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Youth Movements, Then and Now

Issue 287

A veteran radical reflects on the continuity between past and present student protest movements.

Linda Martín Alcoff May 14

I was 22 years old before I experienced police violence up-close and personal. I was not naïve or uninformed: I was a Marxist, working with veterans of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, and had been in numerous demos with armed troops pointing their guns toward us from rooftops. But until that day, I had never experienced a police charge on protesters.

Those prior demos were majority-white, while the one I was currently in was not, and the significance of this was not lost on me. Previously, we were threatened, photographed, yelled at. Not charged with clubs.

I confess that, when it started, I was shocked. These were Vietnam vets they were beating; some were disabled.

They didn’t come after any of the women. That is, until, to my own surprise, I decided to try to get the billy club out of a cop’s hands who was brutalizing a friend right next to me. He grabbed me and pushed me toward a set of stairs. I nearly fell down, but another woman saved me. I was six months pregnant. I could have lost my first-born son that day.

Most importantly, there is no question that the first-hand experience of unprovoked police violence taught me something that day that could not be learned from books.

Today’s movements are bringing tears to aging radicals, such as myself, who remember our “glory days” with fondness and nostalgia but also, sometimes, bitter disappointment.

The mass mobilizations and sacrifices made by young people in the ‘60s and ‘70s went a long way toward ending (overt) Jim Crow segregation and the Vietnam War. It shocked our parents, university administrations and the power brokers in every sector of society. But the movements folded too quickly — just as we were gaining steam. Reagan was elected with a landslide. Mass support
for soldiers (manifested by ubiquitous yellow ribbons) replaced the critique of militarism. Civil rights became overshadowed by mass incarceration. Women’s liberation led to cut-throat careerism and somehow could not defeat a reemergence of “Real Housewives”.

After 9/11, the country was embroiled in even larger imperial wars, systematic torture, sanctioned Islamophobia and increased covert surveillance. Even though the military leadership became more diverse, the imperial project never waned. Unilateral interventions continued despite critique from international courts and large coalitions of nations from the global South, and racist police violence continues today despite upsurges of protest over the last decade.

Today’s protests are bringing tears to aging radicals such as myself. 

This is a tale that supports fatalism. The status quo seems even more empowered today by packed courts and the corporate media. Yet, today’s headlines — with more than 2,000 arrests in late April and early May from pro-Palestine encampments and marches roiling the country — are puncturing this attitude of resignation.

Is it a false hope?

My students at CUNY are certainly getting their own dose of first-person experience: unprovoked police violence, our Kafkaesque carceral system and misinformation circulating even in ‘responsible’ segments of the press. Before I can talk to them about their latest chapter draft, we have to go over jail support, petition drives, and how to navigate around faculty and administrators who support Israel’s war on Gaza. They are learning organizational skills as well as political lessons about the hard stops operating within our democratic society. I know these lessons will stay with them.

I see three reasons for hope in the current upsurge, reasons that go beyond ending the current war, that build a sentiment against the current form of capitalism we are suffering from.

First, the students and youth involved in the protests are learning a lot about strategy and tactics. Encampments have heightened the contradictions, provided a way to make commitment visible, and created a space where conversations can happen within groups as well as with others. Calls for divestment inspire an analysis of the political economy of higher education, revealing where to aim the public campaign. And having to respond to the violence from both police and right-wing provocateurs has required collective practice, following an agreed upon plan of action, restraining individual responses, learning (by doing) non-violent resistance, and accepting leadership from feminists and other movement veterans, whether or not they have PhDs in social theory. And, as I can tell from conversations, their energy and excitement is high — no insignificant feat in these hard times.

These lessons, I believe, will stay with most of these students throughout their lives, giving an actual real-world glimpse of another way to make society work.

Second, student debts, even above $100,000 at some of these schools, has not proved to be a deterrent to action in the face of genocide. Political leaders in the United States saw the upsurges of the ‘60s and ‘70s as excessive democracy, and conservative think tanks plotted demobilization through tightening the options for career advancement. The exorbitant costs of law school and medical school (so different than in other countries) affects what kind of law and medicine students can choose; the costs of just a four-year degree keep kids working through school and willing to accept morally noxious work after college. Loan debt affects democratic participation, increasing the price of a middle-class life in moral terms.

Yet students have come out anyway, risking expulsion, arrest records, loss of family support. Ballooning tuition costs has not kept our students in line.

And third, and most importantly perhaps, in this upsurge personal stakes have not been necessary as a motive to mobilize. The encampments range beyond Palestinians and Jews to capture a generation that wants to able to live a moral life, free of guilt.

The youth activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s was not admired by all leftists at the time. The Communist Party was critical of the focus on “bourgeois democracy,” and numerous academic leftists such as Theodor Adorno saw the movements as undisciplined, untheoretical, libidinous.

Adorno’s compatriot, Herbert Marcuse, analyzed the new movements with a more generous assessment, yet also astute. The surprise in the ‘60s, he wrote, was that these movements involved middle-class students, young people with a future, at a time when economies were booming across the dominant nations of the Global North. These were not demonstrators driven by desperation as in the 1930s, but youth with a larger vision of the good life than fat salaries and homes in the suburbs. He wrote in An Essay on Liberation that they were demanding no less than “new ways and forms of life.” He said “they have learned not to identify themselves with the false fathers who have built and tolerated and forgot-
ten the Auschwitz’s and Vietnams of history.” They have learned that remembering these lessons is the way toward a moral life free of guilt.

The youth movement was not merely motivated by self realization or individual freedom, Marcuse wrote, but by a commitment to “goals which enhance, protect, and unite life on earth.”

Those battles unite with today’s.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of five books including The Future of Whiteness and Race & Racism: A Decolonial Approach.

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