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New York City’s activist roots date back to that same old New World narrative. Dutch settlers of what was then called New Amsterdam opposed the governor’s wish to limit religious freedom, and thus petitioned the Dutch East India Company for the right. That was in 1657. Throw in a series of 1960s race riots, Ground Zero mosque protests, and the technology era’s own Occupy Wall Street, and it’s obvious that the medium and subject of activism have evolved over time.
“We wanted to capture the broadest segment of the story of how New Yorkers over time have mobilized to try to change the nature of their city,” says Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator of the Museum of the City of New York, in reference to the museum’s latest exhibition, “Activist New York.” Enter the gallery, and you’ll find that activism has been going on in the city long before there was even a word for it.
Going by the museum’s survey of activist history, protest in the city seems to have reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s with opposition (and support) of the Vietnam War, the push for gay rights, and the civil rights movement. Then along came Occupy Wall Street, which has been another peak in NYC’s activism time line.
Professor Paula Franzese, a visiting professor at Barnard who specializes in First Amendment rights, believes that OWS was the most recent high profile protest that motivated people to speak their minds and become a part of an active American democracy. However, Franzese recognizes a widely held belief that the flame of activism in the country at large has weakened: Americans are less likely to go out and protest today than they were in the past. Franzese sees three root causes of this. “The first would be the three-legged stool of apathy, competency, and cynicism,” she says. In other words, it’s now more difficult to get the average American passionately engaged in activist movement. “I don’t know if, at this moment, there is a rallying cause that could sufficiently mobilize people, other than the economy, to get people out on the street,” Franzese says.
She also attributes this tempered activist spirit to a feature of the modern American landscape, a feature especially pronounced in this city: the disappearance of the town center. City Hall hasn’t exactly lent itself as a grounds for public assembly, and activists in Times Square compete with flashing lights and a multitude of non-human spectacles, as Franzese notes.
The third cause is, at this point, a given. “We live in a digital age; so we make our voices heard in a myriad of ways—virtually.” People debate on Facebook, post on blogs and forums, and create dot-com start-ups, often without stepping beyond the frontier of their front door. However, this shift in the arena of activism may, in fact, work to bolster activist spirit. The impact of this change can be seen on our very own campus, where activism has endured since 1811.
Columbia’s latest activist exploit, the “Save the Arts Initiative” online petition, falls into this general trend of social media activism. Led by Will Hughes, a senior in Columbia College, the “Save the Arts Initiative” seeks to raise awareness of a budget cut that would deal a hefty blow to CUarts, an organization that both funds students’ artistic pursuits and links them to artistic happenings throughout the city. Hughes originally sent the petition out to a few theater listservs, but with the help of social media, signatures proliferated. Despite a general lack of response from the University, the “Save the Arts Initiative” is nonetheless going strong. Hughes declined to comment when asked whether the group would continue to petition the school.
Although the forum of the “Save the Arts Initiative” is indicative of the changing times, Occupy is a testament to the power of taking a cause to the streets. Every Saturday night since Oct. 27, 30 to 40 members of Student-Worker Solidarity, a Columbia and Barnard student group, chant and picket outside Morningside Heights restaurant Indus Valley, advocating the right of employees to get paid the wages they are owed. Because the restaurant has little online presence, leaders of the group, George Joseph, a first-year in Columbia College, and Evan Burger, a senior in Columbia College, have resolved to being seen and heard loud and clear outside of the restaurant. “Personally, I’m a strong believer in the bodies in the street as the most powerful display of putting pressure,” says Burger. At one protest on Nov. 17, it was obvious that the message had gained traction. A number of passersby joined in the protest along with the Columbia and Barnard students.
At the “Activist New York” exhibit, alongside a history of NYC activism, a live feed of photos is projected onto the back wall, uploaded by NYC activists currently advocating their respective causes. Activism is very much alive and well, and the exhibit’s seamless union of the new social media facet of protest and the tried-and-true street protest reveals an inspiring vision of the future of activism. If anything, it goes to show that New Yorkers have found harmony between these two types of protests and will use both mediums to perpetuate the spirit of activism. Because even though the country’s activist spirit may have cooled down over all, as Henry says, “New Yorkers have never been reluctant to speak their minds.”
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