Is America entering a new age of protest and civil disobedience? For some years now, that's been a silly question: The nation's campuses have been studiously quiet, and public marches have been few and far between.
But last month the question became serious again. On April 15 in Northampton, Mass., Amy Carter, daughter of the former president, Abbie Hoffman, '60s antiwar activist, and 13 others were acquitted of charges stemming from protests against the Central Intelligence Agency at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Ten days later, thousands of marchers descended on Washington to protest United States policy in Central America and South Africa.
Is this, as the protesters themselves hope, a reawakening of political activism and a trend toward Vietnam-era confrontations? Or is it, as the skeptics hold, simply the springtime exuberance of youth?
The truth belongs to neither side - a point that becomes clearer when the events are examined in detail.
At the very least, Ms. Carter's trial was an unbalanced one. It ended with her wriggling through a loophole in Massachusetts law that allows people to commit small crimes as long as they reasonably believe that their actions will prevent bigger ones.
To plead that defense, of course, requires that the judge permit discussion of what those ``bigger crimes'' might be. Judge Richard F. Connon did just that, and in came a parade of expert witnesses - Daniel Ellsberg of the ``Pentagon Papers'' fame, former attorney general Ramsay Clark, CIA-agent-turned-author John Stockwell - to argue that the CIA was committing huge crimes in Central America.
Prosecution lawyers, insisting that the case was not about supporting the contras but about trespassing over at U. Mass., didn't attempt to refute the accusations against the CIA. So the jury, instructed to consider the evidence against the CIA and having heard nothing on the other side, found for the defendants. The result hardly proved (as some of the protesters would like to suggest) that the average American is fed up with the CIA's activities.
Nor was the April 25 march in Washington a particularly clarion call. The US Capitol Police put the figure close to 75,000 - about as many people as show up for a single well-attended pro football game. Last Monday, in the reportedly peaceful and convivial atmosphere over at CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., more than 500 people were arrested for obstructing the right-of-way of others. Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman - who had fervently called on their supporters to blockade Langley - were not there.
This is not, then, the '60s revisited. In a trenchant remark prior to the Northampton trial, Mr. Hoffman was quoted as saying that ``It's hard to have an antiwar movement without a war.'' He's right. Those protesting in the '60s had Vietnam to oppose. They heard about it from friends who were there. They saw it on the nightly news. If they were men of draft age, they often felt they had little to lose by protesting. The world, to them, seemed pretty black-and-white.
Today, however, South Africa and Central America are studies in gray. There is no large-scale involvement of American troops, no constant televising, no clear-cut national policy against which to rally. And while there may be some revulsion at the CIA's mining of Nicaraguan harbors and issuing of assassination manuals, there is a growing realization that the agency is an essential player in, for example, the control of terrorism - and a rather doleful recognition that our post-Vietnam CIA-bashing played directly into the hands of the terrorists.
Yet if today's demonstrations are less than political groundswells, they are more than springtime revels. The groups may be small and the issues elusive. But something is stirring. Central America and South Africa provide convenient rallying points. But the real issue is far larger, far more personal. What's being protested here is nothing less than a question of life style.
After all, one of the most salient differences between the '60s and the '80s is the emergence of the yuppie - the fast-track, eye-on-the-buck young urban professional. Energetic, disciplined, committed to progress, yuppies bring to the nation some solid values. But too often, it appears, the commitment turns to greed and the energy to brashness. Cases in point: The youthful faces in the recent Wall Street trading scandals.
Is this, say the now-middle-aged hippies from the '60s, what we marched for? Is this, ask Vietnam veterans at last willing to talk about their experiences, what we fought to preserve? Is this, say young college students (whose musical tastes show increasing fondness for the acoustic sounds of the '60s), all there is?
The sadly divisive turmoil of the '60s proved that the hippies didn't have the answers. The '80s may be proving that the yuppies don't either. How, young people may well wonder, does one find one's niche? Where, between the establishment and the barricades, is the life worth living?
A Monday column