‘The Sixties’ should be respected

Chelsey Perkins

One of my good friends told me the other day that he hoped the protests at the Republican National Convention next September are the biggest the nation has seen since the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. Although locally we’ve been more focused on the RNC, groups in Denver have the same idea as they prepare for the Democratic National Convention in August.

One of the main groups involved in the planning process calls themselves “Re-create 68,” in reference to the tumultuous protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On the group’s Web site, they define themselves as “a youthful group who has realized that Ö we have only produced apathy in our communities” rather than a “throwback group trying to relive some vision of glory days long gone.” They insist that “sometimes we need to look back to move forward.”

Although I see the parallels the group is attempting to make between the political climates of 1968 and today, it is counterproductive to make such comparisons.

In the preface to “Letters from Young Activists,” Bernardine Dohrn, a self-described “aging ‘sixties’ Midwest gal,” writes: “It is clear that the sixties, which was never really The Sixties, is being wielded as a bludgeon against you, a barrier, a legendary era that can never be equaled today.”

For those of us who long for an engaged electorate and the people power necessary to overturn imperialist and racist policies in today’s world, “The Sixties” looms as a heroic time that brought about tremendous change and whose political movements were the very definition of radical militancy. Activists involved in intergenerational organizing today often face challenges of comparisons between now and then.

I believe we need to move beyond the romanticized era that’s been sold back to us through tie-dye clothing, bastardizations of “free love” and drug-induced hippy-dippy hazes. It is important to recognize and respect the achievements of our activist predecessors, but it is impossible to recreate the moment in which they lived.

Instead, activists of today need to create our own moment. Although looking back it might seem as though activists in the ’60s were predestined to their political successes, they did not know what laid ahead anymore than we do now. We do not know how much longer the United States will remain in Iraq; we do not know how many men, women and children starving in our own country it will take before our flawed economic system is corrected or rebuilt entirely; we do not know how long it will take for the lives of people in the Global South to be assigned the same value as those of us to the North.

We are living in a set of circumstances unique to any other time period in the history of our planet, just as those in the ’60s were. It is up to us to define who we are and what we want, and to keep the lessons of the past in mind as we build toward the future.

Dohrn leaves us with a few questions, the answers for which remain to be seen: “What are today’s crises of human rights and how will we be remembered? For what we did and for what we failed to do? How do we narrate and act in this historical moment?”

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]