Monday, April 17, 2006

Man Bites Dog at Protest March, update on the dog at 11

In her delightfully sarcastic L.A. Times op-ed, "One More Job for the Immigrants," Rosa Brooks observes that

If the 33% of Americans who think Bush should be impeached took to the streets to peaceably express their views, that would be almost 100 million marchers — enough to wake up even the most somnolent of politicians. If the 47% of Americans who think U.S. troops should leave Iraq ASAP actually marched on Washington, our troops would already be on their way home. If the 60% of Americans who disapprove of Bush's job performance decided to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the White House, they'd spill over into a dozen neighboring states, and the American political machine would grind to a screeching halt.
Brooks describes the effect that the recent protest marches about immigration policy have had, and then points out that "Mainstream Americans" don't protest anymore, and provides a litany of reasons for this. This all begs the question, "If marches can be effective, why aren't there more of them?"

Anyone who has been within shouting distance of me within the last five years or so knows that I believe that protest marches are dead as a means to the end of effecting social or policy change (I was glad to hear that I'm not the only crazy--Daily Kos said the same thing in a recent interview on the Colbert Report. I'd like to a page on Daily Kos that expresses that, but I couldn't find one quickly.) In spite of Brooks' insightful and witty explanation of how effective they can be, I think that she's oversimplifying the situation.

Take, for example, the March for Women's Lives that I participated in, along with several hundred thousand of my close, personal friends. It was big, it was impressive, big name people spoke, and yet, there have been no significant social or policy changes as a result of it. Why not?

For one thing, while calling an event a march makes it sound as if you are going to "march right down to the White House" and give them a piece of your mind, I don't think there are going to be many Selma-to-Montgomery style marches anymore. And, this event wasn't a march, it was one rally on the Mall, a slow shuffle around the White House to another stage at the other end of the Mall, where another rally was held as everyone dispersed.

That may seem like a minor point, but it gets to the heart of the problem--big events like that don't have one clear goal. They are the servants of too many masters:
  • they have to be called marches, because that's what the baby boomers want, because that's what they remember, and that's what worked for them--why make a change when you're working for a change, right?
  • they have to give an official voice to every tiny, freakish faction associated with the cause of the march, because nobody within "the cause" can be offended--which is how you end up with the leader of the Waterfront Hempshirt Drum Circle addressing the crowd about the importance of renewable fibers in a polypercussionist setting before Senator Clinton speaks
  • they have to be tightly scheduled and precisely scripted, down to what's written on protesters' placards, because the television media has deadlines, you know--and goodness knows we can't take a stand that would offend anyone in the media, because then they may not carry our message, which is that people need to take a stand, you know, without taking any risks
It's that last point that is the main problem with marches anymore: everyone knows what's going to happen. Back in the day, before my time, large marches like that were startling, just as the recent immigration marches were. They drew media attention in large part because of their novelty. Tear gas in Chicago was shocking, a million or more African Americans on the Mall was surprising, Freedom Riders were confusing to many. Yes, there was also widespread support for the causes, but that hadn't gotten any play in the evening news--it took something new, unusual, and visual before the TV media became interested.

Now, however, marches are old hat, tightly scripted, and visually bland--everyone carries one of two preselected placards that have been tested in focus groups to ensure that they don't offend . . . that is, until the recent immigration marches.

The immigration marches were something new, they were surprising, and they were visually interesting--everyone wearing white to represent their peaceful intentions, lots of homemade signs, etc. There were also plenty of other events that went along with these--students walking out of class, some of whom subsequently got arrested for truancy or loitering--all of which were also, new, surprising, and visually interesting.

And, that's why they worked, why people paid attention, why there might be actual social and policy changes as a result. While I do agree with Brooks that there is a great need for the silent majority of Americans to take action that demonstrates their support of the country and opposition to the President, I still don't believe that a march, rally, or even a series of such events will produce anything more than a 30-second clip at the end of the evening news--unless a man bites a dog, there's a tornado/hurricane/earthquake, or Barry Bonds hits another home run, any of which would bump the story on the march.

Do I have a solution? No. Without either investigating or intuiting what will achieve the goal of these marches--social and policy change--I do not have one, but that is the first step to finding a solution.

Do I know what will work to rally the silent majority to action, to come out of hiding and join together to make their voice clearly heard? No, I don't, but more marches aren't the solution. Most of the time. Maybe.


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  2. Anonymous12:57 PM

    I certainly share your perspective on the state of civil "disobedience", and I think you are absolutely right that it may explain what is perceived in the media as political apathy. The last protest I was at was ridiculous. A police escort along the permitted route, smoke-billowing generators holding aloft big balloons reading "Stop Global Warming", a "rally" consisting of sound bites that lasted only as long as the TV crews cared to stick around.

    When protests become sactioned, predictable affairs, they totally lose their ability to grab attention. They make the participants feel good about themselves, they provide filler between sports and weather on the local news, and no one else really gives a shit. The last protest anyone remembers was the Seattle WTO protests, and that certainly didn't help public perception much (although it did get people started talking about globalization).

    The spontaneity and passion of the recent immigrtion demonstrations was inspiring, frankly. So it seems clear that if civil disobediance is to have a future, scripted, media-ready rallies are certainly not it.

  3. My question is: what is the future of effective civil disobedience, if it's not pre-packaged rallies?

    Mama and I have started getting involved in local politics as a way to help influence change, but that often moves slowly and gets lost in the muddle of byzantine traditions. It's better than nothing, but it's not a complete solution.

    Any suggestions?