A few problems with mass protests

For some of the older folks, it’s weird to think I was in high school during the start of the war in Iraq. But that is when I got my start as an activist. Fiercely anti-war, I wrote screeds in my high school newspaper about the war. “Even if I’m wrong and Saddam DOES have WMDs,” I wrote, “does anybody really think that having an American-made power vacuum in Iraq is going to be a good idea?” I went on from there. It totally baffles me that a high school student could have more foresight in foreign policy than, you know, our entire government. Anyway, so I joined the protests. I was never the kid who protested for the sake of protesting — I always thought it was supposed to DO something.

But here’s what I found and let me explain.

  • Massive protests didn’t do anything. We still went to war. (Duh.)
  • If you actually attended one of those protests, there were tons of conflicting messages.
  • Nothing was particularly out of the ordinary.
  • We were easily marginalized.
  • Showing up made people feel really good.

If you think about mass protests, in an ideal world they are supposed to accomplish something, or make it so clear that the status quo is so unjust that a change needs to be made. It typically works best when the decision maker feels some sense of shame about the whole thing. But the Bush Administration was always going to go to war, it had decided, and no amount of protesting would change that. Nor would it put pressure on Senators to vote against, because it was not made 100% clear that there was a true injustice. I am going to talk more about that in the next post.

At the protests, you saw signs for every lefty cause under the sun. It wasn’t just “NO WAR IN IRAQ” it was also about, for some reason, the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, the environment, civil rights, Puerto Rico (seriously), the occasional socialist or anarchist that gets marginalized, and everything else. The message was totally inconsistent and while we were happy to have the large numbers, it didn’t make any sense. The message got garbled. But if you have a million people in one area, they should really be saying one thing. I am going to talk a lot about that more in another post because this problem stems from one of the progressive movement’s strengths, which is its diversity.

I was also struck by how ordinary it was. Police were completely prepared for every protest I attended, folks came and went, by and large peacefully, and the pesky folks who didn’t were handled easily. It was like, great you made your point, now let’s get back with our normal life. It’s a protest, we’ve seen it before in other, more interesting protests. Yawn. It was a great gathering, but it did not change the way anybody thought about the issue. Folks watching at home would think at best “Oh there’s a group of people over there who think one way. OK. I think another.” Meanwhile, Fox News et. al. called us all sorts of bad names. We were at best benign ex-hippies trying to relive the glory days of the 1960s, at worst unpatriotic and treasonous. That makes us easily marginalized.

We were pumped. There was excitement. We were part of a big movement just like in the 1960s. We were sticking it to the man. We hadn’t ever seen protests that big ever! It felt like maybe we were going to have a new generation of activists on the left and new organizers. It was all so refreshing to us.

But we forgot Martin Luther King’s core teaching of process. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King said, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

The war hadn’t started yet, so technically, there was yet no injustice. But we were trying to prevent it, OK. Now we need to prove just how the war would be unjust. We did not do that. Our message was unclear. We did not attempt any negotiation other than “Give the inspectors more time.” Nobody bought that we were negotiating, and to be fair, there really was nobody to negotiate with. We did not self-purify and prepare for real consequences of direct action. Instead, we wanted to essentially go to a rally and just feel good about ourselves. We weren’t prepared to make real sacrifices for the cause, other than getting arrested. It was immature. A lot of folks skipped school “in protest” but really, it was just about skipping school. And our direct action wasn’t that direct. It was a set of marches, and it took nobody by surprise. It didn’t do anything different or stop anything besides traffic. But most importantly, we jumped from step 1 to step 4.

People often bemoan to me the lack of activism among many young people. They want to see more big protests when there are major injustices. They prefer the tactic, never realizing that it must fall into a larger strategy. You don’t protest for the sake of protesting. You protest because that is the most effective means of achieving your goal. I have a bunch of friends in college still who like to protest at the drop of the hat. But mostly, that just separates them into the ‘activist’ clique and doesn’t really do much.

One final thought: we’ve seen this movie before. When folks did massive sit-ins or marches in the 1960s, it was NEW. People hadn’t seen these kind of non-violent protests before, and there was the opportunity to catch authorities and the public off guard. Now it’s become so commonplace that it’s no longer interesting. The good organizer knows that people can see your tactics but they cannot see your strategy. We’ve become so used to the tactics, that we forget sometimes the strategy on which they are based.


January 21, 2011. Uncategorized.

One Comment

  1. Ryan replied:

    One of the chief principles of civil disobedience is disruption. Most of our protests today don’t disrupt anything, so they don’t have the sorts of effects that really make a difference. The Southern Freedom Movement wasn’t just successful because a lot of people were willing to protest, it was successful because they nearly drove companies out of business, they disrupted the economy and when their regular protests were ignored, they disrupted the forces that ignored them.

    In the generations we were raised in, “protesting” has almost become a dirty word. People have been trained not to do them or think about them with any sort of frequency, at least when it comes to the causes of social justice. The history of the anti-Vietnam protests have been rewritten into something much more vulgar than it was then. Society has changed to make it harder for people to protest — more people work, and work longer. More people are burdened by massive debts that didn’t exist back then. Etc.

    I also think there’s a leadership and movement vacuum. People have come together when they’ve been driven to it, but there hasn’t been an enduring movement of any kind that keeps people out there because it doesn’t really exist. The movements that do exist push things like online petitions to your politicians and the like — it’s just not as effective. Our leaders aren’t willing to stand up and put themselves in harms way, or be a part of the disruption, that people like MLK Jr. were back then. But rest assured, if such a movement did exist, and it didn’t take any shit from the government or their friends and allies in the media, and it was willing to act in real, legitimate civil disobedience, such a movement could again be successful. But getting a whole bunch of people to bring congregate at the national mall and hold some home-made signs isn’t going to cut it.

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