We shall not be moved. …”
Fifty five of us jammed in a bus designed to hold fourty people plus a driver, rolling down Highway 90 from Upstate New York to Chicago. As a teenager (just turned 15), I was thrilled to be going to Chicago to attend the Fight Back Conference, a thinly disguised Communist Party meeting. I was going, in part for Keith, the young African American kid (about 12 years old) who was shot in the back by a state trooper just under a year earlier. Keith was driving a mo-ped down the toll road, on the shoulder, where he shouldn’t have been. It appears that he did not notice the trooper pull over behind him, so he just kept driving off. Or maybe he was trying to escape. If memory serves, he was the first human to be shot and killed with one of the brand new Magnum sidearms that the troopers fought so hard to arm themselves with, to replace the old .38′s typical in those days for police officers. He was shot square in the back.
I was also doing it because I wanted to understand the subtleties of the socialism vs. communism argument that I was hearing at the Fight Back meetings. There were communists and socialists on the bus, and as far as I could tell, it was mainly a difference in ethnicity. Not ethnicity of the activists, but rather, of the spies that followed them around, taking the occasional picture, and making the occasional notes. East Asians were following the communists, the Socialists were being tailed by Caucasians. That was the Taiwanese secret police vs. “ours.” (the FBI, the SIS, and so on).
OK, so maybe it’s true that I was also doing it for the chicks. Mickey, our organizer, was cool and cute, and so were the two girls I was crammed into the seat on that bus with.
Seventeen hours including a breakdown near Gary, Indiana. Those were the days. The days when you could smell Gary 50 miles or more away.
Fightback ended up being the unions, various political organizations, some political parties, organized into a large conference to specifically address the issue of the increasing number of people being shot dead by the cops. They were being shot in the street for being black. They were shot because they were involved in protests or demonstrations. Mostly, they were being shot because they were engaged with activities protected by The Constitution but that the establishment, still largely entrenched despite the upheavals that arose from the social conflict of Viet Nam and astounding events such as the Kent State Massacre and Attica found annoying.
The conference may have had little effect in and of itself. But you’ve gotta admit: It is no longer normal for the police to shoot folks without a good reason, and ensuing investigation, and hopefully both and never neither.
Fast forward eons of time. I’m living in Boston now, probably Pre-Graduate School but way post-Revolutionary Commie days.
Ronald Reagan sends the Air Traffic Controllers … the union members on strike … packing. The union is busted. Most American union experts agree: This was the high water mark for our unions. After the ATC union was busted, it was all down hill for organized labor. Later in the same week, if memory serves within about 48 hours, a scab air traffic controller at Logan International Airport decides, against all protocols, that he can land one more plane on the notoriously short snow and ice covered runway, during one of the region’s famous “nor’easters” (well, made famous later on because the “Perfect Strom” was such a nor’easter).
The plane rolled off the runway and partway into the harbor. It was not until an hour or two after offloading the passengers and fishing the dead bodies of the flight crew out of their watery grave that rescue workers and airport officials noticed that a boy and his dad … and the seats they were sitting in … were gone. Gone into the murky harbor to never be seen again.
(Over the next few years, every time anyone found a floater in the harbor people perked up figuring maybe it was one of them. But it never was. It was like they never existed. A lot of people have gone that way in this particular body of water. Some people say it’s the currents. Others say it’s the curse of this or that pirate. I’m keeping my opinions to myself on this one.)
Anyway, fast forward just a year or two. I’m a teaching fellow for a big intro course. A student comes to see me to beg for getting out of the upcoming midterm. Of course, I’m prepared to explain why that is never going to happen, but she gives me an argument I could not refuse. She was going off with friends to a major protest regarding women’s reproductive rights in DC. I told her that I appreciated her service and excused her from the exam. But in the conversation that ensued, I got, frankly, a little pissed off at her.
She told me that “these days” (this would have been the mid 1980s) “we” (meaning she and her friends) have learned to carry out these protests in a different way than “They” (meaning my older sisters, for example) did in the old days. It was wrong to let protests become violent, wrong to burn the flag, wrong to protest without a permit, and so on and so forth. These days, the protesters have learned to do this in a much more peaceful way. Dialog was the key.
This girl obviously never tried to have a dialog with Richard Nixon or Alexander Haig.
Of course, she was correct that protests “these days” (back then) are typically more peaceful than they had been back in the bad old days. It had been a long time since the National Guard opened fire on a group of students and passers-by, as they did at Kent State, or since protesters’ headquarters were firebombed with the protesters inside, or since the families of on-strike miners were massacred in the very holes they had dug to be their “homes” or protesting vets gunned down in Washington DC, probably on the very ground she would be visiting for her nice neat little affair of dialog. And so on.
It may not be a perfect relationship, but there seems to be a pretty good link between time passing and the degree to which civil protest can happen peacefully. Union busting in those days was not done by Presidential Order. It was done by busting heads. Killing people and tossing their bodies in swamps. The civil rights movement was not a civil dialog welcomed by the reigning political parties. It was illegal. People protesting for civil rights were set on by fire hoses. In those days police dogs were not for sniffing out drugs or illegal fruit. They were for attacking protesting black people. No kidding.
Every decade that has gone by since the early union struggles, the WW I Veterans issues, civil rights, the Viet Nam War, has seen it become more and more normal for disagreement through discourse and less and less normal for people standing in a public place with protest signs to be fired upon with tear gas and occasional live ammunition, hosed, set on by dogs, and generally treated in an oppressive and violent manner. So society has improved in our ability to settle at least some of our differences in a non-violent manner. But at the same time, some of the key bastions of civil power and people’s authority … the unions in particular … are found to be going extinct.
Had it not been for a very long list of dead miners, farm workers, Native Americans, African American civil rights protesters and their non-black comrades, and peace activists, the girl going to Washington would not be able to be so smug about her command of the peaceful process, and there would be nobody walking around on the internet calling themselves “Bi-Liberal” and getting away with it for very long.
So I just had to laugh when I read Chris Mooney’s very serious post linking the current writers strike and the broader issue of writers in general, including bloggers. I laughed cynically because Chris was being taken to task for being too middle class and too soft around the edges, blogging as a hobby, not being sufficiently downtrodden, by a commenter who I’m sure meant well but who also reminded me of that student who was so naive about the nature of civil protest, the young woman who wanted dialog but no conflict.
Chris is right to bring the writers strike into a broader context. We are seeing what looks like, but hopefully is not really, the waning days of worker protection. Today we live in a world where far fewer people are working in mines, farm workers have significant political representation, and while there may be a lot of crappy jobs, those jobs don’t usually come with the cost of life and limb, like was true in Lowell and Lawrence in the garment factories. We live in a world where we have a “working poor” who are truly poor and deserve better, but who generally do not have to eat road kill and drink hand gathered chicory to have a decent meal. But this means that it is also a world where the young can forget, or more likely never even know about, the struggles of those who came before them. (And if they forget or do not know, it is not their fault. It is the fault of the elders, whose responsibility it is to pass on the stories!) This is a world in which the unions could so easily dry up and blow away.
When I was a kid, there was one TV for every three or four houses on the block. Now, there’s three or four TV’s per house in most neighborhoods. Dag nabbit, back in my day, we had to walk to school, up hill in both directions, through ten foot snow drifts. Today high school kids drive themselves to school.
At the Fight Back Conference, I saw presentation after presentation … people representing a dozen urban cores and about half the states in the Union … about those who had died at the hands of The Man over the previous year. Today, we watch “Cops” (the show with the catchy Reggae tune), which is clearly to get us used to the idea that cops are tough, and should be.
One of our unions here at Moo University went on strike a few months back. The faculty were truly titillated, having the opportunity to involve themselves with local, readily available, no risk political action to “support” the very secretaries and clerical workers that they treat like something the cat dragged in during the rest of the year, when they are not on strike. The U held firm. The workers would be given nothing. Finally, a group of students initiated a hunger strike. I protested that. I insisted that the faculty go on a hunger strike before dragging these students into this mess. I’m not sure if the hunger strike is what did it, but within about 48 hours, if memory serves, of the last meals taken by those students, the union caved and the secretaries and clerical workers ended the strike with nothing but a couple weeks lost pay to show for it.
The end is near, don’t you think?
A repost from November 2007.