A group of survivors of the civil rights, student, anti-war, women and consumer movements of the 1960s gathered in this bitterly cold city this weekend under a new banner: democracy.
They did a lot of talking about words once considered unfashionable in what was once known as the New Left: family, flag, neighborhood, church.
There also was a great deal of discussion about another American tradition: raising hell with the government.
The gathering at Macalester College brought together some of the most effective hell raisers the political left produced during the '60s. Most are now seeking a "new progressive agenda." A few, like consumer advocate Ralph Nader, have national reputations.
But most were the Far Left's well known. From Chicago came Heather Booth, once a leading figure in the anti-war, student and civil rights movements. From San Francisco came Mike Miller, who first began organizing protest groups at Berkeley in 1957. From Washington came Lee Webb, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society.
The sessions, sponsored by the Minnesota Citizens Heritage Center, provided an instructive look at what has happened to a generation of political activists.
The group now looks decidedly middle class. Some are professors; others work for the government or foundations. Still others head their own private organizations.
"This is a bunch of people in it for the long haul. They are the survivors," said Lawrence Goodwyn, a populist historian and former civil rights activist. "This isn't a gathering for those who want instant solutions. Those people left us a long time ago."
No new progressive agenda emerged from the three-day meeting of about 400, which included leaders of local groups, one congressman, Rep. Arlen Erdahl (R-Minn.), a handful of conservatives and one bank president.
Many are as disillusioned with liberal politics as they are with conservative ones.
In fact, some of the bitterest words were directed against the liberal social programs of the '60s. "Can you imagine Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine writing a request for funds to the British Crown to be used for increasing colonial participation?" asked Mike Miller.
"Giant corporations and their relentless search for profits are one of the forces destroying communities; another is unaccountable government; a third is a dependency fostered by many of the government agencies and the so-called helping professions."
Many of the old activists have spent the last few years training local and state groups who are working on such conventional issues as cutting utility rates, stopping expressway construction and condominium conversions, and approving schools. Conference organizer Harry C. Boyte, a veteran civil rights and anti-poverty worker, said they are part of an "invisible" movement of local citizen groups that numbers 15 million.
As a group, the old activists were surprisingly optimistic about the 1980s. But they see the battleground for the decade in the city halls, neighborhoods and state houses of America, not in Washington.
Webb anticipated some of this change years ago. He became disillusioned with the radicalness of the student movement in the mid-60s and returned to his home in Vermont, where he was elected a justice of the peace. He now is director of the Conference on State and Local Policies in Washington.
"We're all searching and exploring for a new progressive agenda," he said. "The defeats of the Democrats in 1978 and 1980 have thrown a lot of the traditional liberal assumptions into a tizzy.
"My feeling is the real agenda for progressive victories are in states, cities and counties. With the Reagan administration, a lot of the decisions that used to be made in Congress are going to be made in city halls and state houses. The action won't be in Washington."
The conference spotlighted a number of such efforts. Beatrice Cortes, president of a San Antonio group called COPS, said her organization had persuaded banks to change their lending policies by tying up teller windows for hours. COPS sent groups of senior citizens with $5 worth of pennies to line up at the windows; when they got to the front of the line, the senior citizens would change their pennies into nickels. And then they would return to the end of the line to change the nickels back into pennies.
Nader said activists in Wisconsin persuaded the state legislature to pass a law requiring utility companies to put notices into monthly utility bills. The notices said, "Read this before you pay your bill," told of a proposed rate increase, and asked, "Isn't enough enough?"
Anne Kasten, an American Agriculture Movement leader, said her group is lobbying the Minnesota legislature to pass a bill that would make it illegal for any agriculture product to leave state boundaries unless the farmers were paid at least the cost of producing the product.
Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan and not the liberal Democrats who first picked up on the stirrings of the neighborhood groups around the country, most here agreed. "Liberal politicians and the left are condescending to community organizations," said Boyte. "They have a bias against community roots and values like the neighborhood, patriotism and the church. That's what we're trying to get back to."
"When I first heard Ronald Reagan say that what he believed in was family, neighborhood, work, peace and prosperity, I was stunned," said Booth, a former SDS member and now president of the Midwest Academy, which trains organizers for local groups.
"Then, I found what he meant: family by subjugating women, neighborhood by disinvestment, work through unemployment, peace through war and prosperity by giving away our resources to some of our richest corporations."
The conference ended with a nostalgic touch as the group sang a number of protest songs including "We Shall Not be Moved" and "Solidarity Forever."
Some, like Robert Woodson, who worked with civil rights groups in the '60s were not impressed. "It all reminds me of the 1960s," he said.