Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The beat goes on

Updated After Sunday's mass protest and Monday's smaller marches on economic issues, demonstrations against the war and other federal policies continued on Tuesday, a day that had earlier been set aside for staging creative nonviolent actions.
On the third day of protests, a day targeted months ago for intense anti-Bush civil disobedience, Manhattan began to resemble a crazy-quilt of barriers, heavily armed police and street-corner activists.
Among them were 500 marchers from the War Resisters League taking part in a "death march" from the site of the World Trade Center towers to Madison Square Garden. About 75 were arrested when the police wrapped the entire block they were on in netting - and then arrested them for blocking the sidewalk! You just have to laugh.
Also Tuesday, outside the Fox News Channel studios in midtown Manhattan, police in riot gear contained around 1,000 demonstrators behind barricades.

In what was dubbed a "shut-up-athon," protesters denounced what they called the network's right-wing slant. One woman held up a sign that read: "Republicans are really stupid. They watch Fox News and believe it." The demonstrators spilled onto nearby Sixth Avenue.
The day also featured two dozen employees of "Hallibacon" wearing pig snouts and wallowing in stacks of fake $100 bills while chanting ""We love money. We love war. We love Cheney even more."

I wonder if, since these actions were more narrowly focused on particular concerns than the mass march on Sunday, if they're more acceptable to those who found the sight of 400,000+ people in the streets a cause for snarky, condescending remarks rather than celebration.

If you wonder why I say that, you're happily unaware of the pompous offerings in some part of the lefty blogworld that Sunday's demo was - in fact, demonstrations in general are - an inefficient, pointless waste of time, just a means of "self-expression" unrelated to effective political action. They bewailed the "chaotic" nature of the protest, noting the wide variety of issues pressed by various marchers, comparing that unfavorably to the "civil rights/Vietnam era."

Since the main purveyors of this view are bloggers clearly too young to have experienced any of those demonstrations, the temptation is to dismiss them as simply ignorant of movement history - since anyone who was at any mass Vietnam-era action could have told them that those marches swung every bit as broad a brush as Sunday's did, if not more so. (And in fact, since the theme of Sunday was "the world says no to the Bush agenda," you would have expected a wide range of issues and styles.)

But the notion that demonstrations are ineffective, just a way to show off and act out, displays such an enormous ignorance of the dynamics of political action that it can't be ignored completely.

Political movements are not built by a single tactic, a single style, a single method, but by a blending of different approaches, from letter-writing to petitioning to voting to lobbying to donating money to the lengthy list goes on. It includes the plan of labor groups to put a million people on the streets doing door-to-door canvassing on September 2. It includes people doing voter-registration drives. And it most definitely includes public, including mass, demonstrations.

The resistance to marches seems to stem from a perception of them as somehow, I don't know, perhaps "icky" is a good word. That and a fear that if the "message" can't be strictly and tightly controlled - :gasp: people might have their own ideas about creative dress or message - it will lead to some sort of "disruptive" behavior that the GOP will be able to use to its benefit. (Oddly, a comparison is often drawn between now and Chicago 1968 - but while the "chaos" there, later described as a "police riot" by an investigating commission, was against the incumbent administration, the beneficiary to the extent there was one was the opposition, the opposite of the claimed risk now.)

Those must be the truer reasons, for certainly there was no real logic in the arguments actually given for the ineffectiveness of demonstrations. "If all those people had spent that day," said one, "convincing one neighbor to support Kerry, that would have been effective organizing." In addition to the notorious fallacy that Kerry is not only a real alternative to Bushism - a doubtful enough proposition - but the only real alternative, the argument lives in an "if only" fantasy. "If they'd only convinced a neighbor...." Yeah, and if your grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wagon. And my gosh, if only each Kerry supporter could convince just one Bush supporter to change their mind, Kerry would get 98% of the vote!

Recently, on a mailing list I'm on, I had an exchange with someone who was discouraging people from going to NYC, arguing it was "too risky" and that electoral politics are the way things get changed since "marchers don't make policy." I'm going to include here my side of the exchange, which I think offers one effective reply to those who regard wonkism and electioneering as the sole drivers of change. There is some repetition; I hope you will forgive me for not taking the time to combine those and what's above in this post into one argument.

August 16
We need people to run for office because that is how change comes about. I want to remind you that it was Kennedy's death that brought about the legislation for civil rights. Johnson rammed it through when he had the opportunity.

I say you have it exactly backwards. Electoral campaigns do not create movements. They can be based on them, they can help to build them further - provided that movement is already well established.

Public sympathy following Kennedy's death was a tool LBJ used to get civil rights legislation through Congress, but it did not "bring it about." Decades of work, of organizing, demonstrating, sitting-in, civil disobedience - that's what produced civil rights legislation.

You speak of Vietnam. Do you think Gene McCarthy caused the antiwar movement? That he caused antiwar sentiment? He was a product of that movement, not a progenitor of it.

And yes, the marches had something to do with ending the war. They weren't the only thing by any means; the death toll and the continuing failed promises of "the light at the end of the tunnel" were powerful forces in their own right. But the marches kept the issue alive and on top of the agenda in a way that would not have been possible otherwise, they reminded people who opposed the war that they were not alone, they legitimized the opposition of fence-sitters, they made it easier for politicians who might otherwise be silent to speak out, and they on a regular basis reminded those in power of the significant levels of resistance to their policies, levels both in numbers and, just as importantly, in intensity.

Dismissing marches as "glamorous" but useless and risky "fun" is both contradictory and unfair. Yes, I have marched, picketed, rallied, and done CD. I have been an organizer, a tax resister, and a draft resister. All the "activist" stuff.

But I have also signed more petitions, written more letters-to-the-editor, and contacted Congress more times than I care to remember. I have run for office - three times. And I have voted in every national, state, and local election for where I was at the time since 1972 (with the exception of one time when I moved into an area too late to register for the upcoming election).

That's not intended as puffery; there are many who did and do far more than me. It's to make the point that I will embrace all nonviolent means to advance justice and peace. You, it seems to me, are willing to dump most of them and put all your faith in a handful, ones that are at their best far weaker when standing alone. And I think that is a serious mistake.
August 17
You continue to insist that elections are the - not a, but the - means of change, while at the same time you use as an example the 1964 civil rights laws, which you say may still not have been law had it not been for the Kennedy assassination. While I make no claim to match your ability to determine the course of alternate histories, even foolish ones, I will note that by your own argument electing JFK did not get civil rights laws passed. Electing LBJ did not get civil rights laws passed. And no one who might have been elected since would have done any better. So how does that show elections' sole role as agents of change? Or in this case, show them as having any role at all?

Reverting to the real world, the one in which JFK was killed, do you think there would have even been civil rights legislation had it not been for all the on-the-streets activity which you find pointless if not distasteful?

Vietnam: Did electing JFK prevent Vietnam? Did electing LBJ stop it? Did electing Dick "I have a secret plan" Nixon stop it? Are you aware of the fact that one time, Pentagon analysts told LBJ the war could be won if only he'd commit another couple of hundred thousand troops and he responded by telling them to go back to their computers and determine how long it would take "250,000 angry Americans to climb that White House wall out there and lynch their president?" Or that before announcing his "Vietnamization" policy of slow withdrawal Nixon had a second speech drawn up, announcing a major escalation? And it was because of the scale of the so-called Moratorium demonstrations [of October 15, 1969] that three weeks later he announced the former instead of the latter?

(By the way, it's utterly untrue that the right didn't march. They just couldn't begin to match the numbers.)

Do you really imagine - I choose the word deliberately - that policy change happens only through electoral change and that electoral change happens in a vacuum apart from any broader considerations or conditions? A former colleague of mine, who was as opposed to electoral action as you are focused on it, used to say "Elections only ratify what the people have already decided." I don't go that far but an underlying point is valid: Elections are part of the process of change; they are not the cause of it.

Letters to the editor and to office holders are very effective

Based on your own argument, how is a letter to the editor effective? How does it - how can it - affect policy? How does it "change a thing" in a way that marches can't? By making some office-holder aware of a perspective? (And marches can't?) By provoking someone else to think about an issue? (And marches can't?) By reassuring someone they're not the only one who thinks that way? (And marches can't?) By inspiring someone to do more? (And marches can't? In fact, that's one of the things they do best: energize participants to do more than they otherwise might.)

And I admit to being amused by the reference to letters to office-holders; I was reminded of a similar argument I had some years ago with someone who, like you, had a narrow view of what constitutes useful tactics. He insisted that letters to office-holders was a waste of time, that only personal visits, face-to-face lobbying, had any merit and writing letters was a "cop out."

Did the right steal a march on the left in its emphasis on local elections, becoming aware that the focus of government was moving from DC to the states well before we did? Yes, they did and we're still playing catch-up. But to turn that into an argument that electoral politics is the only way to go and marches and other public actions are wastes of time that can change nothing, accomplish nothing, is more legerdemain than logic and I can't help but suspect functions more than a little as a justification for your own fears.

I say again, I will embrace all nonviolent means to advance justice and peace and these means are stronger when they reinforce each other rather than many being dismissed as the "illusions" of "you people." That does not strengthen those remaining, it weakens them, narrowing the political base on which they stand. And that, I repeat, is a serious, serious mistake, one we can't afford to make.

Just consider this: If marches and the like are so ineffective, so pointless, why in hell is the right so damned intent on rendering them invisible?

The famous quote attributed to Martin Niemoller is apocryphal, but a version seems relevant here: "First they came for the marches, but I didn't speak out because I wasn't a marcher...." Don't go that route.
I say do what you can the way you can to the degree you can. I have no time for "my way of organizing is better than your way" arguments. That is the real waste of time.

Updated by way of a footnote: The New York Times seems to have been at a different series of actions taking place in some other city. AP, Reuters, and CNN combined made one reference to a "verbal confrontation" when police forced protesters off the steps of the New York Public Library where they had, organizers later said, been told by police they could gather in advance of their march.

But according to the Times, it was "a day of disorder unmatched during convention week," one featuring a "wave of confrontations" that "erupted into clashes with police," including "a brawl with police" and "angry crowds ... screaming at delegates." And all that in the first two sentences.
But at the various staging areas - near Ground Zero, in Union Square, in Herald Square near Macy's, and outside the New York Public Library - the police began making arrests, sending the crowds into a frenzy. These confrontations followed several other events, some of which went of without incident with the police taking aggressive action to prevent disruptions.
"Frenzy?" Fren·zy, n. 1. A state of violent mental agitation or wild excitement. 2. Temporary madness or delirium.

Must be more of that liberal media bias.

Oh, and by the way, why isn't "police taking aggressive action" an "incident?"

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