Americans step up social activism. Climate of civil disobedience reflects a turning point in the nation's consciousness as Reagan era wanes

Citizen activism - in the form of public marches, demonstrations, and arrests for acts of civil disobedience - appears to be once again on the rise in the United States, according to scholars and protest-group leaders. Yesterday's civil-disobedience campaign in 250 cities across the US - to protest the Reagan administration's policy on Nicaragua - was billed as ``the largest and broadest coordinated effort yet to stop contra aid.''

The nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court has galvanized feminist groups, minority organizations, and liberal causes, which are protesting what they perceive to be his anti-civil rights record.

Over the past year, arrests of antiwar protesters at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site have proliferated; the nation revisited the civil rights era during a march in Georgia's Forsyth County; and the church-based sanctuary movement continues illegally to shelter Central American aliens, despite prosecution.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, often considered the bellwether for liberal social reform, 1987 has seen a marked increase in public protests, according to activists. Issues close to home include AIDS, the logging of giant redwoods, Pope John Paul II's visit, homelessness, and the homeporting of the USS Missouri in San Francisco Bay. But foreign affairs - especially Central American issues - are also drawing larger and more vocal crowds, especially since anti-contra protester Brian Willson was struck by a munitions train earlier this month as he knelt on the tracks at the US Naval Weapons Station in nearby Concord, Calif. Mr. Willson lost both his legs as a result of the incident.

The diversity in today's protest movement ``may be one reason it's not more of a political force,'' says Prof. Todd A. Gitlin, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book ``The 'Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.''

But among the broad range of issues, US aid to the contras is currently the most explosive, he says. ``I think it's known in Washington that if there were a dramatic upturn of our military presence in Nicaragua, the campuses would explode.''

Professor Gitlin, however, adds that ``it's hard to say conclusively whether this latest round of activity is anything more than a blip'' on the ever-vacillating chart of social activism. ``We don't even understand the '60s very well, so I'd caution against reading the present in the light of the past.''

Still, some sociologists see today's political climate reflected in the mirror of 1959 - the year Robert Kennedy ran for president and the civil rights movement grabbed hold. ``There was a sense that the country was turning the page, and it had to do with the pending election,'' Gitlin says.

``I'd go so far as to say we could expect a bubbling up in the political temperature over the next year, because of the timing of our political system,'' says Neil J. Smelser, a professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley.

``If there is some kind of incremental increase in protest activities, I believe it's a cumulative reaction to the fundamental conservatism of the last seven years,'' he says.

Indeed, activists say the policies of Ronald Reagan have acted as a catalyst for the protest movement. ``This administration has been like a block of wood when it comes to basic justice and fairness issues, and this is especially clear over contra aid,'' says Phil McManus of the Resource Center for Nonviolence, a group in Santa Cruz, Calif., promoting social change through nonviolent protest. ``People are starting to sense that this administration is being defeated on this issue, and that's encouraging them.''

While the President may have stirred the left, he has also energized the right. The '80s have seen more-conservative groups adopt the take-to-the-streets tactics used by liberals - blocking entrances to abortion clinics, suing to get textbooks that teach creationism, lobbying for Judge Bork, and marching in support of the contras.

``The activation of the right is largely a product of the Reagan years,'' says Professor Smelser. The President's platform, emphasizing the importance of religion, the sanctity of family, and the desirability of small government, raised the hopes of his constituency, he says.

Even if citizen activism continues to rise, the turbulence that marked the protest era of the '60s and early '70s is not likely to be repeated, observers say. Although sporadic acts of violence persist, the protest movement has evolved in a way that makes such actions the exception rather than the rule.

Other elements contributing to renewed activism include:

Involvement of churches. Church groups became politically active in the '60s - and many have remained that way for the past 20 years. Most faith-based protest groups, acting out of a sense of moral indignation, nonetheless maintain strict adherence to nonviolence.

Diversity of protesters. ``Never trust anyone over 30'' is a slogan of the past. Students were the organizers of the '60s, but many of today's protesters are in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, says Jerry Block of the nationwide Days of Decision campaign against contra aid. Some are former protesters against the Vietnam war who have returned to the peace movement. Newcomers are also involved, he says.

`Ritualization' of protests. Most protests are now ``highly civilized'' and follow a routine, Smelser says. At UC Berkeley, civil-disobedience follows a familiar pattern: citation by police, release on own recognizance, and dismissal of charges. ``The protesters like it and the authorities like it,'' he says. ``Both accomplish their objectives.''

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