Books

A Roadmap to Impactful Protest: 'Ten Years That Shook the City'

Harvey Milk at at '70s-era Pride Parade, San Francisco (photo by Terry Schmitt)

Long before San Francisco was the liberal capital of American, individuals incited a powerful movement to make activism a necessity rather than a choice.


Publisher: City Lights
Format: Paperback
Author: Chris Carlsson (editor)
Price: $18.95
Title: Ten Years That Shook the City
Length: 328 pages
Publication date: 2011-06

At a time when many are accusing the Occupy Wall Street movement of being disorganized, without purpose and ineffective while others celebrate its small victories, Ten Years That Shook the City is a powerful manual on how to protest meaningfully and productively. It’s not not an “eHow” manual, either. It’s a real manual, which will require reading all the fine print, foot notes, long names of streets and people and in some cases, legal jargon. In other words, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The essays cover a broad range of topics, and while they all fit until the loose umbrella of “San Francisco between 1968 and 1978”, it often feels difficult to see them as connected. Each piece appeals to different missions, mindsets and methodologies. At some points, the book reads like a checklist of minority groups on a survey form. Essays on Filipinos, blacks and women collapse on top of each other like dominos.

What is most interesting to San Francisco natives (but possibly nobody else) is how localized the movements were, all the way down to specific neighborhoods. In some cases, the neighborhoods of San Francisco actually formed based on the shared political intentions of their residents. In particular, the development of various ethnic backgrounds is a common theme in the essays.

"We were young, mostly in our middle twenties, supercharged with physical, intellectual and sexual energy. The city was a kind of hedonist Mecca with pristine beaches and Irish green, then golden hills and mountains rolling away from the ocean and the bay, vistas that we would explore in psychedelic ecstasy. Our tribal gatherings, whether for music or for politics, brought together the beautiful, the damned and the stoned, draped in colorful new apparel, even the naked and the fully-tanned. Here was a place where you didn't have to wait until summer to make love in the great outdoors." -- "Where did all the flowers Go: The view from a street in Bernal Heights" by Peter Booth Wiley

In contrast, modern day San Francisco is a place where different races and classes live blended together, as if each is a layer of sediment in an impassive rock. Ten Years That Shook the City gives a picture of what it was like when all the city’s citizens were still scattered pebbles, awaiting integration into a larger, layered cultural cornerstone.

Combined, these groups have made San Francisco what it is today, but the tremendous amounts of work and strife that went into crafting the identity of the city is invisible to the naked eye. Interestingly, it was not a unified front that led the transformation. One might think that the political upheaval in the city was a coincidence. After all, much of the country was in a state of tumult, and historically, when we look back on that decade, there’s a inclination to take activism for granted.

Movements were driven by small groups of people fighting specifically for one cause, whether it be transgender rights, Latino rights, or turmoil in Nicaragua (for example.) Writers, muralists and academics all have their place in this collection, and it’s clear to see how they directly impacted the city, even 40 years later.

These people all expressed themselves in vastly different ways, but they all shared one key to success and impact: they took action. Women realized there were no murals painted by women, so they went about covering the city in their artwork. People who wanted to live differently from the mainstream started communes. Students arranged sit-ins to demand that their issues be heard and addressed. This is a true cultural snapshot of San Francisco, acknowledging a rich history that extends beyond stereotypes.

"Why, by 1969, had so many young people of all colors, perhaps tens of thousand of them living in the Bay Area, given up on ideas of reform and committed themselves to a radical reordering of society? The answer is simple: it was because of the way in which "the system" -- the established political parties, the corporate economy, the political machines that ran the largest cities and dominated politics, and the military -- had responded negatively to well-intentioned efforts to introduce incremental change." (ibid)

The essays come in different forms. There are photos essays combined with texts, dry accounts of historical events and personal accounts filled with emotion and ambiguous reflection. In a sense, the collection is almost bigger than San Francisco itself. Art factors into the book prominently, as do environmental issues and food politics.

One essay is a simple story of a teacher who inspired a young immigrant child not just to learn English, but to ultimately become an award-winning journalist. Another recounts the rise of the underground comic book movement. Still others are picture essays of radical posters. What’s clear is that in the years between 1968-78, activism was in the blood of San Franciscans. It permeated everything they did.

It’s frustrating, as well as inspiring and illuminating. Today, neighborhoods that once fought hard for status and rights are divided between disenfranchised, struggling groups and gentrifiers. Of course, it may be that with the Occupy movement, things will change throughout this country, once again. This book may serve as evidence that what’s past is prologue. People who care to make a difference ought to seek out this collection as a guide.

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