1968/2008: Making Power for Change

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FOR THE LAST DECADE, we have been witnessing
a promise of resurgence in political
activity, from small youth walk-outs
to protests against the global giants—the
World Trade Bank and the International
Monetary Fund. Renewed anti-war and
peace efforts and massive immigration
demonstrations have sent thousands to the streets to
protest infringement of their rights.
But the street demonstrations at the Republic National
Convention showed signs that a new wave of protest and
civil disobedience has finally taken root in the U.S. The
arrests of over 800 people, including dozens of independent
journalists, illustrate the extent activists are now willing
to take to struggle for change. Yet, none of this should
be seen as an aberration. Instead, it bears witness to the
unwillingness of people across the country to support
business as usual, given the state of democratic disability
we currently face.
In the U.S. today, the negative consequences of neoliberal
economic policies are devastating. The concentration
of wealth and power is staggering. The Bush administration
has spent over $650 billion on the war in Iraq, without
an end in sight. We face unparalleled pollution of our
waters and fields. There is unprecedented surveillance of
the population and an alarming consolidation of the mainstream
media. The U.S. incarceration rate is the highest of
any industrialized nation. Poor racialized populations
across the country are experiencing the resegregation of
their communities. Federal economic safety nets for the
poor are all but extinguished. Forty-five million are without
health insurance. The disappearance of jobs in the last
decade has left millions unemployed, with current unemployment
rates hitting recession. Meanwhile, corporate
welfare is on the increase, with an unbelievable $700 billion
federal proposal to bailout the wealthiest financial
institutions in the nation.
These issues signal the need for fundamental political
change. But change in today’s world seems especially
difficult given the manner in which corporations, as well
as both public and private institutions, remain
entrenched in political processes of narcissistic proportions
that obstructs democratic life. It is this pathology
of power that, with its elitism, arrogance, and privilege,
justifies and rationalizes foreign and domestic policies of
domination and exploitation in the name of democracy
and national security. And as such, it arbitrates aggression
as a worthy and legitimate strategy in the preservation
of the status quo. The result is the perpetuation of
conditions that reproduce human suffering and wholesale
disregard of those who pay the greatest price for the
excesses of capital.
One of the most important lessons of the 60’s comes from
the overwhelming political activity that was generated
across class, race, and gender lines. The 1968 Democratic
National Convention erupted in violence when activists
protesting the Vietnam War were brutally attacked by
Chicago police. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference organized the Poor People’s
Campaign March on Washington. Cesar Chavez and
the farm workers union led protests against the exploitation
of the growers. The Black Power demonstration of
African American athletes who raised their black-gloved
fists as a symbol of “Black Power” at the Olympics was
televised around the world.
That same year, Chicano students and activists, shouting
Chicano Power! protested educational inequalities in
East Los Angeles. The American Indian Movement was
founded in protest of federal treaty violations. The Young
Lords took over buildings in Chicago and installed food
programs and other services. The Third Liberation Front, a
coalition of Asian American, Latino, Black, and Native
Americans, mounted the longest university strike in U.S
history. Women activists protested the Miss America
pageant, tossing bras, girdles, nylons and other articles of
constricting clothing in a trash can.
What loosely united the protests of these very distinct
communities was their explicit call for a change in the way
power and wealth were distributed and a call for self-determination.
It constituted an unprecedented coming together
of people from across the country. But not all supported
these efforts. For the Establishment, the civic involvement
and dissent of millions was viewed as dangerous—and a
phenomenon to be stopped by any means necessary.
It is not surprising, then, that when King was assassinated
in April—a few days prior to the Poor People’s
national march on Washington—civil rights activists saw
this as a ploy to quell dissent. Two months later, when
Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy
(thought by many to be committed to the poor) was assassinated,
it was felt as a blow to those who still embraced
electoral hope for change. And in August of the next year,
the murder of journalist Ruben Salazar was seen as a plot
to extinguish an important voice for the Chicano Movement.
Nevertheless, these efforts persisted, as movement
organizations continued to demand change.
Today, we live with many of the forgotten legacies of the 60s.
With a close eye on the era’s unprecedented civil unrest, we
can’t help but to wonder about the manner in which FBI surveillance
and counterintelligence worked to stifle democratic
participation and wither the trust of people in one another.
Similarly, we are left to contend with the long-term effects of
social and economic injustices upon poor communities of
color and other working class people. The distortions created
by these conditions have left many unsure of our capacity
as a people to, once again, speak truth to power.
The current political chaos also makes it evident that a
government wishing to transcend its historical crimes
against humanity must stop its denial. Official government
denial of wrongs has played a key role in preserving
inequalities of all stripes. What also cannot be overlooked
here is that it is always in the interest of the powerful to
conceal the ruthless machinations of power that produce
its advantage. By the same token, it is in the interest of the
oppressed to expose the inequalities of power and social
injustices that impact their lives and communities.
Hence, to counter the daily acts of disrespect and humiliation
engendered by racism, power, and privilege requires
that the powerful suspend their denial. If we as a nation are
to undergo a process of political reconciliation, the illegitimacy
of governmental and corporate excesses must be confronted.
Such a process is especially necessary to a society
built on the genocide, slavery, and exploitation of
oppressed populations. Breaking out of the fog of historical
denial is the only path to creating honest and sincere political
communion. Anything short of this simply functions to
preserve the pain and grief of historical injustice.
For those who organize and struggle tirelessly to confront
the denial of the powerful, the power we must seek cannot
be given to us, but rather it is power that we must make
together through our labor. The legacy of activism in the 60s
confirms that we can only make political power through our
collective development and participation in organizations,
within and across the communities we wish to transform. In
concert, our work for social justice requires that we return
to the collective labor and serious solidarity of past social
movements. To move toward a change that redistributes
wealth in society also requires that we refuse to adhere to
power that speaks apologetically in public, while privately
preserves the oppressive structures of privilege and hierarchy
that reinscribe human suffering.
If we are determined to build a democratic society for a
new era, we do well to learn from the past and to harness
the passion of our histories of struggle. As such, we must
choose to govern through an ethics of human dignity and
a firm commitment to challenge the dominion of any
group over another. By so doing, we come to embrace all
life as, indeed, precious and worthy of love and respect.
My evolving political understanding of the events of 1960s
began as youth, contending with the civil rights movement,
the assassination of John Kennedy, the burning of Watts, and
the death of Malcolm X. When I started community college,
I began to connect my own personal history with the conditions
that produced the events of 1968—the entrenched and
unrelenting economic inequalities and racism of the U.S. The
events of the 60s were my initiation into political consciousness.
As a young single mother living on welfare in the 70’s,
the events of the 60s served as a catalyst and foundation for
the development of my politics, my art, and scholarship.
Their underlying message of self-determination and collective
action has remained central to my conception of political
work, my scholarship, and my solidarity.

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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