No Power to the People: Whatever Happened to Radicalism in Urban America?

By Sean Posey / Urban Issues Dept. / May 22, 2013

America in the second decade of the twenty first century is suffering through a period like no time since the Great Depression; it is a place of declining expectations and diminishing returns. Income inequality is sapping the middle class; deindustrialization and the decline of unions are pushing what is left of the working class into the underclass. Many urban centers, abandoned and decaying since the “white flight” of the 1960s are back on the upswing.  Wealthy and upper middle class professionals, riding high on a wave of rent seeking and tech savviness, are reclaiming downtowns and neighborhoods from Manhattan to the Mission.  Other less “sexy” cities, especially those located in the deteriorating Rust Belt, remain home to increasingly desperate communities of the unemployed.  Yet despite such an existential crisis, radical (and not simply “progressive”) movements are hardly visible.  This begs the question:  whatever happened to radicalism in urban America?

Ever since people began to leave behind agrarian life for urban centers and burgeoning industrial employment, radicalism has followed.  Though America has a long tradition of agrarian radicalism, urban radicalism has been the fulcrum of most progressive movements since the late nineteenth century.  According to Craig Calhoun, early nineteenth-century radicalism was connected to “place and local communities.”  This remained true as local activists and community movements in cities formed in response to the hardships and denigrations of the Industrial Revolution.

Late nineteenth-century Chicago played host to Jane Adam’s Hull House, an elaborate experiment designed to help bring about Adam’s radical vision “to teach by example, to practice cooperation, and to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian, or democratic, social relations across class lines.”  Chicago was also no stranger to radical labor movements, like those organized by anarchists and socialists who pushed for the eight-hour workday. 

The anarchist movement itself proved crucial to radicalizing labor.  In New York, Emma Goldman and other intellectuals of the era joined in the anarchist movement and the radicalizing of labor.  Goldman herself was later involved in a plot to assassinate Henry Frick, the brutal Chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company.  The labor movement wouldn’t have gone far without the involvement of anarchists, communists, and socialists, especially groups like the “Wobblies,” who formed in the early twentieth century to push for radical solutions to the problems inherent in the American labor system.  During this time, industrial cities across America became battlegrounds between labor and capital that ultimately resulted in the widespread recognition of the legitimacy of labor unions during the 1930s and 1940s.

Cities also provided the stage for many of the radical social and economic movements of the post-war era.  The Civil Right Movement—largely seen as mainstream today, but seen as decidedly radical by the standards of the 1950s—gained steam in the urban centers of the South.  The urban uprisings of the 1960s and the Black Power movement of the same era sprang from the urban ghettos of the north, west, and east.  Chicago’s history of radicalism continued with Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, along with the Puerto Rican/Latino Young Lord’s organization.  The women’s rights and the gay right’s movement burgeoned in 1960’s New York.  The 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which ushered in the modern LGBT freedom movement, took place in New York’s Greenwich Village.

The modern neutralization of American urban radicalism can be readily seen by comparing the recent historical trajectories of Oakland, California and San Francisco—once one of the most radical cities in America.  San Francisco saw an early flowering of the counterculture in the 1950s, along with an explosion of progressive movements during the 1960s.  So powerful were community led movements in the city during the sixties that they managed to derail the completion of freeway systems that were scheduled to obliterate wide swaths of neighborhoods.  During a time when it was illegal to be a runaway, the Huckleberry House opened in the city to house troubled teens.  In response to the plethora of drug related issues accompanying the post-Summer of Love era, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, which provided a national model for other cities to emulate, opened in the troubled Haight neighborhood.
Like many cities, disinvestment and “white flight” hit San Francisco hard.  While the city struggled however, progressive and radical politics continued to have sway.  Ultimately, they would be unable to influence the plutocratic take over of much of the city though, which started in earnest in the 1990s.  Gentrification and deindustrialization drove out much of the African American population, and homelessness exploded along with inequality.  The city of radicalism transformed into a modern playground for the elite. 80,000 millionaires and eighteen billionaires now call San Francisco home.  There are so many tech companies (1,700) in the city that there are actually arguments over whether San Francisco needs more “tech.”  Current Mayor Ed Lee started his career as an attorney working with affordable housing issues, a man who once even spoke of “class war.” Today, Lee is cozily ensconced with city’s tech elite while the working, and even the middle class, are being pushed out of the city by the bay.

Oakland, California once bustled and attracted immigrants from all over the country. Most came to work in the city’s principal industries: canning, automobiles, and shipbuilding.  However, the post-war years witnessed the deterioration of the city’s traditional manufacturing centers, along with “white flight” and “capital flight.”  In 1946, Oakland was among the very last American cities to have a general strike.  The most revolutionary of the Black Power movements of the 1960s, the Black Panthers, emerged from Oakland’s segregated streets to spread to cities across the country.  In the 1970s, radical Chicano movements, sometimes working with the Black Panthers, emerged to fight police brutality in the city and to press for economic empowerment.

Today, unlike San Francisco, Oakland remains a radical city.  By the end of 2011, while Occupy movements all over the country were struggling to hold their own against intense police pressure, Occupy Oakland had shut down one of the largest ports in America.  In the past few years, movements encompassing everything from immigrant rights to battles against endemic police brutality and the murder of Oscar Grant have emerged in the area. Standing opposite Occupy Oakland is another former radical-turned-mayor, Jean Quan. Like Lee, Quan’s biography is filled with progressive activism.  However, Quan is but one more in a long line of California progressives (Clark Kerr, Jerry Brown, Tom Bradley, etc.) who eventually moved right.  Quan embraced a violent crackdown on Occupy, and later dismissed accusations of extreme police brutality. The New York Times came under fire by some on the Left recently over their characterization of Oakland’s radical movements and of their calling the city the “last refuge of radical America.”  While the latter is likely not true, it seems clear that Oakland is one of the few cities where radical Left movements are not simply shadows of their former selves.  Yet in the wake of rampant gentrification in the Bay Area, it’s unclear what the future of radical Oakland is.

Of course the sorry state of urban radicalism in America cannot be divorced from the precipitous decline of the Left in general.  Far Left movements, from anarchist to communist, influenced and furthered social issues from unionism to civil rights in major—and usually unacknowledged ways.  The postwar decimation of economically radical leftist movements was aided and abetted by liberal groups, especially the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party, both of who cooperated in blacklisting campaigns.  And as Chris Hedges has pointed out, after the defeat of George McGovern in 1972, the Democrats abandoned labor and turned against progressive economics.

Recently, Zach Beauchamp of ThinkProgress addressed the consequences of the demise of the radical left in America: “One irony for progressives in this state of affairs is that the mainstream left would have a great deal to gain from the rise of a radical left movement that, in all likelihood, we’d mock and assail mercilessly.”  This is reflected in progressive consternation over the rise of the largely suburban Tea Party movement.  In no way has there been a radical urban response to a largely suburban backlash. Meanwhile “progressives” are paralyzed.

Perhaps not all is lost though.  In 1950, Berkeley historian Henry May wrote, “Two decades after the depression and the onset of the war against fascism, radicalism is scattered, demoralized, and numerically insignificant.  Almost never in this country’s history have there been so few bold and vigorous critics of the social order… There are liberals or, to use a word whose meaning is slightly less battered, progressives, in considerable numbers that are likely to think only they are necessary to social improvement and that radicals could easily be spared.”  Of course, only a few years later, radicalism remerged in the Civil Rights movement and in the social movements of the 1960s.  It turned out progressives needed radicals after all.

Could a similar turning of the tide being the offing today?  Despite the defeat of the Occupy Movement, it’s possible grass roots radicalism could remerge, especially considering the inability of modern day capitalist economics to right the boat for the majority of Americans.  Where are these movements going to come from though in a time of rampant individualism and political apathy?  I cannot say.  Yet certainly urban centers will likely be the breeding grounds for any future movement(s.)

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