James William Fulbright, a United States Senator representing Arkansas from 1945 to 1975, was a politician who opposed Brown v. Board of Education, but supported formation of the United Nations and came to oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam. So he wasn’t someone easily categorized. Fulbright once said: “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste, but in its effects.” In the 60’s and 70’s during Fulbright’s tenure, the medicine of dissent was everywhere and the taste of it was certainly not to everyone’s liking.
Historical perspective might be one reason it matters that students protested at a Santa Monica College Board of Trustees meeting where some of them were pepper-sprayed. But another would certainly be that because of the protest, their voices were heard and had an effect: The Trustees voted unanimously to cancel a pilot “self-funded” supplemental program that would have dramatically increased the cost of some courses.
College officials had been looking for ways to improve access to classes at a time when state budget cuts have reduced SMC’s course offerings. Like so many other things right now, the money needs to come from somewhere. But students were vocal about having the burden dumped on them; vocal to the point of causing campus police to attempt to move them out of an overcrowded hallway outside a Board of Trustees meeting by deploying pepper spray. Two reviews, one by SMC police and another independent of that one, will be conducted concerning the incident.
Globally we’ve been witnessing an explosion of dissent, of pushing back after being shoved. And while SMC students protesting course fees may not meet the standard of resistance we are associating with uprisings like the “Arab Spring” revolutions or the horror in Syria, all these events share expression of outrage by standing up to authority literally and quite physically. There’s no question that the ensuing physicality of the student protest brought the SMC Board of Trustees back into session just days after the pepper spray had dissipated for a three-and-a-half hour meeting that included an estimated 55 speakers. In Wisconsin, the overwhelming presence of thousands protesting Governor Scott Walker translated into a million signatures compelling a recall election. As recently as Tuesday protestors showed up outside the luxurious homes of ‘one-percent’ corporate leaders such as Meg Whitman. People are up and moving.
In the 60’s and 70’s, Americans feared the anger in the streets. Last Sunday’s episode of the period depiction series “Mad Men” included a storyline in which a female African American employee slept on the sofa of a white female co-worker because the black woman feared no cab would carry her to her home “past 96th Street” in New York due to racial tensions flaring in other American cities. Even though those times are still clearly remembered by many, there seems to be a general sense that something with the scope of the anti-Mubarek uprising in Egypt could never happen here; that we’ve had our times like that and we’ve moved past deadly street actions.
Yet recent demonstrations of dissent in America have been politically productive. The “Occupy” events have finally pulled our schisms of class and wealth into focus, now making it impossible to discuss income taxes without identifying and acknowledging those gaps. The shooting of Trayvon Martin had a “Get up on your feet and let them hear you” response that surprised many. And when law enforcement deploys crowd control weapons like pepper spray against citizens, as it did variously in clearing “Occupy” camps, there is a subsequent push-back on social media sites that becomes the digital equivalent of poking a hornet’s nest. It’s reasonable to say that while the intensity and violence of recent American dissent in the streets may not compare exactly to 60’s and 70’s revolt, there is growing recognition of its similar potential for bringing change.
This is not to posit that we are ramping toward a deeper and more encompassing revolt that will fill the streets any minute now. But one does get the sense that more and more Americans, in regard to a wider range of issues, are refusing to sit it out anymore. From young people camping in tents in public areas to slick TV commercials suggesting that members of AARP get riled up about Medicaid and speak out at meetings, the mood right now reminds one of a Talking Heads lyric: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain’t got time for that now.”
One view might be that a lot of what is considered “politics” has become mere distraction, and that the only thing that cuts through are physical manifestations of dissent. What started out as the occasional cream pie or egg thrown, or a dousing with glitter, has now grown into months of occupation and intense one-day confrontations that result in dozens pepper-sprayed and several rushed off to hospitals even here in tranquil Santa Monica. Something has turned, and a new seriousness has Americans of all ages and stripes heading out the door to attend the rally or demonstration. At the very moment that news channels were likely chewing their brain-numbing cud of a possible Republican nominee for the one-millionth time, students at SMC were physically resisting having a burden of cost placed on their backs. As one of those protesting might have sung in a revised lyric, “No funny Mitt jokes, farewell Santorum, I ain’t got time for that now.”
Contact Steve Stajich