What's the Point of Protest?
After two years of massive public
the war's still on and Bush will be inaugurated again.
by Karen Loew
Disheartened liberals dreading the upcoming
presidential inauguration after an extraordinary period of progressive
activism that still failed to defeat George W. Bush can probably
be forgiven for any lack of enthusiasm about the planned die-ins,
congo blocs, punk rock balls, white ribbons, hacktivism, postering,
and mock secessions and funerals that comprise their side's "counter-inaugural"
on Inauguration Day, this Thursday. In the face of the brawny,
insatiable, all-business Republican machine, there is cause to
wonder: what's the point?
"All this activity - what's it for?
Whose attention are you trying to get, and what behavior are you
trying to change?" a man blurted out toward the end of a
rambling planning session held in a New York City church earlier
this month for those planning to join inauguration protests in
Washington on January 20, or "J20" in lefty activist
Activists have asked themselves those
questions in the build-up to summer's outpouring against the Republican
National Convention in Manhattan and since, as autumn brought
preparations for this week's celebration-cum-funeral a few hours
south in D.C. The thousands "turning their backs on Bush"
in a coordinated effort as the presidential motorcade slinks down
Pennsylvania Avenue will mark a finish line of sorts, the end
of more than two years of high-stakes showdowns against the administration
that began in October 2002 with a simmering series of anti-war
demonstrations around the country. Then came February 15, 2003,
when millions of people on five continents demonstrated passionate
opposition to the U.S. initiating war in Iraq in an unprecedented
worldwide outcry that Bush called, breathtakingly, a "focus
group." In April 2004 more than 1 million people, according
to organizers, massed in Washington for the pro-choice March for
Women's Lives, likely the biggest-ever gathering on the Mall.
Four months later were five days of RNC protests, with an estimated
500,000 in the largest single event, the march past Madison Square
Garden on Aug. 29.
Yet the war began. Bush was nominated,
then re-elected. And now he will be inaugurated.
It would be reasonable to observe this
glaring lack of effect and conclude there's no use, one might
as well stay home. (Mass mobilizations, after all, are not a part
of right-wingers' routine, and look where they are today.) But
activists don't view the fact that these things happened despite
their exhortations otherwise as a mark of failure. They say the
goal of protest is not only to prevent something from beginning,
or to stop what has already started, but to focus attention on
the problem at hand, rather like the historic procedural hiccup
caused by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Sen. Barbara Boxer when
they held up the certification of electoral votes (on the same
day as the J20 meeting in Judson Memorial Church). "A lot
of our work is actually preventing things from getting worse,"
says city activist Max Uhlenbeck.
Not that it wouldn't be nice to throw
a Kiev-style protest, achieving a momentous goal in the moment
- although American police wouldn't brook such a large, spontaneous,
un-permitted, multi-day uprising. Counter-inaugural demonstrators
are even planning to display the signature bright orange of vindicated
Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in Washington.
Ultimate victory aside, the demonstrators in Kiev still thrust
themselves into the chronicle of that election: they threw a plot
twist into a familiar anti-democratic storyline.
One major thing protestors can do
is shape the public narrative. That's exactly what happened
with the RNC, says city journalist and activist Bilal El-Amine.
In a post-mortem published in the magazine he edits, Left Turn,
El-Amine cites as one of the counter-convention's top achievements
the fact that the massive Aug. 29 protest dominated NYC media
coverage on the convention's opening day, Aug. 30. "Even
the screeching tabloids had to publish dazzling bird's eye pictures
of the march on their covers on the very day that the RNC opened
up," El-Amine wrote. "More importantly, Bush could not
even get near the site of the 9/11 attacks and instead met with
a bunch of firemen in a social club way out in Queens."
Anti-RNC activists provided a more exciting
story for city media outlets before (and arguably during) the
convention, hogged most of the spotlight during the event's four
days, and made it impossible for Bush to claim the city's terrorism-scarred
terrain as his own - the very goal many speculated was Bush's
reason for choosing New York for his nomination in the first place.
Rather than functioning as backdrop for rousing Republican speeches,
Ground Zero was the site of a participatory handbell performance
memorializing the attacks and was ringed by pro-peace, anti-Bush
posters in windows of buildings around it.
Claiming ownership is a primary motivation,
and primary accomplishment, behind the collective with a mission
as basic as its website name: rncnotwelcome.org. (Using the "C"
for Convention, Republican National Convention protesters also
took ownership of the initials usually reserved for the Republican
National Committee.) About a year ago, Sean Flagherty, Shawn Ewald,
and Jamie Moran, all in their 20's and 30's, came together to
express resentment that they would try to come and take over our
town. The friends explained their duty to stand up for the vision
of a New York that treats its everyday working citizens at least
as well as its visiting political elites.
"It's more of a process, like taking
responsibility and accountability for where you live, how you
run your life, and getting out into the streets and taking back
what has been taken away from you," is how Flagherty explained
the point of protest. "The people of New York have dealt
with a tremendous amount of crap lately," said Ewald, citing
everything from transit cuts to firehouse closings to Muslim immigrants'
detentions. "What we hope is that the people who are coming
together, all these diverse groups coming together to protest
the RNC, will make connections through the process of organizing
together and from that point on we can fight those individual
The community fostered among protestors
creates a unique opportunity to model the egalitarian, democratic
and anarchic approaches sought in the wider world. Brooke Lehman,
who facilitated many of the noRNC Clearinghouse planning meetings
that served as central hub for all protestors and groups, concluded
at an RNC evaluation discussion held at NYU in October that the
city protest community came out of the counter-convention more
cohesive than before, rather then more dysfunctional and fractured
as usual. "It wasn't an accident," says Lehman, also
co-director of the Bluestockings political bookstore, who noted
that organizers took part in a pre-RNC pro-communication retreat
in New Paltz.
From the non-hierarchichal format of
the Clearinghouse meetings to the "safe and supportive atmosphere"
for would-be protestors, participants were able to "be the
change they want to see" - tolerant, respectful, cooperative.
The anarchic bicyclists of Times Up!, the satirical actors of
Billionaires for Bush, the saintly public-interest counsels of
the National Lawyer's Guild, the patriotic revelers of Greene
Dragon, the poor people's representatives from the Kensington
Welfare Rights Union and many more all kept their eyes on the
big prize rather than bickering over differences: a successful
practice for future times they may want to do the same thing again.
Protesting with others rather than disapproving
all by oneself also provides solidarity and solace, fellowship
and inspiration. When a dark Jan. 6 day begins with watching live
television coverage, alone, of an attorney general nominee justifying
his previous justification for torture and a U.S. Representative
from Ohio blocking the certification of Presidential electoral
votes because she has cause for thinking the vote was fraudulent,
but ends among comrades planning resistance against those in power,
the day indubitably has gotten brighter. Sarah Long, 24, who facilitated
the J20 planning meeting at Judson Church, says she was a depressed
liberal "for a day after the election." That same day,
she and two friends founded the Ladies of Liberty, a group that
now lobbies in suffragists' period clothing for the rights women
still lack. They'll be at the counter-inauguration in force. Evan
Giller, who attended the meeting, also protested Bush's first
inauguration four years ago. "I'm the only person I know
who felt good that day," Giller said. This time around, he's
encouraging everyone he knows to do the same, writing in an email
to his friends: "Don't stay at home just feeling victimized.
Take a public stand. Show the world that not every American supports
People around the world - and at home
- won't know the diversity of American opinion unless Americans
show them. Voicing dissent is vital for shifting the course of
public discussion and changing both the government's and the world
community's perception of the philosophical makeup of the governed.
Those with a budding or dormant sympathy for the cause may be
pricked to join it. Marches are "how people meet the movement,"
in the words of one participant in the RNC evaluation at NYU this
fall. Angela Coppola, a major activist in anti-RNC activities,
said such group expressions "change the public dialogue to
where it's acceptable to speak about certain things. Protesting
gives me the courage and bravery to stand up and know it's not
just me standing up." She and others noted the Israelis who
demonstrate against the Palestinian/Jewish dividing wall in Israel;
as with Bush's Iraq war, Sharon's wall doesn't just offend "the
usual suspects," and some Israeli citizens are making their
Voicing dissent is crucial for history
too, and activists hold their historical precedents dear, citing
examples of American resistance from colonial days through the
60's. "Germany would look different" to us today if
we knew of more resistance to Hitler's rise, Coppola said. "I
wanted to go to the Bush inauguration [in 2001] so I could tell
my kids I went to the Bush inauguration." This year, history
should record that in addition to the thousands protesting the
president's re-installment in Washington, there were related film
screenings in Shepherdstown, W. Va., a funeral procession to mourn
the death of "democracy, peace tolerance, civil liberties,
and the thousands of people who have died due to the policies
of the Bush administration" in San Antonio, and a drum-beating
march leading to a re-kindling of a giant Statue of Liberty in
Santa Cruz, among other commemorations around the country.
These are the main ways progressive activists
have answered the question "what's the point of protest?"
in light of the fact that their side doesn't seem to be doing
so well. They believe protest - whether mass marches or more individualized,
potentially disruptive acts of civil disobedience called "direct
actions" - has significant worth and power despite the powerful
forces arrayed against it. Those forces include police who react
with violence against generally peaceful demonstrators, authorities
who constrain protesters' movement so as to deny their dignity
and practically remove them from the sphere of influence, dominant
media organs that routinely ignore or trivialize authentic political
expression, an administration determined to disregard its opponents
no matter how wise or numerous, and a public that lets too many
of these injustices slide by.
The writer Rebecca Solnit helps the nearsighted
to look up from the domestic well of sorrows and see the many
recent achievements of democracy and justice movements abroad.
She writes that South America experienced protest's fruit when
Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner defied the International
Monetary Fund, when Uruguayans voted against water privatization,
when populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a referendum
that our government would have preferred he lose. Fifteen years
ago the Berlin Wall fell and Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia
all leapt toward freedom; ten years ago a post-apartheid South
Africa elected Nelson Mandela president; and just five years ago
in America, the then-indomitable World Trade Organization was
forced by anti-globalists to halt its ministerial meeting in Seattle.
"If you act, you may or may not
have the impact you intend, but you know what the consequences
of passivity are," Solnit writes. "Don't do the Administration
the favor of conquering yourself."
Native New Yorker and habitual protester
Bob Carpenter, 64, couldn't grant that favor if he tried. He attended
the J20 planning meeting. Then he protested militarism and war
with Daniel Berrigan and dozens more on Dr. Martin Luther King's
birthday, by marching from the military recruiting booth at Times
Square to the aircraft carrier Intrepid docked on the Hudson River.
He's been at it since the Vietnam War, which he thinks the anti-war
movement helped bring to an end.
"Do I think that protest is valid?
Does it serve a purpose? Obviously I do. Do I get depressed? Obviously
I do, too," Carpenter said.
"Even though the times seem tough,
I can't stop. I'm driven in some ways. It would be easier for
me to stay home and do nothing," he said, though it wouldn't
really be easier, because it would be impossible.
Karen Loew (email@example.com)
is a freelance journalist that has been published in The New Yorker
and the New York Times and is a former staff writer at The Tennessean
and other daily newspapers.