Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Occupying My Thoughts: I Was at Some of the OWS Predecessors

Councilman: When was the last time you cut your hair?
Drama Teacher: When was the time you brushed your teeth, sir?

Billy Jack, 1971

Protester Chris Johnson, 32: Occupy "has opened up a dialogue that hasn’t
existed since I've been alive." #OWS

Brian Stelter tweet, 11/15/2011

That exchange from Billy Jack is one of the first TV movie trailer lines that I remember. Commercials for Billy Jack were on all the time, and I heard this line 100 times along with its theme song, “One Tin Soldier.” (I still have never seen the movie.)

It was the time of the Generation Gap: there were hippies and the establishment and something about not trusting anyone over 30. The VietNam War was on. I didn’t understand all this at 9, but I definitely felt a general sense of turmoil “out there” in the world as it seeped into TV shows, commercials, music.

Since then, and before the OWS phenomenon emerged, I had occasionally wondered, what had happened to all the protesting? Where were all the mass gatherings to shout “No” to something, a question that the picture of the OWS protestor answers: we've been asleep.

Before we close out the year of 2011, the birth year of the extraordinary Occupy Wall Street Movement, I offer some historical precedents that I witnessed. It seems I wandered into two historic demonstrations when I was in college.

Solidarity March in Washington for PATCO Strike

I marched in the Sept. 19, 1981, AFL-CIO's Solidarity March on Washington with my Rutgers activists friends. The Air Traffic Controllers went on strike organized by the its union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) on August 3. Ronald Reagan fired anyone who didn't return to work 48 hours later, under the Taft-Hartly act that prohibits federal employees from striking. Nearly 12,000 controllers were fired when they didn't return to their jobs. This march in Washington organized by the AFL-CIO was in solidarity with then. A descript from Wiki:

The solidarity march, with 250,000, was even bigger than the great 1968 march. In other ways the march was a new experience in post-war Washington. Because, though many groups and parties supported the demonstration, it was overwhelmingly a demonstration of organised labour. It was the first major demonstration to have been organised for decades by the AFL-CIO.

The protest was well organized and well financed by the unions. Buses brought us to Washington, we were given maps to navigate the metro to get to the mall and box lunches. At 19, the whole thing was fun. But there was also an undeniable sense of helping, of standing up to the establishment, or being part of something bigger than yourself. The thing was, I was with Reagan on this one. But it didn't matter. I was supportng with my physical presence, and that's all the organizers cared about to raise their rally numbers.

I was curious about what impact this rally had on the strike. Here’s an assessment from, written for the 30 anniversary of the strike which was this year:

The most significant factor in the defeat of the PATCO strike was the refusal of the AFL-CIO to come out in support of the strikers. It was imperative that the unions counter the attack with a national shutdown of air travel and organizing mass demonstrations across the country against Reagan and the bosses.

Instead the AFL/CIO leadership hid behind their lawyers and continued to try to placate the employers with concessions and “partnerships” which only led to new attacks. The massive, half-million strong Solidarity Day rally in Washington DC in 1981 was largely symbolic, and despite pressure from below, there was no further action against the union-busting offensive that continues to this day.

Another assessment from a culture of the eighties site:

To the chagrin of the PATCO strikers, and the surprise of nearly everyone else, the FAA's contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike's effects.

There wasn’t much support for the PATCO strikers. The public sided with the government and exhibited little sympathy for individuals whose earnings were already well above the national average. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland accused Reagan of "brutal overkill" in firing the strikers, and another union leader complained that the president was engaged in "union-busting," but pilots and machinists continued to do their jobs in spite of the PATCO picket lines, while labor strategists criticized [Robert] Poli [PATCO leader] for calling an ill-advised strike that damaged Labor's image.

In October the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.

Well, that was all surprising to learn. The march was for show, and not a display of power. The only real solidarity would have been a complete general strike, like they have in England, but no labor leader was willing to go that far.

Protesting in Britain: The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

When I went to Southampton, England, for a semester in 1983, I was one of 70,000 who linked arms in April to form a human chain from Greenham Common to Aldermaston to the ordnance factory of Burghfield as part of the No Nukes movement to protest nuclear weapons being sited at the old World War ll RAF base at Greenham Common.

This movement was more similar to OWS in that it wasn’t a one-day action. A Welsh group, Women for Life, arrived at Greenham in Sept. 1981 to protest the British government allowing cruise missiles on the base. The first blockade was in May 1982, and the first Embrace the Base event in Dec. 1982. The April 1 human link-up received a lot of media attention and put the movement on the world map, which "prompted the creation of other peace camps at more than a dozen sites in Britain and elsewhere in Europe."

As a participant, this was different from the Solidarity experience because of the women’s leadership. Of course men participated, but it was decidedly a “women’s action” and that added a layer of a specific kind of camaraderie and “sisterhood is powerful, ” decidedly feminist vibe to the action. I was only there for the April 1 link-up, but some of the Southampton students stayed at the camp for longer periods between studies.

From International Museum of Women

The U.S. missiles left the Berkshire common in 1991. After they were removed, the women stayed to ensure the land would be handed back to the community. In 1997, the land was finally sold to the Greenham Common Trust, whereupon it was passed back to the local council for just £1. The perimeter fences of the old base were taken down in early 2000 and after nineteen years of continuous presence at the site, the women peace campaigners closed down the camp, packed their belongings, and left.

No one credits the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp for the U.S. decision to leave that old RAF base, the end of the Cold War had a little something to do with that. The USAF returned the Greenham Common airbase to the Ministry of Defense, and they decided to close the base. But 19 years of continuous presence to advance an idea is impressive,inspiring.

And now, OWS

Physical activism isn’t in my blood. I think it’s a propensity, like anything else, that I don’t have, so I didn’t continue to participate in organized protests after college. I have not gone down to Zucotti Park to witness or join in. I only know what I experience in social media.

Certainly there hasn’t been anything in the last 30 years that has captured the imagination the way Occupy Wall Street is doing. It’s the energy of the 60s and 70s resurfaced: for the young of the protestors it’s the first blossoming. For the middle aged, it’s a touchstone back.

For me, its best accomplishment is to give some corporeal form to the disgust, hatred, outrage that we 99% feel for the greed, swindling, fiduciary abuse of Enron, Halberton, AIG, and on and on and on. The bonuses on Wall Street are still obscene, the “too big to fail” mentality still dangerously prevalent.

But beyond this service, I don’t understand what the OWS is hoping to accomplish. Here’s a video they produced to thank their supporters. They are looking forward to 2012, and I’m certainly interested in what they do next.


dorki said...

Ah Billy Jack - an interesting movie. Although I was a devoted Cold Warrior at the time, the obvious fallacies of the VietNam War alerted me to many of its meanings.

For the PATCO strike I was also with Reagan on that one. I was a US government employee and was well aware of the fact that Civil Service employees were prohibited from striking. It was simple trade off for a decent salary and relative job security.

And OWS. About time somebody called foul on the greed, oppression, and prejudice of "The System". It is complicated however by the fact many of us were complicit with delusions of grandeur involving MacMansions and such.

As the old curse says "We live in interesting times".

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, I never heard "We live in interesting times" called a curse, but of course it is.