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Never Trust Anyone Over 30? Today's Young Protesters Disagree

August 15, 2000|HECTOR TOBAR

Someone out there in Protestland took a closer look at the faces of the rebels who have gathered in Los Angeles this week and, in a moment of reverie, came up with a new catch phrase: "Generation Plus."

The anonymous writer on the Independent Media Center's electronic bulletin board, who goes by the Internet handle of "Regulator," sees "a whole generation" rising up against corporate greed--"plus some of the sixties crew who didn't sell out, and maybe a few coming back in, and the 'Third Age,' those who survived McCarthyism, lending their wisdom."

Yes, there is a young, counterculture feel on the streets of this city this week. Every generation reshapes the idea of rebellion, gives it a new form. This one has embraced anarchy and "affinity groups" instead of Marxism and "free love." Its bugaboo is "the global economy" instead of the war in Vietnam.

But there are a few veterans of the old struggles scattered about this week, adding a bit of seasoning to the proceedings, people like Mo Nishida, a 64-year-old survivor of rebellions past who is spending part of this week at the Convergence Center, the unofficial protest headquarters near MacArthur Park.

"I was at the Chicano Moratorium," Nishida says, which was in 1970 in East Los Angeles. "We had a pretty big Asian contingent at the sucker."

The young person sitting next to Nishida raises his eyebrows. "Did you ever read Ruben Salazar?" he asks, bringing up The Times columnist who was slain by deputies, the one name from that event passed on to younger generations.

"Oh yeah," Nishida says distractedly. "I used to read Salazar."

A man with a fringe of white hair circling his bald pate, Nishida is more interested in what's going on now.

Young people fill the space around him in the old apartment building they've rented for the week. They paint signs and make puppets. There is a bright yellow papier-mache sun and stacks of grayish skulls representing various evils. A few feet away, four people slice piles of vegetables, making a communal lunch.


The mood is at once playful and defiant, a sort of Woodstock goes to the barricades. Ask them about the cause they are fighting for and they're liable to say, in a breathless tone, "We're willing to sacrifice our bodies for justice."

"There's street theater and puppet processions, rap and poetry. And a choir. Some people will engage in civil disobedience," says Brian Montez, 22, a UCLA history major and media "escort" at the center. "What I love is seeing all these people who are interested in helping people get together. The idea is to create a festival."

Nishida listens to the twentysomethings speak, he sees their party unfolding before him and he beams with a weary happiness.

"The young people don't have their eyes blinded by all the crap," he says. "They see things for what they are. I admire them."

When that other, older movement ended, when its rebellion morphed into something quieter and less angry, Nishida felt cheated. He spent 12 long years addicted to drugs. They were years, he says, in which he felt robbed of his dignity by The Man.

"They destroyed AIM [the American Indian Movement], they destroyed the Panthers," he says, the bitterness still fresh in his voice. "They destroyed the real conscience of America. . . . To me, this represents the resurgence of the real America. To me, the real America is the one that should stand for justice, respect and equality."

From the Convergence Center, where Nishida staffs a table with legal pamphlets, demonstrators have filtered out across the city--from the beach at Santa Monica, to a barbecue protesting the ritzy fund-raiser at the nearby pier, to Pasadena, where a group called the Gapatistas tries to call attention to a link between a certain clothing company and the logging of redwood forests.

When the Gapatistas arrive in Old Town Pasadena one hot afternoon, Cheryl Pestor, 48, is there to greet them.

"The last protest I was in was against the Vietnam War," Pestor says. That was in 1969, when Pestor was a teenage undergraduate at USC. In the years since, she has become a commercial real estate broker, a profession that is not exactly a haven for ex-radicals.

"I'm here because I think we should protect our redwood forests," she says. "We can build shopping centers without redwood."

Pestor holds a printout of an Internet article on the Gapatistas. She has also read the book by Julia Butterfly Hill, the 25-year-old environmental activist whose work has inspired many protesters. "I'm wondering if I'll see her here," she says.

The Gapatistas don cardboard costumes and perform a dance in front of store. When they march around the corner, Pestor joins them, bringing up the rear with a chant of: "For redwoods! For workers! Boycott Gap!

But when the Gapatistas strip down to their underwear--"We'd rather wear nothing than wear Gap!"--Pestor keeps her clothes on. That would be taking things a bit too far.

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