Arizona Shootings Add to Hopelessness About “Change”

by Randy Shaw on January 12, 2011

The Arizona shootings will not spark greater civility, new gun restrictions, or enhanced security for politicians – rather, the killings will simply add to feelings of hopelessness over the prospects for real change. Only two years after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the “Yes We Can” spirit that once galvanized Americans has been replaced by resignation. Few believe the President and Congress will limit the access of mentally impaired people to assault weapons, and confidence that the Obama Administration is willing to take on any powerful interest is all but gone. It’s a tragic irony that Arizona was the place in 1972 where Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta first launched the UFW’s “Si Se Puede´” (Yes We Can) rallying cry, in response to state labor leaders’ belief that the UFW’s campaign to recall Arizona’s governor could not be done. The farmworkers movement ignored such pessimism, and their efforts helped make Raul Castro the first Latino Governor of Arizona in 1974. Nearly four decades later, a far less hopeful spirit prevails, even among longtime activists for change.

The media is busy analyzing the Arizona shootings, a scenario that played out after Columbine, Oklahoma City, and the shooting at the Holocaust Museum, to name just a few. The United States experiences ongoing rampages by mentally disturbed murderers with easy access to assault weapons unavailable to the public in other industrial nations.

No laws will be passed to change this dynamic, with few national politicians even pretending that such is possible. An Obama Administration that routinely caves in to Wall Street, the military industrial complex, and other powerful interest certainly has no appetite for a battle with the NRA.

How has the spirit of hope that pervaded the nation only two years ago so quickly given way to despair, resignation and hopelessness? And is there a path out of this morass?

Change Never Easy

While candidate Barack Obama reminded crowds that “change is never easy,” we soon learned that the President preferred even weak compromises to the long struggles often necessary to create real change.

Unfortunately, the President is not alone. Many activists abandon campaigns for progressive change if they do not succeed in a few years, or after political insiders tell them that their struggle is not “winnable.”

How else to explain organized labor giving up on its campaign to pass a version of the Employee Free Choice Act without a public fight? Or those who now argue that comprehensive immigration reform must be put on the back burner because Republicans now control the House?

Progressive activists understandably focused on national elections after the 2002 contests gave Republicans control of the White House and Congress. This brought great results in 2006 and 2008.

But 2009-2010 showed the limits of this strategy. It also left too many activists viewing progressive change as only achieved through elections, politicians and the formal legislative process.

Hence the resignation and despair following the 2010 elections, which was intensified by Obama’s tax cut deal with Republicans. The feeling was that if Obama with a Democratic majority still in place continued policies making the rich even richer, how would the nation’s economic inequality ever be reduced?

History Provides a Roadmap

It took a decade of struggle from the time Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 before Congress passed the 1964 federal civil rights bill. Four years after Parks’ galvanizing action, progress on civil rights appeared stymied, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had to visit the White House in 1963 through the back door.

Cesar Chavez began organizing farmworkers in 1962, after fifty years of failure by far more well heeled campaigns. The UFW did not win the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act until 1975, thirteen years later.

Unlike elections, activist campaigns around issues never have a fixed end date.

Nobody who joined the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the later Freedom Rides, could predict with certainty how many years it would take to prevail. The UFW experienced so many reverses after winning its fabled grape boycott in 1970 that the New York Times wrote in January 1975 that the organization had failed; yet the farmworkers movement won its state labor act later that year.

Perhaps the Arizona shootings can remind activists of the real time-frame for change, and not to give up hope when there are many struggles left to be won.

For hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

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