Ever since the protests began in Egypt, and especially after the police attacked the protesters and they defended themselves and maintained their presence in Liberty Square, I felt the kind of emotional intensity and physical adrenalin rush I used to get back in the '60s and '70s taking part in similar protests here in the good old USA.
When Mubarak looked like he was going to step down and then seemed like he didn't on Thursday, I felt the same kind of frustration I felt during a weeklong protest that began on May 1st 1971 in Washington DC on the Mall and initially attracted hundreds of thousands, (others would say tens of thousands, but when antiwar protests on the Washington Mall in '69 attracted more like a million peaceful demonstrators the official estimate was a few hundred thousands).
Years of peaceful protests hadn't yielded anything except harassment, repression, police brutality and an escalation of the war, so when the police invaded and tore down the tents people had set up that first night on the mall ostensibly for a concert (The Beach Boys had serenaded us that afternoon) it forced us those sleeping over out into the streets where the police arrested them or intimidated them into leaving town etc.
But the next day smaller groups spread out across the city to do what they could to try and shut DC down, stop business as usual until the government recognized the legitimacy of the protesters demand for an end to the Viet Nam War.
Thanks in part to the brutal tactics of the Nixon regime and their agents etc., we had had the same kind of impact on DC and on the nation that week as the protesters in Cairo were having this past week. I was with a group of protesters that had come from the Midwest, where I had run for sheriff on the Peace & Freedom ticket a few years before and had been labeled in the press an "SDS leader" as well as a "revolutionary"—neither labels I used for myself. I wasn't quite that pretentious, thank God.
I also wasn't in any real leadership position other than what people asked me to assume in various situations. The group I was part of consisted of working guys from Chicago and some smaller Midwest cities including Des Moines, Iowa, as well as some students from the university of Iowa and other colleges and universities, and some military veterans including guys who weren't back from Viet Nam that long.
After several days of protesting that included some of the same agent provocateur actions we saw in Cairo, and which we resisted getting sucked into for the most part, my then wife, a working-class girl from outside Buffalo, heard from her parents, and instead of criticizing us and our politics, her father said on the phone, for the first time, "Maybe you kids are right," and I knew the pendulum had swung.
But unfortunately, the mostly self- or media appointed "leaders" didn't have much contact with "regular" people (Tom Hayden and I had an argument once about "the people" after he made a disparaging remark about "them" and why they had to be "led" by "us" and that was the last time I supported him in any leadership position), and just at it became apparent to me that "the people" (i.e. a majority of working people of all ages) were coming around to seeing that the Viet Nam War was a mistake and a folly and a horrendous waste of human life, let alone our country's money and resources, the so-called leaders backed down and left town (not that I saw any of them on the streets with us anyway).
I had the feeling then that had we kept up the pressure and used all our connections to encourage more people to join us in DC then, we might have actually accomplished our goal, that Nixon and his administration might have been forced to concede the unpopularity of the war and his tactics of actually expanding it and changed course sooner.
I thought of that after Mubarak gave his rambling speech which seemed to say he was staying Thursday night and prayed that the Egyptian protesters would stay the course. They did, and they won the simple concession that what they wanted was the right thing not just for them but for their country. We won that too, eventually, but gave up too soon, and by the next year the protests had become more violent and the demands more strident and the government resistance more rigid and extreme, ending only with the collapse of almost all public support including even in our own military, as well as the loss of the war on the battlefield.
I've thought of those experiences back then over the years, especially during times like these when similar protests stir a nation, like Tienanmen Square in China in '89. But I haven't actually felt the way I did back then as completely as I did this week, and especially the last few days.
And then watching the news tonight, seeing the joy in Tunisia at the way their victory has spread to Egypt, and the protests in Algeria and Yemen with similar slogans and Internet organizational tools, and it occurred to me that I'd been missing the obvious.
That the '60s protests were fueled by the enormous population bubble that created a generation of young people larger than previous generations and better educated who could see through the hypocrisy of the older generation's political games and refused to play them. They, we, wanted freedom and honesty and an end to war and racial division as an excuse for repression and police brutality.
Now the part of the world with the largest proportion of the population made up of a younger generation is in the Arab nations, and they too are better educated and can see through the hypocrisy of the older generation and its excuses for repression and brutality. It feels like dejavu all over again, and my heart and spirit are with them, and hopes and prayers that they will achieve great things for themselves and their societies before they get co-opted or worn out or beaten down or just too old to have the energy and courage to keep up the good fight.