This article appeared at The Guardian as a part of the "Occupy Wall Street panel: has May Day made a difference?" on May 2, 2012.
The measure of a genuine uprising, as distinct from a political campaign or mobilization, is the degree of its "newness", in the phrase of the New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. By that standard, the broad Occupy movement is a genuinely new force in the world, one which has unhinged "the predictable".
Tuesday, there were hundreds of spirited protests as Occupiers ended their winter. There were protests against Iraq a decade ago, but these are defined by their youthful leadership, courage, and geographic breadth. The tactics in some places deserves discussion. But instead of being critical spectators on the sideline, we all can demand that our leaders not mechanically defend the status quo with police and empty promises.
The Occupy movement, and kindred spirits from the Middle East to China, is driven by young people who feel unrepresented by the institutions, disenfranchised economically, and threatened by an environmental catastrophe.
The direct action movement of the early 1960s was similar in nature. Young black students, lacking the vote and facing a Jim Crow future, became Freedom Riders and occupied segregated lunch counters. Students who could not vote but could be drafted for Vietnam took up resistance. Our elders utterly failed in their duty to nurture the young. Mounting catastrophes were the result, until the Vietnam war was ended, Richard Nixon deposed, and democratic reforms conceded.
Now that we have an African-American president and normal relations with Vietnam, one wonders why the crises of the sixties really were necessary. Power seems to yield only stubbornly, always leaving a trickle of blood to warn against future defiance.
Will today's establishment yield or not? It appears that Merkel's stark vision of austerity is being rejected, that Labour is rising in the UK, that the Socialists may win in Paris. The popular tide is running against privatization and repression, as it has in the US since 2008, where the Tea Party is losing support.
But will new political leaders, benefiting from rage against the City of London and Wall Street, deliver anything of real value, such as a Robin Hood tax? And if not, then what?
This is the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the American New Left. Despite the great democratic reforms our generation did achieve, one mountain remained untouched. The 1962 statement noted that 1% of Americans controlled 80% of all corporate wealth, and that the disparity was changed since the 1920s, despite the Keynesian reforms of the New Deal.
If there is any chance at all that our elected governments can bring the unelected financial oligarchs to heel, it will take a new generation of Robin Hoods, burdened by debt from the modern Crusades, along with feminists and environmentalists (Maid Marions), and a radical spirituality (Friar Tuck). Or a new dark ages will descend.