San Diego On the evening of October 11, George W. Bush and Al Gore were in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, being stupid on TV. Gore: "First of all, let me say that if I'm elected president..."
Bush: "If you're happy with inactivity, stay with the horse..."
And so forth.
Meanwhile, across the street from the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park, stationed on a little L-shaped island of grass off President's Way, a group of more than 50 young activists raised a small ruckus. Gore's running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, was watching the debate at High Tech High; afterward, he would be blazing into the Hall of Champions for what one of the protest organizers, Steph Sherer, described as "tea and cake with rich Democrats."
The activists, associated with groups like the International Socialist Organization, the Direct Action Network, and Activist San Diego, were demonstrating for several reasons: Ralph Nader's exclusion from the debates, the corporate takeover of the election process and democracy in general, and the sad sameness of Bush and Gore. The protesters, 20-somethings for the most part, negotiated barricade lines with the police, held signs, passed out pamphlets, and orchestrated a variety of agit-prop puppets. They also chanted slogans, either with their lungs or bullhorns -- "Two, four, six, eight, we want Nader to debate!"
That "we want" was really the point of the gathering. At least a strong statement of desire, at most a latent mandate, it testified to the group's determination and sense of purpose. More than a slogan. More than a slogan, it was an action. And it made an impression. Three yellow school buses pulled up near the protest. The high school kids filing out for their field trip to the Old Globe noticed the activists. Some snickered, others looked perplexed but interested. An older gentleman -- dressed, I swear, in an anachronous military uniform and looking rather like one of Hogan's antiheroes -- shuffled around and muttered something about how he, anyway, would be voting for Bush.
For a while, in the early and mid-'90s, a rumor circulated around here that San Diego was going to be the second Seattle, musically speaking. That never happened. No one ever said, however, that San Diego was going to be the second Seattle activist-wise. Just about one year ago, in November 1999, Seattle witnessed the largest mobilization of young radicals in recent memory. To some, Seattle is now more an event than a place. An estimated 70,000 activists, mostly young people, managed to shut down the WTO's Millennium Round through acts of protest, confrontation, and civil disobedience. Many progressive groups believed Seattle was the dawn of a new youth counterculture, finally organized against its faceless enemy -- globalization. Just because today's young people have decided that politics is too corrupt to bother with, the WTO shutdown said, doesn't mean they aren't capable of action on economic and social fronts.
"Ah, youth," the baby-boomers said.
Okay, the movement hasn't been world-changing, but there has been motion, to be sure. Young people, aged 16 to 30, brought their puppets, banners, and bullhorns to the World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C., in April; the Republican convention in Philadelphia in July; and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in August. And earlier this year in California, high school students organized a large campaign against Proposition 21, ex-governor Pete Wilson's stringent Juvenile Crime Initiative. Here in San Diego, on February 22, close to 500 students walked out of their classrooms and marched downtown to protest the initiative, which passed on March 7.
According to H. Eric Shockman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern California, "This generation is highly engaged and involved. This idea of 'think globally, act locally' is now starting to become a new rubric or energy for young people acting under banners larger than changing the local park. People are starting to see their causes as linked to others. It's antiglobal, anticapitalism."
Han Shan, 28, is the program director for the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which provides training in the skills of nonviolent civil disobedience. "I'm really encouraged by what I see right now," he says. "To tell you the truth, all that stuff about Gen-X and Gen-Y apathy -- about just wanting to play video games, about waiting for their first IPO and stuff -- that's bullshit. Look at the range of issues that students organize around -- sweatshops, the WTO, sustainability." And add to that health care, social security, English-only laws in schools, school vouchers, sanctions against Cuba and Iraq, Third-World debt....
But what about youth activism here in San Diego? I'm not talking about riding a bike to work, or eating organic, or wearing hemp clothing, but activism, a pragmatic as opposed to theoretical form of protest, a philosophy that presumes things can change when energy is exerted on them. An activism that takes into account what the progressive movements in this country during the '30s and '60s achieved: taking action for the benefit of others. The beach communities in particular seem like fertile ground for youth activism. There's no shortage of young people living between Ocean Beach and Tourmaline Street, and there's no shortage of issues in San Diego to rally around: sewage spills, beach closings, immigration, poverty, a grand jury report detailing mismanagement of Mission Bay. But radicalism, in the beach towns anyway, is just a wistful memory. In August, for example, Ocean Beach held several reunion events for activists from the '60s, and the Ocean Beach Public Library put up a display of their literary paraphernalia.
Was it a requiem for attitudes now deemed quixotic here?
Ocean Beach's Donna Frye, the most prominent environmental activist in San Diego, says, "I don't agree that the youth aren't involved, but, you know, obviously I would like to see a whole lot more. Ocean Beach is still more radicalized than the other areas; the farther north you go, the less activism there is. OB has a lot of community involvement overall. They have been able to maintain their character, which is no easy task. Part of that's to do with the transient nature of Pacific Beach. It just seems that a lot of folks will move in, do their partying, and then find they can't afford it."