Mildred: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”
Johnny: “Whadda you got?”
-Exchange between two characters from the movie The Wild One, 1953, with Marlon Brando
I’m classified as a late-stage baby boomer, having been born in the late 1950’s. During the decisive and divisive decade of the 1960’s I was a snot-nosed school kid; the most important crisis of my life was when our TV died and it took weeks before Mom could afford to replace a bad tube. (No, not the tube you looked at—one of several tubes inside the box that generated heat and helped make the picture.) The country was embroiled in Vietnam. JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Back then it was common for young people to stage protest marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience to make a point about something. The war, equal rights, poverty, injustice, or political misconduct—it didn’t matter. Everything seemed fair game and it was all done to a rocking soundtrack. The evening news was filled with stark images: soldiers on the front lines; water cannons deployed against civil rights marchers, and students shot by National Guardsmen at Bowling Green University in Ohio. As a kid I soaked it all in but much of it didn’t make sense. The only thing that solidly connected was the certainty that I would be drafted by my Government to fight for them when I turned 18. I didn’t want to die so I prayed every night for the abolishment of the draft, protection for our soldiers, and an end to war. It’s a shame that any kid who hasn’t reached the age of 12 had to pray every night about death and dying but it’s what I did.
Years passed, Vietnam ended, and the draft was abolished for a window of time. America sailed through the disco years and into the prosperity and growth of the eighties. Everything was okey-dokey, at least on the surface. There were societal issues that needed to be dealt with but we were caught up in a capitalistic furor. Go to college, get a great job, make lots of money to buy stuff, and grab a piece of the American dream. I remember reading a magazine article back then by someone decrying the flaccidness of our youth’s resolve to change the world. “No one has a cause to fight for anymore. All they care about is money.” The piece was probably written by an ex-hippie protestnik remembering the golden age of social activism. I remember thinking that, perhaps, that time had passed and the role of the mass protest had become unnecessary. In actuality capitalism and the acquisition of worldly goods lulled us to sleep. Meanwhile a lot of Very Bad Things were going on behind the scenes, and crimes against the citizens of this country went unchecked. Our political process, which was never very clean or honorable, had long ago yielded itself to corruption.
Suddenly we found ourselves in the new millennium and realized that things had gone to Hell. America was attacked in grand Hollywood style on September 11, 2001. We found ourselves involved in multiple wars and losing our individual rights and freedoms on a daily basis in the name of security. Rich corporations received massive tax relief for years in order to “build the job market,” and did just that—for foreign countries. They’d started shipping American jobs overseas to save themselves money in the nineties, but really ramped up their efforts during the past decade. Many local economies were devastated as towns whose residents supported the steel mill, auto plant, or multinational shipping conglomerate saw those businesses close with no jobs to replace those that were lost. Then we discovered that the financial institutions—the ones the government had failed to properly oversee—had perpetrated several types of shell games using our money and our economy nearly went under, wiping out many families’ finances and future retirement plans.
The citizens of our fine country suddenly found themselves totally screwed by those who were supposed to represent and protect them, and helpless when they tried to express their anger. Politicians didn’t seem to listen or care about anything except their own jobs and keeping the ‘other party’ at a disadvantage. Some bright people decided they’d had enough and marched on Wall Street to denounce corporate greed, the lack of jobs, homelessness…in fact, everything that had been repressed for years came rushing out in a torrent. That movement became “Occupy Wall Street” and gained strength over a few weeks to encompass protests across the country. Despite the best intentions of these people to have peaceful demonstrations, local police ratcheted up the tension by employing tear gas and pepper spray, then used force to shed blood and hauled hundreds of them away to jail. The protester’s resolve was unbroken. When told they couldn’t use electronic amplification, they created ‘human P.A. systems’ by having crowds loudly repeat what a speaker said for the benefit of all. They set up mobile food kitchens, portable Internet hotspots, bathroom facilities, and extensively used social networks to organize the faithful. There’s no doubt that they’re determined and dedicated to their goal of making the voice of the people heard.
But many people are asking: “If everyone’s shouting different things, can they really make a difference?” Part of the problem is that we’ve been silent for so long that a lot of things have turned sour. And, unfortunately, many of those things are inter-related. People can’t get needed assistance after natural disasters because funds were bled dry by numerous calamities this year, and the cost of ongoing warfare in multiple theaters of combat as well as a divided Congress hampers their replenishment. The job market sucks because the economy nearly collapsed from the corruption of Wall Street insiders who weren’t properly overseen by the government due to its own corruption and incompetence. Got that? How can you attack any one of those points without attacking the others? How can you fix jobs without fixing the economy, and how can you fix the economy if the government can’t be trusted to ensure that the companies manipulating the economy are honest? It’s a rabbit hole that Alice couldn’t tackle without major chemical assistance.
The other problem is that our fledgling young protesters don’t seem to know how to affect social changes of this magnitude, any more than the youth of the sixties did when they began their journey. Back then they had to flex their muscles, find their voice, and experiment to find the best way(s) to express their views. Today’s youth are no different. They’re like Neo who, after being freed from his pod in The Matrix asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?”
His answer was simple: “You’ve never used them before.”
The Occupy movement is in the chrysalis stage—it’s well on its way to becoming a mature force to reckon with. For now it’s stretching, flexing, reaching out to test the capabilities and power within its grasp. The list of its demands seems way too broad and unfocused but they’re quickly learning to prioritize. The ways of the original sixties protestniks are well documented—both good and bad—and widely available through the web, and you can bet they’re soaking in everything they can learn.
As of this writing things have quieted. Occasional protests sporadically occur but as winter settles in the Occupiers appear to have lost their will to fight. Appearances are deceiving. Kalle Lasn, who conceived Occupy Wall Street, was quoted in Rolling Stone’s January 5, 2012 issue as saying, “The first phase was wonderful, it was leaderless, it was demandless, it inspired millions of young people to get politically engaged. Now we’re moving into another phase. … But the really interesting stuff will start happening next spring.” For these tech- and internet-savvy protesters I’m sure it will be a busy winter as they research, plan, and organize for next year.
I’m happy that people are finally getting off their butts and making their voices heard. We’ve all witnessed the changes that began with the so-called “Arab spring” and I’m sure many are drawing inspiration from the Middle East events of the past year. However, the government has heard the voices of its citizens in the past year and, to be honest, I’m not sure they care. Congress seems fixated on fiddling while the country figuratively burns. Not even the Republican candidates for next year’s election seem to get it. Newt Gingrich’s statement during a recent debate was particularly telling:
“All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for. To go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for. To beg for food from places they don’t want to pay for. To obstruct those who are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park, so they can self-righteously explain that they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything. Now that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.””
Never mind that the Occupiers are meeting on public property for which they were paying their share with their tax money when they had jobs, or that the message wasn’t “You owe us jobs” but “You owe us accountability for your screw-ups and you’re obligated to responsibly manage our country and our assets.” Gingrich’s response is similar in spirit to that of Chinese Emperor Hui of Jin, recounted in the Zizhi Tongjian. When the Emperor was told that his subjects didn’t have enough rice to eat he replied, “Why don’t they eat meat?” The protests in the Middle East began peacefully but when the respective governments employed violence against their protesters, those protesters retaliated in kind.
The thing I fear most is the increase of violence on both sides in this country. Some may say, “This is the United States of America; that’ll never happen.” I don’t think there’s another way this can play out, especially when our Government simply refuses to get the point. If non-violence doesn’t work escalation is the logical result. Violence has become an integral part of the overseas protests, just as it did here in the sixties. People aren’t stupid and they realize that terrorist methods get an immediate response. One or two nutjobs operating completely outside the actual movement could kick the whole thing off while using the movement as a cover. Everything quickly escalates and gets ugly; bloodshed on our own soil becomes rampant; protestors and their sympathizers get branded as domestic terrorists. Then if President Obama signs the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 as he’s promised to do, the Government could “go Guantanamo” on anyone it brands as a domestic terrorist and can make them disappear without a trace.
The anger and frustration in the air seems physical, palpable; it’s as though you could grab a handful if you simply reached for it. Perhaps things will settle down over the winter, or maybe they’ll boil over as the buffoons in Washington continue playing their brinksmanship games. All I know is this: 2012 will prove to be a most interesting year. I’m grabbing a good seat right now to enjoy the show—how about you?