[sixties-l] Yet more on Movement history (fwd)

From: sixties@lists.village.virginia.edu
Date: Mon Feb 25 2002 - 01:48:03 EST

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    Date: Sun, 24 Feb 2002 14:21:55 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Yet more on Movement history

     From Portside

    Yet more on Movement history

    I sometimes get the feeling that I'm the youngest
    person on this list (though that's probably untrue). I
    make a point of noting my youth, though, because it
    would seem disingenuous of me not to: I am 26, and I
    was not even born at the time of the last SDS
    convention and the emergence of Weatherman. Actually,
    my parents were preparing to get married around that
    time. It is because of them, and because of my own
    current activism, and because of my ongoing belief,
    deluded though it may be, that there might be something
    to learn from the past, that I got interested in all

    In 1969, my father was a professor at Grinnell College.
    A group of students there had decided to turn the
    American flag upside down (a la the international
    symbol of distress) as a protest against the Vietnam
    war. My father spent a good part of the next two days
    standing beneath the flag, hand on the halyard, to
    prevent anyone from doing this again.

    My mother told me this story when I was a freshman in
    high school en route to a protest against the Persian
    Gulf war. I pointed out to her that, had I been there,
    I probably would have been one of the people trying to
    turn the flag upside down. "Yes," she said. "You and
    your father would have disagreed about a number of
    things. Call if you need to be bailed out."

    Mostly I tell this as a funny story, but in fact I've
    been thinking about it for many years--turning a flag
    upside down may not seem like much, but in Grinnell,
    Iowa, it's tantamount to a very extreme tactic. As an
    activist (these days, I mostly work with United
    Students Against Sweatshops, but I dabble in any number
    of other related global justice things), I am
    constantly thinking about how to proceed--about how to
    make the best strategic decision, about how to be true
    to yourself and what you believe, about how to
    reconcile the difference between the Quakers who just
    want to witness and the ISO who want to print
    everything in Impact font, and how to do this all in
    the face of what seem like overwhelming odds--in the
    face of a system--call it global capitalism, call it
    what you will--that seems relentlessly determined to
    walk all over most of what I consider precious in the

    A couple years ago, I decided to start reading all the
    movement history I could get my hands on. I thought,
    rather grandiosely, that it was my responsibility learn
    from history so that the terrible mistakes of the past
    would not be repeated. I have now read more theories on
    the expulsion of whites from SNCC, the failure or
    success of ERAP/the Worker Student Alliance/the
    Mississippi Summer project/you name it, the demise of
    SDS, the rise of women's liberation, etc., etc. than I
    can count. I am a wealth of trivia about things that
    happened in the decade before I was born. My conclusion
    (though I'm still engaged in this project) has been,
    both sadly and oddly comfortingly, that we study
    history to learn that history repeats itself, willy-
    nilly. This past summer I was at the USAS national
    gathering in Chicago and was actually at some point
    amused by a group of people running around handing out
    leaflets and (depending on whom you talk to) either
    trying to subvert the conference or trying to restore
    it to its true guiding principles. They were all from
    the Progressive Labor party. The last night of the
    conference, we got dinner donated by the Heartland
    Caf. The last plenary went on for a very, very long
    time, and I didn't think there'd be any food left by
    the time we got there, but Mike James had saved stuff
    for us. "How'd the voting go?" he asked me as he handed
    me a sandwich. I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, I remember some
    of those SDS plenaries," he said, and we nodded, and I
    thanked him for the dinner, and moved on.

    I don't know where I would have stood on that flag at
    Grinnell in 1969, or what exactly I would have thought
    of the Weatherfolks, though I doubt very much I would
    have joined them. In truth, when I contemplate the
    events, I am always so amazed by anyone in the movement
    who made it through the late '60s with their faculties
    intact. I don't know that I would have been so lucky.

    I do think, though, that this country is deeply
    haunted, and wounded, by a lingering and ongoing racism
    (and perhaps a number of other isms as well, but I'll
    stick to one) and that the wounds it still inflicts
    manifest themselves in kinds of violence that are hard
    to comprehend, whether that's the 1981 Brinks robbery
    or the shooting of Amadou Diallou. I generally feel
    contempt for the cops who shot Diallou and pity for
    those in prison from the Brinks action, which doesn't
    make much sense--I could here make a number of
    arguments about class and privilege and those who
    should know better. I could also be criticized, quite
    rightly, for laying blame entirely on the system, for
    refusing to recognize the importance of personal
    accountability, for trying to see everyone as a victim.

    But I also think that we need to make a very careful
    distinction between the action and the people behind
    that action, and we need to try to understand the ways
    in which the systems which surround that person have
    led to the kinds of actions they've taken. A number of
    posters to this discussion have talked about the need
    to pass on certain kinds of knowledge--about
    organizing, coalition-building, practical, workable
    tactics, what have you--to younger activists now. I
    think that's true--it's one of the reasons I read so
    much history, and why I try to talk to older activists
    when I have the chance.

    But I think another thing we need to try to understand,
    respect, and deal with, is the terrible toll that
    living in this world and to resist and change its
    systems can take on us. I know kids now who are
    involved in Black Bloc stuff. I don't join them. When I
    can, I try to persuade them that smashing up the
    windows of Star$$$$, while satisfying in a certain way,
    is not going to help--and that undoubtedly that
    destruction will have to be cleaned up low-wage
    laborers--the very people whose side (I'd like to
    think) we are on. But I know also that there are days
    when I want to smash things, as much as there are days
    when I want to move to the mountains, become a hermit,
    and pray, though to me neither of these is a
    strategically viable way to build a movement or a
    better world. I think what we owe one another is some
    attempt at understanding, and some attempt at
    forgiveness, and at reconciliation.

    I hope that this discussion can continue, and perhaps
    even move in that direction.

    Laura E. Crossett
    Nonfiction Writing Program
    University of Iowa

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