A generation awakens

The American left finds its voice

Jay Feldman is the Davis author of the book Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America
Learn more about Occupy Wall Street at http://occupywallst.org.
To find out more about Occupy Sacramento, visit http://occupysac.com.

The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City and are now spreading to dozens of other cities across the nation, including Sacramento, are heartening—not only for their underlying I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore sentiment, but because they represent the kernel of a grassroots mass-protest movement on the left, the likes of which has not been seen in this country for decades.

Filled with the idealism of youth, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are the latest incarnation in a line of progressive, populist voices that goes back at least to the union struggles of the 1930s and the Great Depression, but which have been silent for more than 30 years.

My grandparents and parents were part of the labor movement of the ’30s. In the anti-labor climate of today, it is largely forgotten that the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, the collective-bargaining rights and the paid vacations that we take for granted came about only as a result of organized labor’s relentless efforts, which included the blood—and even lives—of many striking workers. It is also generally overlooked that just 80 years ago there was no Social Security, no workers’ compensation, no child-labor laws, no minimum wage.

It was only pressure from the left that led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which created the aforementioned workers’ rights and reformed American society, correcting some of the grosser injustices that existed at that time.

Three decades later, following the Cold War Red Scare—during which the House Un-American Activities Committee and the notorious Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy held America hostage—new reformist voices emerged. The civil-rights movement, student movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, women’s movement and back-to-the-land movement combined to energize a new generation—mine.

When I speak in public, the person introducing me sometimes mentions that I was arrested in the 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, and upon hearing this, many people—younger people in particular—are visibly awed. The movement was the genesis of the student unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, and an integral component of the larger rebellion that once again brought about profound change in this country.

I also took part in civil-rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. Early on, these efforts were scorned, red-baited and otherwise marginalized. With years of persistence, however, the rallies, marches, sit-ins and teach-ins grew to critical mass, leading to the end of both segregation and the Vietnam War.

I was also involved in the back-to-the-land movement and lived on a rural commune. We were among the pioneers who brought sustainable living and organic farming to the consciousness of the United States.

But during the course of the Reagan years, the two Bush administrations, and President Bill Clinton’s two terms, the center in American politics shifted increasingly to the right, leaving the voice of the American left a bare whisper.

There have been occasional stirrings, most notably the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war demonstrations before the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but they failed to gain traction with the American public.

Now, however, comes Occupy Wall Street, a movement whose slogan is, “We are the 99 percent!” Unlike the tea party, which grew out of anger at government, this new group has its roots in the frustration of rampant unemployment, widespread foreclosures and the glaring inequity of the differences between their own situations and that of the other 1 percent who constitute the ruling class.

The movement is spreading exponentially as the Occupy Wall Street people are using social media to drive the movement, just as these media fueled the Arab Spring. The momentum is infectious, and it feels as if change might truly be in the air, as if we might once again be inching toward a watershed moment in U.S. history.

Progress is made only in small increments. As with the movements of the ’30s and of the ’60s and ’70s, I have every hope that this new manifestation will move us ahead by another small step.

The main thing, though, is that a new generation has found its voice. Good for them.