Social Movements over the Last Two Decades

Posted July 21, 2008


he re-emergence of the civil rights movement following World War II inspired and propelled forward all of the oppositional and liberation movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. After Jim Crow was defeated, the struggle for African-American freedom and self determination moved north. Here the movement faced considerable challenges confronting the myriad ways in which institutionalized racism is embedded in the country’s economic and social institutions. Some militants faced surveillance and state repression. Others were drawn into the Democratic Party, which systematically demobilized the mass movement responsible for winning significant concessions in the first place. The onslaught of neoliberalism was also particularly damaging to African-American communities in urban centers, as industry departed for the suburbs or the right-to-work states in the South. “Good” jobs declined. Poorer Blacks, unable or unwilling to leave cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta or New Orleans, were faced with deteriorating parks, libraries, schools and housing. Racism was the wedge whereby social programs won in the 1930s and ‘60s were cut, with the urban poor blamed for their deepening poverty. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, lack of governmental assistance, both beforehand and afterward, perfectly symbolized the political marginalization of urban African Americans trapped in poverty. Even in the face of these tremendous difficulties, the political legacy of the Black freedom movement lives on through ideas and organization. Formations such as the Black Radical Congress, Million Worker March, and the recent Black Left Unity indicate a desire to regroup and renew a Black liberation agenda nationally.

For draft-age youth in the 1960s opposition to the Vietnam War was a pivotal experience. The antiwar movement, like other movements, began as a minority but “infected” the general population, including U.S. soldiers at home and abroad. Many activists not only demonstrated against the war, but studied the history of U.S. intervention and saw the links between the war Washington waged in Vietnam and larger foreign policy. With the end of the Vietnam War and the collapse of the Portuguese revolution, two international struggles dominated the 1980s: southern Africa –specifically the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime and its military domination of the region – and Central America, with its revolutionary possibilities and the fight against Washington’s intervention. There was the promise of the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and revolutionary upsurges in El Salvador and Guatemala, with Honduras a U.S. base for launching Reagan’s “low intensity war.” Throughout the 1980s a wide range of U.S. anti-intervention and solidarity networks, projects and coalitions sustained activity, with more than 100,000 U.S. citizens visiting, studying and working in Nicaragua alone. A few, like Ben Linder, lost their lives there. Many activists, including a large proportion of women, became radicalized in this process. Most did not come out of the traditional left.

The flowering of mass-based community organizations in South Africa along with the founding in 1985 of COSATU, a federation of Black trade unions with an emphasis on shop-floor, democratic structures, produced a sustained struggle that included comprehensive sanctions against the South African government. Along with solidarity movements in other countries, the U.S. anti-apartheid movement grew and became strong enough to force universities to divest and secure passage of Congressional sanctions over President Reagan’s opposition. By 1990 the DeKlerk government was forced to unban political organizations and free Nelson Mandela.

President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 set the stage for a quarter-century of strikes and lockouts, most of which (but not all) ended in concessions: PATCO, Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel & P-9, Eastern Airlines, International Paper, the mineworkers at Pittston, Detroit newspaper strike, NYNEX, UPS, American Axle. These defensive struggles against corporate attack gave rise to a culture of solidarity and a diverse use of tactics including roving pickets, mass demonstrations, strike support committees, picket lines, sympathy strikes, civil disobedience, direct action, solidarity tours, boycotts, corporate campaigns and even a plant occupation at Pittston, West Virginia. While the victory at Pittston included defying a court injunction, the defeat of P-9 at Hormel signaled the gutting of militant unionism throughout the industry. In general the anti-concession battles lost because the employer had a strategy for winning and, despite high levels of solidarity, most unions didn’t. The fight begun in the 1960s to democratize the unions – among miners, teamsters, autoworkers, railroad workers and postal workers — has been pushed back, with only the miners and teamsters partially succeeding. But without the rank and file being able to discuss and debate strategy, it’s hard to imagine how the culture of concessions can be reversed.

By the 1980s aggressive lending by the major banks led to the Third World debt crisis and IMF “structural adjustment programs” that drove millions from their land. A series of U.S. military interventions and civil wars displaced millions more. While the U.S. immigrant population had been stagnant throughout the 1960s, by 2004 it had risen fourfold (approximately 34.2 million). Although some are admitted on the basis of their professional or technical skills, most are poor people fleeing U.S. intervention or its “free trade” policies. The new, and poor, immigrants earn significantly less than the average U.S. worker. They are far more likely to be found in manual or service occupations where the job is traditionally low paid (agriculture, food preparation, hospitality industry, and domestic work) or became low paid because of industrial restructuring (building trades and meatpacking). While California, New York, Florida and Texas are the destination for the majority, the South now employees almost a third of the immigrant work force. These workers bring social networks and, sometimes, radical political traditions from their home countries. They have developed new forms of organization in the face of union retreat, and political attacks such as “English only” legislation or refusal by various states to issue drivers’ licenses to immigrants.

The explosion of one-day strikes and economic boycotts that defeated 2006 the Sensenbrenner bill demonstrated an impressive level of organization. As with the African-American movement, the immigrant rights movement has attempted to forge national networks to coordinate its struggle against discrimination at the workplace and in the community. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) mass workplace raids, detentions, deportations that tear families apart and the active participation of some local police in these practices have become a reign of terror against legal as well as “illegal” immigrant communities. Struggling to stop these obscene abuses of state power and recognize that no human being is “illegal” is essential.

Student activism has its own dynamics, and can inspire motion in other sectors, but in general it reflects the downward momentum of the social movements. At times students have organized around specifically campus-focused issues, such as during the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. But unlike many other countries, the university system here is organized on a statewide rather than federal basis, limiting opportunities for organizing a national movement around student issues. Nonetheless throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, campus activists developed networks to coordinate labor solidarity, environmental, antiwar, global justice and anti-racist activism. Campus women’s and multicultural centers, fights against political repression on campus, and activism focused on recruitment and retention of students of color have also been important sites of struggle and places where young activists radicalize. Into the new millennium, existing student formations like United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), Student Farmworker Alliance, and the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) have been bolstered by the emergence of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as well as episodic mobilizations such as by those around the Jena 6.

The rise of feminism in the late ‘60s forced U.S. society to change some of its laws, many of its assumptions and some of its language — but today’s culture wars are still being waged over women’s bodies. In 1970, on the fiftieth anniversary of women winning suffrage, women’s demands were equal rights, the right to birth control and abortion and the right to low-cost, quality child care. None of them have been secured.

Although the Supreme Court established women’s right to abortion at least during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, hundreds of laws have been enacted to blunt that right. Most importantly, the Hyde Amendment severely curtails poor women’s right to obtain Medicaid-paid for abortions. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s right-wing mobilization at the clinic doors gave rise to a counter movement defending women’s right to abortion. Solidarity members were actively involved. Today the right organizes periodic mobilizations, including a two-week confrontation in Atlanta, and Solidarity members continue to defend women’s rights at the clinic doors.

Both socialist feminists and women of color affirm the reality that women’s reproductive needs include more than the right to abortion: access to scientific information about their bodies, the right to appropriate birth control, the right to chose or not choose sterilization, the right to have, and raise, children in a safe environment. Since the early 1980s a number of women of color organizations have been established including Black Women’s Health Project (now defunct), Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and SisterSong, a network. These organizations tend to center their philosophical perspective around a human rights agenda and are usually involved in a variety of community issues: housing campaigns, LGBTQ issues, Katrina solidarity work, establishing clinics.

Taking cues from the New Left’s revitalization of political radicalism and the counterculture and sexual revolution, a gay liberation movement emerged. In the years following the 1969 Stonewall Riot, the movement’s aims expanded beyond the individual rights focus of earlier “homophile” organizations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Gay Liberation activists attacked conservative social norms, patriarchy, imperialism and the state; their political coalitions and language presented a common front with Black Power, radical feminism, anti-imperialism and other left movements. By the late 1970s, however, this initial energy had tapered; political strategy moved from a systemic critique to focus on achieving political and social equality for gays and lesbians within the existing the social framework, replacing direct action with reform-oriented lobbying and electoral tactics. While the mainstream “gay civil rights” organizations established during this period continue to dominate, the criminal negligence to the AIDS crisis breathed new radicalism into the movement. Militant organizations like ACT UP won significant victories and dramatically raised awareness of the devastation caused by the virus; as the “at-risk” population broadened, diverse coalitions for health care justice fought lack of access to AIDS treatment. Today a new generation of activists dedicated to radically re-imagining the possibilities for human sexuality and gender expression uses the language of “qeer liberation,” much as earlier activists distanced themselves from more cautious elders by demanding gay power.

Another movement that developed during the 1980s is the environmental justice movement. Initiated by African-American community and environmental activists, it expanded the environmental struggle to reveal how the deadly contradictions of capitalism reinforce structural racism. For example, garbage dumps and coal-burning plants are placed in people of color communities, with resulting health disaster. This has enlarged the mission and base of the environmental movement.

Finally, the development of the global justice movement challenged the institutions through which U.S. and other capital has dominated the world since World War II. It allowed for impressive mobilizations against various IMF, World Bank and Davos meetings, but also for a thoughtful exposé of how capitalism creates tremendous poverty by redistributing wealth from the poor to the wealthy. The movement was able to attract labor and students, and was beginning to link up with people of color-led organizations only to be undercut by the “war on terror” in the aftermath of 9/11.

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