By Raj Jayadev
This August marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — that watershed moment of the civil rights era that showed how mass movement could force the nation to address issues of inequality, and change the political direction of the country. Had America not recently experienced some of the most poignant, traumatic, and racially-charged episodes in years, this march anniversary may have only been a nostalgic, obligatory, nod to the past. But a young Trayvon Martin was killed, a steady rise in deportations are breaking apart families, and prisons have become so savagely inhumane, inmates are starving themselves to death. As a result, the most captivating activists of today are not looking at the ‘60s as a history book, they are looking at it as a playbook.
Despite an era of political engagement defined by online activism – viral videos (think Kony) and email petitions — 21st century movement-makers are now resembling more of their 1960’s civil rights predecessors, employing old school confront-the-system-with-your-person tactics to once again transform the national consciousness. That the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary is occurring in this hot political moment is appropriate, as a new civil rights movement – born out of its own organic necessity and initiative — is once again raising the specter of race, class, and justice in America.
In Florida, a student organization called the Dream Defenders have taken over the state Capitol building since July 16, demanding legislative change in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing and verdict. Their pressure has already spurred Florida lawmakers to hold a special hearing on the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law – a demand originally denied by Gov. Rick Scott. They are developing a proposal they call “Trayvon’s Law” which would require ethics training to reduce racial profiling by law enforcement, repeal the “Stand Your Ground” law and repeal zero-tolerance in schools — a way to address the school to prison pipeline for youth of color. They have shown no sign of leaving until their demands are met, and if anything, have only gained more national support with each passing day.
Last month along the Arizona-Mexico border, a group of undocumented youth called the Dream 9 intentionally crossed the border, and when returning to the United States were arrested and placed in the Eloy ICE Detention Center. Their act of civil disobedience was to draw attention to the estimated 1.7 million deportees since Obama took office in 2009. On Aug. 7, they were released on parole by an immigration court citing asylum concerns – the fear of persecution or torture in the home country — as a reason to postpone immediate removal. Though back in their communities, they now face an uncertain future as they will eventually have to return to an immigration judge who will determine if they are granted asylum – a process that can take years.
In California, hundreds of prison inmates have been on a hunger strike since July, demanding five core reforms, including quality health care, more nutritious meals, and the immediate release of all prisoners who have been indefinitely held in isolation for years. The strike began on July 8, when 30,000 inmates refused meals, and to date one hunger striker, 32-year-old Billy Sells, has died for the cause. The hunger strike has galvanized solidarity rallies and vigils throughout the state by family members of prisoners.
Civil disobedience, hunger strikes, taking over the buildings of the State apparatus – today’s most electric movements are what many of us who were not around in the ‘60s, envision as the most significant activism of that period. And while strategically, these actions are similarly effective as a political means to an end, they speak to a more fundamental quality – the personal risk and sacrifice of that form of activism.
Contrast this to last year’s Kony 2012 – the viral video campaign that aimed to bring an alleged African militia leader to justice. The campaign showed the capacity of widespread engagement through the click of a button. The metrics were staggering – over 97 million views on YouTube and a bazillion Facebook shares. It was named the most watched video of all time by Time magazine. The campaign displayed what was uniquely possible in activism and public education through the modern era of social media.
But while that brand of activism had indisputable reach, the depth of the engagement, what it meant to participate as an activist, was as deep as the width of an iPad.
And that is what distinguishes the movements emerging in 2013, and ties it to activism from the Civil Rights era. They are displays of action that require courage and involve exposure to personal risk and peril – incarceration, deportation, even death. Of course, it is this level of intensity that gives the activism its power, its moral force.
And the truth is, ever since the ‘60s, social justice campaigns have tried to imitate the movement of that era. But, despite using the same chants, carrying similar banners, even voicing similar demands, most lacked the same level of personal sacrifice. The key ingredient. Many displays of civil disobedience had become political theater — organization directors and even elected officials in a staged “arrest” and out of jail within an hour for the planned press conference.
The movements in Florida, Arizona, and California – they were different.
There is an undeniable genealogy of activism from the Little Rock 9 to the Dream 9; from the student organizers from the Freedom Summer to the Dream Defenders; and from Cesar Chavez when he refused food to protest violence used against his fellow union members to the hundreds of nameless prison hunger strikers in California in 2013.
And while Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech still inspires many to fight for justice in 2013, it may be a 1963 Berkeley student organizer Mario Savio’s speech that best embodies the escalation of intensity in this moment of activism. On the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley he told the crowd, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
Those words, the honesty of the sentiment and expression of commitment, very much could have been spoken by a Florida college student at the capitol building, or an undocumented youth in a detention center, or a prison inmate who had not eaten for weeks. And the year, very easily, could have been 2013.