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September 22, 2007

Where Protests Work

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Matt notes that the Jena 6 protests have made him more aware of the situation.  While I share his general skepticism about mass protest as an effective political tool, I think this is one of the cases in which it can be particularly effective.  When thousands of people are going somewhere and making a lot of noise, the cameras follow.  In this case, you have a situation where an injustice occurred, and without a bunch of people going to Louisiana and making noise, there wouldn't be enough media attention on what happened in Jena and on the larger issue of systemic racism. 

Mass protest is a less effective tool when you're dealing with a situation that has already attracted lots of media coverage, like the Iraq War.  It wasn't that Iraq was ever undercovered -- it was just that early coverage of the war was massively skewed by administration propaganda.  Partly because of the massive investment Republicans have made in making the public dismiss protestors as dirty hippies whom right-thinking people shouldn't take seriously, it's hard for mass protests to change the nature of already existing media coverage for the better. 

September 22, 2007 | Permalink


What can be done to call into question the legitimacy of Republican "propaganda"?

Even in the minority, the Republicans are quite effective in challenging the legitimacy of MoveOn.org's propaganda.

Dean's Scream, Kerry's botched joke, Edward's haircut.

Boehner's "small price to pay". Bush's WMD search joke video.

There's an asymmetry.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Sep 22, 2007 6:03:42 PM

I disagree slightly - I think it's not just whether an issue is known or not, it's the message being sent. An unfocused, everything and the kitchen sink protest in Jena would not have resonated (nor, we should be clear, would one that had resulted in violence), and I think you can look at antiwar protests leading up to the War as having an impact, though the issue being marched over was hardly new. The early antiwar demonstration I marched in while in New York stunned a lot of people (including a lot of people in the crowd), as I recall, for its size and the clarity of the message of the people marching. I also think of the NY march after Matthew Shephard's death - which kind of fits your description (the issue of violence against gay people and the injustice had not, necessarily, been seen so starkly), but not exactly - gays have marched a lot in New York... but this one, clearly, was different. And a lot of the difference was the exceptionally pure, focused message of those marching - that any one of us could have been that boy. I suspect that, too, was something very clearly driving a lot of people marching in Jena.

I think what we have right now is an antiwar movement that hasn't quite figured out how to broaden its appeal. Lots of people, who are not happy with things in Iraq, don't see themselves in the marches, and I don't think it's just a "dirty hippie" dismissal from the right (or the left). For one thing, I don't think the right's making any headway with their anti-antiwar protests either, or their "let's all march to show we like soldiers" marches - and if it were just about not being a "known issue", or a different perspective on a topic, I'd think they'd resonate a bit more.

When you live in New York, it can seem like there's a march every week, every week a new "injustice". I don't mean to be dismissive, because I think the people who organize them believe, passionately, in their causes. But it's hard to get the masses to care, too. The protests that cut through the clutter aren't just about exposing the unknown, they are about a moment when a lot of people make a point, usually peacefully, that simply can't be ignored or turned away. I suspect, and soon, you'll have an anti-Iraq march that stops traffic and gets people's attention. But it will need to be big, and it will need to be focused... things that I think are achievable, but haven't quite come together yet.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 22, 2007 6:19:42 PM

Partly because of the massive investment Republicans have made in making the public dismiss protestors as dirty hippies whom right-thinking people shouldn't take seriously, it's hard for mass protests to change the nature of already existing media coverage for the better.
It is easier now to discredit left wing protesters because they no longer have media cover.
Zombietime and Fox News lets the public see the crazies at the protests such as code pink.

Posted by: Paul L. | Sep 22, 2007 6:56:57 PM

Has a US president ever been prevented from starting a war? I don't see what protests for or against any war could actually do.

Truman decided not to run because the Korean War was bogged down and no protesters were even around. The Vietnam War went on until 1972 for American troops and until 1975 for the ARVN.

Posted by: stm177 | Sep 22, 2007 8:59:38 PM

A couple of thoughts:

1) The Beltway insiders (pols, press, whoever) seem to be willing to ignore the voices of regular people pretty much anywhere. They'll ignore them in the protests, they'll ignore them in the polls, they'll dis them (and then ignore them) in the blogs...you get the idea.

Other than enough people making clear with their votes just how badly the Beltway crowd has gauged public sentiment, I don't see much room to do much about this. And unfortunately, voting only takes place once every two years, so it's hard to hit 'em with a dose of reality any more often than that.

2) That said, it would be nice if International ANSWER weren't the only outfit organizing protests. Not so much because of their associations, but because they haven't gotten past the 1960s-era habit of giving a platform to every injustice under the sun.

I wouldn't mind going to an Iraq protest that was strongly focused on protesting the Iraq war. But the people who'd run a protest like that, aren't interested in organizing protests. A pity.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Sep 22, 2007 9:02:43 PM


Because the civil rights movement was only successful because the only thing mass protest could bring about was media attention and shape a media narrative.

This is perhaps one of the most ridiculous statements I've ever read from someone who calls themselves progressive. It might be worth reading I've Got The Light of Freedom and Bearing the Cross and the various speeches of Mario Savio to remember the real tactical and strategic reasons people engaged in mass protests. And it wasn't only to get on national television.

I mean, come on. You are sounding like a liberal when you saying things like this.

Posted by: Nathanhj | Sep 22, 2007 10:24:50 PM

in addition to the message conveyed through large and organized demonstrations, they serve an important purpose for the people marching in them.
there is a feeling of greatly energized solidarity and participation.
... the sense of connection and unity with other like-minded people is very vital, as opposed to feeling deeply passionate about something, but isolated, and without a sense of community for the cause.
...the passion of many individuals, translating into a large group of like-minded people; one becoming many, can be very emotional and meaningful.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 23, 2007 12:39:44 AM

In a small town like Jena, the threat of 10k people is a very real one. Protests aren't really meant, by their nature, to raise consciousness. They are meant to be threats. They are meant to say 'This is how many people we can bring down on you if you don't listen to us'. Historically, that's what they have always been.

Posted by: soullite | Sep 23, 2007 9:33:52 AM

Protests are a sign of deep dissatisfaction, the big reason to take them seriously is that the next step for people is generally political violence. I know everyone likes to pretend that america is magic and that it's immune to things like Assassinations and terrorism, but it's not. If the elite doesn't pull their heads out of their asses, they're going to learn that the hard way.

One of the first things you learn in any psychology class is the human response to frustration. Repetition, Variance, Violence. Always. Being American never trumps being human.

Posted by: soullite | Sep 23, 2007 9:37:48 AM

"protests arent really meant, by their nature, to raise consciousness. they are meant to be threats."

perhaps that is what they represent to you, but i dont think that is necessarily true.
i have been in demonstrations, and the purpose was to raise public consciousness and expressive solidarity in our grievances.

and when there is deep frustration, demonstrations and protests are healthy.
i think the demonstrations in jena are one of the most inspiring things happening right now..
and i absolutely think that the candidates should be down there marching with them.

and what do you think would work better now to call attention to injustices?
writing letters to our senators?

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 23, 2007 10:51:42 AM

to my mind, every democratic candidate should be marching in jena, and not for a photo opportunity.
...anyplace where african-american children have to walk to a school and see nooses hanging off of a tree is where a presidential candidate needs to be.
....the true crime here is racism, and that anywhere in this country, an african american child is told he cant sit under a tree for white people.
...where are the candidates today?
at fundraisers?

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 23, 2007 11:01:29 AM

Frankly, I think the attitude that one takes toward mass protest is a significant dividing line between progressive political activists and those who imagine themselves to be such but who are actually a variety of political technocrat.

You can see this in the thrust of their complaints. Mass protest are indicted because they can't be shown to have an immediate impact on policy. They are scorned because their results cannot be tabulated and quantified. They are events that take place outside of the formal political structures and serve no institutional purpose. Indeed, mass protests are by nature anti-institutional.

Of course such criticism can only be definitive if one takes the position that institutional means are complete and sufficient in themselves to effect necessary political change. An effective progressive political activism cannot be limited to such a narrow field of activity. At least not if such "progressivism" embraces a democratic character.

Democratic politics, like democracy itself, cannot be reduced to electoral activity alone. Elections do not define democracy nor do institutions define a democratic society. Rather, elections and political institutions are defined by the democratic character of the society that produces them. Those who imagine that one can have a Democratic society without the inconvenience of an aroused and mobilized citizenry, willing to operate outside of existing structures, don't grasp the essential principles of democracy: the empowering of the otherwise powerless and the negation of accumulated privilege and power in the hands of a favored few.

As Jacqueline has observed, mass protest is at least as much about its effect on those who participate as it is about the impact on institutions or elected officials. Perhaps moreso. When such protests are broad and inclusive, they have an energizing and emancipatory effect on those participating, if for no other reason than that they break through the sense of isolation and irrelevance inculcated by the dominant institutional narratives.

Such a sense of empowerment, where present, is infectious. It is carried by participants back into their communities and transmitted to their friends and neighbors. In short, mass protest is a necessary building block toward the creation of a mass movement.

It's worth recalling that there has never been a fundamental reordering of political or social relations in US history that was not accompanied by such a movement. Nor did such movements evaporate with the election of candidates nominally committed to their goals. They remained active and watchful to insure that such commitment amounted to more than electoral rhetoric.

It's also worthwhile to recognize that longstanding institutions, whatever their presumed democratic impulse, are always biased towards maintaining the status quo. Institutions always favor established modes, forms and relationships of power. This being the case, they cannot, by themselves, be effective tools for challenging the ruling narrative or consensus.

This brings us to the grittier side of mass protest that Soulite refers to. The implicit threat of mass defection by the citizenry from the cramped norms of established politics. The repudiation of the legitimacy such norms and the resort to a politics at war with established institutions of power both political and social.

No doubt stating the possibility of such a radicalization so baldly will upset and discomfit a significant number of people. However, the radical possibility is intrinsic to any meaningful notion of democracy. Even today, there is nothing more radical than the notion that individuals, lacking wealth, privilege or influence, nevertheless have a right to a say in the political, social and economic decisions that govern their lives. Particularly so when we consider that in the United States today, there are those occupying the public pulpits who argue openly and without apology that the wealthy should have the dominant voice in our affairs while the non-wealthy should have little or none.

There is a reason that the right to public protest was written into our Constitution and it wasn't because the framers thought that such protest should substitute for elections or would serve an institutional purpose. To the contrary. The right to protest was so enshrined specifically because it stood separate from and was antagonistic to institutional power.

The framers weren't starry eyed idealists when it came to political institutions anymore than they were on social and economic questions. They understood that even the best designed of such institutions were prone to ossification and decay. They were equally aware of the dangers posed by the accumulation of concentrated power and privilege within such structures. The only effective counterbalance they saw to these dynamics was an active citizenry capable of mobilizing itself independent from the established political order. Neither were they ignorant of the threat to the established order implicit in such activism. While they may not have been eager to embrace such an overturn, they certainly didn't shrink from it.

When the few succeed in dominating the many by reducing democratic processes to sterile exercises in Kabuki or empty ceremony, it is time to raise the prospect of re-writing the social contract. This cannot be done without a mass movement engaged in mass action. To reject this is to condemn oneself to the role of sycophant or bit player on the political stage.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Sep 23, 2007 12:04:59 PM

that was really magnificent, wb reeves.
thank you.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 23, 2007 12:12:25 PM

w b reeves

i know sanpete would have had a response for you!
his presence is missed.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 23, 2007 12:14:12 PM

that was really magnificent, wb reeves. thank you.


Posted by: WB Reeves | Sep 23, 2007 1:17:53 PM

Since I think WB Reeves comment was partially directed at me, I'll respond.

Although protests can be useful like during the Civil Rights era, I still would like some examples of concrete changes to US foreign policy caused by protests.

In fact, it seems that US foreign policy is completely unaffected by protests even if consciousness is raised in the masses.

Posted by: stm177 | Sep 23, 2007 6:09:37 PM

It's been long established that the protests kept Nixon from escalating the war:

“The demonstrators had been more successful than they realized, pushing Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger away from plans to greatly escalate the war, possibly even to the point of using nuclear weapons, and back toward their ‘Vietnamization’ strategy of propping up the Saigon regime,” author Gerald Nicosia wrote in Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement.

Nicosia adds that another accomplishment of the 1969 demonstrations, “though no one knew it at the time, was the revival of the Vietnam veterans’ movement.”

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had been founded two years earlier, but by 1969 had become inactive. The task of mobilizing for the Moratorium Days changed that.

“Within a few months, VVAW had several hundred new members,” writes Nicosia. “Many of them came directly out of VA hospitals, bringing with them word of the terrible conditions that Vietnam veterans were experiencing in those places.”

WB Reeves said it all. Jacqueline made one of my favoirte points about protest politics, which is that they energize people and that's priceless. I'd like to point to another protest tool, which is often overlooked - boycott. Just say the word to a member of the establishment and s/he'll blanch. Then you'll get a speech about how that's just too extreme to consider and ohmygoodness, it would never work anyway and look, just forget about it already.

Marching is powerful and necessary. I'll be in Philly on 10/27 with bells on. But if every MoveOn member, blog reader, member of a peace group, etc ... committed to a boycott with clear goals and targets, that would get a lot of attention and quickly. Figuring out the clear goals and targets is the hard part. Frankly, I'm so fed up with the leadership of this country that I have no problem focusing on any number of corporations - WalMart, Home Depot, Sears, all oil companies - I don't care. If we stopped shopping, we'd get listened to.

Posted by: eRobin | Sep 23, 2007 11:20:13 PM

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