Have We Forgotten How To March?

"I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street." President Obama, December 14, 2009.

Was the President signaling that it was time for progressives to form a visible protest movement against "fat cat bankers"? Did he all but invite us to march on the recent White House/bankers meeting?

Well, whether he invited us or not, where were we?

All the big boys showed up except for the chairmen of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley who feared airport delays - they know their time is much more valuable than the President's.

What a perfect opportunity to show our displeasure with those who have so callously wrecked our economy, who have reaped the benefits of welfare for the rich, and who now are boasting record profits while unemployment reaches record highs.

In the Sixties this kind of protest was a snap. At the very least, you could count on a swarm of hippies arriving with plans to levitate the White House - something they actually tried to do to the Pentagon in 1968.

But we don't do that stuff anymore. Why is that?

Many who responded to my recent posts have come up with a number of answers. Here are a few:

  • The Internet distracts us, especially on-line porn and sports.
  • We're just too stupid, more like serfs who submit to their feudal masters.
  • The super-rich own our politicians, so why bother to lobby them.
  • We let off steam by blogging and then pretend that means something, (mea culpa.)
  • The Right controls the media and misinforms the masses.
  • We still have it too good, so please pass me another beer.

Bruce Levine provides a more chilling explanation. ("Are Americans Too Broken for the Truth to Set Us Free?") He believes we may be suffering from "abuse syndrome." He writes:

"U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses. They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don't act, the weaker we get. And ultimately to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shutdown and escape strategies such as depression, substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes."

I don't buy it. We've been abused many times before, yet, we've managed to recover the collective will to fight back. From 1930 to 1933, many Americans were worse than abused -- they were broken. During the Great Depression, millions of people were ashamed because they couldn't support their families. They felt humiliated to be standing on bread lines. They had little understanding of the economic system that was failing them, so they blamed themselves.

It's hard to imagine that the depressed and the downtrodden could rise up to change America. But they did. In a few short years the country was in motion, alive with sit-down strikes, union organizing, and protests of all kinds.

The point is not to glorify unions, or praise the profound New Deal changes they helped to usher in. Rather, we need to acknowledge that the "abused" quite suddenly became activated on a very large scale. Could it happen again?

We have two possibilities. The first is that the modern world has so changed us that passivity and apathy have become embedded within our very nature. Perhaps our will has been curbed, channeled and controlled by consumerism, visual stimuli and ideological education. This might make the activism of yesteryear totally irrelevant to our current predicament.

The other possibility is that human nature has not changed. Rather, certain kinds of organizations and organizers have faded from our political landscape- the kind who dedicated their lives to massive social change. History is not a cookbook. But the record clearly shows that massive social change doesn't happen by accident. I choose to be in this camp.

Throughout the Depression, even during its darkest times, dedicated organizers believed that the system as a whole needed dramatic change. They were very different than our current crop of community organizers who focus primarily on "winnable" issues, (Obama included when he was organizing in South Chicago). Modern community organizers feel uncomfortable with big picture issues that require solutions that seem beyond reach. They feel that striving towards such lofty goals will disempower their community participants who need concrete changes in the here and now. Better to fix the local potholes than howl about banker bonuses.

But Depression-era organizers enjoyed the howling. They had big ideas: They wanted to challenge the financial elites and put an end to the rule of bankers and plutocrats. They had a dream of a fairer world where unemployment no longer destroyed lives. They thought everyone who wanted to work should be able to find a decent job. If the private sector couldn't deliver, then it was the duty of government to create jobs. They were espousing big picture New Deal-like programs long before Roosevelt came to office.

For years before and during the Depression thousands of radical organizers (some who were Communists and many others who were not) worked towards big picture social change for a long, long time. At some point, for reasons we don't fully understand, something clicked. And once it did, it couldn't be stopped.

Hard times alone didn't create the upsurge in activism. We were four years into the Depression before large scale actions started to spread. The CIO, labor's new mass organizing vehicle, didn't form until Roosevelt's second term. So neither hard times, nor Roosevelt's election can explain entirely the renewal of mass activism.

If we look at any of our major movements, from abolition to populism to civil rights, we will find long periods when apathy and disheartening quietude were pervasive. Yet the hard-core organizers somehow endured.

The point is this: The debilitating apathy can turn into vibrant activism even when the odds are impossibly long. But that kind of change doesn't fall from the sky. It takes hard work, usually fueled by new generations of young people who believe that our nation can do better, much better. They provide the spark that raises expectations.

Institutions also are critically important, especially now. If just a handful of progressive unions organized demonstrations at banks and bankers' meetings, it might unleash the pent-up anger and frustration felt by tens of millions of Americans. Just three unions, the Service Employees International Union, the California Nurses Association and the United Steelworkers could easily put together large demonstrations just about anywhere, anytime. If they collectively committed to at least five large mobilizations against Wall Street in 2010, the abuse syndrome might begin to unravel. (See Bob Borosage's convincing call for demonstrations.)

Our mission is clear: We must find ways to tap into the human spirit which stands ready to transform unbridled personal greed into a massive quest for the common good.

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