“[Occupy Wall Street is] a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater….”
Ginia Bellafante, NY Times 9/23/11
In the summer of 1968 I had finished my freshman year in high school. By chance, I journeyed to San Francisco with some older fellow students, checked the scene at Haight-Ashbury, partied with the cast of Hair and ended up on the beach in Big Sur talking philosophy. I was offered a hit off a joint but declined.
Later that year a friend and I hitched to a New Year’s concert at the Fillmore West. As Cold Blood, Boz Skaggs and the Voices of East Harlem marked the hours to midnight, joints passed freely among the audience. This time I accepted though my friend declined.
I had come to understand that marijuana was far more than a recreational drug. It was a sacrament to the Cultural Revolution. It signaled openness to change and a willingness to finally throw off the constraints of our upbringing.
In the ensuing years, I spent many weekends hitching to the Bay Area, breathing it all in, learning and engaging from the Haight to Washington Square to Telegraph Avenue, Peoples Park and Sproul Plaza. It was an awakening and an apprenticeship.
We were the children of the Rockwell fifties when life was easy, hair was uniformly cropped, and ideology was a well-manicured lawn. We did not question authority and we were constantly assured that our lives would be secure and bountiful if only we went along.
Like so many generations before us, the people who ruled over our lives and controlled our perceptions lied to us. In the mid-sixties, we began to tear at the mask. They were sending us off to war against people we never knew existed and whose crimes were an impenetrable abstraction. They rejected capitalism/colonialism and somehow this made them our enemies.
They were sending us off to war, to kill and be killed in ever-growing numbers, and we were sick of it. We demanded change. We wanted more than an end to war. We wanted a transformation of the very fabric of society.
I was a revolutionary in training but by the time I came of age everything had changed. Jimi, Janis and Morrison were dead. The nation’s original terrorists had taken the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The National Guard had gunned down student protestors Allison Krause and Jeffery Miller and bystanders William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer at Kent State University. Ten days later police shot and killed Phillip Gibbs and James Green at a protest at Jackson State in Mississippi.
We were effectively served notice that if we continued to engage our constitutional right to gather in protest we would be shot down in the streets. We had moved from the hope and exhilaration of Woodstock to the disillusionment and despair of Altamont.
Berkeley and San Francisco were still happening places but the movement was undergoing a transition from the external to the internal. The revolution was over.
My time came and went. The revolution had started without me and by the time I was ready to take my place on the front lines it was over.
Four decades later, when I read about the Occupy Wall Street movement, I am reminded of the movement that was born in San Francisco circa 1967. It too was belittled by the mainstream media. It too was criticized for its lack of a cohesive message. It too refused to be defined or guided by political voices or appointed leaders. It too was brutally attacked by the very officers who are supposed to protect its citizens.
I do not know where this movement will lead but I applaud its creation. Like it or not, for better and worse, the late sixties cultural revolution defined a generation either in sympathy or in opposition. Those who were fortunate enough to be there when it formed and as it spread across the nation were an important part of history.
The difference between this movement and the antiwar protests of the Bush era is that the latter had a clearly designated beginning and an end. They were highly organized weekend events, licensed by the authorities and proceeded along a prescribed route. When they were over, the protestors went home. There was no attempt to occupy, no camps and no real opportunity to build relationships on common interests.
In the late sixties, the counter culture occupied People’s Park and Telegraph Avenue. People came to San Francisco and occupied the Haight. Students occupied university buildings and campus grounds. The people built a movement on the grounds where they lived and found a way to survive with underground economies.
The authorities will never be afraid of a movement they can license and control. They will never be afraid of resistance that plays by their rules. They will never be afraid of the Tea Party or an antiwar movement that stages events, that provides portable toilets, that sells tee shirts and hands out pamphlets only to go home at the appointed time.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to become a living, breathing cultural revolution because it is leaderless and inclusive, because it is creative and diverse, and because it attracts young people and university students who have been betrayed by the economic system they have inherited.
Young people were told they had to complete higher education to compete in the new global economy. Now all but the elite are being priced out of their universities. Now those who take on exorbitant loans are graduating only to find there are no jobs even for them. The high-paying, high-skill jobs have also been sent overseas. Now they have found common ground with the rest of their generation because they are all out of a job, out of luck and out of hope.
They will come to the movement because they have a personal interest. They will come because they know the sting of betrayal. They will come because the only way forward is to fundamentally change the system.
They are not socialists but they know what socialism is. They are not capitalists but they know what capitalism is. They include both socialists and capitalists because they know they must form an economy that incorporates elements of both if they are to serve both society at large and the individual.
They are open to ideas and will not be bound to one ideology. This is their time and they are trying to create something new and suited to their technological world.
I salute them and appeal to all university students and young people everywhere. Join the cause and see what you can make of it. This could be the defining and formative movement of your generation. If you do not take hold of it and engage, the time may come when you regret not taking your place in history.
Do not let the revolution come and go without you.