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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

HEY, BOOMER. WHEN YOU LECTURE GEN Z ABOUT PROTEST, MAYBE CONSULT GEN X?

This week, Politico published an op-ed by Jeff Greenfield comparing Vietnam-era actions at Columbia University (and elsewhere) with the current round of demonstrations against the war in Gaza. His point was that campus protests in the ‘60s and early ‘70s engendered a backlash that led to the rise of Reagan. The unstated but clear message to the current protestors is that they should wrap things up lest we trade Biden for Trump.

 

One expects Gen Z to give the collective finger to their grandparents’ generation.

 

My first instinct was to suggest my generation as a better comparison. We had encampments on campus property: shantytowns erected in protest of apartheid in South Africa. In our generation, the first was also at Columbia University. I participated in the country’s third—at MIT—so I have some first-hand knowledge to share. And yes, we also occupied a building; the corporation that runs MIT was meeting upstairs. The police were nutso, beating on people with truncheons; these campus cops hadn’t received the “Brave Sir Robin” training given to those at 2024 UCLA. (These officers recently ran away and asked student journalists to call 9-1-1 when ultra-rightwing Israelis and their supporters attacked the encampment there, starting, if the New York Times video is accurate, with the part built by Jews for Palestine; white supremacists later joined in and contributed to the melee until the city cops came a few hours later.)

 

However, there were omissions in this article even with the coverage of Boomer protests. Richard Nixon wrote in his diary (and contemporary figures corroborated) that he planned to drop nuclear weapons on Vietnam, but the intensity of the demonstrations dissuaded him because he thought it would hurt Republican election prospects. Hey, Greenfield: stopping nuclear war sounds like an accomplishment to me—a win for radical protest tactics. Greenfield does (usefully) trace the rise of the right through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Indeed, it took Reagan’s tactic of attacking countries where the US could win quickly and award a lot of medals (recall Granada, anyone?) to help get the US over the “Vietnam Syndrome”—a stated aim of Reagan’s. It fell to Bush, Reagan’s successor, to complete the job he started. The “yellow ribbons” indicating support for the troops (that later morphed into magnets for the back of gas-guzzling cars and drunken yahoos' pro-veteran chants at hockey games) neutralized what was left of the peace movement, allowing Bush to get away with tricking Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait so Bush could then attack without apparent contravention of international law.

 

Moreover, Greenfield’s deriding of Columbia students today as privileged compared to his generation is misleading. He referenced the sticker price of an education today without mentioning how many protestors receive financial aid or how many go into debt to receive a high-quality education.

 

Bottom line: 1968 protestors engaged with the issue of the day and didn’t do much to stop the war, American militarism, or the military-industrial complex (let alone exploitive capitalism or imperialism), but they prevented nuclear war. And yes, they angered the conservatives of the day.

 

At the risk of sounding like an old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn, I will maintain that the 1980s protests are a closer comparison and have more to teach Gen Z. If you want a complete history lesson, tough. This is a blog post, not a book. Instead, I will personalize things and talk about my experience.


To understand the context, you need to picture MIT in the mid ‘80s. Most students weren’t rich. The average family income was $35,000; yearly tuition was $16,000 (and room and board weren’t cheap either). Ninety percent of the student body came from public schools (with another 5% from Catholic schools, many of which served the poor). The typical student was driven to be the generation that broke into the middle class, seeing engineering (the most popular set of majors) as their ticket.

 

The student body was conservative in a libertarian sense. Indeed, over my first winter break, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged just to understand my classmates, as many quoted it verbatim as if it were the Bible. As anyone who has read this tome knows, the arguments break down under even moderate scrutiny. Rand worshipped corporations, although she did believe strongly in civil liberties. Today’s fascists who claim to idolize her tend to forget that she argued that the most important right was to an abortion, as without body autonomy, no other right means anything. Regardless, there was a resistance to question accepted societal power structures among much of the student body. A typical student wanted to get their engineering degree, go to Harvard to get their M.B.A., and then conquer corporate America, not get involved in protests.

 

Anti-apartheid activism was present in 1986 but low-level and disorganized before Columbia students put up their shantytowns. Meetings were held, students organized, and structures were built in the center of campus. At first, to avoid confrontation, the MIT administration declared it a “cultural activity,” providing cover for professors (and politicians, lots of them) who wanted to speak on-site. Such activity would have appeared innocuous to most middle-class Americans.

 

Not to MIT students. It engendered anger. “How dare you put that ugly thing where we have to see it?” Do not imagine a snooty sire of Boston Brahmins; imagine an Asian kid getting by on work-study, his immigrant parents having worked many jobs when their degrees weren’t recognized, just to give their kids a chance at the “American dream.”

 

So, why did I get involved? Sure, having an early introduction to civil rights (both rabbis at my synagogue were national leaders in the civil rights movement; the public high school I attended was half Black; the attitude among those teaching us was that Black history was American history and we must learn it to complete the fight against the still-systemic racism), I sympathized with the struggle. However, I didn’t know whether my actions would do any good globally. I’d begun high school in the shadow of Reagan’s call for limited, winnable nuclear wars, and I’d seen my high-school anti-nuclear activism go nowhere. And then I volunteered most of my free time in my freshman year for the Mondale campaign—anything to defeat Ronnie Rayguns—and he didn’t even take Massachusetts. I was pretty cynical for a twenty-year-old.

 

I was surrounded by people who thought the most meaningful life they could pursue was designing heat-seeking missiles and marketing them. These folks desperately needed to think through some social justice issue at some point in their lives.

 

And I was successful. Many conversations that began with “Why are you on our lawn?” led in serious directions. I can personally take credit for many classmates choosing a life dedicated to, for example, writing educational software rather than serving the military-industrial complex.

 

On our campus, we linked it to a local labor issue. Our cafeteria workers were about to be thrown out of their jobs. Each dining hall had been locally run by working-class people who felt part of the community. The university wanted to bring in a mega-corporation as an outside contractor. These employees meant something to us. Every rally spoke not just about apartheid but also about the nice older ladies we kibitzed with several times a day.

 

I turned out to be partially wrong in my assessment of the potential for global change. The North American and European anti-apartheid movements turned out to be critical in ridding South Africa of apartheid, but not in the way my comrades at the barricades had envisioned. In the summer of 1987, a year after the shantytowns were demolished, I rode some trains in Europe with white South Africans. A conversation I remember nearly word-for-word will illustrate my point: “Oh, apartheid is just awful. We can’t get any parts for our Kodak cameras!”

 

Three-quarters of white South Africans traced their roots to Great Britain; the other quarter were Afrikaners who descended from Dutch colonists. The latter were hardline radicals—the protests did nothing to sway most of them. Those who were English-speaking and more British in culture, on the other hand, learned they liked their extreme wealth and privilege more than they liked apartheid.

 

Nelson Mandela played a unique role in preparing the non-Afrikaner white South Africans to be receptive to change. Early in its history, the African National Congress (ANC) engaged in terrorist activities, but under Mandela’s leadership, they renounced terrorism in the early 1960s. The one incident in which a rogue element did engage in terrorism (in the early ‘80s) led to immediate denunciations and apologies from the ANC leadership.

 

And Mandela demanded that white South Africans be treated as indigenous to his country. In his eyes, they weren’t British or Dutch; they weren’t settler colonialists; they were fellow citizens with a stake in a joint future. Unlike in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), where most white people fled the country with regime change, most white South Africans stayed. Yes, they were only twenty percent of the country; yes, they had enjoyed nearly all political power and rights; yes, many of them were racists; yes, they monopolized the nation’s wealth, but to Mandela, they were countrymen. And he meant it. When he gained power, he did not go back on this promise to white South Africans. And as such, a peaceful revolution was possible.

 

The Trotskyite and mainline Communist students who were a small part of our campus Coalition Against Apartheid would not have been pleased with the mechanism—placating wealthy white people and motivating them to act to preserve their wealth—but it worked. Apartheid was gone. And our protests played an important role.

 

At MIT, the cafeteria workers all lost their jobs. Four students were arrested when the university demolished the shantytown. They were out of jail the next day, and their academic status was never threatened. Why only four? Boston was cold. It was winter. Yes, I did sleep out in the shantytown (these engineers built a sturdier structure than the literature majors up at Harvard, the country’s second shantytown, had managed), but too many people were getting bad colds from staying too many days in a row, so although it was always occupied, at night, only small numbers of students were present. The university knew this. The bulldozers arrived at 5 am. I was sleeping in my bed in my dorm room.

 

The promised lesson for Gen Z: Greenfield is correct in that there will be a rightwing backlash. Those of you claiming that there is no difference between Trump and Biden—I’ve lived through similar situations; you’re mistaken. If you don’t vote, you’ll get Trump, and you’ll regret it. Your apathy combined with rightwing energy will bring this situation about.

 

Greenfield was wrong in judging his generation’s radical protests as being ineffective: they prevented nuclear war. I was mistaken in assuming the only lasting effects of my actions would be fewer military contractors and more tech folks dedicated to social justice (which I did accomplish): apartheid fell, but not for the reasons any of my comrades expected it would.

 

What about the current Israel/Palestine situation? Apartheid South Africa could have withstood sanctions, divestment, boycotts, and bans on weapon sales—they were self-sufficient. So can Israel. But it didn’t matter in the 1980s because the non-Afrikaner white people cared more about minor hits to their wealth and lifestyle than they did apartheid.

 

What about Israelis and their ties to the current power structure? While it’s true that Israel has moved from having admirably small wealth inequities in their population in the early ‘70s to being more economically stratified than the US today, the ultra-rich can pick up and move wherever they want. The ship the Iranians attacked recently because it had "ties" to Israel? The only connection was that the major shareholder in the shipping company that leased the vessel was born in Israel. He lives in Monaco along with his family. He was educated in England. There is no comparable class who will “suffer” from boycott, divestment, and sanctions like white South Africans did.

 

Mandela accepted white South Africans as indigenous. They had nowhere to go, no country that would “take them back.” It wasn’t like in Algeria, where pieds-noirs (French colonists) remained culturally and politically French and used their French passports to return to their homeland when the revolution came. Certainly, Israeli Jews have nowhere to go back to, and the vast majority carry no passports other than Israeli ones. As a group, they have no cultural allegiance to a colonizer nation—indeed, Palestine/Israel has had a small Jewish presence since Biblical times. For two thousand years, Jews retained a connection to the region. Modern genetics substantiates Jews as deriving from the same Semitic stock as Palestinians, although both populations had genetic introgression from European peoples. Gene flow is the geneticists’ term; two thousand years of raping of women by men of other ethnicities accounts for most of it.

 

And for many Palestinians, the question of whether there are two indigenous peoples in Israel/Palestine (approximately 7 million of each if you count Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as one region) has been resolved as “yes, there are.” The PLO (and Fatah) accepted Israel’s “right to exist” as a prelude to the Oslo Accords in the early 90s. The only person who could possibly play Mandela’s role today, Marwan Barghouti, who has been in prison since the second intifada, who was responsible for the “Prisoners Agreement” reconciling Hamas and Fatah, who was outpolling all Hamas leaders in surveys taken IN GAZA before the October 7 onset of hostilities, has long endorsed the two-state solution and complete recognition of Israel’s legitimacy and role in Jewish national and cultural sovereignty.

 

But Hamas has made no such moves. Hamas is committed to irredentist opposition to any long-term goal other than complete control of the entire territory. In the 2017 revisions to their charter, they did promise to participate in the politics of a state established in the West Bank and Gaza, not of ideological compromise, but because it was the people’s will. Western and Western-aligned nations, as well as Arab countries, consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

 

Some Western progressive leaders celebrated Hamas’ October 7 attacks as a victory in a just revolution. Andreas Malm, who has done so much good in his writings about the climate crisis, is a prominent example; there are others. Still, most did not celebrate the deaths of Israelis. Palestinians under occupation, sure, I can understand an initial reaction of jubilation at a strike against the power that controls their lives. Westerners, not so much.

 

Hamas is not the ANC; no group of Israelis motivated primarily by material as opposed to national considerations comparable to white non-Afrikaner South Africans in the early '80s exists. There is no clear path from Gen Z protests in the US to self-determination for Palestinians. And as Greenfield argues, these protests might lead to a rightwing backlash that gets Trump elected and hurts many people, including immigrants from the Middle East.

 

But what about at least stopping the killings and ending the famine that is taking hold in parts of Gaza? Most analysts agree that an invasion of Rafah without a clear plan to evacuate refugees and a dramatic increase in access of Gazans to food, water, and medical care/supplies will result in genocide. (It hasn’t yet based on three criteria: ~99% of Gazans remain alive; the 2014 International Criminal Court decision on Gaza says that Israeli military actions are not genocide as long as civilians can access food and water; and intentionality must be proven under international law, and it will be hard to prove Israeli actions to date weren’t intended more as self-defense than as genocide.) The American protests have contributed to a fortress mentality among Israelis (discussed in my blog post here). The protests are doing nothing to change the hearts and minds of Israeli Jews or to help Israelis struggling for political change.

 

There is only one person whose actions would be consequential and whose mindset might be changed by American protests: Joe Biden. Given that the Israelis chose to depend on the US in their military response, Joe Biden could stop the invasion of Rafah if he wanted to. He has told Netanyahu not to invade Rafah, and he has threatened to withhold further weapons transfers, but nobody can be sure if he will ever act on his words.

 

It is indisputable that Biden’s diplomatic rhetoric has responded to American public opinions shifting to favor a ceasefire and oppose an invasion of Rafah. These changes occurred prior to the campus protests, but the encampments have kept the issue in the news cycle. Gaza will be an issue in the American elections.

 

With swing populations. Polls show the majority of Americans are more concerned about inflation than any other issue. Immigration policy and abortion rights seem to be next-highest on American radar screens. Gaza is unlikely to hit most people’s top-ten list. However, it may contribute to young people not voting. Polls indicate it is also a factor with Black Americans. The lack of enthusiastic support for Biden in a few key states might swing the election to Trump.

 

So, what is my Gen X advice for Gen Z? Certainly not to avoid protest. Your voices are necessary (although, you could consider reading some books, as this issue is complicated—your campus does have a library, even if you are in Florida). Certainly not to allow the most rightwing Israeli government ever to bury any chance for a resolution of the conflict in which Palestinian national and civil rights are actualized and warfare ceases. Certainly not to be so paralyzed by listening to folks like Greenfield that you give up on the chance of progress.

 

Biden claims to support a 2-state solution, with the Palestinian Authority (as supported by international forces, likely Saudi or Emirati) taking over in Gaza in preparation for a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank, and other territory to be negotiated. (The last issue was not the sticking point in the Oslo Accords—Palestine would require part of the Negev to join the two territorial blocks, and negotiators agreed upon a swap for land of higher security value to Israel.) More immediately, a ceasefire, hostage for prisoner exchange, and opening of Gaza to much more humanitarian assistance will take Biden playing a strong role.

 

If he can accomplish the latter and take productive steps toward the former, go out and organize for him. Elect him and then hold his feet to the fire to live up to his rhetoric.

 

But even if he proves ineffectual, vote for him anyway because—trust this Gen Xer—you don’t want Trump.

 

And stay off of my lawn. Seriously. I’m not just being a curmudgeon; there’s an alligator living in the pond.

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