Rebels With A Cause
If the Battle of Seattle is any indication, Gen-Xers have finally found their political voice.
Thursday, December 16, 1999
"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
John F. Kennedy''s oft-quoted words from his inaugural address ring ironic in the ears of Generation Xers, who grew up long after the fading of Camelot. Much has been written and said about the apathy among Xers towards the government and politics. They don''t vote. They don''t follow politics. They don''t care. Just hand me the joystick.
But as evidenced by the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, political activism often manifests itself in ways other than voting and displaying bumper-stickers.
While the Battle of Seattle brought together an unprecedented mix of interest groups--ranging from labor unions to anarchists, from environmentalists to human-rights watchers--the predominate visage beaming from our TV sets was that of Generation X. And for many fresh-faced Xers who took part in the festival of resistance in Seattle, the meaning is simple: It''s up to the people to carry out change.
The kids of the ''60s had the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the issues embodied by the WTO--environmental desecration, human rights abuses, corporate greed--have a spurred a new activism. This is Gen-X''s cause.
"Any cause that''s worthwhile for our generation can somehow be linked to economic globalization--pollution, clear-cutting, human rights, the prison-industrial complex," says Ryan Unmack, a CSU Monterey Bay student and an already seasoned activist.
Unmack is worried about his future, as well as the planet''s. "If the WTO continues in its current direction, I see more and more hunger, fewer jobs, a greater wealth disparity. It just seems like it''s setting up for a collapse. Resources are being used up so quickly with no insight into the long-term effects."
Getting With It
Unmack, who says he and his friends want to re-create the Berkeley of the ''60s at CSUMB, was one of 18 members of the Monterey Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Environment who joined in the active resistance movement in Seattle. But unlike the endless negative portrayal of Xers throughout the media, this group is--by all accounts--articulate, knowledgeable, and well prepared.
These students aren''t the stereotypical Xers who have been characterized as a generation of lost slackers living in fear, lacking ambition, and possessing extreme diffidence toward politics. These students spent months preparing for Seattle, through teach-ins to educate themselves on the issues and effective means of peaceful demonstration. The group also worked on a proposal requesting airfare for their trip through the campus'' Interclub Council.
Through all of their hard work, they see protest as a way to get involved and fight for the issues they believe in. For these young activists, there is a sense of empowerment that goes hand in hand with standing up for freedom and democracy.
"It was a good vibe," CSUMB student Fernando Hernandez said of the Seattle protests. "Everyone was happy to be together and to be protesting. We had a voice."
"We got the word out that the WTO is an underground trade organization, and that we want a democratic system in the WTO," says Paul Watters, another CSUMB protester. "We were heard."
While the weakening of democracy via the WTO''s skullduggery is, in and of itself, impetus enough to take to the streets, unprecedented access to information has given Xers new and more powerful ways to convert that information into dissent. The Web has made activist organizing and education easier. With just a click of the mouse, anyone can know what''s happening in political hotspots around the globe.
Moreover, in an era of quick access to information and instantaneous popular opinion, the White House and Capitol Hill are not so quick to listen to the concerns of the people. For the Xers, there is a growing sense that much more can be achieved by direct action rather than through conventional means.
"I feel like direct action is an effective tool," says Unmack, "along with other forms of educating and informing people about the causes you feel so strongly about."
Only the Beginning
Sweeping the country and the rest of the world is a movement against economic globalization, and Gen-Xers are on the front line. Earlier this year, the United Students Against Sweatshops scored numerous victories against the $2.5 billion collegiate licensing industry, which manufactures clothing emblazoned with campus logos, often in developing nations under poor working conditions.
At the universities of Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina, sit-ins ranging from 51 hours to eight days led to a variety of concessions from school administrators, including full public disclosure of factory locations, enforcement of rights of women workers, living wage provisions, and independent monitoring, including unannounced visits.
The effects of the student protests are still spreading across U.S. campuses. And throughout the world, protest against globalization has gone, well, global.
Eight hundred workers at a sweatshop in Nicaragua''s Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone, inspired by the media attention gained by student protests in the U.S, went on strike for four days early in August. In February, protesters in the Netherlands demonstrated against New Balance sweatshops, gaining international support. And, earlier this year, there were massive protests in Canada and India against the WTO and the World Bank.
It seems clear that the protests won''t stop here. Judging by the intensity of the Battle of Seattle, and the credit that activists are taking--justifiably--for the stunning failure of the WTO talks, it would be foolish not to expect increased activism from Xers around the globe. Perhaps this generation, once written off as brain-numbed, pop-culture-slurping drones, is coming out of its tommyhilfigerized stupor.
In the end, the joke may be on the multinational media, entertainment, and fashion companies that have spent billions to enslave the tastes of today''s youth--companies that now find themselves on the receiving end of their increasingly politicized wrath.
More than ever, Gen-Xers are choosing to find out what they can do for their country, because--as far as they''re concerned--their country is certainly not doing enough for them.
--Additional reporting by Laurel Chesky.