In 1968 it seemed that the whole world was in dispute or turmoil. Many of the disputes were student led; there were student protests in Poland against the oppressive Communist Government, there were protests and riots in France that ending up involving workers that took France to the brink of revolution against the wartime hero Charles de Gaulle and his right wing government. There were protests from places as diverse as Mexico, Brazil and even in conformist Germany. There were clashes in the UK after Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and real fears that the Britain would be led to the brink like France. There was the brutal stamp down by the Soviets when they sent in over 750,000 troops to quell the largely peaceful “Prague Spring” that was a protest against the Soviet puppet control of the then Czechoslovakia. And there was of course huge unrest in the world super power of the USA – student protests that started in Carolina spread all over the country and became a civil rights protest against the government. There was even a national teachers strike. The demonstrations initially started peacefully, but escalated into full civil riots especially after Martin Luther King was assassinated. 1968 was a pivotal year in the Vietnam conflict. It was the year of the massive conflict at Khe Sanh, where American troops foolhardily tried to fight a pitched battle against Viet Cong forces. The Tet offensive took place, which made it clear that America was not in control even in Southern Vietnam. There were massacres of women, children and old people at Ha My and My Lai that would shock the world. This was the year when popular opinion changed and there were demonstrations all over America against the war. There were even demonstrations outside the US Embassy in London. Wherever you looked there was uproar and the call for change.
It is often referred to as “The year that rocked the world”. So why were the young people revolting? This of course makes you want to say one of the oldest jokes in the book, but of course there is a serious side. The young people felt that the “old guard” were not in tune with their ideals, ethics and values. These young people have gone on to become known as the Baby Boomers. They weren’t as compliant as their parents, they would not put up with the oppression of being told what to do by people that had very little in common with themselves. These were what we would call today human rights issues – the cry went out that all people are are equal, so why should I have to suffer under the yoke of a foreign administration for the colour of my skin, or be sent to a war that I think is wrong?
This was certainly an idealistic revolution taking place across the globe, led by the power of free speech. But something that is often overlooked is that technology had a major part to play in the process. 1968 was the year when the amount of TVs in the world reached 200 million. Almost wherever you were, ideas and information could be viewed by people in their own homes or that of a neighbour. In America by 1968, 95% of homes had TVs. The sale of colour sets had rocketed from only 9.6% of TVs sold in 1966 to over 24%. The pictures of students and blacks being brutally assaulted by white “redneck” policeman at American college campuses and in the streets horrified the majority of people. There was the first interracial kiss when Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. These pictures led to uproar and great divisions within society. Public opinion firmly changed in relation to the Vietnam War when the famous Eddie Adams photograph showing a Viet Cong officer being executed by a Southern Vietnamese police chief were beamed around the world via magazines, newspapers and TV.
Young people of today are revolting though, just not in what we call the western world. The Arab Spring saw real change in Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain and, of course, in Syria that have subsequently mutated into a brutal civil war. The demonstrations and bloodshed continue in Egypt after the new administration was found to be incompetent and no better than the previous government. In relatively westernised Turkey, there have been disputes that started from a building project that proposed to fell trees in a beloved city square. Bulgarians have reacted against the corruption and cronyism of their government. In Indonesia the people have rejected higher fuel prices and in Brazil there have been massive demonstrations and violence that originated from a rise in bus fares. The interesting point, however, is that these people are not your normal ‘trouble makers” or rent a mobs that we saw in the 80’s, activated by Unions or other powerful groups. These people, by and large, are middle class and well educated. In Brazil, 77% of the protesters have further education, 53% are under 25 and 71% have never demonstrated before. They are protesting for change to governments and systems that they believe are not fair, equal or in tune with their beliefs.
This new wave of protestation is being instigated and activated by technology, just like in 1968. medium of communication today is social media. The speed at which information and images can be sent around a city, country and the planet is now instant. Some of these messages are proven to be wrong in hindsight, but anyone with a smartphone can widely spread fact and fiction. This wave is happening not just in oppressive areas of the world, but also notably in democracies. Democracies, by their very nature, allow freedom of speech and protestation and have a vested interest in making change; otherwise leaders will be voted out. It seems inevitable that we will sooner or later see protests from young people in the streets of first world countries like America and Britain, once they become disenfranchised with the politicians and businessmen that are in charge of their world – unless there are huge changes made.
Most of the people “in charge” are those very same people – the Baby Boomers – that called so vehemently and effectively for change in 1968. It will be hugely ironic if they find themselves on the receiving end of a new wave of protests because they have failed to make changes that take into consideration that the young people of today have their own futures to look after.