Fight for our right?

Our generation needs to learn the art of civil disobedience

John Sharkey

There’s nothing quite like singing “Wonderwall” in a packed subway car.

Effective June 1, the city of London banned all alcohol on public transportation. We might be surprised that boozing in the Underground was legal in the first place, but the step was moderately controversial. More importantly, it meant: Tube Party. Nobody is quite sure how many people turned out to give liquored transport a proper sendoff (most newspaper reports simply refer to the “thousands of revelers”), but we do know that 17 people were arrested and six stations were shut down. A shame, too – everyone should have the chance to sing Oasis in a subway next to a dude in a Chewbacca suit.

On Sunday, about two weeks later, President George W. Bush arrived in London as part of his European “Good Riddance” tour. Early news reports have the number of protesters pegged at around 2,000 and the number of arrests at a mere 13. Last time Bush was in town (in 2003), the protesters numbered in the tens of thousands.

That’s quite an embarrassing contrast. A few thousand people, in a city of more than seven million, mean nothing. We have a generational problem on our hands: protests are the domain of the young, but the young haven’t shown much interest in taking to the streets.

The problem isn’t isolated to London. We’ve had our fair share of puny anti-war protests on campus. (Remember the 200-person march back in March? I thought not.) Luckily, we in the Twin Cities are getting quite the chance for redemption this fall when the Republicans roll into the Excel Center. Get your signs ready now, kids.

Last week, my astute colleague wondered in this very space what the anti-war protests are meant to achieve. Jason Stahl is quite right to fear the after-effects of convention violence – Chicago, ’68 surely helped Nixon into office. The downsides to protesting are notable. But fundamentally, organizing protests serves a crucial function in a democracy: the assertion of control.

We all want a government accountable to the people, not vice versa. Voting is important, but doesn’t take place regularly enough to be an effective control all on its own. The masses need to be able to register their displeasure effectively. That’s where protests come in.

The current discouragement of the anti-war crowd is understandable, but that makes this fall all the more important. A McCain victory would be the death knell. More than any other time, we need to make a clear statement: the status quo is unacceptable. If the people control the country, and the people want to end the way, the people need to make that clear. And as the reigning youth in this country (and this city), it’s up to us to set the tone. If Sen. John McCain wants to run on a “more and longer wars” platform, we need to fight that.

We’re to the point now with this war where none of the options are particularly palpable. The risk of violence may be high during heated protest. But that’s a risk worth taking, if the alternative is remaining silent. Besides, I need a bit of soul-cleansing myself: I was on the tube two weeks ago, and watched Bush meet Gordon Brown on Sunday on a TV mere blocks from 10 Downing Street. Practice what you preach, right?

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]