Port Huron to Wall Street

"The Whole World is Watching"

My sense is that it is largely young people driving the Occupy Wall Street protests. They’re usually the ones behind revolutions and movements of this sort, which I think is very different from the Tea Party Movement. For me, it’s like Yogi Berra said, “déjà vu all over again.” The protests remind me of Chicago ’68. Without the extreme violence, thank goodness.

“The Movement” of the 1960s began with the Civil Rights movement, which was predominately black. However by mid-point in the decade, when Martin Luther King Jr. courageously spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, it become fused, to some extent, with the predominately white student protest movement that in the end was about many things: Civil Rights, The War, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, the counter-culture, the disparity between rich and poor, and of course, rock and roll. Similar in a way to how CNN describes the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is now spreading to other cities: “A mix of protesters . . . decrying a loosely defined list of financial problems and mixing in places with others marking the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.”

I have always said that the 1960’s were left unfinished. By that I mean that we are still dealing with the same issues now as we were then. We, this nation, didn’t finish solving any of them. Didn’t even come close. We’ve been struggling with the same problems and fighting the same culture war for nearly 50 years. The only difference now is that the lunatic fringe is on the right.

Yesterday, I re-read a document I had not even thought of in years. Composed 1962 as a manifesto for the American student activist organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the document was about democratic values, it was a generational call to action, laying out a vision for a revolution that many actually thought was feasible. Although a number of people participated in its drafting, the primary author was a University of Michigan student by the name of Tom Hayden.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “The Port Huron Statement.” Change a few words here and there and it could have been written yesterday. Later on, in the sections that deal with specific ideas about the New Left and so on, it becomes somewhat dated. But maybe not. Maybe whatever this new movement will grow into can benefit from the ideas presented in this important document:

Port Huron Statement

Introduction: Agenda for a Generation

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.

When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world; the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people–these American values we found god, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency.

As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract “others” we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time. We might deliberately ignore, or avoid, or fail to feel all other human problems, but not these two, for these were too immediate and crushing in their impact, too challenging in the demand that we as individuals take the responsibility for encounter and resolution.

While these and other problems either directly oppressed us or rankled our consciences and became our own subjective concerns, we began to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in our surrounding America. The declaration “all men are created equal…” rang hollow before the facts of Negro life in the South and the big cities of the North. The proclaimed peaceful intentions of the United States contradicted its economic and military investments in the Cold War status quo.

We witnessed, and continue to witness, other paradoxes. With nuclear energy whole cities can easily be powered, yet the dominant nation-states seem more likely to unleash destruction greater than that incurred in all wars of human history. Although our own technology is destroying old and creating new forms of social organization, men still tolerate meaningless work and idleness. While two-thirds of mankind suffers under nourishment, our own upper classes revel amidst superfluous abundance. Although world population is expected to double in forty years, the nations still tolerate anarchy as a major principle of international conduct and uncontrolled exploitation governs the sapping of the earth’s physical resources. Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear, its democratic system apathetic and manipulated rather than “of, by, and for the people.”

Not only did tarnish appear on our image of American virtue, not only did disillusion occur when the hypocrisy of American ideals was discovered, but we began to sense that what we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era. The worldwide outbreak of revolution against colonialism and imperialism, the entrenchment of totalitarian states, the menace of war, overpopulation, international disorder, supertechnology–these trends were testing the tenacity of our own commitment to democracy and freedom and our abilities to visualize their application to a world in upheaval.

Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority–the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox; we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.

Read the entire Port Huron Statement here.

And visit the Occupy Wall Street site here.

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2 thoughts on “Port Huron to Wall Street

  1. I think there are a lot of young folks, no doubt. But also good representation from the rest of the generations as well. Here in Minnesota, I’ve seen large numbers of people over 40 amongst our Occupy protests. In fact, on Friday, half of the people I talked with were in their 50s and 60s. So, there is age diversity. And also racial diversity as well.

    also, your point about the Sixties being unfinished makes sense to me.

    1. That’s good to hear, Nathan. I am just going by what I have seen on the TV news which does not always give you an accurate picture. I am definitely in favor of a multi-generational and multi-racial grass roots movement like this.

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