Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000
Hirsute masses camped around Washington, D.C.’s Reflecting Pool. Stormy-faced libbers incinerating lingerie. Stoic figures reeling under the barrage of fire hoses. And perhaps the most horrific, memorable image of all: stunned Kent State students staring at their compatriots’ bodies on a day that will live in infamy.
Somehow, between the so-called idealism of the ’60s and the hustle-bustle/every-person-for-himself world of the ’80s and ’90s, the word “protest” became just a little bit dirty.
Dirty like an apple cart-upsetting urchin, a useless nose-thumbing at the powers that be, the value of which – if any – is both marginal and decidedly historical.
After all, didn’t the protesters of the ’60s settle down, cut their hair, quit smoking dope and – on their way to becoming our parents – turn into the respectable, law-abiding citizens of today’s USA? That is evidence, we are led to believe, that they eventually recognized just how foolish they looked with their flowers and peace signs.
Implicit in this version of history is the idea that the problems which confronted America in the ’60s – racial inequality, an unjust war, sexual inequality and all the rest – have no present-day counterparts. A dangerous heresy that hints that mass protest is a social relic, irrelevant to our modern age.
The subtle message is that protesting is something of an anachronism. Sure, we still have problems – there are still some social injustices and minor governmental cock-ups – but nothing worthy of making a big, noisy, grubby traffic-halting fuss. Demonstrating – with all the accompanying banner waving, fist pumping and commerce interrupting – is hopelessly naïve and out-dated.
Or is that just what the government and media would like us to believe?
In the backlash of the anti-establishment ’60s, it must have become the Establishment’s top priority to stop any further social upheaval. With women and people of color demanding rights and nice middle-class children standing up to the government and demanding to know what right it had to go bombing a poor Asian country back into the Stone Age, it must have been an ulcer-inducing epoch for the denizens of power in Washington, D.C.
So, how to forestall the upheavals? Well, the easiest way was to convince the next generation that all their parents did was waste a lot of time and look a little silly in the process. Remind them of the peccadilloes, the disorganization, the selfishness, the stubborn idealism, remind them that those hippies were all just doped up to their eyeballs anyway.
Most of all, remind them how inefficient it all was, how messy and unnecessary. Imply, if you don’t actually come out and say it, that the government would have sorted out all the social ills a lot more quickly if officials hadn’t had to waste their time trying to keep well-meaning but daft protesters from wrecking political conventions or getting beaten up by racist rednecks.
Apparently, this approach has succeeded. When was the last time you saw a massive student rally? A serious political protest of any kind? Chances are, even if there was one, the media systemically ignored or belittled it. Remember the Million Man March? Recall that rather than discussing the social and ideological implications the media focused most of its attention on the rather silly post-march controversy over whether or not there were actually a million men, imputing that the whole thing was merely a bizarre ego-gratification exercise for Louis Farrakhan.
More recently, in London, more than 15,000 students rallied to protest against expensive tuition fees. It was a peaceful, organized and generally serious demonstration — which the media just ignored.
It is inexcusable, though, that our generation should submit to such treatment, that we should allow ourselves to be indoctrinated into apathy. There are still battles to be fought for justice, equality and political accountability. All of us have different passions and it is of paramount importance that we educate ourselves to stand up for what we believe in — and to resist what we find objectionable.
Unless we learn, now, to band together and hold up a dignified middle finger to the establishment that would like to convince us of our collective impotence, we will someday find injustice being meted out not to others but to us — and by then it will be too late.