Sunday, July 25, 2004

Roger on the efficacy of protesting

[An e-mail from MyFriendRoger, which I've edited slightly for posting here. -- Ed]

Atrios -- who is attending the Democratic Convention this week -- had an interesting piece in his blog about protests at the DNC and RNC:

Unsurprisingly, I'm not a fan of the measures being taken against protesters at the convention. But, having said that, I really think that protesting conventions is rather silly (either the RNC or the DNC). Note I'm of course not questioning anyone's right to do so. But, both in terms of what protesters hope to achieve and what the message of protesting itself I really don't understand why the conventions are appropriate targets.

Conventions, though largely for show, are still a piece of the electoral process in this country. Protesting them, to me, is a bit like protesting polling places. No, they're not the same thing, but still conventions seem like an odd target for protests.

More generally, there is the question of whether street protest is really worth the time money and energy of those involved. It's a bit different in other countries, where public spaces are much more integrated with daily life, and protests can be much more visible and effective. But, in the US even when protest are allowed to operate on prime real estate, the fact that public spaces are for the most part already on the edges of daily life, protests and protesters are intrinsically marginalized, even when they aren't happening behind razor wire in pens.

So, am I saying there should never be protests? Of course not. Protests serve a few purposes - to rally people around a cause and educate them, to bring attention to an issue, and, ultimately, to perhaps to affect some sort of change. But, given that protesting in this country almost by its nature marginalizes an issue by portraying it as something which is out of the mainstream, one has to ask whether the costs are greater than the benefits.

I thought the anti-war protests were highly appropriate precisely because there was a huge disconnect between public opinion before the war (with support for Bush's war, at best, garnering a slim majority of support), and the range of viewpoints presented by the media on the subject. The "anti-this-war" view, despite having broad support in the country, had been marginalized by the mainstream media. Mass protest was, therefore, a last resort way of getting the message out, of trying to remind the country and the media that the war did not actually have the universal support they were pretending it did.

But, having said all of that, the right to stand on a public street corner and hold up a sign should be a right which is given far more respect and protection than it currently is. Security efforts which are there to discourage people from doing so are incredibly un-American. And, therefore, perhaps protesting in these cases serves another purpose - to try to reassert the right of protest itself.

This strikes me as a very thoughtful, very spot-on comment by Atrios. But I would add three points:

(1) Ever since the anti-Vietnam War protests, leftists and minority groups of every shade and stripe have made protests and demonstrations a mainstay -- if not THE mainstay -- of their popular response to most everything that happens politically. And, I would contend, ever since the Vietnam War, protests and demonstrations have been practically worthless as a means of changing public policy or public opinion. Simply put, they've been done to death.

Once, protests and demonstrations were unusual enough that they instantly attracted attention and comment. The tool was valuable precisely because it had been used rarely. The relative value of demonstrations, marches and the like can be well appreciated when you realize that Martin Luther King -- who indeed used them a lot -- could frequently get excellent coverage with a turnout of only a few score people. I saw some archival footage on PBS last year, for example, in which a news reporter asked Dr. King about an upcoming march. He said that they were expecting as many as 75 or 100 people. I forget the exact number, but it was by modern standards a rather modest figure. Nonetheless, THIS was news. THIS attracted attention. Today, a protest with 75 or 100 people would, for most national issues, garner no coverage at all.

And because the tactic of protests has been done to death, we've all lost something very important. To a prior generation, one might participate in a demonstration, march, or protest of some sort perhaps once in a lifetime if ever at all. But, boy, it had impact because of that quality of being a rare act. They'll come to mean something again only once people STOP using protests as their first response for every single thing that comes down the pike.

(2) A mutual acquaintance of ours on the internet made a very important point that I fully agree with but that -- as I think you may recall -- some others in our circle (more stolidly leftist than she or we) reacted very negatively to. She noted that back when the original civil rights marches were being organized, those behind them INSISTED that anyone participating must look and act a certain way. Folks had to be clean, they had to have good haircuts and either be shaved or with neatly-trimmed beards and mustaches. On many of the early civil rights marches, men HAD to wear ties and white shirts and dress slacks. Women HAD to wear neat, professional work dresses or skirts and blouses.

Today, there are plenty of (mostly leftists) who want to protest but almost never, it seems, actually think much about whether or not they are going to have an impact. Martin Luther King and other civil rights pioneers were deadly serious about what they were trying to accomplish. They weren't going out there just to feel good about themselves: they had a clear agenda, and didn't want anything to hurt their efforts. Most particularly, they did not want any "supporter" actually hurting their cause. For a stark contrast to this, consider that here in Portland, Oregon, there are regular anti-war protests downtown. Just about every week. The participants have a bunch of banners and signs, and they always have a drummer or two pounding away. They march along the sidewalks, stopping for lights, and I believe they always have permits. But they look like a band of hippies, and absolutely NO ONE takes them seriously. Even people opposed to the war sniff at them. I am quite sure that they have NEVER turned a single opinion against the war, and quite possibly managed to turn away more than a few middle-of-the-roaders.

Many protests I've seen have been full of freaks, to be quite honest: people who in every single respect -- in terms of their hair cut and color, skin decorations, piercings, clothing, etc., etc. -- fairly scream that they are not "normal" people. Fine. They all have a right to look however they want. But they should stop pretending that when they insist on this, they are engaged in anything more than self-defeating self-indulgence.

(3) My third point really ties points #1 and #2 together: it seems to me that many leftists who engage in protests -- marches, demonstrations, and so on -- do so in order to look like they're doing something, or feel like they're doing something ... but not, in fact, in order to actually DO something.

"Doing something" that’s actually REAL, that would actually have a chance at changing things, would require hard work and innovative thinking. It would require action that extends over time, and would be less instantly gratifying than going out and howling in protest.

Too frequently, protesters (usually leftists, rarely liberals) appear to be either utterly dimwitted -- mistaking pointless "action" for progress -- or they are doing so for reasons that having nothing to do with actually changing anything. Doubtless they really would like to change things. But I think that in many cases, what is far more important to them is to find a way to release their tension, anger, resentment, and outrage, and make themselves feel better in the process. This trumps any cold calculation about the most effective way to really use their limited time and energy.

Or, maybe it's just a pure failure of imagination and hard thought. They just can’t figure out anything more useful to do with their time.

Consider one real-world example from my own past: the fight against commercial nuclear power. Protests, marches, blockades and the like used to occur with great frequency at the then-under-construction Diablo Nuclear Facility near San Luis Obispo, California. I was extremely sympathetic: I was actively writing against nuclear power generally, and Diablo in particular. But I was hard-pressed to see what benefit, if any, the protests were doing up there. What really ended up making a difference were reports, studies, hearings, letter-writing campaigns, and the careful nurturing of inside "whistleblowers" who eventually revealed that the entire plant had been built backwards (that is, the blueprints had somehow been reversed, an error on a gargantuan scale that put construction back a year or two).

The fact is that REAL action takes hard work, and results in slow (generally incremental) progress. Caesar Chavez is perhaps best known for the marches he led, but in fact those made up only a tiny fraction of the work he did. I met him a couple of times, even marched once, and I know he would probably have been the first guy to say that marches are the thing you do after you've done all the hard stuff. When asked once what his secret was, he said "Well, I talked to someone, and then I talked to someone else, and then I talked to someone else." His questioner persisted: "Yes, but what did you do to make your movement so successful?" And he replied, "First I talked to someone, then I talked to someone else, and then I talked to someone else." Not exact quotes, but close enough: what he meant was, before he had a movement he had to educate people, and he didn't do that by marching. He did that by talking to people, one at a time, and not people always that interested in listening to him. (In Chavez's case, too, remember that many of the "protest marches" were really intended as picket lines -- picket lines that other unionized workers might refuse to cross -- even if it wasn't explicit. He was really using a union model as much as the civil rights movement's model).

Talking to people isn't the only form of hard work one might do, but it's a good example. Another version of it is going door-to-door in get-out-the-vote campaigns, which in fact is VERY hard work, and very important. Writing thoughtful, short, intelligent letters to newspapers -- with discipline, working hard to make them all unique, to-the-point, and submitting them FREQUENTLY -- is another way for average people to get involved. Writing letters may seem sort of fruitless, but it may well ultimately have far more impact than putting twice as much time into a protest march.

Yet for all of that, there's a whole subculture -- mostly a leftist subculture -- out there that resorts to protest marches with knee-jerk predictability. They almost certainly have absolutely no impact whatsoever. And so the question continues to hover over us: why the hell do they keep doing it?

(4) BONUS POINT: More on self-indulgence. Whenever a protest march or demonstration is called these days, you can be just certain that many, many, MANY of your participants will use it as an occasion to protest EVERYTHING. Do you want to have a protest about destruction of old growth forests? Be prepared for some folks to show up with signs, T-shirts, or slogans about gay rights, or the 2000 election scandal, or Enron, or something else completely and utterly unrelated. Do these folks EVER think? Are they just completely, absolutely, utterly clueless? Or is the rightwing conspiracy bigger and better-funded than any of us ever imagined, and in every city big and small there now are squads of people getting paid by rightwing sources to be willing and able to show up at leftist protests day or night, on short notice, complete with hippy dress, unwashed dreadlocks, scraggly beards, absurd (bordering on disgusting) tattoos, and protest signs that have little or nothing to do with the issue at hand?

-- Roger Keeling

[I think that Bayard Rustin's rule of thumb -- "A demonstration should have an immediately achievable target" -- makes a lot of sense, and from that point of view an awful lot of protesting is just wasted energy. I thought that as well to a certain extent about the anti-war protests prior to the invasion of Iraq, that the protests had no specific aim except dramatizing that there were people out there who were in disagreement with what was happening. I suppose that, in itself, is an "achievable target," but I don't think that publicity was what Rustin had in mind. Not only that, but, as Roger points out, those demonstrations, with their public face of broad-spectrum leftist/liberal ideological causes that generally do not resonate with moderates, may simply have served to alienate people who might have been tempted to join in if the focus had been kept tight and laser-sharp on raising voices against the invasion. -- Ed]

[Note: This post was removed for a short period of time on Monday morning 7/26 to allow Roger to do some rewriting.]

Ed Fitzgerald | 7/25/2004 11:58:00 PM | | | | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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