Hard Town for Activism

— On the evening of October 11, George W. Bush and Al Gore were in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, being stupid on TV. Gore: "First of all, let me say that if I'm elected president..."

Bush: "If you're happy with inactivity, stay with the horse..."

And so forth.

Meanwhile, across the street from the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park, stationed on a little L-shaped island of grass off President's Way, a group of more than 50 young activists raised a small ruckus. Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, was watching the debate at High Tech High; afterward, he would be blazing into the Hall of Champions for what one of the protest organizers, Steph Sherer, described as "tea and cake with rich Democrats."

The activists, associated with groups like the International Socialist Organization, the Direct Action Network, and Activist San Diego, were demonstrating for several reasons: Ralph Nader's exclusion from the debates, the corporate takeover of the election process and democracy in general, and the sad sameness of Bush and Gore. The protesters, 20-somethings for the most part, negotiated barricade lines with the police, held signs, passed out pamphlets, and orchestrated a variety of agit-prop puppets. They also chanted slogans, either with their lungs or bullhorns -- "Two, four, six, eight, we want Nader to debate!"

That "we want" was really the point of the gathering. At least a strong statement of desire, at most a latent mandate, it testified to the group's determination and sense of purpose. More than a slogan. More than a slogan, it was an action. And it made an impression. Three yellow school buses pulled up near the protest. The high school kids filing out for their field trip to the Old Globe noticed the activists. Some snickered, others looked perplexed but interested. An older gentleman -- dressed, I swear, in an anachronous military uniform and looking rather like one of Hogan's antiheroes -- shuffled around and muttered something about how he, anyway, would be voting for Bush.

For a while, in the early and mid-'90s, a rumor circulated around here that San Diego was going to be the second Seattle, musically speaking. That never happened. No one ever said, however, that San Diego was going to be the second Seattle activist-wise. Just about one year ago, in November 1999, Seattle witnessed the largest mobilization of young radicals in recent memory. To some, Seattle is now more an event than a place. An estimated 70,000 activists, mostly young people, managed to shut down the WTO's Millennium Round through acts of protest, confrontation, and civil disobedience. Many progressive groups believed Seattle was the dawn of a new youth counterculture, finally organized against its faceless enemy -- globalization. Just because today's young people have decided that politics is too corrupt to bother with, the WTO shutdown said, doesn't mean they aren't capable of action on economic and social fronts.

"Ah, youth," the baby-boomers said.

Okay, the movement hasn't been world-changing, but there has been motion, to be sure. Young people, aged 16 to 30, brought their puppets, banners, and bullhorns to the World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., in April; the Republican convention in Philadelphia in July; and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in August. And earlier this year in California, high school students organized a large campaign against Proposition 21, ex-governor Pete Wilson's stringent Juvenile Crime Initiative. Here in San Diego, on February 22, close to 500 students walked out of their classrooms and marched downtown to protest the initiative, which passed on March 7.

According to H. Eric Shockman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern California, "This generation is highly engaged and involved. This idea of 'think globally, act locally' is now starting to become a new rubric or energy for young people acting under banners larger than changing the local park. People are starting to see their causes as linked to others. It's antiglobal, anticapitalism."

Han Shan, 28, is the program director for the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which provides training in the skills of nonviolent civil disobedience. "I'm really encouraged by what I see right now," he says. "To tell you the truth, all that stuff about Gen-X and Gen-Y apathy -- about just wanting to play video games, about waiting for their first IPO and stuff -- that's bullshit. Look at the range of issues that students organize around -- sweatshops, the WTO, sustainability." And add to that health care, social security, English-only laws in schools, school vouchers, sanctions against Cuba and Iraq, Third-World debt....

But what about youth activism here in San Diego? I'm not talking about riding a bike to work, or eating organic, or wearing hemp clothing, but activism, a pragmatic as opposed to theoretical form of protest, a philosophy that presumes things can change when energy is exerted on them. An activism that takes into account what the progressive movements in this country during the '30s and '60s achieved: taking action for the benefit of others. The beach communities in particular seem like fertile ground for youth activism. There's no shortage of young people living between Ocean Beach and Tourmaline Street, and there's no shortage of issues in San Diego to rally around: sewage spills, beach closings, immigration, poverty, a grand jury report detailing mismanagement of Mission Bay. But radicalism, in the beach towns anyway, is just a wistful memory. In August, for example, Ocean Beach held several reunion events for activists from the '60s, and the Ocean Beach Public Library put up a display of their literary paraphernalia.

Was it a requiem for attitudes now deemed quixotic here?

Ocean Beach's Donna Frye, the most prominent environmental activist in San Diego, says, "I don't agree that the youth aren't involved, but, you know, obviously I would like to see a whole lot more. Ocean Beach is still more radicalized than the other areas; the farther north you go, the less activism there is. OB has a lot of community involvement overall. They have been able to maintain their character, which is no easy task. Part of that's to do with the transient nature of Pacific Beach. It just seems that a lot of folks will move in, do their partying, and then find they can't afford it."

Martin Eder, one of the founders of Activist San Diego -- what he calls "an information center for progressives in San Diego" and a training center for young activists -- has been involved with social-justice issues since high school. Eder, 53, lives in Ocean Beach but has just stationed Activist San Diego in the World Beat Center in Balboa Park. "I did go to Seattle," Eder says, "and was terribly enthused to see such a cross-fertilization of youth and experienced activists on a new global agenda."

He won't characterize the state of youth activism in the beach communities, but Eder admits it's a difficult time to organize youth and there's a lot less street activism and visibility here than there used to be. "There are few issues that are affecting such a wide number of people right now as civil rights and Vietnam [did], so large numbers of people aren't being galvanized."

Han Shan agrees. "During the '60s, to be honest, the issues were black and white," he explains. "What kids were being taught and what they were witnessing just did not agree. It was easy to act on your conscience. Today, the issues and the enemies are more disperse. The issues are just more complicated. We're talking about global economy, international trade, international environmental impact. It can be harder to act and mobilize on these issues, harder to identify and act against a culprit."

By all accounts, USC's Shockman says, today's youth care about a variety of issues. "The data says this generation volunteers nationwide in more domains than ever before and that community involvement has taken on a whole new dimension in this cohort."

But, he asks, "Does that mean that they are apolitical, less active on the macro issues?"

Young people in the beaches talk ardently about what concerns them. An informal street poll has abortion rights, race, water, and schools as the major issues on kids' minds, but the step into activism, for the most part, has never occurred to many of them.

Dorian Cruz, 17, is an editor of The Beachcomber, Mission Bay High's school newspaper. "Whatever happens on TV, we talk about it," he says. "We talk about abortion, immigration, stuff like that. Last year I knew some girl who wanted to protest Burlington Coat Factory because they sold fur. I don't know if she did it, but I saw little pamphlets of animals all over school. I'm not sure if she ever did it; I never asked her."

Another editor at the school paper, Amanda Robb, 16, says, "I don't really protest, but I'm very opinionated. I mean, I'm very liberal. I think it's stupid that we can't vote, but I never go to rallies about it. I've thought about it, but I don't really know where to start."

Dan Morales, an OB resident and union organizer, puts it bluntly. "It takes an exceptional person to pick up activism."

Steph Sherer is one of San Diego's busiest young activists. She doesn't live in a beach town, but, ironically, on Banker's Hill. Sherer, 24, has spent five years in activism and is the one staff member at Activist San Diego. She's also the local representative for the Direct Action Network, a Seattle-based group that started planning for the WTO demonstrations months ahead of time. The network mobilized young people for Seattle with street-theater rallies and teach-ins, and then during the protests, it used mobile phones, Ghandian civil-disobedience tactics, and human chains to blockade downtown streets. Sherer was one of the organizers of the debate-night protest in Balboa Park.

Speaking in terms of national trends, Sherer says that it's difficult to get youth to take that step into the streets. "It's really hard to organize; it's really hard work. People don't know about getting on the streets until they see it. That's why WTO helped."

She adds, "There are a lot of people out there that are by themselves; they know things are wrong but can't act on it. Visibility is the only way. It's situational, you know. I mean, the youth aren't being escorted off to war today. The thing is, action isn't organized. First, things happen, issues happen, and then people organize against those issues."

Sherer believes that the origins of disconnectedness in youth are a combination of less parental and more media presence in kids' lives. What concerns her the most is how the media tells young people what a normal life and normal relationships should look like. When reality doesn't measure up, kids start to feel alienated.

"Everyone I meet who's active," she says, "had to go through a process of deprogramming themselves."

On the topic of local activism, Sherer says, "San Diego's a really hard town to organize in. I wanted to compile a history of activism in San Diego, to give people a sense of connectedness. I found out that Mother Jones was tarred and feathered in San Diego. You know, people aren't used to seeing people on the streets here." She pauses. "It's a very challenging city, but you know, it's a strange transformation to activism."

To make that metamorphosis easier, Sherer helps organize local action camps with Activist San Diego and the Direct Action Network. Like the higher-profile camps sponsored by the Ruckus Society, the purpose of these camps, Sherer explains, "is to share resources and experiences. Anything from puppet-making and banner-making to legal workshops for knowing your rights at a demonstration. We also do nonviolence training and anti-oppression. Activist San Diego's more about education, training for Internet resources, and media work, while Direct Action's more about creating a space for people to feel comfortable on the streets. I'm more comfortable with confrontation. I teach workshops on police negotiation and being a police liaison at actions."

Sherer says that this sort of training came in handy during the action in Balboa Park on October 11. "When we got to Hall of Fame," she explains, "they had already constructed a free-speech zone behind some barricades. We said, 'We won't stand in that' and went across the street. We made them move things around; we told them what to do. We teach people how to not be pushed around so that you're a block away from the meeting you're protesting."

Sherer sympathizes with those people who are reluctant to take action. "There's a lot of fear," she says. "There's a lot of police brutality in this country. Some people think that breaking windows is the only tactic, and we try to show them other methods. We let them know they have a right to be in the street, that we do have legal counsel for them if they're arrested."

Puppets, she adds, are wonderful symbols for activists. "We don't have access to television. Even if we had the money, we wouldn't be allowed to put ads on television. Puppets are a way of bringing a political message in universal symbols and art that anyone can glimpse. The whole art side of the political realm is a place where we aren't in our head. Sometimes things can't be explained."

Listening to Sherer deconstruct tactics and puppets calls to mind what author Naomi Klein said in The Nation recently about activism. "Protest," she wrote, "has gone postmodern: less about the issues than the tactics, the permits, the police response, the trials afterward -- protesting about protesting itself."

Well, yes and no. Today's young people do seem to spend a great deal of time pondering the methods of activism, but Seattle's reverberations are prompting action, even here in San Diego. While Sherer and I are talking, she has to excuse herself every several minutes. She's busy planning San Diego's version of the International Day of Action against Citigroup, that "big boy of Wall Street" that finances the global economy. She's looking for the face of what many young people call the enemy. When she finds it, she gets in it.

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