Is Real Activism Passe?

Protesters still take to the streets, but new technology and tactics have dulled their passion, scoff old-time demonstrators.

May 19, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

BACK IN THE 1960s, those sufficiently enraged by racism or the Vietnam War could take to the streets with tens of thousands of others. Today, anyone with a complaint can protest online, never leaving the comforts of home.

As a pale substitute for flesh and blood activism, Internet protest is just one of numerous developments that irk activists of a certain vintage, still fighting the system after all these years.

Christopher Acosta, a veteran of the anti-war movement, believes that even though a new generation of activists has taken to the streets, the Internet has robbed today's protest movements of the multitudes needed to symbolize an issue's urgency. The Internet also diffuses passion, he says. On bulletin boards and in chat rooms, "anger is being vented. They get rid of it and don't feel like they have to go anywhere."

In the 1960s, "marches were way more enthusiastically embraced by the population," says Acosta, national outreach coordinator for Voter March, the group behind the Voter Rights March to Restore Democracy taking place today in Washington and San Francisco. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement had more direct emotional impact on the public than fuzzy issues such as voting irregularities, he says.

Back then, results were deemed more tangible. Now, "I think people are feeling that they can't really change anything," Acosta says. "They don't see the correlation between what they are doing in the streets and how they can affect change. To a lot of people, it's a pointless thing to do."

He expects no more than several thousand marchers to gather at the West Capitol steps at noon to demand electoral reform in the wake of November's chaotic presidential election and the subsequent Supreme Court decision to stop the vote count in Florida. Even the promise of discounted round-trips from New York to Washington on chartered "late model luxury coaches" hasn't enticed hoped-for throngs. Perhaps suffering from demonstration burnout, not one major movie star or rock band has agreed to appear - unless you count Luci Murphy, billed by march promoters as the "internationally acclaimed, multi-lingual vocal artist, grounded in Nichiren Buddhism."

The Internet, though, is merely one agent of change that has affected the evolution of dissent from the 1960s to the "new activism" of today. The issues themselves have morphed, as have strategies, coalitions, police response, media coverage and, ultimately, demonstrators' impact.

It may or may not help that the '60s-era protests have become imprinted on the brains of the boomer generation, sharing space with vintage rock 'n' roll tunes and sitcom plots. It's a state of mind that's led to the current incarnation of political protest as "commodified product," as one scholar dubs it.

For boomers who glory in their identity as lifelong citizens of the Woodstock nation, myopia is a common affliction. As a new generation of protests unfolds against globalization, an imperfect voting system, human rights violations, and other corporate and political flash points, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, not the Boston Tea Party, usually springs to mind as a reference point.

Even those with long memories can't resist contrasting the tempestuous '60s, full of joy, fury and great music, to this new generation of marches, rallies and protests.

It's important not to "fetishize" the '60s as the fount of all radical thought in America, says David S. Meyer, a scholar of social movements who teaches at the University of California-Irvine.

Still, "the movements of the 1960s legitimized protest and even civil disobedience as political tactics," he says. At the time, critics were "not sympathetic. They saw [demonstrators] as the product of bad toilet training. That's not the way people write about it anymore."

Strategic protests

Social malaise that stretches beyond the underprivileged and other traditional victims of oppression has created strange bedfellows among today's demonstrators: From the Teamsters union to the Ruckus Society - an activist training group - all have come together because they "feel shut out from conventional politics," Meyer says.

But Meyer also sees a down side to the new wave of protests.

The civil rights, anti-war and Black Power movements all spoke to the failure of fundamental American ideals and weak spots in the national psyche. Today's marches are mostly led by middle- and upper middle-class citizens concerned with international, abstract issues that have no immediate significance for this country's poor, thus disenfranchising them "yet again," he says.

"I just think poor people and working-class people are increasingly crowded out of the newspapers and the protest beat is taken up with essentially middle-class concerns," he says.

Meyer also fears that as demonstrations become "ritualized," protesters and police perform their dramas in pre-scripted ways, deflating activists' power to shock and motivate.

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