protest marches, acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, and other forms of social activism? (Feel free to stretch the definition of “social activism” to suit your situation.)
I’ve decided to Occupy A.C. Rhodes’s Chair (OACRC) just for a minute to ask this question. What I’m most interested in here is “personal experience”: what sorts of activities related to social protest have you or haven’t you done, how have those experiences been, is it something you still do or intend to do, etc. I fully intend to attempt an answer myself at some point. (And no, just to alleviate your concerns, I’m not an informant, though feel free to answer anonymously, or anyway, to pretend that such a thing is possible.)
Related question asked three years ago by ACR, with one of our longest comments box responses: “Why has there been a dearth of protest songs?”
3 thoughts on “Sub-Question of the Week: What has been your own experience with…”
The reason I thought about this was spurred on by something Frank Kogan just posted on his livejournal (here: http://koganbot.livejournal.com/275120.html):
“More seriously, self-involvement and a lack of direction could well make it impossible for these movements to reach out to even 1 percent of the 99 percent that they want to speak for. Which is to say if Occupy Denver ends up reflecting the typical constellation of typical leftist lifestyles and attitudes (with some Colorado libertarianism sprinkled in), it’ll drive away potential allies for whom legalizing pot, ending fluoridation (yes, this came up), promoting organic farming, bringing troops home from Afghanistan, and the like aren’t the issue.”
(I also heard an interview with Todd Gitlin a week or so ago, who expressed early concern that the ‘occupy’ movements will need to learn to reach out to people who simply have no interest in or time for attending rallies in parks, despite being similarly screwed-over by the system.)
So… Defining “social activism” here as “partaking in protest marches,” my own experience has been pitiful and somewhat depressing. Sometime in ’84 or ’85, when I was still in college, I was very attracted for a time to the idea of protesting, which I attribute to: a) a lifelong interest in sixties social movements (which, as someone who was busy being born while others were busy fighting, I experienced somewhat wistfully, via secondhand newsreel footage occasionally replayed on television), b) an intense fear and hatred of Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, Mulroney and Thatcher), which was fueled by much of the cultural/left (as opposed to the strictly “political”/left) conversation at the time (my primary outlets for trying to understand the world back then were the Voice and Rock & Roll Confidential); c) my being incredibly fond of anti-Reagan pop songs, from vague expressions of disenfranchisement to outright political harangues. I guess all three of those reasons could be rolled up into one fairly simple explanation. Basically, my ideas of the importance of social protest came, above all, via pop music (everything in my life flowed from records, ultimately). Anyway, during one of those summers, pretty sure it was ’84, there was a major rally in Toronto (I think it was concurrent with other marches in North America) protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, though I don’t remember if one specific event triggered it or if it was just a more general protest against the arms race. (I do recall believing we were all going to DIE if something was not done.) Anyway, me and my girlfriend at the time time attended the rally, and it’s hard to convey just how demoralizing a day it was for me, for reasons directly related to what Frank noted above. Within minutes of showing up to march, we found ourselves in all sorts of uncomfortable alliances (there seemed to be very little information or any kind of messaging provided about the nuclear threat), including several different leftist splinter groups, from “Chilean communists against [whatever they were against]” to various leftist-agenda causes, many of which were completely noble, some of which seemed suspect (I was interested at the time in learning more about Marxism, but for some reason I was deeply suspicious of all these self-identified communist and socialist factions), NONE of which had anything to do with either one of us attending the rally that day. We stuck it out for the day, but the experience was miserable: lonely, alienating, uninviting. And for whatever internal reasons — lazy, self-centered, all of the above — I let this ONE bad experience prevail, and have never marched in anything since. And yes, I feel guilty, and no I don’t not care about shit, and yes, I’ve never come up with any sort of adequate response in its place, and no, I don’t always feel guilty, sometimes I still believe that marching is a complete waste of time, and yes… well, it’s confusing, isn’t it?
I find myself drawn to the occupy protests for a multitude of reasons (I was drawn a year ago to the tea party rallies as well, nothing to do with their agenda, but rather, I was drawn to the extraordinary efficiency of their movement, their quick rise to media prominence, their influence in the 2010 midterms, etc.), but I’m not (yet) compelled to get out there and join the fray of the occupiers, despite my instincts being 99% (thus far anyway) in sympathy with their (ultimately my too) cause. I might be beyond hope when it comes to this stuff.
While I was definitely sympathetic to the major US protest movements of the ’60s — especially civil rights and antiwar — I didn’t make it to that many demonstrations. Too much else going on in that tumultuous decade. I guess. One demonstration I do recall taking part in was the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, in the fall of 1969. Teresa and I attended the Cincinnati Moratorium, on Government Square, and hundreds of us gave the two-finger peace sign to each of the speakers’ calls to stop the war.
I’d already put my own butt on the line the year before, with some ragtag bits of passive resistance during my pre-induction draft physical, in July of 1968. The local board rounded up a bunch of us who’d just graduated from college and thus lost our student deferments. I’d filed a conscientious-objector claim at the end of 1967, but when I visited a Cincinnati draft-counseling office just before my physical, the rad hippies there convinced me to resist the military all through my physical, so I passed out antiwar leaflets to my fellow pre-inductees while we were waiting to board the bus to Columbus.
Once at Fort Hayes, I disrupted the flow where I could, demanding to see the psychiatrist, and refusing to sign the hoary I’ve-never-been-a-member-of-these-subversive-groups statement. Which resulted in me getting kept overnight, along with guys who had heart murmurs, etc., to see if we might appear more draftable in the morning.
From my hotel that night, I phoned a local Quaker draft lawyer whose daughter I’d met at a Young Friends conference. He told me if I wanted to pursue the C.O. claim, I shouldn’t do anything else to disrupt my physical. Thus the next morning I reported to Fort Hayes and told the Army guys I was ready to sign The Statement. Which I did, and then passed the frigging physical with flying colors.
That was the beginning of a two-year battle (so to speak) to win my C.O. classification, which I finally did, in May of 1970, after hiring that same Quaker lawyer to represent me. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so much of a struggle if I hadn’t made a scene at my pre-induction physical, but my local board was pretty hard-edged anti-pacifist in outlook anyway, so I’m kinda glad I did act up in the heart of the beast. It always makes a good What-did-you-NOT-do-in-the-war-Daddy? story.
I was on a teacher picket line once, when I was still supplying–that’s not the same thing, is it? And in ’83 or ’84, a friend and I shot some super-8 footage of pro- and anti-Morgentaler protesters for a short film we made to Husker Du’s “Something I Learned Today.” That’s not the same thing at all. So the answer’s no. If I’d been right there in ’66 and ’67, I don’t know. I probably would have found some other avenue to register my feelings of kinship.