A tsunami of citizen activism, initiated by Occupy Wall Street, is poised to wash over American society. The coming battle to correct the grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth and power in this country is likely to have an even more profound impact on our society than what occurred in the 1960s.
Fifty years ago, a few white students like me were outraged to find that the sugarcoated view of America we had been taught in the 50s did not match reality. The notions of justice and human rights we had internalized motivated our actions, and as idealists, we opposed the Jim Crow laws in the South and the needless killing in Southeast Asia.
Young activists taking to the streets today harbor no illusions about justice in America. They are cynical, worldly wise and unemployed; many are weighed down by debt. They know they have few prospects for meaningful or even gainful employment. They protest in their own economic self-interest. They are a wholly different phenomenon than the 1960s activists.
In 1958, when I entered the elite University of Chicago, annual tuition was $870. Inflation would make that $6,945 today. But tuition at the U of C this year is $43,851, more than six times as much, making crushing debt inevitable for most students.
Students in my day could drop out for a time, leave their career track to take an offbeat job, become an activist, explore other countries or simply have fun. The multitude of available jobs meant that we were free to drop back in whenever we chose. Not so today.
The United States graduates about 800,000 college students annually. With an economy no longer expanding as it did previously, only about 400,000 can find full-time jobs. For the same reason, there is insufficient employment for millions of working-class Americans led to expect a middle-class lifestyle, but sinking into poverty instead.
Will 400,000 unemployed college graduates all meekly accept unpaid internships or flip hamburgers at minimum wage to pay off impossibly burdensome debt? No. A portion will inevitably become protesters. Every spring, more will join them from the next cohort of 400,000 unemployed graduates. Some will be embittered, and having nothing, will have nothing to lose. They will man the barricades and be the militants of a larger movement of increasingly impoverished working-class Americans.
Nor is this merely an American phenomenon. Unemployed and disaffected youth using social media tools were the vanguard of the Arab Spring. Today, unemployed youth are in revolt across the southern tier of the European Union, most visibly in Spain and Greece.
But the difficulty in actually achieving economic reform leaves many skeptical that a new movement can succeed. Granted, true economic reform is a greater challenge than the battles for political and human rights that we waged in the 1960s. But the other side of that coin is that such a movement can have tremendous staying power because the economic conditions provoking it are unlikely to change and the supply of ready new protesters will not diminish.
Skeptics also argue that the activists of the Occupy demonstrations and foreclosure protests are incapable of forging lasting organization, that despite their tactical creativity and their remarkable impact on the national dialogue, they lack leadership and a systematic analysis. True enough, but today's activism remains in the first blush of its growth and is still perfecting its social media organizing techniques. Political movements can mature with blistering speed. None of us imagined that our first chaotic campus teach-ins in 1965 would lead in only two years to an antiwar movement strong enough to provoke widespread illegal draft resistance backed up by the largest street demonstrations in US history.
Can young people drive political change? They have, many times. In the four years after 1960, black students in the South sitting in at lunch counters and joining Freedom Rides transformed a civil rights movement that had struggled for decades into a movement that could no longer be denied. Starting in 1966, student protesters so destabilized military recruitment and discipline that in 1969, draft calls were drastically reduced and shifted to a lottery. By 1973, the draft law was gone for good. And it was militant young women in the late 1960s and 1970s who took the fight for feminism to a new and somewhat successful level.
Nevertheless, new tactics must now be developed that encourage wider participation. As we realized late in the Vietnam antiwar movement, a majority might passionately oppose a public policy, like the war, but only a fraction can jeopardize their jobs or liberty to change it. In the coming struggle, militancy, civil disobedience and illegal takeovers will all be necessary, but more important will be new tactics that allow the less committed to ally with the more militant.
This is not a daunting problem. New tactics often emerge from new movements, for example, the lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and draft card burnings of the 1960s. In the 1970s, the proliferation of women's consciousness-raising groups empowered feminism, and later, gay-pride parades and coming out mobilized gays and lesbians to successfully insist upon their human rights.
Finally, can a grassroots movement that destabilizes society actually force an economic restructuring? Certainly - if reformers make enough trouble. In times of crisis, those with wealth and power will relinquish some of it to forestall losing all of it. That's how we got trust busting, the New Deal and the War on Poverty.
A new movement is being born. Jobless young troublemakers being thrown away by society understand that the extreme disparities in wealth and power that are the cause of their problems will not disappear on their own. Behind these young people will be millions of dissatisfied workers pursuing the American dream denied. That is why the coming era of citizen activism is likely to dwarf what my generation accomplished in the 1960s. We altered the country, culturally, socially, sexually and spiritually. The next wave of activism will change it economically.