Protests then and now

Anyone who lived through the 1960s can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu watching and reading about the recent protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank in Seattle and Washington.

There are some good reasons for that feeling. Today’s protesters, like those of the ’60s, have a flair for the dramatic. They know how to stage good political street theater. And as in the ’60s, the protests brought together very heterogeneous groups of people in terms of political goals and strategies.

For example, the people who protested at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 included opponents of the Vietnam War, participants in a countercultural “counter-convention,” hippies, Yippies and liberals. While all shared an opposition to the policies of the Johnson administration and to the brutal tactics of the Chicago police, they gathered for a variety of reasons—political, cultural and social.

The same applies to the labor unions, campus anti-sweatshop activists, anarchists and environmental activists who oppose the WTO and the World Bank. They are united in their distrust of global capitalism, but their goals range from education and persuasion to the violent overthrow of the existing system.

And then as now, college students play a key role in animating these protest movements. But the two waves of protest are not identical in style or substance.

Different targets

For starters, the target of opposition has changed. In the ’60s, the protests were aimed at the federal government. Today’s main targets are multinational businesses and world financial organizations.

Another big change is the relationship of organized labor to the protest movements. In the ’60s, student activists were generally suspicious of organized labor, and the union movement returned the favor. But today’s labor leaders have become adept at building alliances with other movements for social change, including campus-based activist groups.

The police have also learned some important lessons about their relationship to crowds over the years. Some of the most violent incidents of the ’60s were actually counter-protests by the police. At both the Democratic convention and at Columbia University in 1968, police deliberately put tape over their badge numbers, which gave them license to attack protesters without having to face consequences.

We have seen few counter-protests of this type in the ’90s, even after taking into account the clashes between police and protesters in Seattle. In fact, in last month’s anti-World Bank protests in Washington, we even witnessed what is probably a novel phenomenon in the history of radical protest: protesters negotiating the terms of their arrest with the local police.

Prosperity’s paradox

Yet there is one other important parallel between the ’60s and today. Then, as now, the country experienced a level of prosperity it had never seen before. Such great prosperity has two paradoxical effects. One is anesthesia — making people numb to the inequality that remains and its effects. The other is social consciousness. In the 1960s, many Americans learned about the impoverished “other America,” and today activists are drawing connections between cheap consumer goods and the poor conditions under which they are produced.

Like prosperity itself, the movements that arise to criticize its problems do not just happen overnight. Both the movements for social change in the ’60s and the movements criticizing global economic injustices today were built slowly and gradually from many small-scale, local organizing efforts. It is only when those many small local groups gel into a large-scale national phenomenon that the rest of us who have been anesthetized by prosperity take notice.

Thomas Sugrue, Ph.D., is the Bicentennial Class of 1940 Associate Professor of History.

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Originally published on May 18, 2000