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History of Seventies Activism Debunks “Me Generation” Myth

(Image: Rutgers University Press)


History of Seventies Activism Debunks “Me Generation” Myth

(Image: Rutgers University Press)

The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism
Edited by Dan Bergen
Rutgers University Press, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, journalist Tom Wolfe called people coming of age in the 1970's the “me generation.” As he saw it, the group was narcissistic, self-indulgent and, unlike their predecessors a decade earlier, unconcerned about the plight of the poor and disenfranchised.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wolfe's catchphrase took hold and a new typecast was born. Suddenly, a barrage of articles proclaimed the me generation alive and well, as if youth throughout North America were everywhere clamoring for personal growth and development, the less fortunate be damned.

But like all generalizations, Wolfe's proclamation was largely inaccurate. In fact, the me generation attitude was nowhere near as pervasive as Wolfe suggested. Likewise, political unrest did not end as 1969 morphed into 1970. As the new decade dawned, activists continued working on a bevy of issues, among them Puerto Rican independence, Native American sovereignty, prisoners' rights, and ending rape and violence against women.

Dan Berger's “The Hidden 1970s” recaptures some of the momentum that marked the decade. In 14 diverse essays, scholars and activists give lie to the idea of protest as static, with an easily defined beginning and endpoint. Instead, the collection proves the opposite, situating ongoing resistance on an always-turning wheel of political dissent.

Victoria Law's “Feminist Responses to Sexual Assault, Battering, and Defense” is but one example. Law chronicles a handful of cases in which women fought back against male violence, and her essay serves as a potent testament to what she calls “the growing acceptance, even popularity, of armed self-defense among segments of the women's movement.”

Several cases that became 1970's causes celebre are illustrative. Yvonne Wanrow, Joan Little, Inez Garcia and Dessie Woods – low-income women of color who defended themselves and their children from male predators – turned public attention toward the domestic violence that had previously been tolerated, if periodically denounced.

Campaigns to free the four women from prison led to public discussions in churches, community groups and government agencies about the physical abuse of women and children. “By 1982,” Law writes, “the number of battered women's shelters in the United States was estimated to be between 300 and 700…. Other resources such as emergency crisis lines, counseling services, support groups, and victim advocacy for women seeking court intervention became available.”

Three decades later, Law has become critical of the antiviolence movement's reliance on law enforcement. Nonetheless, she lays our now-ubiquitous understanding of domestic violence at the feet of 1970's feminists, who demanded that the link between love and battering be forever severed.

Brian D. Behnken's “We Want Justice” documents several instances in which the Tejano community mobilized in response to blatant police brutality. The first took place in 1973. “Dallas Police Officers Darrell Cain and Roy Arnold witnessed three individuals burglarizing a Fina gas station,” Behnken writes. “A short foot chase ensued, but the culprits evaded the police. Although the suspects fled, the officers thought they recognized two of the robbers as David and Santos Rodriguez. So Cain and Arnold drove to the Rodriguez home.” The officers woke the boy's foster grandfather and shoved their way into the residence. “Cain and Arnold roused the sleeping brothers, handcuffed them, and placed them in their squad car. They then drove back to the gas station and parked at the rear of the facility. Out of sight and under cover of darkness, Cain and Arnold began interrogating the Rodriguez brothers,” Behnken continues. The pair refused to confess and in short order Officer Cain shot Santos to death.

While the Dallas Police Department (DPD) suspended both officers and subsequently charged Cain with murder, the Brown Berets organized a march to denounce the police. Thousands showed up and eventually rioted.

Mexican American and African American desires for change did not end after the riot,” Behnken concludes. “The communities continued to push the city to enact reforms. In late 1973 a City Council resolution decried the dual justice and unequal treatment for different races in Dallas…. Throughout 1974 Chicano and Black leaders continued to demand that the police department implement an internal affairs office, hire more minority officers, and assign Chicano and Black officers to minority neighborhoods…. The persistence of activism in Dallas after the riot and the eventual victories activists won in overhauling DPD demonstrate the continued vitality of Chicano movements after 1972.

That vitality, of course, was also evident elsewhere. James Tracy's “Rising Up: Poor, White, and Angry in the New Left” pays tribute to the organizing done by working-class Caucasians in support of community empowerment and against racism. One group, White Lightning (WL), comprised of recovering drug addicts, started in the Bronx and took inspiration from the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Much of their work centered on improving conditions at Lincoln Hospital. In 1970, Tracy writes, the Young Lords took control of the hated health center and began offering free acupuncture detoxification for drug users wishing to get clean. “White Lightning continued to confront the drug epidemic following the Lincoln takeover,” Tracy writes. “Their take on the political economy of dope framed the addicted pusher as an exploited worker, and described the real criminals as the drug companies who overproduced for the illegal drug market and the cops and organized crime who profited from trafficking.”

WL also campaigned against inequities in the criminal justice system. After San Quentin prisoner and Black Panther George Jackson was murdered in 1971 and during the Attica prison riot several weeks later, WL members were loudly critical of the systemic mistreatment of prisoners nationwide, a cause they championed until the group imploded at the end of the decade.

Andrew Cornell's “The Movement for a New Society” zeros in on a group of activists who not only wanted to change existing communities, but were also determined to create new ones. His chapter focuses on the many collectives – galvanized by a shared vision of “ecology, feminism, and anarchism” – that sprang up throughout the US between the early 1970's and late 1980's. “The Movement for a New Society [MNS] grew out of a Quaker anti-war organization in 1971,” Cornell explains. Although MNS was not tied to the Religious Society of Friends, many MNS collectives espoused values that were in sync with Quaker doctrine. Activism was central to members' lives and direct action to oppose militarism and war was a constant. “In January 1976, when an informal census was completed, a 10-block area of West Philadelphia was home to 19 collective households composed of four to 11 people,” Cornell continues. “Households operated independently – choosing their own members and establishing policies about what was purchased jointly and how much members were required to contribute to expenses for the house.”

While MNS eventually disbanded, the idea of living one's values continues to influence radical efforts. As Cornell writes, “Its ideas and practices have been taken up by groups such as Earth First!, Food Not Bombs, Anti-Racist Action, and ACT-UP as well as by info shops, radical periodicals, anarchist collectives, campus organizations, and perhaps most notably, the global justice movement that arose at the turn of the millennium.”

Indeed, the continual cycle of activist activity, with periods of intense mobilization alongside lulls, is part and parcel of all efforts to change the world, for – contrary to popular misconception – social movements do not spring up out of nowhere. Instead, it is the dogged, everyday work of community organizers that others tread when they've had enough. And just as every generation has its agitators and firebrands, self-centered individuals are present during every time period. My guess is that Wolfe simply chose to ignore them in the 1960's.

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