After a fall spent trying to make some social change, this spring I’ve withdrawn into my more comfortable habitus: reading about social change. I’ve been particularly drawn to stories about the Civil Rights movement, perhaps because I’ve been desperate to remind myself that change does in fact happen every once in a while.
Most recently, I read Doug McAdam’s, Freedom Summer, which chronicles one of the most pivotal moments in the trajectory of 1960s activism. Frustrated with their inability to draw significant attention from the white, Northern liberals they needed to pass Civil Rights legislation, the black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hatched a plan to bring hundreds of white students from elite universities to the deep south for voter registration. Confronted with poverty and racism that white Northerners had previously ignored, the volunteers were profoundly radicalized. As McAdam charts, Freedom Summer volunteers went back to school in the fall and were pivotal in launching the movements that defined the New Left and the latter half of the 1960s. Case in point: Berkeley legend Mario Savio, future spokesman of the Free Speech Movement, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.*
McAdam caught up with the activists twenty years later and found that, contrary to the popular narrative about ‘60s radicals, most Freedom Summer volunteers did not “sell out” or turn conservative. Continuing political engagement, though, came at a price. When the ‘60s were over, the activists felt like they were coming down off of a years-long “freedom high”. Even those who wanted to fully reintegrate into mainstream society struggled to maintain “regular” jobs or “normal” relationships. There are some political experiences, it would seem, that you just can’t shake.
This spring, I think many activists could relate: I, for one, am suffering an “occupy hangover”. Not that my experiences could possibly come close to those of the Freedom Summer volunteers. I can’t even entirely relate to those who, this past fall, quit their jobs to move to encampments or who spent hundreds of hours in General Assemblies. Nonetheless, as a wise comrade recently posted on facebook, I miss knowing that the encampments were there, that there were thousands of people out there who shared my concern for the state of the world and my desire to do something about it. Not that there aren’t still protests and demonstrations: I’m excited for May Day and inspired by the creativity and boldness of yesterday’s Occupy the Farm action. It’s just that, no matter how many people come out for them, the sense of infinite possibility, of existing in a moment of real historical import, has disappeared, crushed by police batons, dishonest media coverage, and the realization that too many people still don’t give a damn. Looking back at blog posts from the fall, I’m almost embarrassed at the optimism, the naivety: it’s part of why it’s been so difficult to write (the schoolwork doesn’t help either).
My search for a meaningful, post-occupation place to put my energy brought me to where it almost always does: feeding people. In February, I started volunteering with East Bay Food Not Bombs, which serves over a thousand meals a week, almost entirely from food that would otherwise go to waste. My previous image of Food Not Bombs was one of self-involved hipsters; in East Bay, though, FNB is a fabulous amalgam of squatters from Oakland, remnants of Berkeley’s various communist parties, self-described homeless-activists, and some elderly women who, despite visually fitting the church-ladies-in-soup-kitchens stereotype, have repeatedly assured me that that they are anarchists. There are limits to the political change that can be accomplished with free food, of course, but in an age where even the most meagre of public benefits are becoming a “privilege”, serving a no-questions-asked vegetarian meal feels radical enough for me.
It helps that, with Food Not Bombs, I’ve been plugged into a community of activists which existed long before Occupy and, I imagine, will persist long past it. Five days a week, we serve in People’s Park, only three blocks away from campus but a no-go zone for most students, who are wary of its residents. A few weeks ago, I was invited to a “People’s Park Oral History Night” at a local infoshop. There, a long-haired man in his 70s shared how he and other students seized the park from the university in 1969, declaring it a “liberated” space that would serve as a haven for the dispossessed and a launch-pad for organizing against “The War”.** “In the 1960s, there were thousands of us”, another old activist said. “In the ‘90s”—when the university tried to retake the park and activists fended them off in five days of rioting—“there were hundreds.” Now, he admitted, “There are only a few dozen of us greybeards left.”
And yet, somehow, these activists have stayed committed. They survived Reagan when, as Governor of California, he declared martial law in downtown Berkeley, and they survived Reagan when, as President, he dismembered the welfare programs they fought for in the 1960s. They were pissed off when Bush went to war brazenly and openly, and they’re pissed off that Obama is doing it covertly. The costs of their dedication are obvious: most everyone I talked to has led a difficult life, one in which they traded in financial stability and social acceptance for “the cause”. And, in the end, they have few tangible victories—other than a couple-acre park that most everyone in Berkeley seems to hate—to show for it.
Hearing their stories made me feel guilty to have taken a pause to focus on my studies after only a few months of activity. But when I told this to the other activists that night, they all said I have nothing to be ashamed of. People cover for one another; when one person steps back to take care of him or herself, there’s another at a point where he or she can step forward. The community is always active, even if we, as activists, have to focus on ourselves once in a while. I was reminded of how lucky I am to be in a place like Berkeley, where there are older activists to show me that this isn’t just a passing phase, even if there are a few days, months, or even years where I’m behind a desk and not out on the streets.
As if to drive the point home, the next day I learned that one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers was part of Freedom Summer back in ’64. Who knows what he did in the intervening forty-seven years; but now, he comes down to People’s Park almost every day, wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and serves food with a bunch of anarchists.
It seems more than a coincidence that infoshop where the event was held is called the Long Haul.
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* Fun fact: the interview report for Mario Savio’s application to be a Freedom Summer volunteer describes him as “not very creative” and “one of those average people”.
** There is only one war in Berkeley: Vietnam.