Generation Gap

Oliver Willis

(I should also note that my scorn for protests defies ideology. As I’ve said on this site about liberal protests in the past – they don’t do anything in the modern age. Liberal protests weren’t able to stop George W. Bush’s unneeded war in Iraq, and the conservative tea parties won’t stop Barack Obama from fixing the economy George W. Bush broke.)

My guess is that Oliver Willis was a toddler at the time of the Free South Africa protests. They were very effective. The campaign to end Reagan’s policy of constructive engagement with South Africa began the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 1984. It wasn’t a propitious time for a liberal initiative. Reagan had just won reelection by a landslide. Randolph Robinson, Mary Francis Berry, and Walter Fauntleroy, had a sit down strike at the South African Embassy. Within weeks there were actions against Gold Exchanges, weekly marches on the SA Embassy, and actions all over the country. I think all the liberal energy was concentrated on this because it was the only thing happening. And so demonstrations continued to build pressure until Ronald Reagan caved. It was a big big moment.

Demonstrations are still an effective means of pressure. There was a one day demonstration against the retail outlets of BF Goodwrench in 2006 in support of the Steelworkers. The demonstrations were on a Saturday, Sunday morning management was on the phone asking to resume talks with the union. Just because Willis wasn’t paying attention doesn’t mean the demonstrations were not effective.

I am not enthusiastic about giant puppets or Code Pink, but I think demonstrations are an indispensable part of any movement for significant social change. Last summers’ National Day of Action protests were a critical display of support and strength on the part of single payer activists. Social change involves many things, demonstrations are invariably part of the mix.

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2 Responses to “Generation Gap”


  1. 1 Oliver Willis April 14, 2009 at 5:01 am

    To be fair I was about 6 or 7 about the time of the South Africa thing, but I was aware of what I think made the final blow: The economic boycott of the country. Marching in the street doesn’t seem to have done anything, economically hitting an outlaw regime did.

  2. 2 dcblogger April 14, 2009 at 6:39 am

    As you suggest, the economic sanctions were the final blow. Those came about after months of demonstrations, mostly small demonstrations, across the country and institutional disinvestment campaigns. The demonstrations played a crucial role in mobilizing public opinion into tacking action against apartheid. And of course, if was the people of SA who made the real difference. Randall Robinson would be the first to agree with that. I am just saying that demonstrations have there place.


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