My first disillusionment with organized public demonstration dawned during the high school years. It arrived uninvited and unanticipated, as opinions that make up the emerging personal ideologies of young adults often do, but immediately demonstrated its staying power and has remained a squatter ever since.
An issue was flaring up — as they tend to do in my hometown of Berkeley, Calif. — over the proposed removal of a patch of native oak trees next to the U.C. Berkeley football stadium as part of an overall reconstruction and expansion of the facilities. Those opposed to the project argued that it was an unnecessary intrusion into the natural beauty of the Berkeley hills and an old American Indian burial ground — an argument supported by the supposed discovery of human remains during the initial construction of the stadium in 1923. The university’s stance rested on the idea that top recruits would be turned off by locker rooms resembling the 1960s’. The football players don’t come to Berkeley for the history.
Former mayoral candidate Zachary RunningWolf spearheaded a “tree-sit,” which lasted for nearly two years and saw as many as 100 dedicated activists climb to the heights of this small patch of oaks where they planted themselves in defiance of the proposed destruction. They ate, drank, slept and bird called from the tops of these trees for months on end. Walking by the oak grove, appropriately located on Berkeley’s “frat row”, was now an active event, equally liable to produce furious, steaming arguments and discreet puffs of scented fog.
A young, liberal high school student, I could not reconcile my feelings about this patch of trees. I considered myself an environmentalist, whatever that means in high school terms. But as an athlete, fan and football player myself, I was averse to what I saw as an annoying obstruction of Cal’s football prowess. The issue seemed too trivial, the outcome for the protesters too bleak, the scent of the oak grove now just a tad too musky. I was internally conflicted more than I let on to my friends, but we all eventually fell on the side we considered the more reasonable. Over time, I developed a resentment of the “tree people,” a perturbance that gained traction after the first game of the football season during which protesters literally showered unsuspecting fans from above with their own poop. I, like many young liberals in my town, reacted unsympathetically to what we considered the perpetuation of the infamous “Berkeley hippie” stereotype. The protesters may have succeeded in raising awareness about the oak grove, but they also created a distance between themselves and potential allies — those of my ilk, the young progressives who had lived in the shadow of Berkeley’s younger days and sought new forms of effective change. The entire oak grove was cut down in September of 2008.
Last April, I attended PowerShift, a national youth conference in Washington D.C. focused mainly on spurring environmentally conscious political action. It incorporated elements of social demonstration, education on effective social activism and seminars on various means of achieving a more sustainable future. The inspirational nature of such an event is not one that can be clearly articulated through words alone. Speakers ranging from Al Gore to ambitious high schoolers reminded the thousands congregated at the Convention Center of the dramatic shift in environmental policy that our generation must demand.
I realized during the first three days that there is in fact a critical mass of young people who care enough about these issues to make it our generation’s defining victory, and that there are real political and economic tactics at our disposal for doing so. I felt like I had landed at the epicenter of the new activism I had been seeking, a top-down but fully pervasive method of 21st century creative influence, instigated by our generation.
Inflated by this new sense of purpose, I decided to miss a day of class and stick around for Monday, the day of demonstration. I vividly remember the sense of unity and drive that had me marching through the streets of downtown D.C., carrying a 30-foot cardboard puppet, chanting at the top of my lungs. But I remember an equally lucid moment when I looked up into the reflective glass of an office building and found myself face to face with my own cynicism. I glared up at the cold, dark face of the B.P. headquarters anticipating a visual duel with evil in edifice form, but what I saw instead was a small collection of office workers, looking dismayed. I saw the same conflict in their faces peering down as I myself had felt peering up at the tree-sitters. And my disillusionment came pouring back. I agreed wholeheartedly with the message we were sending, but I instantly recognized the ease with which our protest could be pigeon-holed. These people were at work, trying to make a living. To them, it was not only comforting but incredibly easy to dismiss us as a group of protesters doing their usual protesting. My 30-foot puppet started to feel heavy and awkward.
The historical effectiveness of social activism in toppling societal injustice is undeniable. But these past successes might also be our generation’s Achilles heel. Our efforts remain mired in the inescapable shadow of our parents’ generation. Cornell students are often derided for a perceived apathy to the injustices of our community, and I agree that we are generally apathetic. But we must understand this relative inaction as a function of a greater stereotype surrounding social demonstration, and work to refresh our society’s perception of activism. We cannot alienate potential allies by telling office workers to quit their jobs. We must choose our battles, and commit whole-heartedly to them. After finally seeing some much-deserved coverage of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York City, I have a sense that our generation’s voice may finally be developing. Let’s find the most effective way to utilize it. Here’s to the new activist.
Skyler Schain is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.