Occupy’s Brief Stay on the Long Arc

“The true problem… is to allow the problems to arise,” wrote R.D. Laing in The Politics of Experience. No less true today than when published in 1967 – or underlined in red the next year. 1968 saw the Prague Spring and My Lai massacre, the Chicago riots and Irish “Troubles.” Students were murdered in Mexico’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas; they brought Paris to a halt when university occupations spread to factories. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Three years earlier, the year of Malcolm X’s murder, King delivered one of his now most-quoted sermons. “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long,” he declared from the steps of the Montgomery, Alabama Capitol, “but it bends toward justice.”

New students of social justice still hear stories of ’68 – more than they might about that long arc’s course through their own lifetimes. After all, such stories – activist leaders murdered for their charisma; a world capital nearly taken over by students – seem more fantasy than history, and so don’t implicate Gen X-ers and Millennials, still yet to allow the problems arise in our own time, as more recent events might.

After they arise again, as they must, those who ask how will look to 2011 — the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy’s meta-movement. But, with some distance, 2011 might only make sense in the light of the decade that came before it.

By this point in 2001, hundreds of thousands of “ant-globalization” protesters – who had captured headlines in 1999 by shutting down the World Trade Organization in Seattle – had laid siege to Free Trade Area of the Americas and G8 meetings, in Quebec City and Genoa respectively.

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