April 21, 2008 at 3:06 am Leave a comment

Jazmine Ulloa / Adelante
Volume II, Issue 1 (Fall 2007)

For many, revolution has become a rhetorical slogan or a “dirty word.” But for director Roberto Maestas and his students, the word still encompasses the love for humanity that motivated them to spark their own revolution 35 years ago. Americans’ activism may have faded with the social movements of the 60s and 70s, Maestas says, but the parallels between then and now can still be drawn. He and others share their perspectives behind revolution and today’s moments of social change.

October 1972 saw the country steeped in intense political activity. Racial tensions were fuming in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement and more than 7,000 miles away, the war in Vietnam raged, while millions of students across the States were joining anti-war protests erupting on college campuses.

In the city of Seattle, times weren’t any better. The city was undergoing its worst recession since the 1930s, and President Richard Nixon’s funding cuts from the War on Poverty budget had done away with many the city’s anti-poverty programs, including the English and Adult Basic Education program at South Seattle Community College.

With their insides shaking, director Roberto Maestas and a small group of college students met a month after the funding cuts outside of Beacon Hill Elementary School, a run-down building in south Seattle. They were determined to protest not only the loss of their program but the state of their country.
“Things were going to hell in a hand basket, and we were not going to go down without a fight,” Maestas said.

A few minutes past 8:30 a.m., the school’s custodian appeared and unlocked the doors. Maestas took the lock from his hands and put it in his pocket. As Maestas and some of the students quickly went inside, one of them stayed behind and gave the signal.

From their cars and nearby streets, some even hiding behind bushes, the dozens who had been waiting for the signal filled the school grounds. Within minutes, more than 30 black, Native American, white, Asian-Pacific Islander and Latino people from all backgrounds and ages were inside.

The numbers were varied from day to day, but more than 80 people occupied the crumbling building for three months during one of Seattle’s coldest winters, hoping to create “a community center addressing the needs of the most left out.” By New Year’s Day, the building was jammed with 500 people from all over the city.

“Era un tiempo revolucionario,” Maestas said. It was a revolutionary time.

It was.

But 35 years since, the energy that drove the protestors at Beacon Hill, the kind that at a grander scale drove massive waves of social movement across the country, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam war eras, has dissipated or been forgotten. Without a recent history of successful struggles, revolution itself has become a “dirty word.”

“People decry revolution, they bash revolution. But if there hadn’t been an American Revolution we’d still be an English colony,” said Dana Cloud, associate professor of communication studies at The University of Texas at Austin. “If there hadn’t been a French Revolution, there would be no democracy in France.”

Today, living through the War in Iraq reminds Maestas of when he and other community leaders were organizing the Beacon Hill occupation during the Vietnam War, he said.

“This country needs a revolution of values,” Maestas said. “A revolution doesn’t have to mean violence. It can mean change.”

Many are drawing parallels between the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq, but social movement, such as the anti-war movement, is still in its stages of infancy, said Kelly Booker, a member of the Campus Anti-war Movement to End the Occupation. The country is in a “re-building stage,” she said, where Americans have to “re-learn” how the movements of the 1960s brought about social change.

Some students on campus said they see revolutions as bloody and undesirable and not social change. Others said Americans have long been labeled bored, apathetic and, as sophomore Tania Mejia said, “too indifferent to see the need for a revolution.”

“Social change is a strange process,” said Alfredo Santos, editor of La Voz, a local Latino newspaper, and an activist for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America during the 1970s. “Most of the time social change takes place when people get mad about something. If there is no anger or outrage, nothing usually happens.”

While sophomore Beeba Matthews said the political attitude of Americans does tend to be indifferent, her hands slightly tremble with anger when she speaks about certain issues facing the United States. She especially resents the unjust handling of immigration reform.

Students, professors, activists and community leaders said “children not receiving healthcare,” “scholarship money drying up,” and “billions of dollars poured into the war” are some of the issues facing America that also worried or angered them. Others included the “stagnating quality of life,” people having to work two jobs to “simply pay the bills” and “racism becoming subtle and more dangerous.”

“People are angry,” Cloud said. But there’s a gap between people’s anger and unrest and their experience and knowledge of “what to do when I am this angry.”

Joshua Levy, writer, editor, filmmaker and blogger, said, “there is plenty of political activity going on, but it’s happening in the places where people aren’t looking.”

Collaboration is now happening online, and it’s a lot cheaper than the activism of the ‘60s, said Levy, the associate editor of the Personal Democracy Forum Web site, which tracks how technology is providing the tools for a new kind of civic conversation.

One case of such collaboration was by supporters of presidential hopeful Republican Ron Paul. Supporters organized online fundraising and raised a record-breaking $4 million in one day. The results sent shockwaves, but the costs to organize were essentially nothing, he said.

People should stop “fantasizing” about the marches that occurred on Washington, and realize the online tools that can make anyone an organizer or an activist, Levy said.

“It’s not good or bad, it’s just the world we live in,” he said. “It’s totally different than the way that we’ve operated.”

However, online activism will not replace the old way of political activity or physical activism, Levy said. Instead, people will use both. Physical protests can show unity, but they may be organized online. “There’s a bigger political ecology now that the web is in the mix,” he said.

Although people are physically protesting, their efforts aren’t in a sustained and steady progression, Cloud said. Efforts tend to be short-lived, such as the recent movement against the death penalty, people protesting the Jena 6 issue this year and the historic immigrant rights demonstrations the country saw a year ago.

All of these movements may have been inspiring but fall short of revolutionary, activists agreed. They’re examples of what Raul Salinas, a retired professor, renowned poet and owner of Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, called “jumping to crisis.” “It’s not about going out there and shouting ‘Revolution!’” Salinas said, letting out a soft yell and waving a frail arm mockingly. “That’s not revolution.”

For him, revolution is more than just a one-time stance on an issue, yelling out rhetoric and an easy-to-pick-up slogan.

“You have to act beyond the slogan,” he said. “Revolution is about principles. People have to read literature, share ideas and organize.”

The elder poet is now struggling with debilitating health issues that keep him from running his bookstore, which also serves as a forum for political conversation. But he’s involved in social movement for life, and students should read and share ideas, “not as saviors or because of the vanguard—but to learn,” he said.

In and out of state and federal prisons from 1957-1972 on drug convictions, his own prison days spent reading, writing and studying political thought prepared him in the struggle for prisoners’ rights he and others organized at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. Transferred to Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois because of the heightening prison rebellions across the country, Salinas won his release in ‘72 with the help of faculty and graduate students at the University of Washington at Seattle.

He said he arrived in Seattle after his release to attend the university, and by that time, Beacon Hill was in its second month of occupation. His political self-education and organizing of the prison rights’ struggle prepared him for the struggle he found in Seattle.

Had it not been for his experience at Beacon Hill, he would have probably ended back in prison, he said.

“People think revolutions happen over night, that revolution is encoded in the DNA,” said journalism professor Mercedes de Uriarte. “The ideas bring the people together not the DNA.”

Although the multi-racial occupation at Beacon Hill took only one month of cautious, clandestine planning by Maestas and the Latino students of the program, they were sharing revolutionary ideas and supporting other minority groups in Seattle years before then, Maestas said.

“We’d go out and support all these other groups in their struggle with the reason that we were ‘practicing our English,’” Maestas said. “We’d attend their events, help with their protests, hoping they’d support us as well. When the time came, they did.”

Recent protests have lacked such a strong sense of community building, unity and learning that occurred before the occupation in Seattle and other major movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, activists said.

One example is the massive movement in 2006 for immigration rights.

Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney for the Mexican Legal Defense Fund, said the protests helped kill the bill in Congress that had sparked them, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, which included the building of a 700-mile long fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

But since there was no major force unifying all Latinos and other minorities during the immigration rights movement, the marches isolated immigration rights as solely a Latino issue and created strong backlash from the media, de Uriarte said. And all Latinos, U.S. born or not, are affected by anti-immigrant sentiments, Figueroa said.

An intellectual stage was also missing before the enormous immigrants’ rights demonstrations to prevent their energy from dissolving, de Uriarte said. There wasn’t a body of intellectual people building the movement through literature, art and music as strongly as there had been before the Civil Rights Movement, she said.

Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, students in the mid-1960s had such a period of intensive discussion, debate and education before the enormous anti-war protests the decade is remembered for, said Mike Corwin, a member of the International Socialist Organization. In the original “teach-in” events of the ‘60s, hundreds of people would stay in a room all night reading and discussing. Such political discussion put the movement on firmer ground and set the stage for the large protests, he said.

Santos attempted to provide some grounding shortly after the immigration rights walkouts. He and others organized the Social Justice Summer School in Austin for those who had participated in the demonstrations. “While the summer school was successful, it is clear to many of us that what we saw in 2006 was not a sustained effort,” he said.

That’s because today’s country is too busy to sustain any kind of movement, de Uriarte said.
“Revolution requires altruism and the willingness to sacrifice, and we aren’t doing that,” she said. “We’re too busy sending text messages on our cell phones and punching messages into our Blackberrys, when are we going to sit down and talk about what’s wrong with the world?”

The nation’s values also hinder social change, de Uriarte said. Success is defined by individual not community achievement, Americans have become more narcissistic and competitive and much of the country’s youth that could be devoted to social change is tied up in a war, she said.

Then there’s the fear factor the country has been operating under ever more tightly since 9/11, activists said. Revolutions are more radical than they are violent, Salinas said. Social revolutions, although often nonviolent, are often associated with violence, activists said.

“When the question of violence arises, we have to remember that those people who are holding on to power don’t let go of it easily,” religious studies professor Syed Akbar said. “The burden of the violence should also fall on the shoulders of the status quo.”

Some of the greatest revolutions during his lifetime have in many ways been nonviolent, Akbar said. “One of the central principles of the Civil Rights revolution was the idea of nonviolence, such as of Dr. King and many others,” he said.

Maestas and others organized the protests in Seattle based on the teachings of Martin Luther King and the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement, Maestas said.

They urged city officials to renovate the dilapidated, three-story school building into a community center, but when the city would not listen, they pretended to be interested property developers, setting up their morning meeting at the building in 1972 to only “take a look inside.”

He and others were arrested and held for a time, but after countless of negotiations with the Seattle City Council and Seattle Public Schools the mayor approved for them a five-year lease of the building for $1 a month, allowing them to transform it.

Now, what used to be a building with a leaky roof and stripped of any value is a thriving community center called El Centro de la Raza. Its name may be in Spanish, but it translates to “The Center of the People,” and home to all people wanting to make a difference for humanity, said Maestas, its executive director.

The center rents office space to a diverse range of non-profit groups representing different ethnicities and houses a food bank, bilingual child-care and social services for families among many other programs.

And the system that fought so hard to keep the radical Maestas out, now welcomes him in.

“Revolutions are radical, and the radical is a moving target,” de Uriarte said. “Once it becomes absorbed by the system, the radical becomes redefined, and everything that was radical before becomes commonplace. One must not be ‘co-opted’ by the system, while still using it and learning from it in order to change and redefine it.”

Maestas still remembers taking the lock from the puzzled custodian’s hands.

“He pulled me aside and said, “Just be sure to lock it when you’re done,’” Maestas said with a chuckle. “It’s been 35 years, and we’re still not done.”

Entry filed under: Fall 2007 issue. Tags: , , .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


April 2008

Most Recent Posts

%d bloggers like this: