Then and Now

It was hot as I walked back and forth on the Ben Franklin Parkway in the heat and humidity in Philadelphia on July 30th, at the Unity 2000 demonstration on the day before the opening of the Republican Convention. As I walked, between the stage where people were speaking and the block-long street fair with tables, food, street theatre, floats, drumming and more, I began to think of the differences between the new pro-justice movement of today as compared to the peace and justice movement of the late 1960s.

One difference is the widespread acceptance of a multi-tactical approach. In the ’60s there were often serious political arguments between those who wanted to organize non-violent civil disobedience and those who believed that large, legal, peaceful protests were THE tactic. Today, there is a much more widespread understanding that these two approaches can be complementary.

It’s similar in regards to electoral activity. There is much less opposition to involvement with elections than was true 30 years ago, in large part because of the Nader/LaDuke campaign and other progressive third party activity. Indeed, at the demonstrations over the first three days of the Philadelphia actions, July 29, 30 and 31, there were many people wearing buttons and carrying signs in support of Nader and LaDuke, in particular.

Another difference a more widespread use of humor. One of the most creative and popular contingents at the July 30th march was Billionaires for Bush (or Gore). Dressed in suits, ties and evening gowns, they chanted slogans like, “Who needs day care, hire an au pair,” “Big money united shall never be defeated,” and “Make a smart investment, buy yourself a President.” And this is but one example of the use of humor in a more extensive way by the new pro-justice movement.

It is also significant that this is a movement with many leaders.

In the late ’60s, there were particular individuals who were seen as the peace movement’s leaders-Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin being among the most prominent. Major national demonstrations didn’t happen unless at least one or two of these or other well-known individuals were major, on-the-scenes organizers.

The actions that have taken place in Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, on the other hand, involved a wider range of leadership, a greater mix of individuals playing leadership roles, and a much more collective organizational process. Njoki Njehu, the MC of the April 16th demonstration in D.C., has commented on how, “in the months and weeks leading up to the mobilization in Washington, for the first time that I’ve seen at a larger level, we worked by consensus. We had a collective method of work involving literally hundreds of people in Washington organizing meetings and working groups, making decisions and respecting them, empowering people. We were creating the kind of world that we want.”

This, perhaps, is the most significant of all the differences. There is a widespread appreciation of the necessity of a fully democratic and respectful political process as we organize our actions. We can’t say that we are against an undemocratic and oppressive political and economic system and then function within our own meetings and events in a top-down, hierarchical way.

But it goes even deeper than this.

Possibly the most amazing experience at a political meeting that I have ever had took place in Washington in April. It was the night of the 16th, following a morning and afternoon of blockading, marching and demonstrating, and in the sweltering basement of a local church five or six hundred people were trying to figure out what to do the next morning. It was too much for one young man, and he pretty much “lost it” as he tried to make his contribution to the long, difficult process of coming to a decision. He began attacking the chair of the meeting and airing his frustrations in a very antagonistic way.

All of a sudden, as if on cue, the entire room was filled with 15 to 20 seconds of a long “ooooommmmmm.” I looked around, trying to grasp what was taking place. Then, as the frustrated young man grew silent and sat down, and as the “oomms” died away, the chair of the meeting smoothly transitioned back to the issues at hand.

Back “in my day,” there would have been a very different reaction. There would have been calls for the speaker to shut up. At least one person, almost certainly another man, would have taken offense and indignantly responded to one of the points that was made. Or someone would have taken advantage of the momentary disruption to try to push a particular point or alter the agenda.

This time, however, the desire on the part of the group as a whole to stay centered and focused and the use of a spiritual tactic in a political meeting by large numbers of young people led to a very different outcome.

As our movement grows and develops, as we address our continuing weaknesses and become increasingly stronger, we will be faced with many roadblocks by our corporate/government enemies. But if those of who are older can learn from the maturity and dedication that many of our younger leaders are demonstrating, we stand a fighting chance to accomplish our objective of bringing into being a truly just and peaceful country and world.