Young radicals will have to learn to live with an inner conflict caused by violent tactics, cautions an older generation of radicals.
The Christian Science Monitor -- 30 August 2001
by Sara B. Miller
NEW YORK - Michael Parenti sat in a jail cell, bruised and bloody, after a 1970 protest at the University of Illinois. This was only one of several brutal arrests he faced as a 30-something protester during the Vietnam War. He reached for the stub of a pencil and began writing a letter to his 3-year-old son on a roll of toilet paper - the only paper he could find. "Dear Christian," he began. He wanted to tell his son a little bit about himself, about his politics, his values, and what he was trying to achieve - in case he didn't make it out of one of the most divisive eras in US history.
Mr. Parenti says he and many of his friends, many deeply involved in violent radicalism, were so enraged by the inequities of the 1960s and '70s, that they were willing to do almost anything to be heard. They pushed cars through bank windows, clashed with police, and some even threw firebombs. Now, in his late sixties, Parenti has spent the past 30 years writing books and lecturing at various universities nationwide, expressing very different views on how to effect change. "I think it's a good thing that there are less of the small revolutionary cadres today," he says. "It's for the better. There is no swift-quick direct blow you can give to the beast."
After years of retrospection, many of the radicals from the 1960s, often the children of middle- and upper-class liberals, ascribe their participation in the revolutionary movement to youthful naiveté. Many are living within the system - uncomfortably or not - that they once so vehemently denounced.
But a radical movement is refueling, and Parenti and some of his fellow radicals see parallels between what is happening today and what they did in their own youth. From the recent death of a young Italian protester in Genoa, Italy, outside of the G8 summit this summer to the riots in Canada over the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, the antiglobalization movement has grown with speed and fury since the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999. "They are doing exactly what we were doing in the 1960s, just throw in the environment," says David Horowitz. Born into a liberal, radical family, he was swept up in the anarchist movement as the editor of the New Left publication Ramparts. Today, he has shifted his opinions as far right as they were far left.
Passing the radical torch
The newest radicals, who have turned out to protest high-level meetings on trade agreements and other global alliances, are similar to their predecessors in that they tend to be liberally minded, often children of middle-to-upper-class professionals. "They have the same ability as the Vietnam protesters, with large numbers of people walking down a large number of streets. These are voices that need to be heard," says Marci Rubin, now a San Francisco corporate lawyer.
And in many ways, they are gaining attention through some of the same violent means as their predecessors. For Ms. Rubin, this is disconcerting: "I have the same problem I did about the Weather people way back," she says. "I have a problem with rioting and senseless destruction. It feels like a call to arms, in a way."
Recent media attention about the regret of old radicals and the rise of new antiglobalists shows that radicalism, so commonly considered the domain of Vietnam or Berkeley, is not necessarily a war of time periods, but of age groups - primarily, young idealists. And many are wondering: Will these newer radicals one day also change course, like those who came before them? "Their radical pasts will always be tied to them," says Dr. Nancy Snow, a political analyst at the University of California, Los Angeles. "No matter what they do, it will always follow them, as regret or conflict. It will be a part of their obituaries.""
The element of conflict in radicalism is something Rubin lives with every day. She was full of activist fervor as a college student at Berkeley in the '60s. When she was arrested at 19, for sitting in front of a bus at the draft board in Oakland, "it was like winning a medal," she says. But after 21 days in the cell, even among radicals who shared the experience with her, her romanticism began to fade. "I was a middle-class kid. It was shocking to find yourself in a place where your opinions, and logic, and reason just don't count," she says. "They are meaningless in prison."
The bulk of the radical movement today is comprised of young idealists, in their late teens and early 20s. It is gaining momentum on college campuses, just as it did in the '60s. Many believe activists today are more politically astute than those of the '60s, because of their access to large amounts of information.
A stark difference between the first group and the current one is that activists today, unlike those in the '60s, are not mindlessly protesting, says Parenti, but carefully calculating who and what is the enemy, and then asking why. Today's radicals have a greater consciousness of where the seats of power are, he says. "Activism without deep analysis does not sustain itself. That is why so many former radicals have been taken in by the very thing they profess to oppose," Parenti says. "This time it's different." "It is a far smaller world today, there is so much information," says Kevin Danaher, the co-founder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco organization that played an active role in the Seattle protests. "The Internet has changed everything," he says. This is why he believes there is a greater consciousness of where the seats of power are. "Activists are much more well-informed today," Mr. Danaher says. "So they are bolder, and more assertive." He believes the activist movement is less sectarian today, which makes it a stronger force.
Still take to the streets
Radicalism today looks the same as it did in the '60s. "They [the mainstream] complain about us on the streets. But we have to take the streets to be heard," Danaher says. "You put thousands in the streets, and they understand: 'We can disrupt you.'"
But there are new twists today. Danaher believes that '60s radicalism was contained within a national framework. Protesters were outraged with the decisions that the US government was making. "Now it's much bigger," he says. With the Internet, activists from all over the world are banding together. "This is a global movement."
"In the '60s, we were worried about getting sent off to Vietnam. We were motivated by fear. Now, the issues are more universal, involving a collective consciousness. It's about preserving forests; it's about [feeding] starving children in the world."
Attorney Rubin had dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She chose to work within a powerful bank in corporate America. She struggles for women's rights within the bank and considers herself a radical within the institution. But she has always been ambivalent about her position. "Sometimes I just want to hide my head. Sometimes I ask myself: Why didn't I just become a civil rights lawyer? Part of the answer is: I don't know." She says friends have called her a sell-out; some never talked to her again. She is often embarrassed to say what she does, she says.
But if the modified views of Rubin or Parenti seem like the closing of a chapter in radicalism, another chapter may have begun with Lori Berenson and the antiglobalist activists she typifies. Sentenced to 20 years in a Peruvian jail for alleged association with a terrorist group there, Ms. Berenson continues to maintain her innocence. She has stood as a symbol of fortitude with her insistence on not admitting any wrongdoing. A confession could have set her free much earlier. Now, she could be 46 years old by the time she's released. "The majority of people are going to say, 'I'm going to save myself,' " says her mother, Rhoda Berenson, "confessing to what they have not done for freedom."
On June 20, Berenson wrote in her closing statement: "I have been very open and honest about this, because it has been part of my way of life for many years - I believe that when things are wrong, one should say they are wrong. One should speak when faced with injustice."
Were it so simple. The years have given Rubin perspective on what it means to be a radical. "Now I realize there are a lot of different ways to effect change," she says. "When I was younger, I was adamant that it could only be done one way."