Radical Citizenship in Wartime, from Vietnam to Iraq

Struggles over civic status have been said to characterize youthful rebellion, especially that of the Sixties. Such battles over who counts as worthy of which human rights are, of course, all the more urgent in times of war. So it is worth interrogating the concepts of youth protest and radical citizenship as we plot our way out of the course set by the current power brokers.

It is particularly appropriate to be having this conversation today, December 4, the thirty-seventh anniversary of the Chicago police murders of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two young, energetic, and brilliant organizers who gave life and meaning to what society is supposed to be about: empathic people deeply engaged in how the world does and could function. A dynamic speaker and humble leader, Hampton was 21 years old and poised to enter the national leadership of the Black Panther Party at the time of his murder. His murder in 1969 had a chilling effect on not just the Black Panther Party but the radical movements of the period overall. The blatant pride with which the Chicago police carried out the murders was the visible manifestation of J. Edgar Hoover’s then-classified note in an FBI memorandum around the time saying that African Americans needed to understand that a Black radical was a dead radical, as far as the state was concerned.

Yet an immediate surge in movement militancy greeted the cold-blooded murder of a young, Black leader. Hampton’s example affords the opportunity to talk of what many are calling the “long Sixties” or the “two decades of the Sixties.” That is, the political, social, and cultural upheaval that touched almost every nation on the planet predated and outlived the decade after which it is named. It was a broad moment of unrest, a global era of revolution and struggle characterizing the post-WW II period. To speak of it as a broad moment in time is not to suggest that it was a homogenous or static time period; there were great differences between 1955 and 1975, just as there were dramatic differences between 1968 and 1972 or even between 1966 and 1968. Still, to speak of a historical moment when most institutions and social relationships came under dramatic reconsideration, when most of the entire world experienced profound shifts in numerous ways, requires a broader view than can be shoved into one decade.

It is by now a well-accepted fact that youth played a vital role in making the Sixties happen. Less enmeshed in the routine functions of the system, young people were the driving force behind the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration, the Black Panther’s community breakfast programs, Students for a Democratic Society’s anti-war militancy, the Yippie shifts in culture priorities, the American Indian Movement’s land occupations, the Stonewall rebellion of queer and trans people, the various consciousness raising groups of the women’s liberation movement, and the parallel developments found in almost every country on the planet. To be sure, any list of Sixties movements draws heavily on the involvement, ingenuity, and inspiration of young people, infusing the protest movement with a healthy distrust of authority and special attention to the unique position of youth in society. And because Sixties tumult wasn’t simply political in the traditional sense but social and cultural, even spatial and spiritual, the generational divide is an important part of the story.

But it is not the only part. Contrary to the poster hanging in the SDS national office by the late 1960s, young people did not make the revolution-at least, not alone. To assume or insist that they did is ahistoric: it denies the crucial role played by people across the generations, including sharecropper and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer, or Yale Divinity graduate Dave Dellinger, whose militant pacifism found him serving time as a draft resister during WW II and a prominent anti-war leader during the Vietnam War and every other U.S. military conflagration until his death in 2004. Further, the belief that young people are the entirety of social protest leads to the nauseatingly ubiquitous comparison of a generation to its predecessor, a no-win situation that always finds the current generation to be lacking. Even worse, the implication of this comparison lets older people off the hook-as if voting and imbibing alcohol legally renders political activism irrelevant.

The last thing I want to do-particularly on a college campus!-is encourage passivity or intergenerational hostility, so let me be clear in saying that rejecting a generational juxtaposition does not in any way argue for anything other than activism and organizing from a broad sector of the population, with students and youth playing key leadership roles in dialogue with others. But longer view of the Sixties renders this generational comparison useless, or at least makes it more complicated. If “the Sixties” started in the ’50s and lasted until the ’70s, and if many people stayed active for that entire time and are still in some way active today, it simply cannot be true that activism gripped only the young. Speaking of the Sixties as an era rather than a decade also challenges a linear presentation of the movements of the time as separate or distinct, when in fact Third World national liberation, the Black Power movement, women’s liberation, anti-war militancy and other facets of the Sixties upheaval built off each other.


Let me illustrate this point with a brief discussion of three figures that loom large in my understanding of the period: Malcolm X, Ella Baker, and Kuwasi Balagoon. To the extent any of them is remembered, it is not for their participation in anti-war activism, yet each exhibited tremendous influence and even leadership in the period of opposition to the war in Indochina. More to the point, each defined a politic of dynamic opposition in the heart of an empire on the attack. To be sure, selecting three figures from such an action-packed time period is something of an exercise in randomness, if not absurdity. It is not as if this trio is the only way to understand the period, but I do think that this triplicate does illuminate some of what made the era so profound and transformative.

First is Malcolm X (May 19, 1925-February 21, 1965). As I am sure most people are familiar, Malcolm was the son of a Garveyite family who became a prominent leader and fiery orator, first in the Nation of Islam and then in his own organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (modeled on Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-African organizing model). His political awakening came while in prison, and by the mid-1950s Malcolm was preaching a nascent Black nationalism in mosques and on street corners. A student of revolution who was never afraid to admit his mistakes, Malcolm grew increasingly radical and increasingly distant from NOI doctrine. He was a cutting edge thinker who fostered an intellectual understanding and political relationships between American Blacks and those in Africa, calling for broad and global unity among all people of color and, fundamentally, among all people opposed to oppression. He was 39 at the time of his murder, yet his legacy continued. His theories of revolutionary nationalism and human rights over a limited civil rights paradigm shaped the political platform of a generation: the division is between oppressed and oppressor. This position brought together race and class in an organizing paradigm that eschewed racialism and oriented the movement to a radical, internationalist direction. Organizations as varied as the Black Panther Party, the Weather Underground, Redstockings, American Indian Movement and others built off Malcolm’s political ideology.

Next is Ella Baker, December 13, 1903 to December 13, 1986. In the Jewish tradition, it is said that passing away on one’s birthday is a sign of piety and a life of good deeds, and such could not be truer of Ms. Baker. Ella Baker was a lifelong radical small-d democrat, an independent and non-dogmatic socialist who spent her life in movements working for racial and economic justice. From the NAACP in the 1940s to fighting political repression in the 1970s and beyond, Baker participated in a range of grassroots efforts at social change. She defined radicalism as a process of “facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.” Baker deftly combined pragmatic skills-building with a tireless commitment to the value of grassroots, direct democracy to create social structures based on meeting human needs and allowing human potential to flourish. Her process of leadership development was collective and summed up by an insistence that “strong people don’t need leaders,” in the individual or abstract sense. Baker’s most famous political role came as a founding advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Under her tutelage, SNCC trained organizers, built intergenerational community organizations that courageously challenged the ferocity of open white supremacy, and maintained a commitment to grassroots democracy that put into practice a new notion of what the United States could and should look like. Baker encouraged SNCC to remain an independent organization rather than be absorbed by the adult-centered, preacher-heavy Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In her 50s when SNCC was founded, Baker was one of the only adults who had such a consistently inspired and involved mentoring relationship with the young radicals. Her influence is palpable in the reality that everyone from integrationist liberals to Black Power militants has nothing but respect and admiration for Ms. Baker.

Kuwasi Balagoon (December 22, 1946-December 13, 1986) is, of course, the least known of the three. Like Malcolm, he was a sharp thinker, and like Baker he preferred difficult behind the scenes work to leading the crowd. A veteran of the armed forces who was challenging racism and brutality in the military years before the GI movement took off, Balagoon was a tenant organizer in Harlem. He helped deliver food to striking Columbia University students in 1968, breaking through a line of right-wing students in order to do so. He was part of the NYC Black Panther Party chapter, ultimately becoming one of the defendants in the notorious Panther 21 case, in which the government tried to frame 21 leading members of the New York City chapter on a variety of bogus conspiracy charges. Everyone was acquitted-the charges so transparently false-but the two years of time and money it took to reach an acquittal had a debilitating affect on the chapter. Many of them, including Balagoon, joined the emerging underground after their acquittal, viewing clandestine resistance as the only way to maintain political activism. He was arrested for his political activity several times, yet kept returning to the frontlines of militant Black liberation struggle. He was arrested for the final time in January 1982 and convicted for a political bank robbery gone awry; he died of AIDS in prison in 1986, a week before his 40th birthday-and on the same day as Ella Baker passed away.

Intellectualism, internationalism, organizing, democracy, militancy-these are some of the tenets of Sixties protest overall, not just of the Black liberation struggle which was so often at the forefront. Each of these three figures exhibited fierce devotion to grassroots political sensibility which held that the poorest segments of society could in fact run their own lives if given the means. (There was, it needs to be said, a painful lack of awareness around gender and sexuality, despite Baker’s fierce independence.) Each, in her or his own way, lived a life dedicated to, in Baker’s words, “devising [the] means”-materially, emotionally, and intellectually-for people to fundamentally alter the way society functioned. They persevered despite being subject to the machinations of a government hell bent on thwarting any challenges to its power. These aren’t the only three important people, nor have all the inspiring Sixties veterans passed away; they are in classrooms, hospitals, prison cells, and anywhere else people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s may be found. Examples abound. They are the indefatigable Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American woman interned in U.S. concentration camps during the 1940s who would become an honorary citizen of the Republic of New Afrika and a tireless advocate for U.S. political prisoners. They are Rual Salinas, a writer and former prisoner who was a leader in the Chicano movement and now operates the Resistancia bookstore/community center in Austin, Texas.

It is in these countless examples where the myriad facets of the Sixties coincide. These figures, like Baker, Balagoon, Malcolm X and millions of their generation, here and elsewhere, defined a global citizenship that connected the war in Vietnam to apartheid in South Africa, revolution in Bolivia to Israeli military aggression, campus protest to ghetto rebellions to unrest in the armed forces to a struggle for full human rights for all people. Recognizing war as the ultimate expression of state power, they couched their anti-war activism in a broader critique of systemic injustice that saw white supremacy and rapacious capitalism as fundamental to the routine functioning of American power.


What do these issues and these figures mean for today? This generation is often compared negatively to the Sixties. And given the open nativism, rampant nationalism, monopoly capitalism, repressive policing, distrust of science, and naked imperialism now characterizing the United States, the early 21st century may most resemble a high-tech version of the early 20th century rather than a replica of the 1960s. From New Orleans to Guantánamo, Afghanistan to Iraq to Somalia, the white supremacist patriarchy of American free market capitalism has once again made its brutality open and apparent, and revelations of secret prisons and secret wiretapping again raise the specter of a government petrified of having its authority questioned. But lest we resign ourselves to the second coming of the Whig party, I want to suggest that all is not lost to neo-conservativism-of either the Republican or tepid Democratic varieties-even with the frightening reality of the issues we face.

Today, there are more people in some way engaged in political activism than there were at the height of Sixties activism. February 15, 2003, was the biggest protest in world history, with more people participating in a protest than ever before-and before a single shot was fired. It didn’t stop the war, that’s true, but no one protest ever stopped or started anything. It is, indeed, entirely too early to say what effect that protest had, although its impact can surely be seen in the rapidly dwindling recruitment numbers, the depletion of the so-called coalition of the willing, and the auspicious organizing of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The protests in support of immigrant rights have been some of the biggest in history, turning tens and hundreds of thousands out for rallies in both big cities and small towns throughout the country-offering a poignant reminder that the only citizenship that matters is global, not national.

Put another way, today’s radical citizens are often not citizens. Not only because they are the fiery pen and fierce intellect of Third World writers, activists and politicians like Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, Subcommandante Marcos, and Hugo Chavez-but because they reject the marriage of civic status with human worth. They are Elvira Arellano, the face of immigrant justice living in sanctuary in Chicago. They are Cindy Sheehan and Michael Berg and the Watadas and other family and friends of soldiers killed in action or imprisoned for refusing to deploy. They are Ray Boudreaux, John Bowman (1947-2006), Richard Brown, Hank Jones, and Harold Taylor-five former Black Panthers who were tortured by police in New Orleans in the 1970s and who went to jail again in 2005-2006 rather than be intimidated by a vengeful state still seeking to criminalize activists for their participation in radical movements thirty years ago (and their ongoing community involvement).

Today’s activists, then, are everywhere. As we write in the introduction to Letters From Young Activists, “We are Black, Puerto Rican, Chicana/o, Salvadoran, Palestinian, white, Haitian, Chinese, Indian, Tamil, and Native American-and we are all, in some sense, responsible for the future of the United States. We are atheist, Christian, Jewish, spiritual, pagan, Muslim, practitioners of Santeria and Ifa-and yet we have a common faith. We proudly declare that we are transgender, lesbian, queer, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, and hetero-flexible-are you sure you aren’t one of us? We are preppy campus organizers, dumpster-diving punks, immigrants, former prisoners, the children of prisoners, Rhodes scholars, Iraqi war veterans, labor organizers, hip-hop heads, vogueing ball queens and club kids-won’t you come and join us?” National liberation has been replaced by a globally dispersed, non-nationalist anti-imperialism rooted in the diversity of human experiences. Indeed, if we believe the indigenous rebels of Chiapas, Mexico, the struggle today is not simply national or even global but intergalactic.

Just as in the Sixties, the frontlines of political struggle within the U.S. today emerge from the South and from those whose citizenship is in question. In the 1960s, the confluence of geography and precarious civic status came most notably from African Americans. That is just as true today, particularly the struggles from New Orleans and elsewhere in the Gulf Coast for a people’s led reconstruction after such criminal governmental neglect and the ensuing neo-liberalism characterizing the state’s efforts at rebuilding the Gulf Coast as a tourist playground. Now, as with then, political struggle emerges from many quarters, including the heroic efforts of immigrants to resist the further criminalization-on the jobsite, in school, or on the border. The first U.S. Social Forum to be held in June 27–July 1, 2007, in Atlanta draws upon the central role the South has played in helping cohere a national strategy against U.S. empire, and this gathering should prove a vital one at replenishing our hope. Looking South of the U.S. South, we see various movements resisting neo-liberalism and affirming some sense of socialism in the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and the social movements of Mexico, Korea, Palestine, Lebanon, South Africa, Tanzania, the Gold Coast, and beyond.

Then and now, these issues are inextricably connected to war. Then and now, even if the war is most centrally located in one country, its reach extends far beyond Vietnam or Iraq: it is now Afghanistan and Somalia, as it was then in Laos and Cambodia. But it is also in the machinery of empire found in Guantánamo, Colombia, the School of the Americas military training, the weapons given Israel for its siege of Palestine and Lebanon, and the ramped up national security state that is now building an armed barrier separating the United States from Mexico and which already incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the entire world. With 300 million people-five percent of the world’s population-the U.S. has more than 2 million people inside, with another 5 million on parole or probation. China, by way of comparison, has more than 1 billion people and 1.3 million prisoners. War is the ultimate expression of state authority, and repression is a practice run for broader austerity measures. And the resources devoted to further policing and more bombs is money that is not spent in cash-strapped schools or the destroyed Gulf Coast, whose residents generally remained displaced without the means to return or the infrastructure to return to.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it: beyond the many challenges it faces, today’s activism has yet to reach the cohesion of a mass movement united around common demands and grounded in a shared strategy for securing social change-the kind of unity of purpose and commitment to ongoing action that made the Sixties “the Sixties.” Bush’s planned troop “surge” is a poignant reminder that the government has far from given up on its hopes for open domination, and the anomalous weather patterns are giving the normally complacent citizen cause for alarm. Part of the problem is the enormity of the challenge, the need to avoid some of the failures of our predecessors. There is a need for more than just an intellectual assessment of the problems or the passive participation of petitions in favor of the patient practice of organizing. But because it has captured the attention and energy of an intergenerational and multinational audience, it exhibits great potential. The challenge, as I see it, is how to be grounded in hope-not the foolish hope or magic hope that Martin Luther King spoke of, the hope that if we put out good vibes the universe will provide-but instead King’s version of realistic hope, the hope that is grounded in the reality of people working collectively to make change. That is the lesson, from Vietnam to Iraq.


What enabled the gains of the Sixties was an expansive political culture. That is, with the example of people at the bottom standing up for their rights and humanity, whole communities, cultures, and subcultures were able to imagine, create, and demand more. It was a broad political culture born not only of oppression but active involvement, which enabled, as the French Situationists put it, the realistic courage to demand and create the impossible. Part of the attack on the gains of that period-perhaps the most central attack-has been a narrowing of political culture, to make common sense the free market ideology of punitive policies over humanist ones. Change in policy and in structures come when there is a vibrant and visionary political culture. The spinelessness of the Democratic Party, which catapulted to victory in the recent elections with the brilliant campaign strategy of “We are not the Republican Party” and whose primary opposition to the troop surge has thus far been the call for a non-binding referendum-emerges not only from the corruption of mainstream American politics but a lack of imagination of what is possible. The role of political protest is not simply to change policies but to expand ideas of what is possible and what is necessary-which is why the energy and excitement of youth is central to politics but also why young people do not engage in this process alone. We need to discuss our vision of the world, as we work to put it into practice in the classroom, on the streets, and in the cells of the nation’s rapidly expanding prisons.

The role of artists as part of mass movements is particularly useful. Art, like utopian fantasies, is no substitute for the activism of being in the streets, talking to everyday people, organizing against injustice and affirming human rights. Art-music, dance, performance, writing and beyond-can be fundamental to sustaining our organizing and expanding our political culture. It is for that reason that we ought to embrace the hopeful challenge put forth by Puerto Rican poet and activist Martin Espada in his poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread”:

“If the abolition of slave manacles

Began as a vision of hands without manacles,

Then this is the year;

If the shutdown of extermination camps

Began as imagination of a land

Without barbed wire or the crematorium,

Then this is the year;

If every rebellion begins with the idea

That conquerors on horseback

Are not many-legged gods, that they too drown

If plunged in the river,

Then this is the year.”

Our challenge is great, the obstacles formidable, and the hopes of meaningful change emerging from within the political mainstream shattered with each passing day. And yet, with courage, strategy, and imagination, this could be the year that our intergenerational, global movements for justice can raze the walls-the year that the political vision now on the distant horizon burns with an inescapable urgency and radiance.

Dan Berger is a writer, activist and graduate student in Philadelphia. He is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books, 2005). This essay is based on a talk given at the University of Michigan on December 4, 2006; thanks to professors Gina Morantz-Sanchez, Matthew Countryman, and Matthew Lassiter for coordinating the event.