The changing image of the protester

Last week, thousands of protesters converged on Washington. Angered by the problems that international financiers involved with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have brought to developing countries, the protesters vowed to shut down the capital city while the bigwigs met downtown.

News outlets gleefully showed the protesters garbed in dark clothing with bandito-style bandanas over their faces – to protect against the inevitable tear gas and pepper spray, incidentally – shouting, throwing bricks through the windows of a Citibank and being cuffed and hauled off by police. Instead of rich moneylenders and corporate behemoths wheeling and dealing behind closed doors while protesters outside marched for a voice, the media showed a battle between good economics and youth gone wrong.

Few newspaper editorials for the major newspapers in the days before and after the World Bank/IMF meetings agreed with the protesters’ goals, and none agreed with their tactics. They had no permits or police escort, they got in the way of traffic. They are ineffective and they do not understand the issues. They want to undermine the free market.

Nevertheless, though the capital was not shut down, largely due to the enormous police presence in the city, the protesters were heard. World financial leaders approved a recommendation Sunday that countries with more debt than they can handle should be allowed, essentially, to declare bankruptcy and force lenders to negotiate more lenient repayment terms, a partial victory for the protesters outside the negotiating rooms.

While the protesters beat their drums for change, the former organizers of sit-ins, anti-war parades and civil rights marches cursed traffic inside their giant SUVs and imported luxury sedans. Protest is now a fringe form of political action, taking a back seat to check writing and lobbying. Though most Americans prefer some sort of reduction in the influence of special interests, they simultaneously degrade and deride the alternative voice. Whatever happened to the great champions of 1960s activism?

During the 1960s, legions of protesters marched against racism, sexism and the Vietnam War. The culture of change was embodied in the image of the Kennedy administration, the civil rights movement and the Great Society legislation. Looking back from the current generation, it seems like nearly everyone was in on the activity.

And the 1960s were one of the most successful periods of political activism in history. The effects of that era are still felt today. Some, like the equal rights legislation, are a testament to the ability of our country to improve. Other changes are still debated on the national stage.

But now, that fire for change has calmed down to become a general feeling of not satisfaction, but apathy. Voting levels are lower every year, and protest of nearly any kind is viewed, by the public and the media, with a sense of otherness. But the issues protested are not so far removed from comfortable suburban lives as former activists living the good life with two kids, two cars and a flat screen digital television like to think.

This past weekend was about foreign countries. However, on the front page of every newspaper in the world are events that should not be taken lightly. The United States is cultivating support for a war in the unpredictable Middle East, while many U.S. allies commit human rights abuses every day as bad or even worse than those perpetuated by Saddam Hussein in years past. Within our own borders homosexuals and transsexuals still do not receive equal treatment under anti-discrimination and marriage laws.

There are more than enough issues to keep a population yelling for decades, and yet the American public is curiously quiet. To assume that there is an implicit trust in Congress, the president and the Supreme Court is ludicrous. Where is the outrage, the indignation or at least the impassioned letter to one’s senator?

Nowhere, because the impulse to rebel has faded in the revolutionary generation. The media and the public marginalize young people that feel the need to change, even as they make intelligent arguments and concrete steps toward change. Protest is a legitimate, if forgotten, form of political participation.

Last Friday, one organizer in Washington, when asked what he thought of violent protesters who threw bricks through windows, compared that action instead to the Boston Tea Party. Property damage, he noted, is hardly violence. This country was founded on revolution, shaped by revolution and reshaped by revolution in the 60s. All is not right at home or abroad, the stock market is in the toilet, the world has come unhinged and a pile of rubble is all that is left of the once proud twin office buildings in Manhattan. In a time of such disarray when changes need to be made, should the mouths of the country’s citizens be closed?