No Activism?

Sometimes, activism can seem like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Every activist has heard people say: “Nothing ever changes. Things are the way they are and that’s how it is and always will be. All your complaining and noise will do nothing to change anything.”

But imagine what the world would be like without activists:

Women would be stuck at home raising babies or have an extremely narrow range of job choices if there had been no women’s liberation activism in the past few decades. There’d be no daycare, a husband striking a wife would still be legal and abortions would be illegal in all circumstances.

Homosexuality would be illegal, without the gay rights movement of the past few decades.

Without the environmental activists of the last forty years, there’d be no clean air or clean water legislation, no ban on harmful pesticides, no preservation of species acts, no limits to fishing methods, no restrictions on logging, a lot fewer parks, a lot more nuclear power plants, a lot more dirty coal-fired power plants, a lot more dams, less efficient car engines, less efficient refrigerators and washing machines and an even bigger hole in the earth’s ozone layer.

Without the world-wide struggle to end apartheid from the 1950s to the 1990s, and especially the courageous activism of South Africans themselves, the white minority would still be in power.

If there had not been civil rights activists from the 1920s until today, there would still be segregation in the United States, Asians would not be able to vote in Canada or other white settler states and native peoples throughout the Americas and other continents would not have even minimal citizenship rights.

If there had been no anti-war activists in the 1960s and 70s, Vietnam may not have united.

If there had been no worldwide demonstrations of support for Solidarnosc in Poland, Socialism with a Human Face in Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian Uprising, it would have been much easier for the Russian troops to remain throughout Eastern Europe.

Without the millions of anti-colonial activists from the 1920s to the 1970s, Africa, the Caribbean and most of Asia would still “belong” to European powers.

Without the suffragette activists from the late 1800s well into this century, women would not have the right to vote.

Without millions of union activists around the world over the past 150 years, there would be no limits on the working day, children everywhere would still work instead of attend school, there’d be no public or private pensions, no unemployment insurance, no disability insurance, no health and safety legislation, no workers’ compensation, no minimum wage, no vacation pay, no statutory holiday pay, no equal pay for work of equal value, no grievance procedure, no overtime, a lot poorer wages and unlimited management rights.

Without the labor activists who worked with millions of social activists over the past 150 years, there’d be no vote for anyone except for a privileged few white men, no public school system, no public universities, no retirement legislation or social security, no public healthcare systems, no right to join a union, no welfare systems, no public health systems, a lot poorer sewage and potable water systems, no graduated income tax, no income tax and no social programs of any kind.

Without the anti-slavery activists of the 1800s there would still be millions of people bought and sold, then transported against their will to distant parts of the world where they would often be worked to death.

One of the very best examples of what can be accomplished by organized and dedicated student activists is the Berkeley Free Speech movement. In 1934 the president of the University of California at Berkeley banned all political and religious activity from the campus. On numerous occasions over the years students attempted to overturn the ban but a concerted campaign didn’t materialize until 1964 when the university administration declared a stretch of Telegraph Avenue, the Bancroft strip, just outside the main gate to the Berkeley campus, off limits for political activity. The area had become associated with demonstrations against Berkeley and Oakland businesses that practised discrimination. The conservative university regents pressured Berkeley to close this recruiting ground for activists and restrict student agitation in adjacent areas.

The free speech controversy then exploded from registration week in September through December 10th, 1964. An alliance of student groups including socialist groups, religious organizations, civil rights groups, the Young Democrats and Young Republicans came together. According to a graduate student report, “The original rule changes desired by the students fall into four categories. They opposed the university ban on fund-raising and selling literature… the ban on recruiting members on campus and holding membership meetings… They asked the university to rescind rules which ‘harassed’ the flow of ideas: the rule requiring 72-hour notification if an off-campus speaker is to speak on campus, the rule requiring a tenured faculty member to moderate all political and all ‘controversial’ meetings; and the practice of billing groups for police protection if the university decided it wanted policemen at the meeting… The students regarded the ban on ‘advocacy’ as a direct infringement of their Constitutional guarantees of free speech. They opposed any restriction on advocacy, but the details of the student position took different forms as the administration changed its position.” (www.fsm-a.org) After the suspension of eight prominent activists, students added a demand for the university’s police and judicial powers to be separated so that instead of the chancellor having control over disciplinary matters the faculty be given jurisdiction in disputes arising over the rules on political activity.

After some 800 people were arrested in a peaceful sit-in the events reached the point where on Friday December 4, 8,000 students attended a Free Speech Movement afternoon rally. “[A] strike on December 3-4 was supported by 60 to 70 percent of the [27,000-strong] student body” and most teachers assistants and even faculty supported it. On December 8 the academic senate voted 824-115 in favor of the substantive demands of the FSM and by January the regents had more or less given in to student demands.

It’s interesting to learn that students back in the 1960s were fighting some of the very same battles that we faced at Concordia University in Montreal in the 21st century. The university administration often arbitrarily added extra security, especially for Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and Muslim Students Association events, and passed the prohibitive costs on to the student groups. The room bookings department and security regularly delayed authorization for political events. It was Concordia’s equivalent to the regents, the Board of Governors, that banned student activities, political or otherwise, in the major areas of the university in the aftermath of the protest that prevented former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus. And the battle to maintain the division of police and judicial powers, to stop Concordia’s Rector from being judge, jury and executioner, continues. It seems no matter where in the world students take action, especially if successful, we are faced with similar battles to limit our ability to freely express and organize ourselves.

Students also played a major role in the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Students in France in 1968 joined with unions and other organizations bringing millions of people into the street to successfully demand major societal change. In the same year Czech students and others confronted tanks in what seemed at the time like a major defeat for democracy, but which in hindsight is seen as a critical event ultimately leading to the dismantling of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. Students also played a key role in demanding democracy in Latin America, Burma, Korea, China, Pakistan and throughout Africa.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but the message is clear: Activism works. Without people willing to put in time and effort, sometimes even risking their lives to confront the system, the world would be a much worse place for the vast majority of humanity. Throughout every age, going back to the beginning of human thought, some people (usually the richest and most powerful) claimed that the way things were was the very best civilization could ever offer. Other people dreamed of improving the world and of doing things a different way. The two sides have always clashed and out of that confrontation has come change and progress.

Through the ages activism has required people who are willing to dream, to discuss and to act. Those who have done this have given humanity so much. To me, activism seems the least we can do for our future.

The above is an edited excerpt from Playing Left Wing — From Rink Rat to Student Radical published by Fernwood Publishers. It is available in the U.S. through Independent Publishers Group and online at www.clamormagazine.com. It is available online in Canada at www.turning.ca.
Yves Engler will be touring universities throughout March and April. If you are interested in organising an event e-mail:yvesengler@hotmail.com

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