Rebels With Too Many Causes

Bare-chested Fidel Castro, Premier of Cuba, takes up a paddle against U.S. students in table tennis contest at Varadaro, Cuba, August 30, 1963.
AP Photo
From Gandhi to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, great things have been put into motion using the tools of civil disobedience, nonviolent protest and "direct action." This has been a big year for demonstrations. From Washington State to Washington D.C., there have been people on the street in larger numbers than the country has seen in decades.

Is civil disobedience still an effective force for change, or have changes in the country - and the movement - made this type of activism obsolete?

Here in Los Angeles, and two weeks ago in Philadelphia, there were marches, protests and sometimes violent action to disrupt planned events - some of them highly organized and others scattered and chaotic. But the media coverage has been relatively light, and if the protesters' goal was to mobilize the nation behind their causes, they are sure to be disappointed.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the causes themselves. Jack Duvall and Peter Ackerman are the co-authors of A Force More Powerful, a book that takes a look at the nonviolent movements of the 20th century. While they admit that this new resurgence of activism has energy, they don't see much else. "Their lives are not in danger, their freedoms are not in danger and their property is not in danger," said Ackerman. "These actions are petty and will not be remembered."

Another problem is the sheer number of causes. When you go to the demonstrators, or even their Web sites, there is a veritable laundry list of grievances: They are anti-death penalty, anti-police brutality and anti-globalization; pro-choice and pro-environment; against sanctions against Iraq, and on and on.

"These people have yet to coalesce behind a leader or a specific cause," Duvall said. "A successful movement needs three things: a serious leadership, targeted issues and a plan of action. What's happening here seems to have none of these."

There are people within the movement who agree with this - to some extent. "It's an entirely different movement," said Michael Everett, a protest movement veteran who took part in the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

"We don't really have leaders anymore, we just have people who do more work than others," he said. But Everett sees a common denominator to many of these issues. "The underlying thing is the corporatization of public policy. People are out there now because they feel they have been shut out of the system."

Everett is impressed with the new generation of activists he saw in Seattle. He even has a couple of anarchists staying with him for the events in Los Angeles, including Frank Salerno, who said Everett is not the only person he knows who has been around the movement for a while.

"There are a lot of people like Mike here who never gave up," said Salerno, who feels the same about his presence on the streets as Everett did in the '60s. "I am ouhere because I have no option not to be."

Cheri Honkala, a veteran organizer who worked on the March for Economic Human Rights in Philadelphia, said that protest is still an effective form of communication.

"Thousands of people risked arrest to talk about poverty and homelessness," she said. "And as a result we've been contacted by members of both the Gore and Bush campaigns and look forward to talking to them after the conventions are over."

Another factor could be one of perspective. "At the time, the leaders of the civil rights movement and the people against the war in Vietnam were trashed," Honkala said.

Everett agreed. "Only in hindsight are they given any credit. I have no doubt that when people look back on this year they will see it as the beginning of something huge."

Former anti-war activist Tom Hayden thinks it's already something huge.

"Mainstream discourse has already begun to happen," said Hayden, now a California state senator, who was on his way to the March for Global Economic Justice in L.A. "In the beginning, movements are always considered suspect because they have ideas the establishment hasn't heard. I'm sure the people at the Boston Tea Party were attacked for the same reasons."