I think it was 1968, but it might have been 1969, I was standing on an overturned garbage can near the City College library shouting that students had to walk out on strike. There were a lot of issues those day. This one was probably cops on campus. School administrators kept bring in New York City police to quell protests. I was wearing my signature red beanie to symbolize my leftwing politics and I had a de rigor straggly beard. I was stationed at the library because that was the transit point between the North and South campuses. North campus was science, math and engineering and the bastion of career-focused campus conservativism. South campus was liberal arts majors and a hippie hangout, the home base for political activists.
Our world was pulsating in those days. At times I identified as a leftist or just as a radical intent on changing the world. At 18 or 19 I didn’t have very clear ideas about a possible future, I just knew how unhappy I was with the present.
The war in Vietnam was raging. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There was rioting in Black communities. College was stifling with required classes and an aging curriculum that seemed to have no purpose. Guys couldn’t drop a class because if you fell under 12 credits you were drafted. We were adults, or at least thought of ourselves as adults, but college administrators officially treated us as adolescents. The sexual revolution was in full swing but we still grappled with the remnants of an older morality. We faced arrest for experimenting with mind altering drugs. We were old enough to serve in the military and risk our lives as part of an imperialist Southeast Asian war foisted on us by a government that was lying to the people, but not old enough to vote.
My favorite song at the time was the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man.”
There was a lot going on, so I wore my red beanie and shouted from an overturned garbage can.
I’m in France for spring break in 2023 and I see the same energy among young people marching in the streets with banners and highway flares. The immediate issue is an attempt by the government to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, hardly something you think would bring teens and twenty somethings to mass protests. I think the retirement age is just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It invoked anger with an autocratic government seen as non-responsive. It exposed the frustrations of a generation, a generation like mine in the 1960s, a generation that sometimes identifies as leftist, but mostly as radicals intent on changing the world.
I just hope I see this energy in the United States among young people when I return home soon. I’ve got to find my red beanie.