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There is absolutely nothing as exhilarating as challenging authority and winning! I think that is why the 1960s have such an unshakable hold on me, and others who fought for civil rights, were in the antiwar movement and the women’s movement. I took on the power of the United States government and I won. It wasn’t easy, and it disrupted my entire life, but it taught me many lessons about activism and exactly what confronting enormous power means.
The e-mail I received, the day after Barack Obama was nominated as the candidate for president of the Democratic Party, from the group The World Can’t Wait, described the difficulty antiwar protesters were experiencing dealing with the police and the low numbers of demonstrators who had turned out to confront the neoliberal message of the convention in Denver. By the convention’s end three thousand protesters finally marched in the streets of that city.
The distance from Denver in time and miles is so long from where I am today in terms of activism. The heady days of the 60s and early 70s when everything seemed possible in terms of personal and political change often seem like they are the memories from another life.
There is a story about two activists who meet at the end of the decade of the 1970s. One friend had remained active, while the other had moved away from activism and had immersed herself in a career. The former activist was embarrassed by the commitment of her old friend, finding it implausible that someone would remain involved in political action so long after it had become unfashionable, and consumerism and the various movements of self-exploration had become so prevalent.
I remained an activist. I became involved in the movement to grant war resisters amnesty during the Carter administration. Having been a war resister during the Vietnam War, I benefited directly from Carter’s amnesty; being one of only several thousand out of tens of thousands who received upgraded discharges. The entire amnesty program was flawed and was a reflection of the society’s hostility to those who had opposed the war. Draft resisters were treated more cordially than their counterparts who had been in the military.
When I joined the antinuclear movement in the early 1980s I knew something had radically changed in the nature of activism. Although I met some very fine people along the way, something had changed. An activist in his or her thirties no longer spent entire days with fellow activists, as had been the case during the 1960s and the early 1970s. People had their individual and private lives and went home to their families after organizing meetings or a demonstration. While camaraderie was certainly present in the nuclear freeze movement, there was something missing which could never again be reclaimed.
The nuclear freeze movement was the first movement that I had been involved in that had intrinsic limitations. The group I belonged to in Rhode Island spent a great amount of time canvassing huge swaths of neighborhoods collecting signatures for a petition that had absolutely no force whatsoever. Indeed, Ronald Reagan would completely ignore the movement and actually expand the country’s military while pursuing the policy of low-intensity warfare in Central America. In Nicaragua this type of war would devastate the country and remove the Sandinistas from power.
During Reagan’s presidency a huge fault line formed in the way I began to view activism and some of the fellow activists I knew. For the first time I began to meet many activists whose religious beliefs motivated them. While there had always been a powerful and positive religious presence in antiwar activism during the Vietnam War, much of my activism now brought me in direct contact with people whose activism was driven by their religious beliefs. Nothing illustrated the latter better than my movement between pro-abortion groups and anti-death penalty activism. One week would find me escorting at a local women’s health clinic, and the next meeting at the main offices of a major religious denomination in Rhode Island to work against attempts to try to put the death penalty on the ballot as a referendum in a state that had no death penalty. I had become used to the freewheeling secular activism and activists of the 1960s; however, I maintained cordial relationships with people from both groups.
Among my heroes is the late Abbie Hoffman who typified what an activist meant to me. I knew Abbie enough to say hello to him as we passed in the Law Commune located on Broadway in New York City. Abbie used the commune throughout his years as an activist, and especially for his defense during the trial of the Chicago Eight. I needed the commune when I became a resister to the Vietnam War. It was Abbie’s book, Steal This Book that introduced me to the Law Commune. Abbie wrote a great essay, “The Young Must Be There.” In it he rightly held that any movement in the U.S. must be driven by the presence and energy of young activists. Today, the relentless draw of consumerism and the absence of the threat of conscription has seen only small numbers of the young protest. In addition, the baby boom, a period of relative economic affluence, and the reaction to the staid conventions of the 1950s all helped to propel the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.
When the Soviet Union crumbled, and the U.S. became the sole superpower, anything but the end of history ensued. The first Gulf War was a statement by President George H.W. Bush that force would prevail where diplomacy would not even be attempted. The war, one operation of which was described as a “turkey shoot” by a U.S. pilot, was the opening salvo of the unquestioned military might of the U.S. and its shameless use of it. A decade of sanctions against Iraq followed, killing well over one hundred thousand Iraqis who most often had nothing to do with the regime of Saddam Hussein. The torch of global power was passed from the neoconservative Bush to the neoliberal Clinton who maintained the same military posture toward Iraq, while making it harder for Americans on the edge of a global economy to make ends meet and making it easier to dispose of those in the prison system who were expendable within that economic system.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the reign of George W. Bush as president! To a 60s person his administration was a kind of lethal and slow-acting poison. The last eight years have been as if chapters were lifted directly out of Orwell’s 1984! The endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq! The attacks against the civil liberties of ordinary Americans! It is as if the fiendish plan hatched by Osama bin Laden had extended after September 11, 2001. But it was officials of the U.S. government who were conducting an experiment in the destruction of what is left of democratic traditions and institutions in the U.S. Even the environment has been made to suffer by these enemies of the nation!
Each Saturday at noon I gather with a few folks in front of the town hall in a small town in western Massachusetts. Usually three or five people show up at the spot for the vigil where its first participant has been standing weekly since the Iraq War began in March 2003.
I go each week out of habit. Not a bad habit, but a habit nonetheless. I have been doing this for so long that it seems like second nature now. Most people driving or walking by voice their support for our action. A few express their anger through their middle fingers. It is a long, long way from the streets of Denver or Minneapolis, but these are the streets nevertheless.
A November victory by John McCain is inconceivable to me, but not impossible. A glimpse of a McCain presidency has been the outrageous beating of the press covering the Republican National Convention! Clear echoes of the Democratic National Convention of 1968! November’s choice will be between a neoconservative and a neoliberal. A neoconservative will inevitably mean the beginning of the end for many activists like myself who have held on to the illusion of a reformed society for so many, many years! A neoliberal will mean continued militarism on the part of the U.S. government, environmental destruction, but at perhaps a slower pace, and a chance at improved prospects for a saner Supreme Court. No third party has yet to build a sustained movement during my lifetime. Their flash in the pan candidates, while more desirable than the candidates of the two major parties, have no chance of winning. Huge corporations call the tune in the electoral system. Yogi Berra was perhaps the most prescient of unintentional political observers when he said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer. He is working on a novel about the 1960s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.