Then . . .

Where Have All the Protests Gone?

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A brief survey of current events:

The stock market has gone nuts, and the federal government is treating Wall Street with experimental cures that will cost nearly $1 trillion. An unpopular foreign war, now in its sixth year, has resulted in more than 4,100 American deaths. For the first time in history, the presidential campaign includes an African American candidate for president and a Republican female candidate for vice president.

Taken together, these data points give this moment in American history a once-in-a-great-while feel of Something Large. But if this is truly a pivot in time, its most peculiar feature may be how un-peculiar it feels. For all the social and political upheaval, for all the 60-point headlines and for all the bipartisan calls for change, there is plenty of unease -- but a very notable lack of unrest.

It's as though the gods of turmoil threw a party and nobody came. When was the last time you saw a street protest? Or a burning effigy? Or a teach-in? Or a boycott? It's kind of odd: We have the sense that this is an emergency, but open the window and give a listen. There aren't any sirens.

How come?

Washington Square Park, near Greenwich Village, seemed like a good place to pose that question. Forty years ago, this was one of the city's counterculture epicenters, a frequent site of protests and rallies and as close to an open-air drug market as one could find downtown. If you had been near the south entrance at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1968, you would have witnessed a spectacle: New York University students shouting obscenities at Ambassador Nguyen Huu Chi, South Vietnam's permanent observer to the United Nations, who had come to lecture at the nearby Loeb Center. A Nazi flag was tossed around his neck, and then someone poured a pitcher of water over his head.

Last Sunday, by contrast, the park looked serene. A jazz band played, a street juggler performed, and the only sign of politics was the "Bakin' for Barack" sale in the northeast corner. "Make a donation, take a treat," read the sign next to the slices of banana bread and chocolate chip cookies.

"My sense is that nobody feels they can make a difference in the same way that students did in 1968," said Sachin Makani, 29, a graduate student in neuroscience and one of a handful of people collecting money here. "A lot of us don't see the point in rallying in the streets."

As a historical reference point, 1968 is useful not just because it was an election year that unfolded in the midst of a grim and protracted foreign war. It was also the high-water mark for exactly the kind of radical activism that seems largely absent today, apart from the occasional horde that shows up whenever the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meet.

The differences go well beyond the occasional attack on visiting dignitaries. The culture back then was suffused in the atmospherics of insurrection. There were celebrity radicals, such as Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary. The Beatles, who only a few years earlier wanted to hold your hand, were singing "Revolution." There was a lot of talk about "the system" and how to avoid it, destroy it or drop out of it.

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