On Saturday, April 15, a taste of Seattle will come to downtown Boulder. A new generation of young political activists will hold its coming out party, first at the bandshell in Central Park and then in the streets. There are bitter tastes from Seattle that few people want here. But some civil disturbance, and perhaps a bit of violence to property, may be inevitable. If the police, city officials, and the public understand what it is all about, they will tolerate the disturbance and violence, and the day will pass peacefully enough.
What it's all about is summed up in the witty bumper sticker: If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention. After 30 years of slumber, we finally have another generation that is paying attention. What are they outraged about? Try these, for starters:
Corporate profits are measured in the billions, and corporate executives' annual salaries in the millions, or even hundreds of millions. Meanwhile, nearly 1 billion people do not have enough food to keep them healthy. That's more than the whole population of the U.S., Russia, and the EU combined.
Every year millions of little children die from diarrhea and other diseases caused by impure water, which could be purified for a few cents a day. As multinational corporations seek the cheapest labor, they employ children as young as 8 in sweatshops, for a few dollars a day.
In the U.S., the top 20 percent of the population sees its income rise steadily and eagerly buys the goods made by those little children. Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent steadily loses income, and over 20 percent of our children grow up in poverty.
You could extend the list indefinitely, because you see all this on TV and read about it in the newspapers every day. That is what outrages the young activists most. Their elders know how human suffering is increased and ignored in the scramble for profits. Their elders shrug their shoulders, say "What can you do?" and go back to sleep. For a morally sensitive young person, trying to become a responsible adult with a meaningful value system, the effect is devastating, even maddening. The rage is unavoidable. What else can you feel, when you are trying to become an ethical person in a profoundly unethical world? Indeed, the disparity between how things are and how any decently humane person would want them to be is too enormous for words. When words fail, you must either stop thinking about it or burst. April 15 (called "A15") is about people who can't stop thinking about it and are ready to burst into action. The A15 organizers are committed to avoiding violence to persons and property.
But they are equally committed to waking the rest of us up. Many of them are members of a CU student coalition appropriately named WAAKE-UP! (World Awareness and Action Coalition for Equal United Progressives). They know that the rest of us have been sleeping so deeply, for so long, that it will take quite a shock to awaken us. They know they must be outrageous, to get us to pay attention to their rage. When young people burst and get outrageous, a feware bound to lose control.
Then the police and city officials must decide what principle will guide them. Will they act from fear that if they don't "keep control" they will get public criticism? Or will they understand the essential point: the activists' marvelous restraint. Their moral outrage is so deep, and so justified, that whatever happens on A15 will only scratch the surface of it. If they acted upon their full measure of anger the measure we should all feel all the time they would tear this city down. The essential point is the effort they make to control themselves, for their own good and for ours.
We, and the authorities, may be tempted to focus on the few who lose control, to use them as an excuse to show that we are "in control." But even the slightest police excess could easily puncture the vast majority's hard-won, fragile restraint. The whole situation could spin out of control. That taste of Seattle would not benefit anyone.
We may also use the rowdy few as an excuse to avoid facing the issues that A15 will raise. Those issues are so painful that we may be forgiven for turning away. Those who will not and can not turn away need to be forgiven too, if their outrage goes a bit over the line of what we call proper decorum. They are the soldiers on the front line of human conscience, engaged in a battle that is simply too frightening for most of us.
So if, in the heat of protest, a few lose control, let it go. Let the police and the whole community be a model of restraint. If some walls are graffitied and a few windows are broken, let's all help clean up and sweep up and pay for the repairs. It is not much of a price, compared to the sacrifice the vast majority of activists make for us. They struggle every day, peacefully and painfully, to make a more human world. They give us hope that some day we may all be able to look around with a wide-awake conscience and say, "It's OK. Not perfect by a long shot, but OK." For that service they render us, a bit of civil disturbance is indeed a small price to pay.
Ira Chernus is a religious studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A15 is also being sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.
Copyright 2000 The Daily Camera