Sunday, November 13, 2011

Time-Warp I -- The Sixties and Occupy Wall Street

The current "Occupy" movement reminds me of the 1960's, primarily in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Las Cruces. This Sunday and in my next column, I’d like to explore some similarities and differences – starting with an admittedly personal view of the earlier Movement. In two weeks, I’ll try to compare that with what I know of Occupy Wall Street.

In the summer of 1965 I went South as a civil right worker. I was an 18-year-old college freshman. I had no political views beyond a vague liberalism. I’d happened to grow up with some black kids. I felt that what was happening in the South was wrong. I was also the kind of kid who liked to do things that seemed dangerous. (What I saw down there is separate column or blog.)

When I returned to college that fall, a very few people there were saying that the war in Viet Nam, of which I was dimly aware, was wrong and stupid. They had contributed money to support civil rights work. Since I’d actually gone down there, they figured I must be quite committed politically. In fact, I doubted the U.S. could be so wrong in its foreign policy.

I read everything I could find about Viet Nam and its history and the U.S. conduct there. I learned that the war was both wrong and stupid. I said so, publically, and was threatened and harassed a bit, almost as we had been in the South.

Opposing the war was a pretty lonely experience. We were a tiny, embattled minority always threatened with violence. (Very little actual violence occurred.)

Then more and more young people started opposing the war. Some thought as we did. More were attracted to the energy and excitement they saw in the Movement. Some had screamed the loudest at us six months earlier. Looking for answers, they’d thought they’d found them in Young Americans for Freedom, then realized they hadn’t.

Initially, we recognized that a couple of things were very wrong: discrimination against ethnic minorities, in the South or elsewhere; and a pointless war that was destroying a small Asian country and many young men from the U.S. Fighting those wrongs felt a lot more important than going to classes.

We came to see more systemic problems. The most important was the persistence of poverty in our Great Society.

At the same time, we were reacting against the excesses of the previous generation. Our parents, buffeted by the madness of Depression and World War II, craved security above all. They spent the 1950's building economic security for themselves and supporting whatever it took to build national security against international dangers – some of those real, some of those mere hysteria. We were the undeserving beneficiaries of all that, of course, and I recognize now that we had the economic freedom and felt the emotional freedom to protest, despite the risks, because of what our parents had built.

But their drive toward security had costs: you didn’t worry too much about the people being left behind, because you needed to make it for yourself; and you didn’t speak up about things that were wrong. You didn’t speak up because you’d been part of some pretty important national battles, against Depression and against Nazi Germany, and had learned to feel part of something, to subordinate your personal needs and feelings to the more urgent national need. You also didn’t speak up because conformity was a hell of a lot safer if you wanted to progress at work or join the Country Club.

We found their conformity stifling. Thus along with fighting political battles, we felt with extra strength the need each generation feels to experiment, to rebel, to seek our personal freedoms. Part of that search was the so-called Sexual Revolution. Part of it was also drugs. The antiwar Movement and generational revolt coalesced in "Flower Power" – but at the time there were intense disagreements among us about whether drugs and the freedom to use them was part of what we were fighting for or was a selfish (even stupid) distraction from our real goals.

Thus the colorless 1950's helped beget the 1960's – just as our excesses would help beget a generation that saw the dangers and risks of our ways and retreated from them.

Within a very few years, the clarity and unity of our early opposition to discrimination, poverty, and war grew and changed. Seeing and fighting discrimination against blacks helped us recognize and fight discrimination against women and later against gays. Rejecting the previous generation’s ways with more than the usual force led us down a marvelous diversity of paths. It became all right, or more than all right, to find your own way, whether back to the land or into the cities to help the poor or organize for a particular cause, or into the arts.

All this was nearly a half-century ago.

We have come a long way since then, in many ways. The war ended, although more because of the toughness of the Vietnamese fighting for freedom than because of anything we did; and in many southern towns where blacks were beaten up for trying to vote, blacks are mayors now. More generally, discrimination based on ethnicity and skin color is just a shadow of what it was, although it still exists; our society has learned that people who love their country can speak out against questionable wars without being traitors; and we’ve eroded a lot of distinctions based on gender, sexual preference, and native language.

But in one of the most basic areas, economic equality, we ain’t done so well. Things improved for a decade or two, but during the past thirty years the disparity between rich and poor in this country has grown rapidly; and, as in the 1920's, we are facing economic dislocation and perhaps depression.


[The foregoing appeared today, Sunday, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, and is the first of two related columns. The second, two weeks from now, will discuss the current "Occupy" movement, and how it compares to the Sixties.  ]

     The 1960's, like "the Gay Nineties" and "the Roaring Twenties," seem to get mentioned disproportionately often.   The bring something vividly to mind in most everyone, even folks born decades later.

     However, I'm not sure popular history or most old folks' memories see the Sixties very clearly, in part because history (and the memories of some participants) focus too much on the drugs. 

      One piece of that time that space didn't permit me to portray very vividly in the column is the feel of living in the United States (outside a large city, at least) and opposing the war.  

      We stood out: hair a mite longer than the Beatles', facial hair, blue jeans and denim work shirts, and a few other basic clues could get you beaten up by strangers, even if you hadn't said anything.  You walked with the unsettling knowledge that the police, that last-resort protection we all have in the back of our minds, were not on our side.

       That was made vividly clear the first time we held a small peace vigil in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  It was a conservative town.  The very small group in the vigil was attacked by a motorcycle group.  It was far from a deadly attack, but it wasn't trivial, either.  At least one friend of mine was injured by a motorcycle driven up onto the sidewalk and into the group.   When the police arrived, they greeted the motorcyclists as old friends.

       A police car took two of my friends to the police station to make a report.   Driving down one of Lancaster's many alleys, the driver stopped.  He turned to my friends, in the back of the car, eyed them coldly, and said, "You're the ones we ought to be getting.  And we will."  On another occasion, when folks threw a rock through my window in Lancaster, the police arrived and, instead of showing any interest in the damage, kept cross-examining us about why we had no furniture in the downstairs part of the house.  (Years later, in Las Cruces, I was a well-known local reporter, although I had hair so long it was braided nearly to my belt.  A cop stopped me; but when I got off my motorcycle and removed my helmet, he recognized me, and may even have known I played basketball with the police chief.  He immediately apologized for stopping me.  I said that was fine, but asked why he'd stopped me, since I knew I'd been well within the speed limit.  He stammered a bit, then pointed and said there was a smudge on my license plate.   I knew damned well he'd stopped me because I looked like the hippie motorcycle bum I was, then realized I wasn't defenseless.)

       Mostly it was small stuff.   A close friend of mine went into a diner.  The waitress, spotting his moustache and longish hair and denim work shirt, spilled hot coffee all over him, purposefully, to the cheers and laughter of the diner's other patrons.  The same friend, visiting me here in Dona Ana County a few years later, liked the inexpensive but quiet adobe home I was renting down by Brazito, and tried to find one for himself and his wife.  Told that a particular gentleman had an empty house to rent near Mesquite, my friend went there.  The man's wife told Jim her husband was out back, and to go around the house.  Jim did -- but when the potential landlord, who happened to be branding cattle, caught sight of Jim, he rose and started toward him threateningly, raising the branding iron as if to brand Jim, who wisely ran for his car.   Driving back to Las Cruces once from the East Coast, I picked up a hitchhiker in West Texas.  He had a Mohawk sort of haircut that looked so weird I almost thought twice about picking him up.  Turned out he'd had a normall, if somewhat long, head of hair until the Sheriff had spotted him hitchhiking, arrested him, and given him the haircut he now had. 

       More often, we faced only insults, threats of violence, and obscene telephone calls.  Violence was rare.  However, the constant awareness of that possibility, compounded by uncertainty as to what the police might do (or whether, in fact, they might use the drug laws to get rid of a troublemaker or two by planting drugs on us), created an anxiety akin to that one feels when watching a movie in which the protagonist is carrying secret documents through a country occupied by enemy forces.

       Or we faced retaliation against our livelihoods.  I shared a house with a poet in Lancaster who was fired from his teaching post at the college for stating (in what was meant to be a private studnet-faculty forum but got written up somewhat sensationally in the concervative local paper) that he "admired the courage of young men who burn their draft cards."  Here in Las Cruces, a promising young astronmer was sacked by NMSU in 1969 for running an underground newspaper critical of the military and the university administration.   (A year or so after I came to Las Cruces, when I was a graduate student, I had a part-time job tutoring scholarship athletes on the football and basketball teams.  A lowly post -- but not too lowly for a certain NMSU vice-president to ignore.  He complained to Lou Henson, and said that the University shouldn't be helping support someone like me.  Henson asked an assistant coach what I was currently doing for the athletic department, and whether I was doing it competently.  Satisfied by the answers, he refused to fire me.) 

        It was also pretty interesting, of course.  Being a very small group disliked by most of the populace gets the adrenaline rushing, and (similar, in a pale way, to comrades in war) created some especially deep and lasting friendships.      And it was strange and thought-provoking to feel so roundly hated in one's own country, for speaking up for what one thought was right.

       That, above all, is the aspect of those times I can never quite get across to people who weren't there.


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