A trio of recent essays published in The Nation, The American Prospect, and Campus Progress attempt to explain why the United States has not experienced the same kind of student demonstrations that have been shaking Quebec for the past six months. After all, American students face a debt burden twice that of their Quebecois counterparts and graduate into a far more unequal society, with higher youth unemployment and a weaker social safety net. The authors’ explanations –cultural differences between Anglophone and Francophone organizing, elite student apathy, the fact that working class students literally can’t afford to take time off for activism– all strike me as correct. Our passivity does not have a single cause, nor a single cure. To the explanations already given, I would add another: fear.
The United States has the harshest criminal justice system in the democratic world and the life opportunities of anyone arrested and convicted of a crime –any crime, really– are drastically truncated. Contrary to its popular myths, America is a country of neither boundless opportunities for upward social mobility nor second chances for people who screw up, with exceptions made only for the most privileged. Among the reasons I never protested against local injustices while I was a college student, the most powerful, the one I couldn’t argue myself out of, the one that my roiling anger could not override, was my fear of being arrested and jailed. How would my family pay for my legal expenses? If I were convicted of a crime, how would I ever get a job? The tens of thousands of dollars I borrowed to obtain an elite education (in essence, to buy my way into middle class adulthood) would have been wasted, and I’d have no way of repaying my debt. My life wouldn’t be worth living.
So I kept my head down. I was a tame liberal. I volunteered. I blogged. I took to the streets only once, in 2005, to oppose what at the time appeared to be an imminent U.S. military strike against Iran. Somehow, I ended up at the front of a crowd surge, unable to do anything but move forward. When I came to be wedged between the crowd and a barricade erected in front of the Capitol Building, a Washington, D.C. cop in riot gear shoved me so hard in the chest that he knocked the wind out of me. The bruise on my sternum faded away after a few weeks, but the lesson stuck for years. If I wanted to do better than my endlessly broke and indebted parents –and I did, more than anything– I’d have to leave street activism to the kids who could afford mistakes.
Looking back, I had less to lose than I thought, and I should have raised hell.