo Canyon demonstration.” Her husband took part, too, in a 38-day sit-in at then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s office that demanded a shutdown of the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Plant.

Rancho Seco was decommissioned in 2009. Diablo Canyon, California’s lone remaining nuclear power plant, continues to operate, its life extended in recent legislation until at least 2030.

In Sonoma County four decades ago, resistance to nuclear power and weapons led to the founding of the advocacy group SONOMoreAtomics, which sought to identify the corporations and individuals that profited from the nuclear industry. Moore and Barry Latham-Ponneck were central to the anti-nuke group and to the Bohemian Grove Action Network, which for years protested secret power dealing at the gate of the annual Bohemian Grove Midsummer Encampment in Monte Rio.

The Latham-Ponnecks settled in Sebastopol and reared two children. Barry worked for a nonprofit that serves people who live with disabilities.

He became known among the region’s left-wing activists as a go-to person for helping to raise the operating dollars that any political movement needs.

A lifelong lover of rock ‘n’ roll, Latham-Ponneck became expert at generating funds by hosting concerts and shows, many in the heart of Cotati.

“He would raise money when we needed it. And we always needed it,” Mary Moore said. She said no one enjoyed the benefit musical performances more than her friend Barry.

“He just loved music,” she said. “He could get out there and boogie with the best of them.”

Latham-Ponneck and his wife also brought in operating funds by creating and selling protest bling such as buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts. “Barry and I were pretty good at that,” Robin said.

Political activism, she said, was what the two of them “lived and breathed for 20 years.”

From the nuclear power issue, Barry Latham-Ponneck moved to America’s attempts, overt and covert, to oust the Sandinista rebels that in 1979 seized power from U.S.-supported Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and to counter the rebels that waged civil war against the government of El Salvador.

In 1984, Latham-Ponneck became a founding member of the Santa Rosa-based Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center.

In ‘86, at age 34, he traveled to Nicaragua as a part of a 32-person brigade that supported the Sandinistas by picking cotton under a blazing sun near the Honduran border. He was visited there by a pair of Press Democrat journalists.

Lamenting U.S. support of the right-wing “contra” rebels that fought the Sandinista government, he motioned toward the Nicaraguan field workers around him.

“This is our enemy,” he said. “This is who we're paying (the Contras) to defeat, because they make up the majority of the people ”

After two weeks of labor in the cotton fields, Latham-Ponneck and the other “brigadistas” returned to the capital of Managua for the flight home. The Sebastopol resident spoke at a rally against contra funding outside the U.S. Embassy.

He said he and other Americans would return home to spread the word that their country must let the Nicaraguans be. He added, “I don't think there's one of us that didn’t leave (the cotton farm) with a tear in our eyes, a pain in our heart and a stronger commitment.”

It was a source of heartache to Latham-Ponneck that Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista revolutionary turned president of Nicaragua, himself degenerated into a despot.

In 1990, when Latham-Ponneck was still short of age 40, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Though slowed by its disabling advance, he continued his advocacy.

“He had hard times, but he also had a lot of good times,” said his sister, Karen Rotstein of Cotati.

Latham-Ponneck in recent years found refuge in his music and poetry. In 2015, he hosted a rock concert at the Sebastopol Community Center to raise money for a program to bring potentially enlivening music to institutionalized seniors through personalized iPods.

The Latham-Ponnecks had been married for 30 years when they divorced in 2011.

Late in 2015, Barry Latham-Ponneck was present in downtown Sebastopol for the dedication of the town’s Living Peace Wall. His was among the inaugural names etched onto it.

Moving and speaking haltingly, and wearing a “Bernie Sanders for President 2016” T-shirt, he told the crowd, “I’m still trying to make a difference in the world, trying to figure out why there’s so much pain and hatred and so many people suffer so greatly.”

He had been in hospice care for two weeks when he died before dawn Sept. 15 at his Windsor apartment.

His daughter, Erin Latham-Ponneck of Santa Rosa was with him. On the stereo, John Lennon sang “Imagine.”

In addition to his former wife in Sebastopol, his daughter in Santa Rosa and his sister in Cotati, Latham-Ponneck is survived by his son, Noah Latham-Ponneck of San Francisco, and by two grandsons.

A celebration of his life is planned for Oct. 30 at the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center, 390 Morris St. Doors will open at 2:30 p.m., with the celebration to begin at 3 and a potluck dinner at 5.

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