In 1968 Mexican civil society decided that it had had enough with the leadership that had followed the 1910 revolution. Exhausted by corrupt one-party rule and increasing neo-liberal reform, they took to the streets to demand real change. The Mexican government, eager to settle unrest in time for the Olympics, responded as all states respond: with self-justified violence. Occupying autonomous schools, beating protesters and taking numerous political prisoners, the state killed an innumerable amount of people. Innumerable, for the most part, due to the fact that many of the deceased were taken by police and burned. How did civil society (specifically students) respond? They fought fire with fire. The presidents of autonomous schools came together in defense of their autonomy and in support of the civil unrest. Students (many of which were around the age of sixteen) took back their schools, barricading the doors and responding to police with Molotov cocktails. At one point the state actually used a bazooka to blast open the doors of a school. Once entering, on October 2nd, 1968, the police massacred the students.
Is this a reason to quit? Is this a reason to lay down and accept state oppression and repression? Neo-liberal exploitation? Environmental degradation and pseudo-democracy? I’m not talking specifically about Mexico anymore. I’m talking about students everywhere. The 60’s, despite many valid criticisms, present us with the potential that students have to effect change and the lengths to which the existing order will go in order to preserve power and please economic interests. We, as college students, are privileged in a way that many, many others are not. We have access to an education which (for many, anyway) will set us up for better futures. We have access to resources, an educated and able community and a visible stage from which to present our concerns. That being said, what has happened to student activism since the 60’s?
I posit, first of all, that a seemingly soft state has co-opted the majority of student activists. This dogmatic belief in the United States’ political system has taken students off the streets and put them behind their computers. E-mailing their representatives and petitioning for some modest reform. Compromise has become the name of the game. We don’t see things like democracy, health care or freedom from exploitation as rights but rather as pretty trinkets the politicians are keeping locked away in some beltway treasure chest. We pay our taxes and then grovel and plead with politicians to dole out services that they should be expected to dole out in the first place. Letter writing campaigns and petitions can bring about some changes, no doubt. Believing, though, that these paper pushing methods of begging for reform will make big business relinquish its grip over the state or effect widespread, substantial change is just silly. We’re asking the people who benefit from a system of pseudo-democracy and exploitation to please knock it off and grant us a voice. The only way this has ever happened has been to exhibit the consequences of continued status quo. The state needs to see that there is a disincentive to ignoring our demands.
Secondly, I believe that state sanctioned functions such as protests or rallies are relied upon by the supposedly “radical” activists on campus. This is not to say that we should be throwing bricks or Molotov cocktails, but if you’ve been given a permit to protest and riot police are blocking off roads so you can safely march, the state is signaling to you that your radical protest is more like a parade. If protests as such presented any real threat to the order of things you’d see them snuffed out right quick. Consider the record setting protests against George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compare this with the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. The difference? The latter entailed strategic roadblocks, civil disobedience and true freedom of speech outside the designated protest area. Certainly these methods are dangerous and provoke state repression. Did you think it would be easy? Too many radicals are willing to anonymously throw a brick and hide in a mass of black shirts or hold a sign and smile at the police officers as they pass while bragging their activist “cred” to their friends. Few are dedicated to fully engaging in a movement and showing that what they believe in is worth the risk.
Massive protests get little to no media coverage. They happen all the time, unspoken of, stuck in the activist bubble. Protests that result in civil disobedience and state repression often make headlines. Some will argue that this is negative press for activists. That there are those in the United States who will frown upon these student activists and their tactics. Do you think everyone in India praised Ghandi for his actions? How about civil disobedience during the 60’s? Has the lasting impact been a disdain for activists or substantial changes in governmental policy? Do people remember the 60’s for those troublemaking activists or for the Civil Rights Movement and the student movement against the Vietnam War? The fact of the matter is that the only bad coverage is no coverage. Whether or not viewers like the protesters, they’re now exposed to an issue and the lengths to which students and activists will go to state their grievances. This is a step in the right direction.
So, Peep The Strategy:
Let’s stop hiring DJ’s to blast reggaeton at our rallies. Let’s stop organizing marches (which end up being “radical” tours of our campus). Let’s organize larger letter writing campaigns in conjunction with similar minded organizations on and off campus targeting not only representatives but all those who have some kind of stake. Let’s bring back civil disobedience and stop putting on parades for police. Let’s not be afraid to take risks. Let’s stop throwing bricks through windows (seriously, you’re not accomplishing anything). Let’s start building a campus community, fostering political consciousness and democratizing the resources of student organizing so that we’re not relying on a handful of dedicated activists and every student who doesn’t have something better to do than show up to a protest for five minutes. Let’s drop elitism and value the organic intellectual- the one who doesn’t know because she knows but rather knows because she lives. Finally, let’s stop compromising. Why on earth would you compromise? If they’ve met you halfway it means you’ve had an effect, take it to the next level. If you’re at the table then use your position at the table. Compromise is a perfect way to get a quarter of what you’re demanding while simultaneously deflating the power your movement had in even achieving that much. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take what we can get when we can get it, but let’s stop swallowing every pill that gets handed to us and calling it a baby step towards real reform. We need to have higher standards- not all policy changes are of the same caliber. We need to weed out the tolerable from the insulting. Adelante.