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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Let’s Help Young People Do More

I thought about writing an e-mail to my old friend Steve Otto, when his column in the Tampa Tribune last week was titled “Why Don’t Young People Fight Back?” But then I thought: hey, I can save time by just doing my pondering via LaGaceta.

As usual, Steve raised a worthy topic. He quoted a piece by a Cleveland psychologist who specializes in modern culture. Dr. Bruce Levine gave eight “Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the U.S. Has Crushed the Youth Culture.”

Gee, I guess I soundproofed my ears too thoroughly. I hadn’t noticed that heavy metal had been crushed. Nor have I seen a decline in R-rated and car-chase movies when I search theatre listings. Tattoos, skimpy clothes, and wild hair still seem to be in vogue, and signs of cultural crushing are few. Steve grinned a bit, too, as he wrote:

If you are a child of the ‘60s – a decade of which it is said that if you remember it, then you weren’t really there – you might have a fuzzy recollection of students protesting just about everything. There was the war, of course, but there was also civil rights, the environment and the food in the cafeteria. It seemed as if we were always involved in something.

Today the world is easily as battered as ever, still as corrupt and the food in the cafeteria is not much better. So where are the protesters? Where are the strident voices demanding a better anything?

I, too, was a child of the ‘60s, and my first protest was at the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry against segregationist Governor Orval Faubus. My sign read, “Arkansas’ biggest export: College graduates.” After I went on to Brandeis and hubby continued at Harvard, we kept our mission for civil rights (including women’s rights) and against the war, but in a more modified way than most of our student friends. We went from Boston to DC for the giant rally of Vietnam Veterans Against the War – but he didn’t throw his medals over the wall.

Truth be told, many of the protestors didn’t have any medals to throw, but their pressure for peace nonetheless was important. Truth be told again, many protestors were less motivated by a pacifist ideology than by the fact that they could be drafted and killed. Without that motivation, today’s anti-war protests are even more admirable. Today’s demonstrators are motivated less by self-interest and more by politically aware idealism.

It took several years, but we won. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Congress passed civil rights legislation and the Justice Department enforced it. After way too many deaths, Pentagon potentates brought an end to their futile war, and Richard Nixon and much of his administration were forced to resign because of corruption and disrespect for the law.

The environment benefited from many protest actions, and since then, young people have won the cafeteria fight, too. They are the biggest advocates now for fresh, unadulterated food, and even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has signed on to their crusade.

* * *

But even if we accept Levine’s premise that today’s youth culture has been crushed, the notion that young people don’t protest anymore isn’t true. At the very time the article appeared, USF students were camped out in front of the library, insisting that it return to its previous 24/7 hours. They won. Administrators found the spare change that it takes to keep two librarians on duty through the night.

Some of those young people may have been among the Fowler Avenue protesters who used Labor Day weekend to draw attention to low wages in fast food chains. All across the country, thousands of youthful folks demonstrated for a higher minimum wage. Some were not themselves workers, but took this action to promote greater economic equality.

A few weeks prior to that, young people were the majority of those who spent many nights on the floor of the state capitol protesting the “Stand Your Ground” law. I don’t want to get into the complex details of the case that motivated them, but the point is that youthful protesters slept on capitol floors for weeks.

(Okay, reverse course here. Several people have asked my opinion of Trayvon Marvin/George Zimmerman, so here’s a quick version. I think Zimmerman’s defense lawyers didn’t so much win as that the prosecutors for the dead victim, Trayvon Marvin, lost the case – perhaps deliberately. What many commentators failed to note is that Governor Rick Scott appointed Jacksonville’s Angela Corey as special prosecutor. Google her name and you will find complaints about racism in other cases that her office handled. In this Sanford-based case, her prosecutors filed charges that were too harsh for the jury to accept. I think that had they filed lesser charges, the all-female panel would have sent Zimmerman to prison at least for a while. And had the jury known that within weeks, he would be arrested for aggressive driving; that his wife perjured herself about their financial status; and that she would file for divorce, saying he was “all about George…”)

But back to the point. Every day of the week, young Americans somewhere take to the street to march for or against something –immigration reform, privacy rights (including reproductive rights), and again, sadly, genocide and war. The telling difference between protests then and now is not ideological apathy, but how the police respond.

I’ll never forget the demonstrations in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention. I wasn’t there – I was in the kitchen of our Massachusetts home, ironing while I watched the black-and-white TV. I cried as Democratic Mayor Richard Daly’s cops attacked protestors and innocent bystanders alike, including CBS reporter Dan Rather.

The scene replayed at Kent State and in riots from New York to LA, even though, like the students they beat up, most of these cops were young. Now, however, police officers are much more professional. They’ve learned to control their anger, and most do their jobs with the least possible violence. None in Tallahassee even thought about attacking the students sleeping in the capitol, nor did Tampa cops – under the incomparable Chief Jane Castor – overreact to protestors at last year’s Republican convention, or those of Occupy Wall Street the previous year.

Arguably it’s not today’s kids who have changed, but we of the ‘60s and ‘70s. How many of us took seriously the arguments against Wall Street that protestors were (badly) trying to make? How much have we done to help them clarify their message or take genuine action to improve economic equality and prevent another Great Recession?

Dr. Levine cited massive student debt as one reason why “students are less likely to buck any authority for fear of losing jobs.” That certainly is true, as my daughter with massive student debt will attest. But why didn’t we grown-ups insist that banks and schools stop profiting from this debt?

The kids who worked for President Obama are beginning to win on that, too. If we can get past the “close down everything” mindset among House Republicans, maybe we can return to the kind of student loan I had. Under legislation adopted in Eisenhower era, I paid 3% interest -- and the debt was completely forgiven if you became a teacher or worked at other underpaid but vital jobs.

Levine also deplored the eight hours a day that the average student (in 2009) spent on TV, Internet, cellphones and other technology. “TV isolates people,” he said, “so they are not joining together to create resistance to authorities.” This thesis is far from new, and it ignores that fact that we probably watched more TV back in our youth, when it was new. Before that, young people flocked to movies and before that, they spent their evenings listening to radio programs. New technology didn’t cause social isolation.

Only someone who hasn’t really listened to young people recently would think that they are isolated because of the Internet and cell phones. Instead, cyberspace is their gathering place, their own equivalent of the ancient forum. They reach out to thousands, maybe millions, via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media. And they use that technology to organize, as they showed in the 2012 election.

It makes me think that Dr. Levine has been living in a cave. How can I get a gig like his?

* * *

He did me a favor, however, in making me put youthful protest in historical context by recalling my parents.

Mom saw me on TV before I got home from the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry. Of course I hadn’t told her that I was going, and she was livid. Mom’s whole philosophy of life was pretty much based on “What Will the Neighbors Think?” -- but Dad was more open. He reminded her that he had participated in a socialist march during the Great Depression. I never knew that and was impressed.

More than the personal, though, Levine’s article motivated me to put the chronology together in a way that I’m ashamed to admit I’d never quite done. I’ve written two books on World War II, but that was the generation before mine and I’d not fully absorbed how close in time my parents’ war was to mine. Professors at Brandeis were beginning “teach-ins” about Vietnam when I arrived in 1965 – just two decades after World War II ended in 1945.

Somehow I’d cast a great curtain between the two eras, but thinking about it made me I understand Archie Bunker better. It was my students who told me to tune in to “All in the Family” -- and virtually all of them said, “he’s just like my dad.” That Vietnam War era show was both controversial and popular, as the family’s two generations battled each other with ideology – and love.

Make-up artists created an Edith and Archie who looked older than they should have: in fact, they had been youngsters just two decades earlier. They took pride in winning World War II, and especially Archie couldn’t understand why Gloria and Mike refused to support the war offered to their generation.

No one mentioned that the Bunkers may have bought their house with the GI Bill or that Archie benefited from unionization and postwar labor protections, while Mike and Gloria got much less government help with establishing their new family. Archie never noticed that, though, and he couldn’t make sense of the young folks’ willingness to risk lives and careers in causes that didn’t directly benefit them.

But eventually The Meathead prevailed in all the arguments: the war, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and even gay rights, only tentatively raised in one very meaningful episode. Liberals won those national debates, and we continue to win. Making history is a slow process, and today’s young people are doing their share. Instead of criticizing them for not doing enough, let’s help them do more.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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