I was greatly saddened to read of Todd Gitlin’s recent passing. I interviewed Dr. Gitlin in his Columbia University office for Surmountable, co-authored with Adam Monier Edwards, in 2019. It was a memorable experience and an advanced education in the art of effective activism and citizen engagement in a liberal democracy.
Gitlin will have missed the current Russian incursion into Ukraine but his counsel for protestors and activists remains potent and relevant. He and I shared intense opposition to U.S. military incursions like Vietnam and Iraq — then and now — and as such had no hesitation condemning imperialist behavior by Russia or any malevoTodd Gitlinlent player on the world stage.
Here, in tribute to a great American, are excepts from the book.
Gitlin’s office is a stone’s throw from Columbia University’s Low Library administration building and Hamilton Hall, both occupied by student protesters in 1968. He is serving as professor and as chairman of the Ph.D. program of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, considered one of the world’s preeminent academies of the craft. Gitlin is a prolific author, having penned eighteen books, and is both a public thinker on the matter of protest and public assembly, and, from an early age, a front-line activist, having served as third president of Students for a Democratic Society in 1963–1964. He organized the SDS march on Washington in March 1965.
Were the freedoms codified in the Bill of Rights revolutionary ideas in their time?
“They were absolutely revolutionary,” according to Dr. Todd Gitlin, professor and Ph.D. program chair at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “And before the American Revolution, before the overthrow of the crown, a number of the colonies adopted guarantees of the freedoms.”
The American colonies derive most of their constitutional and legal systems from England, including the selective freedoms granted to white male landowners. Most of the original colonies include a declaration of fundamental rights and liberties in their constitutions.
“When you ask people what’s in the First Amendment, they’ve heard of freedom of speech, of the press, of freedom of religion,” Gitlin says. “They don’t know the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.” Gitlin, author of numerous books on the history and dynamics of protest, refers to his emphasis of the issue in Occupy Nation. “There is so little jurisprudence, there’s so little even legal discussion either in the courts or among the law schools about this phenomenon of the right to assemble, it’s really quite extraordinary. I mean, it’s like it there’s an actual collective forgetting.”
The idea of petition comes from the Magna Carta, a charter of rights agreed to by King John of England in 1215. Heavy burdens in blood and treasure were imposed on barons to fund foreign wars and they revolted, capturing London and forcing the king to negotiate at Runnymede. The most famous clause, still codified in English law, gave “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial, though most citizens were unfree peasants, chattel lorded over by landowners.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the Magna Carta about assembly,” points out Gitlin. “There is about petition. The law professor Ronald Krotoszynski, of the University of Alabama, wrote a smart, important piece about petition; the nobles, and eventually the commoners, had a right to actually go and deliver the petition to the king. It’s a face-to-face operation.”
“When cities hosting political conventions started sequestering demonstrations like in Boston — a compound was set up far away from the (2004 Democratic National Convention) arena — he stated that should be held unconstitutional, that defies the spirit of petition. Petition is like serving you with papers. And if you put me in a cage a mile away, that won’t pass muster. A very interesting notion. And we don’t have much conversation about this.”
For Gitlin’s full interview and that of other thought leaders and activists across four continents, read Surmountable: How Citizens from Selma to Seoul Changed the World.
When asked for an assessment of impact of Columbia University’s highly publicized stretch of building takeovers, student demands, and police intrusions in 1968, Professor Gitlin changes the subject.
“I’m going to dance to the side of your question. What is a protest? What is it we’re talking about? Is a protest a picket line or a sit-in; or is a protest an element in a long-running campaign whose scope outreaches the immediate goal or the immediate professed goal, or what some people who organize the event think is the professed goal, but then enlarges and rolls into something else? It all depends on the time-frame we’re asking about.
“So, was the Montgomery Bus Boycott a success? Rosa Parks got arrested on the day after. I don’t know what she felt. But some people probably understood that this was a moment in a campaign, and others might have felt like, ‘God, they just did it again. They threw the black lady off the bus,’ and so on.
“It wasn’t clear for more than a year that the bus boycott would succeed in costing the bus company so much money that they would end up caving in, and even when that was achieved, can we say that the campaign was a success? Yes, one bus line was integrated. Others had been quietly integrated without anybody really noticing around the South. But we think of that as a benchmark, because it takes its place within this whole sway of activity that we call the ‘civil rights movement.’
“If you go around and you find people who were at this or that demonstration, and you ask them, ‘What do you make of it after this time?’ it’s going to depend a lot on who you’re asking. Are you asking somebody who was in it for the duration, or somebody who just came in, went to an event, came to a certain conclusion about it, and then went away? You’re going to get very different takes on the experience. That’s the first element. It’s sort of elementary.
“Let’s think about the movement against university investment and other investments in South Africa in the ’80s, which I was involved in as a faculty member at Berkeley and as an alumnus at Harvard. There was a lot of clamor, a lot of activity for a year or two, depending; it was a national movement. Did it accomplish the goal of getting university and some other funds to divest from South Africa investments? Partially.
“Did it end apartheid? No. Did it contribute to a process, which did undermine apartheid and help end it? Yes.
“You can actually trace a trajectory, which starts on a modest scale on a campus like this one or Berkeley, and then it snowballs. That’s a very typical kind of protest that you could say, yes, it does succeed, but not in the first instance. That is to say, it’s rare that somebody protests something, and then the next day, a change is made.
“Part of what you will find is that your sense of the meaning of the event or events is contingent on your sense of the time span. Are you playing a long game? How impatient are you? So, most protests, in the short run, fail.
There were massive protests against the 2003 Iraq War. There was and is a widely held belief that money has so saturated American politics that elected officials pay more attention to their funders than to their constituents. Thus, Bush and Cheney went ahead and did what they were going to do. Why were those protests ineffective?
“I think that analysis is very shallow,” argues Gitlin. “As you suggested in the second part of your question, Bush was going to go to war. Everything was riding on it. His balls were riding on it. His daddy was riding on it. His ‘weak in the knees’ after September 11 was riding on it. I can’t imagine a scenario that would have truncated that war or even nipped it in the bud.
“All wars are political situations, and had a different administration been in power, had there been wiser judgments on the part of many politicians, then the war, which was unnecessary and stupid from the beginning, as well as sinful, would not have materialized, but there was no way that war was going to be blocked.”
Gitlin has a handy answer when queried what he would say to a young activist — his full-length book on the subject, Letters to a Young Activist, perhaps a political homage to the Rainer Maria Rilke classic Letters to a Young Poet. Gitlin has loads of copies lining an upper shelf of his office and, in a dangerous act of generosity, stands on the verboten upper step of a small ladder to fetch one. Apparently, the professor had some choice words for former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, which were not well received. So, Nader, finding the book on remainder, buys a thousand copies and ships them to the author as a sort of spite purchase. Gitlin takes a moment to sign a copy with the inscription, “In the ecstatic search for decency.”
The book’s conclusion neatly tracks the author’s reflections on the Vietnam War.[i]
Each challenge is unique and each is identical — to do what’s possible by finding out what’s possible and, in the process, overcome what seemed possible.
Some borrowed wisdom.
From Samuel Beckett in Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
From a civil rights song: “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
Subscribe to co-author Adam Monier Edwards’ innovative Surmountable project newsletter by visiting https://www.surmountable.co/. Yes, that’s .co. The initiative tackles citizen engagement on issues ranging from affordable housing to zero waste.
For information on Brian Gruber’s five published books, go here.
[i] Gitlin, Todd. Letters to a Young Activist (Art of Mentoring) (p. 170). Basic Books.