[sixties-l] another awakening story

From: Jeffrey Apfel (japfel@risd.edu)
Date: Mon Jun 26 2000 - 13:14:38 CUT

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    Here is a story under the "awakenings" heading. It is not
    particularly partial to the left in the sixties and so may seem
    somewhat incongruous on this list. After all, in the short time since
    its rebirth, Sixties-L seems to have gravitated beyond a focus on the
    left during the period, and now appears to be a quasi-organizing tool,
    addressing issues, for instance, of the applicability of left concepts
    to current issues. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose?

    It was 1969 I think, and I was a student at a large Eastern university
    at least as well known for its football team as its politics. I was
    living in a so-called "co-op", which was basically an old, beat-up,
    university owned Victorian house. You got a break on tuition and
    board since it was cheap for the university to offer the option and,
    given my family's income, the option made financial sense. In truth,
    though, the real reason I wanted to join was that the co-op was a
    kind-of "anti-fraternity", a self-selected assortment of vaguely
    countercultural misfits proud of its identity with the changing of the
    times and its generally rebellious spirit.

    However, where that spirit put us on the dial where "the revolution"
    proper was concerned was not at all clear. Unquestionably, we all
    tilted in that direction, but was this tilt a generationally-inspired
    obligatory genuflect, or the real thing? I don't think we knew.

    Then one day there was a riot. It started out about racism on the
    football team, but it was of course about a lot more than that. The
    co-op was situated right on the main drag, so we were right in the
    middle of it. Our front porch afforded a birds-eye view, as though we
    were weather watchers looking at an approaching storm.

    We saw the usual pattern, including a willed escalation of violence on
    the part of the protestors, presumably in order to draw even more
    police to the scene and, with a little luck, to get them bashing some
    heads. You'll recall the logic: you must bring on the repression in
    order to show the bankruptcy of the system and then the people will

    Things weren't going that well that day for the riot. There were just
    not enough participants against the police--witness our little group
    watching things from the front porch of the house rather than diving
    in. I remember some very angry and probably frustrated demonstrators
    smashing the windows on cars right across the street trying to whip up
    the crowd. Finally, it occurred to the demonstrators that what they
    needed was a barricade, dammit! Once we have a barricade, we can
    clearly demarcate our turf on this street from that of the police and
    the barricade can serve as a symbol and rallying cry!

    Then the question: how will we build a barricade? And the answer: the
    pile of firewood stacked over there beside the co-op! And so our
    firewood--the wood that served to stoke our communal hearth through
    the difficult and snowy winter--was dragged out onto the street to
    serve as a barricade.

    That's when I had one of my awakenings. I remember walking down into
    the melee and taking the wood back to the house, piece by piece. This
    act was not without danger: I remember one of the demonstrators, his
    face contorted with rage, threatening to crack my skull with a
    baseball bat. But as far as I was concerned the wood was going back.

    What was my awakening? Oh, I guess you could say from a Marxist
    perspective that I simply realized my bourgeois class interest. And
    there is a sense in which I do not dispute this--although the
    implications of even this interpretation are telling. After all,
    "Amerika" was even then profoundly bourgeois and nowadays, with the
    number of shareholders exceeding union membership, it is even more so.
     So any kind of revolution under the circumstances needed to be
    profoundly anti-democratic and elitist.

    I also came to feel, in that existential moment when push came to
    shove, how very much the participants in the riot were animated by a
    whole lot more than simple idealism gone a bit rotten. There was a
    real taste for the disorder and the violence going round-it was a
    thing in itself. And I came to believe that my ingrained affiliation
    with the left was nothing more than the product of pure hype, at least
    as much as my taste in rock or my choice of deodorant. It was mostly
    on the surface, and didn't speak to me in any deep sense.

    No doubt this puts me at odds with some on this list. And in a sense,
    in posting this I suppose recreating the event, this time with words.
    But it may be of interest to some who are here as to how you may have
    lost the hearts and minds of folks like me. And I am also mindful of
    the list's archival function, and thought that it could use some other

    Jeff Apfel

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