News & Politics

What a Difference a Generation Makes

Compared to the demonstrations of 30 years ago, today's youth movement is better organized and better prepared.
Twenty nine years ago, in the spring of 1971, Washington DC was convulsed with massive protests against the war in Vietnam. As DC activist Sam Smith wrote at the time: "Between May 3 and May 5, more than 13,000 people were arrested -- the largest mass arrest in our country's history. The action was the government's response to anti-war demonstrations, including efforts to block Washington rush-hour traffic."According to an ACLU report, "People on their way to work, patients going to see their doctor, students attending classes, reporters and lawyers were all caught up in the sweep arrests. The court system, unable to cope with this grand scale emergency caused by the police, was thrown into chaos."Fast forward to April 16 and 17, 2000. Powerful demonstrations have again rocked the streets of DC, this time aimed at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Based on large-scale direct action, these protests had significant organizational parallels with the 1971 demonstrations. But today's picture is dramatically different.If memory serves me, I'm standing on the same intersection of Pennsylvania and I St. where I was arrested in 1971. Even though there was an attempt at decentralized organization back then, we ended up moving around in DC roving bands, running willy nilly, trying to block traffic while cops gassed and beat us indiscriminately. Today, thousands of disciplined young hands are linked together, blocking the streets, attempting to keep the International Monetary Fund meeting from taking place. Organized in pairs, then "affinity groups," (as small cadres of mutual support are called), then in clusters, the protestors encircle a huge 90-block area. Every street corner, every parking lot, every alleyway is covered. String is woven around street signs, covering many intersections with a colorful web. An impressively organized demonstration.Across the barricades are Darth Vader-like cops, with the latest all-black high-tech security paraphernalia -- far more intimidating in appearance than the riot gear of 29 years ago. And again, there is a big difference. Despite some galling preemptive actions by the DC police to undermine legal protests and their sporadic displays of unnecessary force, the cops were mostly in check, avoiding the out-of-control displays of the May Day demonstrations of 1971.After all was said and done and the media spinning took over, the great Washington demonstration of 2000 was declared a draw, a "win win," according to police chief Charles Ramsey. The men in blue, falling back on some classic good cop/bad cop routine, were able to claim a victory -- violence and disruption were controlled. But the demonstrators also made their mark. Much of Washington's downtown was bottled up on Monday, and on Sunday IMF delegates had to brave 5 am wake up calls and be bussed into their meeting; not exactly business as usual.But the cops weren't the enemy at the protests. They were just in the way. In important measures, the demonstrations succeeded by dominating the news and challenging the assumptions and record of the World Bank and IMF. By dint of the wide media coverage and the sheer numbers of people asking tough questions about global poverty in this so-called "period of prosperity," the message got out.The Washington demonstrations added to the momentum of the political organizing miracle of Seattle. It further solidified the growing sense that finally, 30 years after the women's, civil rights and anti-war movements, a mass movement of young people is emerging with the ability to change the nature of the debate about the future of the globe, with help from their elders whose political values may be coming out of hibernation to join the fray.As activist writer and historian L.A. Kaufman writes (//www.alternet.org/PublicArchive/Kauffman041400.html), "History has turned a corner. Suddenly as this new century begins, a new radicalism has emerged; broad, confident and compelling. The WTO meeting in Seattle was the first big victory and media triumph, but there is activism in a lot of places. Dissent is growing more vocal and spirited. Groups are finding new common ground, from the increasingly multiethnic and multi-generational campaigns against police brutality and the prison industrial complex, to the new collaborations between organized labor and immigrant groups to secure amnesty for the undocumented."The role of labor to the mix is crucial. This movement is being taken seriously, in part, because the powerful and activist labor establishment has opted in, facilitated by beltway issue activists and community-oriented labor groups like Jobs with Justice. Furthermore, there exists a sophisticated infrastructure of issue groups, many of them linked to Ralph Nader's gaggle of effective organizations. (Nader ally Mike Dolan is universally credited for laying the groundwork for Seattle.) Coalition groups like Rain Forest Action Network, Global Exchange, Direct Action Network, The Ruckus Society, The Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy and Fifty Years is Enough are all highly capable organizations, with savvy and experienced leaders. This may be the first time that students, labor and the progressive advocacy community have worked so closely together and seemed primed for more.During the siege of the IMF and the World Bank, a large "permitted" rally was underway at the Ellipse, adjacent to the White House, to be followed by a solidarity march. I left the tense crowd at 7th and F, just after the cops had put their gas masks on and then taken them off again in a little display of guerrilla theater. I strolled over to the rally and wandered around. Thousands were laying on the ground, soaking in the sun, chatting with friends, enjoying the many live performances and the endless list of speakers from every possible constituency. The MC was Michael Moore, who unless he's been eclipsed by Julia Butterfly Hill, is still the most famous leftist in America.The "legal" rally was all fine and good, but I felt I had been there many times before. The real energy was coming from the kids blockading the IMF and World Bank buildings. So I didn't stick around the rally for very long and went back to the barricades, which by the way is where most of the television cameras and the print scribblers were as well, conveying a message of persistent protest.Coverage of the demonstrators and their issues has been comprehensive, respectful and generally favorable and has clearly helped the momentum of the anti-globalization cause. Media coverage of the events has been enhanced by a new breed of non-corporate media activist, increasingly making use of the Web and affordable technology and insisting on telling the story from the ground up -- making their work a cinema verite for direct action. Many sympathetic activist eyes and ears were fed across the globe. As writer Norman Solomon notes, the "independent" media even received mainstream attention on a CNN segment, in which Brooks Jackson, the segment's field correspondent, said of the feisty media guerillas, "They don't like us very much. They want to tell their story their way."Travel back to May 1971 and the media message was the uncontrolled anger of demonstrators, of chaos, of the center not holding. The corporate media worked hand-in-hand with Republican spinmeisters to generate a message of the country being on the verge of anarchy. I can remember being in DC, looking up at the hated Attorney General John Mitchell as he stood on the roof of the Justice Department, smoking his pipe and looking at the chanting students with disdain. I felt hugely angry but ultimately impotent. My sense is that today's demonstrators felt empowered.Back in '71 the fear and weariness felt by the population after years of protest, political assassinations, the shooting of students at Kent and Jackson State were seized on by the Republicans to effectively scapegoat and demonize a generation of activists. We were successfully labeled drug addicts, anti-American anarchists and communists. While many credit the enormous display of militance during May 1971 with helping bring the war in Vietnam to a close, Richard Nixon would return to the ballot a year later, winning reelection in a rout, taking 49 of 50 states from George McGovern, the thoughtful liberal alternative. This was quite a shock to many idealistic young people.In contrast, there is no symbolic demon for this generation of protestors, except for the typical cranky conservative columnist or editorialist. One major beef some activists have is that media can't help but fetishize the image of the masked, black clad anarchists -- a small, angry, impotent group in the larger sea of disciplined, nonviolent protestors.You might ask: Why is there tacit support of the protests by the corporate media? Isn't it against their class interests? The global media, despite its continuing, undemocratic consolidation, is, one must remember, still complex and multi-layered. Sometimes there are openings for powerful messages to get through. The media likes winners, especially underdogs that make a good narrative. In Seattle, the protestors were definitive victors, and some of that momentum surely carried over to the DC coverage.Some media workers may have cross-generational sympathy for the protestors as well. But the biggest media appeal is the authenticity and the sincerity that most of the young activists convey. Their idealism and commitment is a stark contrast to the zeitgeist archetype of the dot-commers -- hustling for their first Beamer with cynical, apolitical drive.These new protestors, despite their wild clothing and multiple body piercings, are transcending the old image of marginalized leftists. If you spend any time with these young people, a set of fundamental values emerges -- sincerity, preparedness, patience, stubborn idealism and the desire to create a just world. Berkeley activist and protest veteran Kate Coleman explained: "These kids invoke the old idealism as opposed to the ugly, angry rhetoric of past decades. They are not crazy 'yah yah' kids. They pick their targets more carefully than we did; they are not as jargon-happy. Their vision is well articulated, which makes them, all in all, surprisingly creative and attractive."One factor fueling activism is that many of today's protestors are the progeny of protestors of yesteryear. The millions who came out to march against the war in Vietnam had a lot of babies. Another link to the past is the fact that these protestors are living in a time of affluence like their 60's predecessors. Many of these well-educated, techno-savvy kids could and maybe will get high paying jobs whenever they want. But the point is that they care. They haven't been seduced by the call of the marketplace. They want to change the way the marketplace works.In fact, the desire to fight off invasive commercialism may be at the root of the protests. Gen X writer Tamara Straus says: "I think today's activists are organizing around the fact that there is a pervasive corporate and consumer culture. For them, this culture is what gives them juice; it's their Big Brother. Because they are the target of so much advertising, they have begun to strike back at corporations like Nike and at a system that has great economic inequalities."The issues are different, too. A group of students from Bates College that I met at the protests explained that activists in six colleges in Maine had banded together through the Campfire Coalition, where they share projects and inspiration. Many came to Washington. A student by the name of Maia explained, "This issue of the global economy helps brings us together. If it were just abortion rights or the environment we'd be meeting separately. But here we are addressing the big picture." Her allies, Eliza and Nick, sitting, blocking the street, nodded their assent.Apparently some of their elders agree. Long-time activist and California legislator Tom Hayden told Mojo Wire's Vince Beiser: "This is a new movement. Globalization is the issue that allows these multiple constituencies to coalesce. Environmentalists, unions, they all have their issues, but they all see the government as not protecting them from the effects of globalization."The linkage of issues around globalization and the impressive knowledge of the facts -- at least the facts that support their view of the ravages of the global economy -- make many activists ready for a conversation. As organizer Juliette Beck from San Francisco's Global Exchange writes: "The spirit of Seattle has spread like wildfire and inspired grass-roots activists to clearly identify how corporate globalization effects all of our efforts, from ending sweatshops to saving endangered sea turtles to stopping global warming."Communications and technology skills are helping this new generation of activists as well. Roaming the activist landscape there were cell phones galore and dozens of listserves and Web sites on the Internet aiding the organizing and providing people with the facts they needed for marshalling their arguments. Veteran protestor and DC-based former foundation executive Cathy Lerza commented: "It has been incredible to see all these twentysomethings here, all determined to change the world. Things are much the same as in the old days, but with much more sophistication. Information is no longer the missing link. When we were the ones on the frontlines, just getting info about what was really going on was 70 percent of the struggle. Now that's the easy part -- it's the 'what do we want and how do we get it' that's the difficult piece. With info in hand, these guys can really focus on goals and strategies for winning them. I feel encouraged by that, and by the fact that they are building on what we did."Of course, the obvious question is what's next? Where does this all lead? The one person thinking most strategically about this movement is Mike Dolan, architect of the Seattle protests who deputy director of Global Trade Watch. His goal, as reported by Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly, "is to turn the action in the streets to an effective and credible fair-trade political movement that can win tangible policy victories."The next stop for the new activism is the Democratic convention in Los Angeles this summer. The focus will be China, as the Clinton administration is pushing hard on Congress to grant China permanent normal trading status, paving its way into the WTO. If China, "with its abominable human and labor rights record is granted membership," Dolan argues, "there is no hope for civilizing the global economy."Dolan plans on making trade policy the issue for Democrats. Dolan vows that D2K, as the convention protests are being called, is going to reach out to a more diverse community than Seattle and bring many thousands to the streets of LA. Given the history of protest and backlash at the Chicago convention in '68, the Democrats are going to be in a pickle. Whatever happens, the spring of the new millennium has brought more political activism and debate to the country than in many years. And for once, the future looks brighter.
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