Monday, January 02, 2012

A long lineage

Talk to many young activists in the US and you would believe the world of grassroots politics really began with the Occupy movement. Right, before three months ago, nothing happened. I read a piece the other day by two young (or at least woefully inexperienced) activists who boasted that the Occupy movement was really something:

Despite the jeering of the corporate media, the Occupy movement is not going to fade away, burn out or be crushed like the radical movements of the 60s and 70s. The Occupy movement is going to change the world.

OK, then. I'll try to keep a grip on the safety rail.

On the other hand, what did that movement want? Did it achieve its goal? How hot is that, if most Americans could not even tell you what the goal of a movement might be?

Let's try to keep a bit of perspective.

It's true, the Civil Rights movement faded away. That's because it won civil rights everywhere it tried to. It was hijacked by the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and succumbed to riots, so it was unable to continue its agenda, but every time any movement in the US goes violent it gets crushed. Otherwise, it usually wins.

The radical movement to fight homelessness was sort of started long before the 60s or 70s, but it did reasonably well--some towns much better than others, of course. Still, if the writers cared to look for it, that movement not only continues and often succeeds, it actually has developed institutions that address those issues. The combination of the Catholic Workers, the late Mitch Snyder and his Center for Creative Nonviolence, and in Portland, Oregon, Sisters of the Road Cafe, have spun off many other functioning alternative institutions that help.

The radical movement to end the war in Vietnam would have succeeded much earlier if it wouldn't have had all the 'radical' help from violent warmongering opponents of war, like the Weather Underground. Once again, get violent if you want to prompt the crushing of a movement.

The safe energy movement also had roots far before the 1970s, but that is the decade it got big. I see no sign that it has faded away, been crushed, or burned out. The battles continue, and have been ongoing all along. It's just a broad front, in case the hotshots from Occupy who wrote the bragging piece hadn't noticed. Oil, nukes, coal--even tar sands. We have been both fighting the bad actors and developing alternatives all along. It could be, however, that our young writers have failed to notice the multicolored thread that runs throughout these movements, going back to the 60s and 70s and much further.

I assume that because we only had some victories and have not completed the process of abolishing nuclear weaponry, the writers believe we have burned out, faded away, or have been crushed. Really? We have pressured governments pretty impressively from the grassroots side. We prodded them into the INF treaty in 1987 and into closing down plants and bases. Yes, we have more to do. Go get 'em, Occupy. We occupied them a lot, from Greenham Common to Seneca Falls, to our little peace camp in the north of Wisconsin. We have won our share of these struggles and welcome the newbies. We may be dying off, but we have not been crushed, faded away, or burned out. If all we have done doesn't enable you to finish the job, we vote to be disappointed.

The sustainability movement of the 1970s (and earlier) has grown, literally, into a massive organic agricultural system. The pups who wrote the piece have zero idea what we faced when we started organic farming all those decades ago. They clearly take those struggles for granted, if they've even thought about them.

The list goes on. Native Treaty Rights were essentially unheard of by the general public until the 1970s and many of them have now been restored, without discernible burnout or crushing or fading. Native activists continue to win more than they lose. I didn't see any Occupy statements about Native Rights (OK, I cannot keep up, I admit, and I would bet eventually they mentioned that issue in at least some towns).

We have a long, long history of grassroots movements in the world, in the US, and they didn't start, nor did they stop, in the 60s and 70s. That is poor thinking, ahistorical, and all of us should approach history with humility and a willingness to learn. When the youth start dissing the struggles that allowed them to start so far down the road, it is a demonstration of arrogance and hubris that suggests tough times ahead. When the youth launched the successful rebellion in war-torn Serbia, they did it with lots of energy and respect for all.

Gay rights have been a long, long struggle and that movement gets it. Young people, trust me, you would not recognize the world that Act Up and many other organizations have changed.

I hope Occupy does change the world. I hope they learn that others have too. We are a species that will suffer a great deal before we rise up, but rising up is what many many have done all along. We owe them. I'm old and may be personally fading, but the movements have been in play all along, as millions of us well know.


Terri said...

I think this is a nice reminder that we shouldn't try to re design the wheel too many times. Greenpeace has long been a favorite of mine, starting in 1971 as a witness to nuclear testing but then moving on into more ecological areas - but always remaining dedicated to it's vow of nonviolence. The consistency of the work never ceases to amaze me. As a result they have had so many successes - but the work keeps coming.
I believe that many of the Occupy groups have engaged with the "elders". There's been some very nice cross pollination over the generations. I think Occupy is just beginning and if it can learn, grow and remain as dedicated to nonviolence as Greenpeace has, success is imminent - and it's a global movement which makes it even more interesting and exciting.
One last thing, you are far from fading - you shine, bright as ever, a light of truth on these dark places of injustice and violence. Namaste.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Greenpeace is such an outstanding example. Thank you for the reminder. They showed so much and continue to do so. You are right, of course, about the cross-pollination. I think I was reacting to a moment of extraordinary ignorance and tried to make a teachable moment out of that, but I think I lost my temper. Thanks for helping me find it!