Tuesday, April 7, 2009

USH25: Social Movements in the 80s

In spite of all the problems with the eighties, there was a lot of organizing going on as well.

For one thing, the protest music of the sixties had nothing on the music of the eighties. Tracy Chapman was talking about revolution, U2 sang of Bloody Sunday in Ireland and the legacy of MLK, Midnight Oil devoted a whole album (Diesel and Dust) to colonialism in Australia, Bruce Springstein showed us the pain of working class folks who were born in the USA, Prince warned us about the bomb and told us to party like it was 1999, Holly Near made her funkiest albums (Fire in the Rain and Speed of Light) about things like working women and Emma Goldman, and Ferron gave us the song "It Won't Take Long" which I've been quoting periodically through this series (including below). (The whole song is wonderful.) In addition there were politicized protest albums like Sun City and benefit concerts like Live Aid and Farm Aid, which if they weren't radical, at least had their hearts in the right place.

The nuclear arms race, which had already spawned the group Mobilization for Survival in the eighties, now brought about a major protest movement known as the Nuclear Freeze. Women like Randall Forsberg and Helen Caldicott spearheaded this movement and it took off. In 1982 close to a million demonstrators gathered in Central Park, NYC, to protest the arms race. By 1983, the Freeze had been endorsed by 368 city and county councils, 444 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures. A poll showed that 79% of the country favored a nuclear arms freeze. Even the Catholic bishops came out against nuclear arms.

Peace encampments sprung up in Romulus, NY, and Greenham Common, England, protesting the decision to send US Air Force nuclear tipped cruise missiles to Europe (some of these missiles were stored at the RAF base in Greenham Common--and the women at the the Seneca Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in Romulus believed that missiles were being stored at the Army base nearby, although the government wouldn't confirm this). These were feminist encampments, generally limited to women, that were collectively run. (I've heard tales of reporters who wanted to talk with the leaders and refused to believe that there weren't any.)

Protests against nuclear power plants also continued through the eighties--some major protests occurring at plants like Seabrook, Diablo Canyon, Black Fox, Shoreham, Rancho Seco, and Rocky Flats. By the end of the decade, the Black Fox plant was never built, Shoreham was closed without ever operating, and voters shut down Rancho Seco. To a large part, the protesters were responsible for this--along with their education of the public. There have not been any new nuclear power plants planned in the United States since the end of the seventies, also partly due to the continuing protests (although lately, with climate change on the rise, occasionally there are claims that nuclear is clean energy and suggestions we build new plants--unfortunately, even Obama has made statements like this). (Last minute add note: I've just heard from a couple of different sources that there are now applications in the works to build twenty-six new reactors. Yipes! It looks like this is a battle we are going to have to do all over again!)

US activities in Central America got many people concerned and led to a series of protests. Rallies took place across the country protesting US involvement in El Salvador--particularly after the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero and the murder of three American nuns and a laywoman (both in 1980) and following reports of a massacre in El Mozote by US trained Salvadorian soldiers. (The massacre took place at the end of 1981 but wasn't reported in US paper until late January, 1982. The Reagan Administration characteristically dismissed the reports as propaganda.) There were many protests held in Boston, outside and inside the JFK Federal Building against our activities in El Salvador and threatened activities in Nicaragua--I know, I took part in them. (Zinn mentions a report of similar activities in Tucson, Arizona, so I imagine they took place around the country.) At one protest in Boston, 550 people were arrested. And across the country over 60,000 people signed pledges to take action if the US tried to invade Nicaragua.

Beginning in 1977, but building up in the 1980s, a major campaign took place in the US against apartheid in South Africa. A disinvestment campaign began pressuring corporations to stop doing business in and with South Africa and stockholders to withdraw any investments they might have in both South African companies and US companies doing business in South Africa. The campaign particularly made strides on college and university campuses when students pressured them to 'divest' (cease South African related investments). The movement grew sharply in 1984 after news reports of South African resistance. The University of California withdrew three billion dollars worth of investments. Congress legislated economic sanctions against South Africa in 1986, overriding a veto by Reagan. From Wikipedia: "by the end of 1989 26 states, 22 counties and over 90 cities had taken some form of binding economic action against companies doing business in South Africa." The economic problems these things caused (along with growing international pressure) were part of what led to the fall of apartheid.

In feminism, the eighties were a time when women of color enlarged the meaning of term. In 1983, Alice Walker introduced the word 'womanism' as an alternative name for feminists of color (her book, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens was subtitled Womanist Prose). bell hooks wrote books like Ain’t I a Woman? (1981) and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) and, in 1984 Audre Lorde published her classic book, Sister Outsider, which explored the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality. (The book was a major influence on my thinking.)

For the gay movement, the eighties started off well enough, with David McReynolds running as the first openly gay candidate for president (for the Socialist Party USA) in 1980, but in 1981 doctors in Los Angeles treated five gay men who all had a rare form of pneumonia. Soon the Center for Disease Control was tracking that type of pneumonia along with other immune system diseases that seemed target gay males in southern California and began suspecting there was a new epidemic starting. At first it was nicknamed GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency), then the '4H disease' as it became apparent that it was concentrated among Homosexuals, Haitian, Hemophiliacs, and Heroin addicts. Eventually, it got named AIDS--and as it spread through the gay community, and funeral followed funeral, the community was forced to make AIDS (rather than new forms of liberation) its priority. The Gay Men's Health Crisis organization was formed in 1982 and the rather confrontative and controversial ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as a extremely democratic (perhaps anarchist) organization. Queer Nation, the GLBT activist group of the nineties, was formed by ACT UP activists and was directly influenced by ACT UP. Another group of the eighties, formed in San Francisco, began making a quilt in 1987, in memory of those who died of AIDS. The NAMES project has gone on to create the largest piece of community art in the world--The Quilt now consists of over 46,000 panels and weighs around 54 tons.

Reagan's budget cuts sparked protests around the country. While it never coalesced into a movement, there were scattered demonstrations including blocking traffic during rush hour in East Boston in 1981 to protest cutbacks in funds for police, teachers, and firefighters; teachers' strikes in seven different states in 1982; and foreclosure protests from Pennsylvania to Colorado in 1983. (Hmm. That sound familiar.)

And a 1989 poll by Harvard Medical School found that 61% of Americans favored a single payer health insurance system similar to Canada's.

Finally, in a notable protest of the eighties, Amy Carter, daughter of former president Jimmy Carter, was arrested along with Abbie Hoffman, while protesting CIA recruitment at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In her trial, her attorney argued that because of CIA involvement in Central America, she was attempting to prevent greater crimes by her occupation of the UMass building. The jury eventually acquitted her of all charges.

Quote of the Day: "Divisions between the peoples will disappear on that honoured day, And though oceans lie between us, lifted candles light the way, Half will join their hands by moonlight, the rest under a rising sun... And you may say, 'I don't know how to be a part of what you're talking about,' and it makes me want to say,'Come on!'" - Ferron

Wikipedia, lots of articles (including ones on the Anti-nuclear movement and Disinvestment from South Africa)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States


Austan said...

Sharp observations. I was wondering if anyone would ever talk about the social rights movements of the 80s. Rather than it being issues of the individual, it was activism on behalf of others who couldn't do it for themselves. I was in NYC at the time, part of GMHC. It was amazing to see ActUp rise as a voice, to go to Philly and be part of LiveAid (I still don't know how I got there, but it was the 80s), to watch Apartheid and the Berlin Wall fall. In its quieter way, the 80s were as revolutionary as the 60s. Thanks, MoonRaven.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for the comment. And, yes, I agree--"In its quieter way, the 80s were as revolutionary as the 60s." It was for me.

Anonymous said...

thanks this helped alot i needed it for homework !!!

MoonRaven said...

Glad I could help...