Life After Y2K
The nineties opened with a bang. In August, 1990 the Iraqis invaded Kuwait and it was immediately clear that George Bush would do everything in his formidable presidential power to go to war. There was never any pretense of negotiating a peaceful resolution. Nothing less than complete control by the U.S. military would suffice, even with all the rhetoric of international cooperation and UN approval.
The Gulf Crisis lasted seven months: by the end of February, 1991 the war was over. Well, that's what they (the U.S. government, the mass media, the Pentagon, etc.) said. The assault against the people of Iraq continues to this day with sanctions that translate into food and medicine shortages, among other things. In the nineties "our" government perfected economic warfare.
Through most of the nineties I worked full time in the struggle to end the decades-old economic war against Cuba. It was hard, often difficult, at times confusing work. The hardest thing was trying to make sense of why the U.S. government not merely keeps this policy alive but periodically tightens the sanctions and escalates the tensions. In 1992 Washington tightened the economic blockade with the Torricelli Bill. Later in the decade the Helms-Burton legislation put our country at odds with most of the world and many of our historical allies as it attempted to force other nations to join their anti-Cuba crusade. As this new decade begins Jesse Helms lectures the UN Security Council with his usual display of arrogance and Dan Burton leads an effort to "grant" U.S. citizenship on a six-year old Cuban boy who by any standard of decency and compassion should be returned to his father, family, community, and home.
In the mid-nineties my energies were increasingly pulled to domestic and local struggles. The decades-long campaign by the Republicans to control Congress came to a head with the Gingrich "revolution," while here in New York City we had to deal with Governor George-creation-of-Al-D'Amato-Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The 60 year commitment to public services and strong safety nets were being dismantled. Throughout the country working and poor people, people of color, women, lesbians and gay men, the disabled, seniors and young people all were feeling the impact of the years of Reagan/Bush. The election of Bill Clinton meant there would be no fight against the growing power of the conservative right-wing. In fact, instead of fighting we - and the whole world - got a man whose legacy would be the implementation of globalization, structural adjustment and privatization, assaults on workers' rights, frightening escalations of racial and gender violence, and new environmental degradation.
At the same time, the unparalleled accumulation of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer white men reached frightening proportion. The gap between the rich and the poor deepens, working families in this country work longer hours for fewer real dollars and around the world poverty, famine, and disease take the lives of countless people every single day while billions are poured into the world's largest and most deadly military machine.
My limited look at the nineties could leave us feeling more than a bit depressed. And while I kept working for justice and peace and human solidarity there were moments these past ten years when I wondered if we could ever make the changes we know are needed. On top of everything else, the left and progressive social change movements were in bad shape - small, fragmented, confused by the changes in the global political and economic landscape, lacking strategic vision, and working with virtually no resources. No wonder it was a little depressing at times.
Then in the last year of the decade things started to shift. In New York City the horrifying police murder of African immigrant Amadou Diallo was met with a city-wide, multi-constituency, militant fight back, highlighted by two weeks of daily sit-ins in front of police headquarters with almost 1,200 arrests. More importantly, virtually every constituency in NYC was represented in these actions. You could feel the barriers coming down, you could taste the potential power of unity built on respect.
And at the end of 1999 - Seattle. The fact that I don't need to explain that further is the clearest evidenced of the power of Seattle. The power of creative, unified, often youth-led resistance, when put to the service of challenging global capitalism rose above the tear gas clouds in the city that the richest man in the world calls home.
I felt energized as the year ended, even if Giuliani was hosting the least interesting, most highly policed new year's celebration in Disney's Times Square. The years of organizing, the daily hard work that goes unreported by the mainstream media, the deepening understanding of what's wrong and what needs to be changed all seemed to be making new waves and claiming a new future. Could it be that the hard times of the last decade of the 20th century would fade as a new demand for the rights of all humans took center stage?
It is almost a month into this new year, new decade. I'm feeling hopeful about our future, especially when I go to meetings and I'm one of the oldest people in the room. But that turn-of-the-year high has been moderated as I read the papers: the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, plans for real Star Wars move forward with billions of dollars pouring into the military industrial complex, AIDS is ravishing Africa and Gore sides with the profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies, prison construction gets more money than schools and we execute more people than any other nation on earth.
No, I can't say that the tide has turned and we are on the verge of victory. What I can say, and what gives me that extra oomph each day, is that around the world and here at home a new generation of activists are as deeply committed to making change as any history has produced. With all the obstacles, difficulties, raw power we are up against, I am feeling hopeful as we start this new century. We still lack resources and a clear strategy, we are still far from unified...but we know we are right. The creativity, energy and insights of this new generation of global activists helps me hold on to the belief that we will end up on the winning side of history.