From the Trenches: Remember ’68, Fight now
“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.
Many years ago, in a city not so far away, the world was changing.
It was August 26, 1968, and dissidents from across the US converged on Chicago to demand the Democratic National Convention choose an anti-war presidential candidate. Instead, Chicago became a battlefield as the DNC chose to give the hawk platform a crack at the White House. Mayor Daley I unleashed thousands of CPD, army troops and Illinois National Guardsmen on protesters. In what was later dubbed a “police riot,” bystanders, journalists and demonstrators were beaten and arrested on national television, with the whole world watching.
We’ve got to take a longview to spin the bloodbath outside the DNC as a victory. Police brutality entered American homes via their TV sets, planting the seed in the public’s mind that law enforcement selects who it chooses to “protect and serve.” Social movements began to slowly move away from electoral politics as a sole tactic for creating change. And the spectacle was yet another straw on the back of other groups that had yet to mobilize en masse, especially the American Indian movement, feminists and the LGBT community.
Chicago was not the only city in the grips of street-level civil war in 1968. From Mexico City to Belgrade and Paris, social movements embraced socialist ideals, attempted to dethrone despots and challenged capitalist hegemony. The small victories were beginning to pile up. Revolution was in the air. Students, workers, women, people of color—soon, they would win.
But 1968 fizzled out. A conservative backlash followed. The Democratic party was in tatters, its members painfully disillusioned.
Flash forward to 2008. I was a student in San Francisco, working for a local nonprofit. My first assignment was to help plan a massive symposium. Writers, activists and intellectuals from all over the world came together in the Bay for the event, “1968: The Great Rehearsal.” The conference was as inspiring as it was oppressive, as movement veterans remembered the good ole days and lamenting the lack of political activity on campuses.
While tidying up after the opening lecture, I heard a professor discussing the current political climate with another man. (Keep in mind this was post-Seattle, years before Occupy, Tahrir Square, the indignados of Spain. In the months ahead, students in the UK would occupy their universities to protest ties with Israel, a wave that would extend across the Atlantic, resulting in a flurry of occupations in major US cities But from the depths of the Great Recession, still there was radio silence.) “The new slogan,” the professors said, “is ‘Fuck 68, fight now.’ Such arrogance, that they think they need learn nothing from the generation before. And yet, they do nothing.”
And the professor, he was right. The slogan quickly cropped up on walls in London, Athens and New York. Millennials will not be sheep-hearded to political victory by the very people who had dropped the ball the last time around. Fair enough.
I’m a millennial myself, so guys: I get it. We can don’t need constant guidance, constant oversight, constant “but you weren’t there at the barricades in City X, when the police came with their teargas and their clubs.” Maybe we’re sick of the romanticism that haunts 1968, a feeling that whatever is achieved today will never live up to past glories. Still, we don’t need to reinvent the goddamn wheel. Why not, “remember ’68, fight now”?
So in the spirit of learning from our elders in order to move forward, let’s all take a second to learn about how the global revolution followed the Democratic Party to Chicago 57 years ago (see cool video below), to remember the people whose illusions were shattered by the boys in blue, to dream about how things could have turned out differently and think about what went wrong. Let’s think about how we can cooperate with our elders, without allowing our ideas to be stifled in favor of Old Left philosophies or dismissing movements past out of petty arrogance.
1968 was a rehearsal. And when opening night finally comes, we’ve got to be ready for curtain.