October was the deadliest month in the war in Afghanistan, but it's been ages since I saw anyone protesting the military industrial complex. Global warming isn't exactly firing up the young folks, either.
Instead, a dozen college students swarmed Independence Blue Cross' Center City headquarters Friday for an earnest demonstration in favor of health-care reform. They demanded a sit-down with CEO Joe Frick. When denied, the protesters plopped down on the pavement, linked arms, chanted, and beamed when they were arrested.
Let the corporate giants fall! We want Medicare for all!
I had to listen a few times before it hit me that the members of the Student Healthcare Action Network want the government to have more control over their lives. Aren't college kids supposed to be suspicious of politicians and power?
Yes, said social-change scholar George Lakey, but the students he's taught at Swarthmore College are motivated both by the collapse of the stock market and their abiding faith in President Obama.
"If George W. Bush was still in office, you wouldn't see this," he said. And in this economy, "who'd want to count on a Wall Street firm to take care of your health?"
"Health-care reform," Swarthmore sophomore Danielle "Dani" Noble declared, "is the issue of our generation."
Young people have cause for concern, given that statistics collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicate that nearly a third of 19- to 29-year-olds are not covered.
Those who manage to find a job either don't get benefits or don't earn enough to pay premiums. The average income of the young and uninsured? A mere $15,000 a year.
Noble's group studied the successful nonviolent movements of the past. Some '60s radicals might trivialize the fight, but to today's students, health care is a civil right.
"We're future taxpayers," Noble told me. "The burden is on us if health care breaks this country."
True, but Wharton School health economist Mark Pauly wonders if the students realize that for them, winning also means losing.
"Young people," he noted, "are going to get the short end of the financial stick of health-care reform. They'll end up paying in more than they'll ever get out."
Independence Blue Cross proved an easy villain, for its immensity, its proximity, and Frick's heart-stopping $2.7 million salary. The nonprofit giant often acts like a for-profit, wielding its monopolistic power to dictate prices and contracts.
Still, Pauly questions whether the students picked the right target.
IBX, he said, "is as close as we have to a single-payer model. It has no stockholders, no dividends. It's a creature of the state. It's heavily regulated. It's what they want."
A mother's pride
At the protest, Noble's mother, Lee Nelson, watched and waited.
"Do I want my daughter to get arrested? No," the Wyndmoor woman told me. "But some things are worth fighting for." And besides, back when she was protesting against Vietnam and for woman's rights, "I did things that were borderline illegal."
Like many, Nelson has a health-care saga she'd like to rewrite.
Two years ago, she lost her tech-support job. "I couldn't afford COBRA," she said. "Who can?"
A few months later, Nelson's husband - who suffered from bipolar disorder - committed suicide.
"He didn't kill himself because of our problems with health care," she cautioned, "but the problems with health care certainly did not help."
Earlier this year, Noble's share of their health-care policy jumped 20 percent, to $400 a month.
"She's a healthy 19-year-old," her mother fretted. "I don't get it."
In another sign of the times, the police and protesters showed each other the utmost respect. The activists smiled as they were cuffed and led into police vans.
"It was peaceful. They got a good turnout," said Nelson, proud and relieved. Then she walked off to ask a cop how to get her daughter out of jail.