This page is part of Benton Foundation's online archive. We've kept some old stuff around for historical purposes.OneWorld US Special Report
Demographics and Values
The Fairness Revolution
Bringing Globalization Home
Scanning the Terrain
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption
Different Approaches to Global Education
The Impact of Seattle
A college senior advocating for socially responsible investing explained the significance of Seattle this way: "We are not alone when 38,000 people are saying the same thing." A 20-year-old environmental activist agreed:
For a long time, most young people have not tried to expand individual responsibility to collective responsibility because they thought it was impossible. We have been taught through our consumer-driven culture that we have little power beyond how we spend money, that the only choice we can make, the only agency we can exercise, is ‘do I buy this pair or that pair?’ With this new movement for global justice--with the protests in Seattle, D.C., Philadelphia--this is changing. Young people are not only seeing that there is a common good, and that we are collectively responsible for reaching for a common good, but that we can a make a difference.
In its "Guide to the Seattle Meltdown," the corporate public relations firms Burson and Marsteller warned its clients that "the smell of victory will lead to a deepening of already existing coalitions and will strengthen recognition that broadening such coalitions to include non-traditional allies will exponentially increase effectiveness." (Quoted in Democracy Teach-In Listserv, June 22, 2000)
Dissenting ideas migrate from the converted few to a wider, more diverse audience of the undecided and uninformed, sparking debate and reappraisal. Reform pressures build and are skillfully brought to bear on the powers that be. The climate of opinion begins to change both within the public and among institutional elites themselves. Concessions are granted; the efficacy of activism is confirmed; campaigns gain momentum and acquire new recruits; a movement achieves its take-off phase.
If such a scenario is plausible, (the debt relief issue, now a "speeding train," runs on tracks that the New York Times says have been laid down by "street protests and parish activism"), it is far from ordained. A rapid upsurge of moral and political energy should not be equated with a full-fledged or necessarily sustainable social movement, nor protests with policies that eventually gain traction among the majority of the people. As the following examples testify, the flame of activism can gutter out as quickly as it was ignited.
SDS began with 20 chapters in 1963, was represented on at least 350 campuses in 1968, with an estimated 100,000 members, and had become essentially defunct by 1971.
In April 1996 the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) had a national office, six full time staff, a monthly magazine with thousands of subscribers, a series of well-run programs, and an eight-year history of outreach and organizing that saw single events attracting as many as 7,600 students. By the summer of 1996 SEAC was in ruins, with no staff and no budget, split apart by personality clashes, racial tensions, and disputes between the national office and grassroots constituents.
In the spring of 1977, 1,400 Clamshell Alliances, most of them in their teens and twenties, occupied the Seabrook nuclear power plant, were arrested, and spent the next 12 days in jail. The event gained worldwide attention and provided a platform for public education. National opinion polls saw a doubling of opposition to nuclear energy, from about 25% to 50% of those polled. But momentum could not be sustained. An organizing model born during a period of militant dissent and direct action proved inadequate to the later task of aggregating energies, rather than simply unleashing them. A year later many young activists had "dropped out," exhausted from their intense, single-minded commitment and unprepared for the twists, turns, and compromises on the long march to reform.
The protests in Seattle taught us that there is "a growing constituency against global capitalism and a growing sympathy for its resisters," Erik Banks observes. (Social Policy, Spring, 2000) "The sympathy of the usually indifferent public probably flowed from a concern for a balance of power. Nobody wants to see unchecked globalism without a counterweight of respect for human rights and environmental needs." Yet it remains to be seen how such concern will endure, and whether it can be translated in a viable programmatic agenda. The issues involved in establishing global ground-rules are enormously complex. The media eye, which serves as the portal of the public’s understanding of the world, veers away from ambiguity and narrative exposition in pursuit of novelty, mayhem, and melodrama. As an eruption, Seattle could be covered¾ even covered sympathetically¾ within the conventions of that pursuit. But the deeper meaning of the protest¾ its organizational dynamics, political base, and critique of corporate power¾ too often went unexplored.
Paul Hawkins describes in his "Seattle diary" receiving a phone call from one of the two Newsweek reporters assigned to the protest.
"Is this the ‘60’s redux?"
"No. These protests are international."
"Who are the leaders?"
"There are none in the traditional sense, but there are thought leaders: Martin Khor and Vandana Shiva of the Third World Network, Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, Tony Clarke of Polaris Institute, Gerry Mander of IFG, Susan George of the Transnational Institute, David Korten of the People-Centered Development Forum, Jophn Cavanagh of IPC, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, Mark Ritchie of the Institute for Food and Development…
"Wait, stop, stop. I can’t use those names in my article,"
"Because Americans have never heard of them."
So Newsweek wound up putting a picture of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, into the article.
Once again, activists hoping to get the word out through commercial media are reminded that coverage can mangle a message rather than accurately convey it. Orchestrating media spectaculars like Seattle that operate as a kind of political performance art can help propel issues onto the front page. But the stories disappear when the barricades come down. Efforts to maintain a drumbeat of media interest through staging other large demonstrations can lead to what some have termed as "eventism." Energies are absorbed in trying to organize protests that meet or surpass media "ratings" of the last one, thereby depleting resources that should go towards grass-roots community building.
Rushing to judgment--"History has turned a corner. Suddenly, as this new century begins, a new radicalism has emerged, broad, confident and compelling," (L.A. Weekly, December, 1999)-- may in part be explained as a defensive response against some in the press who sought initially to portray protestors in Seattle as quacks and misfits--"a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix." But early anointing, however understandable the motives, can easily boomerang, diverting attention from organizational vulnerabilities that need to be shored up, and leading young activists to miscalculate and over-reach strategically. What is meant to be supported winds up idealized. Confused with the mature, the embryonic is denied the nourishment it requires to come to term. In a culture impatient with nuance and habituated to iconic representations, there is always the risk that one stereotype ("Gen Xers" as cynically detached narcissists) will be replaced by another "turtle-masked youth as the passionate avatars of a new global consciousness.
It is useful at this point to step back for a moment and examine how to define the term activist. It can be considered a title, applicable to specific actions and training, in the same way as lawyer or plumber. However, it can also be interpreted more loosely, as applying to those whose actions are guided by a shared set of ideals, principles, or hopes. In order for a broad-based activist movement or network to take root, the latter definition seems by far the more useful. This definition incorporates not only those engaged in direct action, but those who write the books and articles that motivate it, those who do the research to arm activists with information, and those who support and fund it.
Whatever their intent, narrow and sentimental evocations of youth activism have the inadvertent effect of trivializing what they aim to ennoble, making it easier for interests and institutions of established power to deflect, absorb, and outflank critiques. A formidably intelligent and sophisticated African-American civil rights lawyer who served as vice-president of a major national foundation and who now leads a California-based think-tank and advocacy center winces at being described as "charismatic," interpreting it as a subtle kind of condescension that marginalizes and mystifies the repertoire of skills she has acquired through years of political struggle and rigorous study. Youth are vulnerable to a similar kind of pigeonholing and polite disparagement; their opposition to the status quo becomes chalked up to a faddish moralism that can be indulged and outlasted.
Far from being creatures of fashion, today’s current crop of principled renegades continues an enduring domestic tradition of popular dissent and reformist zeal. This lineage provides a pedigree making it easier for activists to cast themselves as keepers of the faith, which their opponents have broken with and abandoned. As custodians of a preservationist ethic, young activists are able to lay claim to a powerful symbolic inheritance, one that helps to legitimize many of the cause-related campaigns now underway and to create coalitions that bring constituencies together across generational and class lines.
"At the heart of our discontent," Michael Sandel writes, "is the fear that, individually and collectively, we are losing control of the forces that govern our lives. The other is the sense that, from family to neighborhood to nation, the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us. These two fears define the anxiety of the age." (Atlantic Magazine, September 1998) Youth activism represents a response to these twin fears. It seeks to reassert democratic governance over concentrated wealth and the power it wields, to make sure that the political agenda addresses the moral dimensions of public questions, and to equip and engage a new generation of boundary-spanning civic practitioners who have the skills and stamina to stay the course.