There isn’t a corner of Ann Arbor, Michigan that isn’t touched by the University of Michigan. From the big block “M” on the Diag, the campus weaves through town like tangled yarn.
When I started college there, my dorm held more residents than a lot of small towns. I learned a lot in those first few years. I made my first Jewish friends. I learned to use public transportation, and ate shrimp for the first time. I hunted out the best places to study, in the dental school library or small classrooms that weren’t used much at night. I fell in love. I learned to be a little careful, too, and to follow the cardinal rule of dorm life: Don’t scream unless you really mean it.
I didn’t know, though, that I would live for a few years without what I considered “regular” lettuce. I guess what they served in the cafeterias at Bursley Hall was romaine, or maybe endive. I was never sure. It was most often served at room temperature and felt dry when it rested on my tongue. It left a slight bitter aftertaste.
In those years, I learned, the University, major religious groups, and national political figures boycotted iceberg lettuce to show support for the United Farmworkers Union. Those who sought to improve conditions for farm workers were organized with a capital “O.” They had passionate leadership in Cesar Chavez, who founded the AFWU. During the lettuce boycott, and later during the grape strike, Chavez followed the example of nonviolent protest exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He endured multiple hunger strikes that lasted over 25 days at a stretch. Senator Bobby Kennedy joined him in his fast shortly before his assassination.
Over the last few months, the “Occupy” movement has stirred memories of the lettuce and grape boycotts of the 1970’s. I have wondered whether (and how) the Occupiers would achieve their goals. But that’s part of the problem. Depending on who you talk to, the goals of Occupy might have to do with protesting corrupt financial practices by American banks. Or the widening gap between the earning power of the 1% and the 99% (of which I am clearly a member). Or maybe it is about corporations. Corporate greed, selling out to corporations, and all that stuff. Or forgiving student debt, or maybe forgiving all debt. Or the housing crisis: everyone is entitled to the American dream. (No, wait. That’s what caused the mortgage collapse.) Or Congress and their role in it all. Or George Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or maybe both of them. Trickle down….didn’t. Or if it did, someone turned off the economic faucet sometime in the last 30 years. Not sure. Or maybe, as I saw on one Occupier’s sign, it’s about “One Love, One World.”
I don’t know anyone personally who resided at an Occupy site, but I have seen those sites in five different cities. In December, my cab driver in Washington, DC told me that at night, the DC Occupiers went home. The tents were turned over to the homeless. On that night, Washington was awash in cold torrential rain. I quietly bet that every one of those tents was filled with at least 3 inches of standing water . It’s not likely that many of the homeless found much comfort there that night. In Detroit, Occupy set up space in a park area often frequented by the homeless, and just blocks from the bustling theater district and sports fields; I am not sure if the homeless got to use the tents on cold nights or not. In Lancaster, PA, Occupy took on the tone of a street fair, especially on busy “First Friday” nights. I never saw it in the paper, but I wondered if they went home too, the first night temperatures dipped to 17 degrees.
Now, I certainly don’t want to leave my readers with the notion that I support corrupt banking practices, or that I have somehow escaped the economic crunch that plagues our nation.
But I have been thinking about the differences between the Occupiers and those of us who ate a lot of bad lettuce back in the 70s, and who skipped grapes altogether for a good long while.
From the get go, as I watched news footage of OWS, I wondered about the clarity of the movement. The Occupiers are certainly as entitled as anyone to exercise their first amendment rights. But I saw mixed messages right from the start. It didn’t make sense to launch an anti- corporate movement and document the cause on a MacBook via an AT&T or Verizon data plan. Ditto to doing so with a Starbucks latte in hand, or even a McCafe coffee.
Just an observation.
And then…a question:
Could a nationwide boycott – like the one against lettuce and grapes – happen in America today? Would a systemically planned boycott of certain targeted corporations (or banks, or products, or whatever) work in the 21st century the way it did in the 1970’s?
Would we, as a country or as individuals, be willing to do without lettuce or grapes or anything at all for an extended period of time?
Are we willing to take a stand in a way that touches our personal lives and lifestyles? To change the clothing we wear, or bypass our favorite stores, or do without some of our favorite products?
Or is that sort of thing passé?
After all, Occupy supported a nationwide boycott of Black Friday shopping to let the wealthy magnates of corporate America know where the rest of us stand. But you know what happened.
We didn’t stand on principle. We stood in line at Target and Toys R Us and Best Buy and WalMart to get great deals on HDTV and XBox.
Americans might be struggling, but the bottom line is this:
- We want what we want.
- We want a great deal on it.
- And we want it. now.
The first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, I knew I couldn’t have been a pioneer. I certainly couldn’t have done what my husband’s ancestors did, walking west as part of the Mormon handcart companies. But as he often says, those people didn’t consider themselves “pioneers” at the time. They were everyday people, doing what they had to do. They did it a step at a time, even in winter. They bore children and buried loved ones along the way, without stopping. They sang every night.
Could I have done that?
Could have risked my life with the Freedom Riders in the 1960’s?
Could have endured being taken a prisoner of war in Japan, or Germany, Korea or North Vietnam?
Could I have been as brave as Rosa Parks was the day she sat firmly in her seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama? (Which, by the way, launched another boycott.)
Could I have done that? Could I do it now?
How willing am I – or any of us – to change my habits and step out of my comfort zone for a principle I claim to believe in, or for the well-being of others? Will we still buy those nice underpants at Victoria’s Secret, even knowing that the cotton is harvested by slave labor? In these days of counting our cash a bit more carefully, are we willing to spend more for slave-free chocolate bars, or would we rather just grab what’s closest at the checkout counter when we want a treat? Genetically modified produce sounds rather like “Brave New World” – but can I afford to buy heirloom tomatoes every single time I want a sandwich? I mean, it’s January. If I want a tomato, I have to take what I can get.
Cuts a little close to the bone, you know?
No easy answers.
But oh, so very important to ask the questions.