Or What I Learned from the Front Lines of the 1960s
In 2011, a new wave of global citizen activism, fed in part by Occupy Wall Street, helped reveal a link between the sixties and the present.
June 5, 2012 |
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The following is an excerpt from TROUBLEMAKER: A MEMOIR FROM THE FRONT LINES OF THE SIXTIES by Bill Zimmerman. Click here for a copy of the book.
Many veterans of the sixties joined Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. We felt a distant echo from our past in the remarkable burst of citizen activism that Obama unleashed. I felt great personal closure. My son, Nico, four years a lawyer, spent two months running the Obama campaign’s election protection operation in a three-county area northeast of Cleveland. Working under him for the last ten days were his mother, Joan, a member of Yale Law School’s class of 1968, and his sister, Emma, forty years behind her mother as a member of that same school’s class of 2008. That our family’s combined legal skills helped protect the integrity of the vote for Barack Obama in Ohio, four years after Republican-sponsored voting irregularities there had deprived my own campaigning of a victory in 2004, was a special delight.
The progressive activism that brought Barack Obama to power in 2008 captured the spirit of the sixties. We have yet to see if his victory becomes the enduring legacy of those turbulent times. In 2011, a new wave of global citizen activism, fed in part by Occupy Wall Street, strengthened my belief in the links between the sixties and the present. Conservative pundits deny such ties. They see the sixties as a brief historical detour that debased our culture and had little effect on the ongoing political life of the nation. Their analysis is wrong.
The question we now face is not whether America is on the threshold of a new progressive era—it is—but rather whether we can use the legacy of the sixties and the new activism unleashed in 2011 by Occupy Wall Street to push ourselves off the threshold into a full embrace of progressive ideals. I am convinced that citizen activism is now the only way to do that. But as I learned in the sixties, activists are not revolutionaries, even though their objective might be a revolutionary transformation of society. Activists achieve incremental gains, not massive and immediate upheavals. If those gains are sufficiently widespread, transformations can occur even when the activists themselves are unaware of how their work combines with that of others to affect the overall sweep of history.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street aroused our citizenry. For the first time in almost 100 years, the lop-sided distribution of our income and wealth was elevated to the center of political debate, an enormous and potentially far-reaching accomplishment. Occupy Wall Street’s message, that our nation is divided into “the 99%” and “the 1%,” is a critical first step that will animate the class-consciousness needed to correct our obscene economic inequality.
Occupy Wall Street achieved a second triumph. It created an “Occupy” franchise that allowed activists across the country to organize related protests anywhere and everywhere. Under this universal banner activists began to address a broad spectrum of issues and institutions. Hopefully, these actions will proliferate. The task going forward is to forge them into a coherent national crusade capable of achieving a progressive transformation.
As a lifelong activist and a professional political strategist, I know that there are many pitfalls that await the building of such a crusade. Therefore it seems fitting to me to end this book by erecting a few warning signs for future activists who will build on the Occupy events of 2011 and carry forward the battles for core values that we fought in the sixties.
1. STAY A FRANCHISE; DON’T OPEN A STORE. Don’t take a position on every issue. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Stay on message. You are nimble and creative because you are not tied down. Resist the temptation to institutionalize yourselves by becoming an organization or prematurely launching a political party. That will drown your spirit in internal affairs and fund raising. Other progressive organizations are available to play this role. We need you to stay a wild card, able to act quickly and without warning.
2. NEVER LOSE THE MEME OF 1% VS. 99%. It exposes the ultimate weaknesses of our society and our enemies. Don’t allow those weaknesses to be papered over. A constant emphasis on how we are all part of the 99% keeps our side together and can reunite us after disagreements. Your focus should be on those with extreme wealth who do not pay their fair share, ultimately the nub of many other problems. That will allow you to recruit unlikely allies. And don’t anyone label this class warfare; it isn’t. Our demand is only that the 1% pay their fair share.
3. DON’T BASH BIG GOVERNMENT. It’s a Republican trap. In the years after the sixties, conservatives made exaggerated complaints about government waste and inefficiency. These distortions undermined public confidence in Washinton, which then allowed the Republicans to dismantle government regulations on finance put in place after the Great Depression. That deregulation brought on the Great Recession of 2008. Remember, it is unchecked bureaucracy that is wasteful and inefficient, not government in and of itself.
4. GOVERNMENT SHOULD BE OUR TOOL, NOT THEIRS. Without stronger financial regulation than was previously in place, our standard of living will decline further. Americans now face the iron law of unregulated capitalism: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Government is the only means by which working Americans can protect themselves on a capitalist playing field heavily tilted toward the wealthy, the only means by which the 1% can be forced to pay their fair share, the only way to break the power of the oil companies and create a clean energy future.
5. UNREGULATED CAPITALISM IS THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM. A compelling vision of a progressive society will emerge in the course of the struggles still ahead. Meanwhile, you are stuck with market capitalism and you should focus on bringing its worst aspects under control. Occupy Wall Street helped put financial regulation at the center of political debate. Keep it there. If financial regulation remains a central demand of the 99%, you can keep your focus on extreme income differences and effectively isolate the 1%.
6. BE THE OWNER, NOT THE REPAIRMAN. Apologists for the 1% will put you on the defensive by insisting that you tell them exactly how to regulate Wall Street or secure the healthcare system. Don’t respond. You own the national house. If they built it for you without beds for everyone or a kitchen big enough to feed all the people, they’ve got to come up with a plan to fix it. Your job is to approve the plan and supervise the construction, not draw up the blueprints.
7. BE NICE TO DEMOCRATS. Democrats are not your allies or even your friends. But you need them. Like Republicans, they depend on big money for campaign contributions, so even if they take complete control of government, they will never enact transformational change on their own. But a popular movement can develop enough power to force elected Democrats to support reform. In the future, you will need elected Democrats to pass your reforms just as the
civil rights movement needed them to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
civil rights movement needed them to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
8. DON’T GET SO UPSET ABOUT VOTING FOR DEMOCRATS. Hold your nose and do it. It’s necessary. Republican governments do far more damage than Democratic governments, both to people in poverty and to the rest of us. They spread false consciousness and make it more difficult for us to organize. Stop fussing about Democratic flaws. They are who they are. Real change will only be driven by citizen activism, not elections. So, when an opportunity comes along to put a Democrat into office instead of a Republican, take it, and then go back to movement building.
9. STOP WORRYING ABOUT “THE SYSTEM” CORRUPTING YOU. Debates about working inside or outside the system waste your time. Both are necessary and neither is enough. Most progressive goals can only be achieved with the power of government (taxing the rich, neutralizing the oil companies, etc.), but these goals will not be achieved until rebellious activists force government to accept them. Activism and legislation, while different, are equally essential for progressive reform.
10. YOUR MISSION IS TO DESTABILIZE SOCIETY. Only in times of crisis will those with power relinquish some of it to forestall losing all of it. You need to create these crises. Since transformational reform cannot be achieved by working inside government, a mass movement must first destabilize the political and economic status quo. The demands made by that movement must be based on common sense, so average Americans can support them, but they must also be unattainable within the status quo. That’s what makes for a crisis.
11. BE MILITANT BUT NONVIOLENT. The 99% are turned off by violent tactics, but to get their attention you must break through the news cycle by being militant. Take over public land, block access, prevent foreclosures, get arrested. You’ve got to prove you are serious and are not going away, and you need the press coverage to communicate. But rely on activism. It emerged worldwide in the sixties, but has now spread across the globe and become exponentially more powerful because of the Internet and social media. In 2011, the Arab Spring provoked Occupy Wall Street, which then inspired protests against austerity in the European Commonwealth and a corrupt election in Russia. The genie of citizen activism is out of the bottle. It’s not going to be stuffed back in any time soon.
12. BE PROMISCUOUS. Get involved with everyone. Of course racists, homophobes, and their ilk must be isolated, but almost everyone else is a potential friend. Reach out to conservatives, cops, businesspeople. The enemy is that portion of the 1% who aggravate and benefit from the current extremes of economic inequality. They have the government, the money, and the guns. Your only asset is the people. So never let battle lines be drawn that leave you with less than 99% on your side.
13. THINK STRATEGICALLY. Too often we pursue goals because we desire or deserve them rather than because we have the ability to attain them. Strategic thinking means clearly assessing strengths and weaknesses on both sides of a fight before engaging, developing credible plans for organizing the resources needed to complete the tasks you undertake, delineating clear milestones that allow you to realistically measure your success or failure, building new alliances while simultaneously disrupting those of your opponents, and choosing tactics not because they are comfortable or dramatic but because they are most likely to get the job done.
14. DREAM UP NEW TACTICS. Occupations are effective, but you need new ways to engage the 99% you want to represent. Militant actions on your part will always be necessary, but since most of the 99% have neither the time nor the willingness to risk arrest, other tactics must also be employed. I am reminded of 1971 when the antiwar movement had become too militant for the millions of Americans ready to oppose the war. By developing more inclusive tactics like Medical Aid for Indochina and the congressional lobbying done by the Indochina Peace Campaign we gave people a forceful and subversive way to express their opposition to the war without exposing themselves to personal jeopardy. We had to discover new nonviolent ways to mobilize people in the past; now you have to do it for the future.
Bill Zimmerman is a political consultant with Zimmerman & Markman, Inc. in Santa Monica. He is the author of Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties (Doubleday), just released as an Anchor paperback.
Bill Zimmerman is a partner in Zimmerman & Markman, Inc., a national political consulting firm based in Santa Monica. The firm has won numerous ballot initiative campaigns, including historic first victories for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, state-funded elections in Arizona, medical marijuana in California, drug treatment instead of incarceration in California, and a 1% surtax on California income over $1 million, the proceeds of which fund community mental health programs.