14 Rules For Revolt -- Or What I Learned from the Front Lines of the 1960s
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Many veterans of the sixties joined Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. We felt a distant echo from our past in the remarkable burst of citizen activism that Obama unleashed. I felt great personal closure. My son, Nico, four years a lawyer, spent two months running the Obama campaign’s election protection operation in a three-county area northeast of Cleveland. Working under him for the last ten days were his mother, Joan, a member of Yale Law School’s class of 1968, and his sister, Emma, forty years behind her mother as a member of that same school’s class of 2008. That our family’s combined legal skills helped protect the integrity of the vote for Barack Obama in Ohio, four years after Republican-sponsored voting irregularities there had deprived my own campaigning of a victory in 2004, was a special delight.
The progressive activism that brought Barack Obama to power in 2008 captured the spirit of the sixties. We have yet to see if his victory becomes the enduring legacy of those turbulent times. In 2011, a new wave of global citizen activism, fed in part by Occupy Wall Street, strengthened my belief in the links between the sixties and the present. Conservative pundits deny such ties. They see the sixties as a brief historical detour that debased our culture and had little effect on the ongoing political life of the nation. Their analysis is wrong.
The question we now face is not whether America is on the threshold of a new progressive era—it is—but rather whether we can use the legacy of the sixties and the new activism unleashed in 2011 by Occupy Wall Street to push ourselves off the threshold into a full embrace of progressive ideals. I am convinced that citizen activism is now the only way to do that. But as I learned in the sixties, activists are not revolutionaries, even though their objective might be a revolutionary transformation of society. Activists achieve incremental gains, not massive and immediate upheavals. If those gains are sufficiently widespread, transformations can occur even when the activists themselves are unaware of how their work combines with that of others to affect the overall sweep of history.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street aroused our citizenry. For the first time in almost 100 years, the lop-sided distribution of our income and wealth was elevated to the center of political debate, an enormous and potentially far-reaching accomplishment. Occupy Wall Street’s message, that our nation is divided into “the 99%” and “the 1%,” is a critical first step that will animate the class-consciousness needed to correct our obscene economic inequality.
Occupy Wall Street achieved a second triumph. It created an “Occupy” franchise that allowed activists across the country to organize related protests anywhere and everywhere. Under this universal banner activists began to address a broad spectrum of issues and institutions. Hopefully, these actions will proliferate. The task going forward is to forge them into a coherent national crusade capable of achieving a progressive transformation.
As a lifelong activist and a professional political strategist, I know that there are many pitfalls that await the building of such a crusade. Therefore it seems fitting to me to end this book by erecting a few warning signs for future activists who will build on the Occupy events of 2011 and carry forward the battles for core values that we fought in the sixties.
1. STAY A FRANCHISE; DON’T OPEN A STORE. Don’t take a position on every issue. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Stay on message. You are nimble and creative because you are not tied down. Resist the temptation to institutionalize yourselves by becoming an organization or prematurely launching a political party. That will drown your spirit in internal affairs and fund raising. Other progressive organizations are available to play this role. We need you to stay a wild card, able to act quickly and without warning.