December 30, 2019

How activism has changed since the 1960s

Sam Smith - I first got into activism in the mid 1960s, taking part in a one day boycott of DC Transit to protest its fare hike. I wrote an article about driving 75 people that day and shortly thereafter the local head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee - a guy named Marion Barry who had created the boycott - asked me handle his media work. Barry would later become mayor of Washington.

It was then I first learned that effective activism didn't have to be about identity but could be about issues. To scores of black activists with whom I would work in the years that followed, my perceived failings as a white guy were secondary to the usefulness of having someone like me helping the cause.

There were a few exceptions, the most dramatic being when the national leader of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, came to town and at a meeting told the handful of whites present that we were no longer welcomed in the civilrights movement.

This was a shock but there were other causes where bi-ethnicity was welcomed, such as the anti-freeway movement and the drive for DC statehood. Both fights had been started by black and white activists.

The tendency to put cause first was made to seem natural by people like Martin Luther King and Saul Alinsky. Even in the wake of the 1968 riots, which hit our Capitol Hill neighborhood hard, some blacks and whites continued to work together because we agreed on issues.

As Alinsky put it years before the Trump presidency, "Dostoyevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system… They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. . . . If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right."  

In 2013, I put it this way, "This is something that has troubled me for decades about left politics. How do you grow a cause if only proper people can join it? I realized that something bad was happening beginning about 30 years ago. Liberalism was becoming a demographic rather than a movement. And if you weren’t part of that demographic, there was little hope for you.

"That was alien to everything I had learned as a New Deal baby, a 1950s doubter and a 1960s activist. Even Martin Luther King told his aides that they must remember that their goal included that some day their enemies would become their friends."

Oddly, my own big problem was not my ethnicity but my age and size. Part of the code of the Sixties was not to trust anyone over 30. I had turned 30 in 1967, and as a 220 pound iron pumper didn't look much like a hippie. At four different major demonstrations I was challenged by protestors who claimed I was an undercover  cop. It was another lesson I learned about the dangers of identity politics. The trick was to find things that different folk had in common and could form unexpected alliances against the evils of the world. 

To be sure, DC was a different sort of place. For a half a century it would be a majority black town.  Defining it  as white or black only told a small piece of the story. For example: You talkin' black 16th Street or black Anacostia? 

And it was a city that both hosted and participated in change during the  1960s. One striking difference with today was that the young were far more important. They created, defined and acted out the protests. Despite that current conflicts center around matters seen dramatically differently by age, the young have not come close to calling the shots as well as they did in the Sixties.

Another difference that strikes me is how important churches were. Not just as leaders but as refuges. Over and over we met in the basement of churches to plan our next move. I have never been so close to church leaders as during the 1960s.  

Labor unions were also important.  They represented about three times the percentage of workers as today, but also important was the fact that liberal activists strongly considered the working class  central to the movement rather than, as in so many cases today, just a part of the problem. My hunch is that the increased education of more successful Americans - including the liberal elite and journalists - has caused many to take a more critical view of ordinary workers, leaving them an easier target for the Trumpists. Activism is heavily dependent on changing people's minds and souls. And, for example, lecturing a guy who is in fear of losing his job  about his "white privilege" is an approach that doesn't work well.  

There is also a lack of a significant counterculture. The Sixties were not just about protest, but about an alternative way of living. This not only added strength to the cause, it provided a way for folks to redefine themselves.

Finally, there is a factor that seems closely tied to the increased education of those leading change. In recent decades, the number of MBAs, lawyers and college educated journalists has soared and one of the results is a increased placing of analysis over action.

Now the power is in describing rather than prescribing. We know all about the roots of racism or the failure of the police, but effective reactions or cures are hard to come by. One of the unspoken costs of this is that we are being implicitly taught that we are hopelessly trapped in the past. As someone raised in a dysfunctional family I recognize the difference between learning from the past and being condemned to it. I learned how to replace the past rather than just endlessly ruminate over it. 

Part of doing this today would be for the young to realize they live in a dysfunctional family but are not condemned to follow its rules. They are, instead, the potential creators of a new and better America. They just need the courage.magination and vision to make it happen.

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