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A meditation on the difference between 60’s Activism and Today, and how it applies to us. February 4, 2009

Posted by obnoxioususername in Uncategorized.
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For left-leaning college students such as us, the 60’s represents a sort of golden-age of activism. This quasi-mythical golden age was when we college students actually made a difference-a loud and visible difference, helping to forever change American history. Students participated in sit-ins and strikes, and risked their lives during the Freedom Summer of 1964 to educate African-Americans about their rights and help strengthen the civil rights movement. Encouraged by their gains in the civil rights movement, student culture in the US went on to work hard against the Vietnam war-protests, strikes, and a complete rejection of all reactionary authority spread across campuses like a wildfire. Even sleepy little Northfield had its share of protest-in 1968, 500 students and teachers from Carleton and St. Olaf marched through the town-quite a large number, considering the relatively small size of both colleges.

So what happened? According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, our generation isn’t less activist-it’s just quieter about it. Instead of marching, we volunteer, at home or overseas, quietly working for change. Friedman’s opinion is that we are certainly humble and optimistic-but that we need the loudness, the visibility, and, above all, the courage of our 60’s brethren. This, and only this, can bring true and lasting change according to Mr. Friedman.

My first reaction towards this editorial was to dismiss it-the 1960’s style of activism was certainly not without its drawbacks, no matter what Mr. Friedman’s opinion is. Reading about the speeches made by the leaders of the 500-person march into Northfield, I was astounded by their ignorance and paternalistic attitude towards the Viet Cong. For them the Viet Cong, and it seemed all 3rd world people, were practically non-entities, poor starving masses who would gladly turn to the “light” of America as soon as their bellies were full. That the Viet Cong were a highly disciplined organization with intelligent leaders and an agenda that right or wrong they strongly believed in and would fight for to the death for did not seem to occur to these protesters. Reading Jasper’s “The Art of Moral Protest” reveals the very sorry remains of the movements began in the 1960’s by the early 1970’s: partisans of totalitarian ideologies such as Maoism dismissing whichever worthy cause they found to be too “bourgeois”, band-wagon hopping protesters showing up at whatever cause their friends were showing up too, and “anarcho-pagans” who seemed to feel that casting magic spells were a useful form of Luddite sabotage. In light of such foolishness, one cannot help but to wonder if modern day activists are better off forgetting the 60’s in everything except rhetoric. The methods of the activism of the 1960’s, as well as the culture it produced seems better off forgotten.

However, one cannot deny the successes of the Civil Rights or the environmentalist movements of the 1960’s. The gay rights movement as a whole has a lot to relearn from these movements, particularly in light of the virulently homophobic laws passed in many States this past election. While their situations are very different, there are still striking parallels between the situation of African-Americans in the 1960’s and the LGBTQ community today. Both are treated as 2nd-class citizens in their own country, given inferior protection under the law and denied equal rights. Both are minorities, and as such need to gain allies and spread awareness of their plight in order to advance their cause. The gay-rights movement, like the civil rights movement, can gain a lot of strength by standing up publicly to oppression and denouncing the blatant unfairness of intolerance and unequal rights.

Our specific little movement fighting homelessness among LGBT youth illustrates some lessons that we need to learn from the 1960’s, at least if we hope to have an effect that lasts longer than a single term. We need to show people the moral outrage that is the high levels of homelessness among LGBT youth, to appeal to people’s sense of justice. We need to denounce homeless shelters that discriminate against LGBT people, though our methods must be modern. We can’t just tell homeless shelters “stop discriminating”-we must help them find a way to help the LBGT community that satisfies as many people as possible. In the case of transgender people in these shelters for example, a compromise must be reached between the transgender individuals who do not wish to be housed with their opposite gender, and the individuals who feel uncomfortable with being housed with someone who appears to them to be the opposite gender. Protests at homeless shelters are unlikely to be very effective-unlike businesses in the Deep South, the managers of homeless shelters will not be easily framed as discriminatory monsters, as they are providing a vital community service. The managers of homeless shelters are experienced humanitarians, and will probably not take kindly to snotnosed college students telling them how to do their job-they must be approached with respect if we are to have an impact on their methods. The methods of the quiet generation, of service in and support for GLBT-friendly shelters must mesh with the methods of the 60’s generation, of standing up to and denouncing injustice.

-Alex

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Comments»

1. johnbisceglia - February 7, 2009

Today’s “gay organizations” are pathetic. More like social groups for white folks with spare time, terrified of appearing “radical” or “demanding”….

FED UP with having to be “liked enough” for equal rights?

Believe EQUALITY is ours to TAKE and refuse to beg for it?

For ALL Americans who support our demand for equality: EQUALITY TAX REVOLT – Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2. DG - February 9, 2009

Interesting meditation on tactics and the effectiveness of being angry/strident/vocal. I think there is more variation in the tactics of the 1960s movements than you allow here — there were certainly those working quietly, out of the spotlight, as well as those covered extensively by the media. But it does raise interesting questions about whether there are moments where — politically, culturally — certain kinds of protest tactics are more likely to take hold, more likely to be effective, etc. And if there are such connections between the political environment and tactical repertoires, what are the features or characteristics of the environment that influence tactical choices the most? Or is it about movements — certain TYPES of movements and issues support certain kinds of work/protest and others don’t? Or is it organizationally driven? Influenced by the target (as you say, protesting the government and protesting homeless shelters are two different things entirely). Obviously, no one level can explain the variation on its own, but the different levels of analysis are worth considering.


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