I'm old enough to remember the demonstrations of the Sixties: the civil rights marches, the lunch counter integrations, the anti-war sit-ins, the teach-ins, the anti-draft rallies, the post-Kent State Massacre student strike, the Vietnam Moratorium, and the wall-to-wall people from all over the country who gathered many times on the Washington Mall. I watched the Vietnam War drag on for a decade, before and after my year in that country, until over 57,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were dead, and a Democratic Congress finally cut off funding for the war.
Now I listen to the national media as they clamor to be told: "What are you demonstrating about? What is it you want?" Unlike the demonstrations of the Sixties, the answer cannot be distilled into the simple sentences the media likes, such as "Fair housing!" or "The right to vote!" or "Bring the troops home!" or "End the draft!" And if it could, it wouldn't help: the civil rights movement was years of bloodshed, and the simple goals of the anti-war demonstrations could not stop that war from dragging on till some of the undergraduates at the first demonstrations were thirty-somethings.
Every one of those anti-war rallies and demonstrations ended in failure: in 1966 and 1967 and 1968 and 1970 and 1971. After even the largest demonstrations (e.g., D.C. in '72), the demonstrators went home and NOTHING seemed to change. MLK (a peace movement leader as well as a civil rights leader!) and RFK were shot, demonstrators in Chicago were brutally beaten by Mayor Daley's cops, McCarthy and McGovern were defeated, Nixon was elected on the promise of "a plan to end the war in six days," Cambodia was invaded, the Kent State Four were murdered, and Nixon was re-elected.
What does all this mean for the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Those who persevered for years in protesting the Vietnam War did not fail, despite the glacial progress. Every sit-in, every rally, every march on Washington slowly shifted the thinking of the American public until finally the war became sufficiently unpopular that even the spineless politicians in Congress were willing to cut off the funding. By 1976, the country was sick of American imperialism, and elected Jimmy Carter.
I don't know or care what you think of Carter. In my humble opinion, he had several outstanding accomplishments, from the Camp David Accords to the Torrijos-Carter Panama Canal Treaties to the appointment of Paul Volcker, who forced the bitter medicine of 20%+ interest rates on America, thereby both ending the inflationary spiral and guaranteeing that Carter would be defeated by Reagan, a candidate who offered simplistic and sugary solutions (including the aptly-named Laffer Curve) that would result in tripling the national debt during his administration and starting a profligate orgy in America that would lead to a bitter reflux 30 years later.
Clearly, Carter was a terrible politician. But without a doubt, he was also the least imperialistic President of the 20th century, one whose election would not have been possible without the populist anti-war movement that preceded his election.
Al those protesters over those years, without even knowing the term, had put their shoulders to moving the Overton window. And even though each individual step, every march and demonstration, may at the time have seemed like failure, they succeeded in making the US a better country by 1976. And the reactionaries that have spent the past three decades pushing the Overton window back towards the right at least were forced to start from a position further to the left than they would have had to otherwise. The result?
1. SOME people (and their children!) have never shifted back to the right!
2. SOME institutions have maintained their positions as part of the American fabric despite the past 30 years. The civil rights movement has a revered place in American history despite those (and they still exist!) who would return us to lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan and racial segregation -- and the Overton window inhibits them from publicly expressing their despicable views!
3. SOME institutions are under attack, such as equal rights for women that largely came out of the women's liberation movement that also blossomed in the early 70s. Women still make less than men, and many on the right would like to see reproductive freedoms dismantled. But thus far, the gains of the Seventies are still holding, if somewhat frayed at the edges.
What does this all mean for the Occupy Wall Street movement? It means that we must remember that success or failure of movements like these is NOT judged in weeks or months, but in years and decades! The Overton window is heavy, and it takes that long to move it. And so come December, when the weather gets really cold here in Boston (and it will!), and most of us stop showing up in Dewey Square, and the multitudes in NYC dwindle to one-tenth the current size, it doesn't mean that the 99% have been beaten -- as long as we don't give up! We must continue, periodically, once every two weeks, or six weeks, but we must keep going!
And starting now, I'd urge an effort to organize a LARGE and PEACEFUL 1969-style march to occupy the beautiful cherry blossoms along the Potomac in April...