Why Protest the Conventions?
by Michael Albert
RAN.org web site
The usual answer to "why protest the conventions?"
is to list various violations of humanity that the two branches
of our one corporate party, the republicans and democrats, persist
in maintaining, and to note that we are demanding change in all
these areas: (pages of international policy); advancing domestic
police and prison violence that turns communities into occupied
battle zones; imposing welfare havoc that further impoverishes
the already poor; facilitating generalized corporate rapaciousness
that materially and socially diminishes workers lives; legislating
health care collapse that drops people dead who ought to have
been cared for and restored; entrenching citizen and worker disempowerment
from all sides of economic and political decision-making; abetting
media madness that robs culture of content; enabling dis-education
of our young that they might fit awaiting social slots needing
them to obey authority and endure boredom; partaking of the alienation
of most sides of life by elevating profits over people; procuring
weapons without limit; and battering and bashing the poor, the
homeless, the gay, the female, the black or latino with minimal
outcry and reply.
But while these lists explain why the Republican and Democratic
Conventions are justifiable targets if we protest, they don't
explain why anyone should protest in the first place. Whats the
efficacy of it? Why will it help? Nor do the lists explain why
the conventions or any other sites are especially good (or bad)
targets supposing that we ought to be protesting at all? Nor why
one method and focus is wise and not some other?
So assuming our one party with two branches polity is part
and parcel of maintaining the many injustices noted, I want to
address why protest at all, why not just resign and make the best
of it? and what form and focus should we choose for our protest,
if we undertake it?
Raise the Social Cost! The reason to demonstrate in this and
other cases is to forcefully impact policy. It isnt that our demonstrations
educate policy-makers so they then willingly change their choices.
It isnt that our demonstrations awaken a moral sensibility in
policy-makers, so they then willingly change their choices. A
policy-maker could be educated or enlightened sufficiently to
truly change priorities, conceivably, but the most likely outcome
for a policy-maker whose comprehension or values changed so dramatically
would be dismissal, not increased influence. When the (very) occasional
and (very) unusual Daniel Ellsberg or Ramsey Clark are impacted
by dissent to renovate their thinking and renounce their prior
role in elite decision-making, they arent thereafter welcomed
to still higher plateaus of power, they are expunged.
So how do demonstrations affect policies if not by enlightening
or morally uplifting policy-makers to have different attitudes?
Demonstrations coerce elites. At any given moment, elite policy-makers
have a whole array of priorities. Change in policy occurs when
policy-makers decide that not changing is not in their interest.
Change occurs, that is, when movements raise social costs that
policy-makers are no longer willing to endure and which they can
only escape by relenting to movement demands. So what constitutes
a social cost for elite policy-makers? What actions of ours bother
them? What actions of ours have high impact, forcing them to comply
with our agendas rather than persisting in their own?
Tactical calculation about movement tactics runs like this:
If receiving lots of critical letters and email messages doesnt
bother elites, and if this doesnt lead to other actions that will
bother elites, then writing letters is not useful. If, on the
other hand, lots of mail does bother elites by making them nervous
about their base of support, or for any other reasons, or if it
leads to other actions with these effects, then letter writing
is one good choice for dissent. And the same holds for holding
a rally, a march, a sit-in, a riot, or whatever else. If these
choices either in themselves or by what they promise in the future
raise lasting and escalating social costs for elites who are in
position to impact policy, or if they organize and empower constituencies
to do additional things that in turn will raise lasting and escalating
social costs for these elites, then they are good tactics for
dissidents to choose.
Reciprocally, regardless of how militant or insightful or
morally warranted, if a protest or rally or whatever else would
diminish social costs over time, say by reducing the number of
dissidents or by causing dissidents to fracture and in-fight,
it is not a good tactical choice. And of course, social cost doesnt
mean dollar cost. Elites have deep pockets, it is their power
they worry about and their power we must call into question.
Trying to win a new stoplight in a small community at a dangerous
corner takes one level of social costs, not too large, aimed at
the town powers that be. But when talking about matters as important
to elites as world trade, the structure of the nations polity,
the breadth of police violence to preserve elite rule, sexual
injustice, racial profiling and inequity, pursuing education and
healthcare that make profit but don't serve non-elite human needs,
or poverty more generally and other class differences, the offsetting
social costs we need to raise to cause them to change their agenda
have to be very high to be effective. That means our dissent has
to threaten to disturb relationships that elites care about even
more than they care about the IMF, the expanding prison system,
or other policies or projects we want cancelled,Äîand
the only thing the qualifies for that is their own elite status
via the institutional and ideological underpinnings of their material
and social advantages.
The specter of more and more people not only being upset about
the IMF and World Bank and WTO, or Mumia, or affirmative action,
but also upset about unjust economic or race or gender relations
per se, and not only upset about these, but being willing to voice
their anger and to act on it,Äîvery much disturbs elites.
But if dissent has no expanding trajectory then it is weak and
can be ignored or placated. For example, if continuing to protest
current global economic policies will result in a large subgroup
of critics who, however, do not become steadily angrier, do not
steadily grow in number, do not steadily expand their concerns
from global to domestic economics and from symptoms to underlying
causes, then the price to elites of permitting this activism is
relatively easy to bear. So what if there is a periodic mass demo
in Washington, stable in size and focus. As long as dissent is
going nowhere that threatens basic interests, it is no big deal
This tells us that to have serious effects on policy we need
to demonstrate a trajectory of dissent in which there are not
only steadily growing numbers who reject a policy we want changed,
but also steadily more people willing to demonstrate more militantly,
as well as steadily more people who are making broader connections
and becoming not just world trade dissidents, or prison policy
dissidents, or poverty dissidents, but permanently pissed off
opponents of elite rule and wealth per se. A steadily enlarging
trajectory of dissent, growing in size and broadening in focus
-- that is most certainly a big deal for elites, a social cost
they must address.
We therefore need movements congenial to new participation
and welcoming as many new people as possible into dissent, and
which propel folks to become ever more conscious and aware, ever
more militant, and ever more diverse in their priorities. This
communicates what elites don't want to hear, danger to their status.
If our dissent about the IMF, or Mumias continued incarceration,
or worsening distributions of income, or burgeoning defense spending
and collapsing infrastructure and education, has a component that
goes beyond the immediate target to talk about corporate power
and other defining oppressive social structures and hierarchies
per se, that is good. If it has a component that goes beyond taking
a visible but relatively calm stand to also being civilly disobedient,
that too is good. If it can link-up concerns of gender, race,
ecology, economic poverty and disempowerment here in the U.S.
with global economic concerns, that too is good. If it can stretch
its members focus to encompass the diverse priorities of many
movements, that is excellent.
The policy-related logic of dissent is therefore simple: Growing
numbers plus broadening consciousness and deepening commitment
each of which are carried through in constructive empowering ways
says to elites, look at this trajectory. If you keep on with this
global economics or police or welfare or other oppressive agenda
you favor, not only will there be steadily more opponents of that,
but there will also be steadily more folks questioning your elite
position in society and the conditions that give you your power
and wealth. If we hold demonstrations that convey that threat,
you can bet they will hear us.
What Form and Focus for Protest?
Whatever galvanizes constituencies to display a trajectory
of dissent that can win change is good. But that shouldnt be the
whole story. One part of a good approach to a problem such as
a heinous war, the IMF, growing police repression, or battering,
is certainly to target an associated policy for termination (like
the IMF) or for implementation (like a full employment act or
affirmative action), and then mount campaigns to win the aim.
Such gains better the lives of deserving beneficiaries, which
is our immediate priority. But struggles for justice should have
another dimension as well, a more far-seeing dimension.
We should seek immediate reduction of injustices or implementation
of desirable programs, of course, but we should also seek to change
the basic defining relations of society that breed injustices
and impede liberation in the first place. And these short- and
long-term agendas should be mutually supporting. The short-term
effort to force elites to alter some major program or policy benefits
when elites worry that the growing short-term opposition will
ultimately challenge their overall power and position. Likewise,
the struggle to permanently alter defining power, wealth, gender,
and cultural relations benefits when immediate victories we win
increase prospects for further activism and empower new structures
The point is, when we demonstrate at a town hall, a corporate
headquarters, a party convention, the capital mall, or the IMFs
international meetings, we should not only try to win some immediate
aims , remove the toxic dump, raise our pay, restore affirmative
action, free Mumia and Leonard, end the IMF, make reparations,
end the bombing, raise the minimum wage , we should also try to
build a movement that fights to remove the causes of all injustice,
overcoming the totality of oppressions and unleashing a world
But this means we need to choose our focuses, methods, and
organizational approaches so as to both strengthen the immediate
prospects of victory around short-run aims and to also propel
the longer term on-going effort of movement building. Both agendas
are important, and they should be mutually supporting. In this
light, here are five things I think Convention demonstrators and
organizers and indeed all demonstrators and organizers ought address
as problems we currently need to solve in our work.
Solidarity and Autonomy: The Umbrella Problem
Movements elevate different priorities because people endure
different conditions depending on race, gender, class, and diverse
other factors. This diversity of orientation is good, but that
our movements often don't aid one another, or even compete with
one another, is bad. In LA and Philly there will be feeder marches,
rallies, teach-ins, and all kinds of occurrences with varying
primary demands and agendas. This is perfectly reasonable because
different agendas need space to develop, gain confidence, and
retain focus, whether at big gatherings or in the country more
generally. But to win, beyond space of their own, different agendas
also need breadth of allegiance, which means each has to benefit
from the strength and character of the rest. We thus need to solve
the problem of respecting diversity and even autonomy while simultaneously
building overarching solidarity. Even as we have our own agendas,
everyone must ultimately also be mutually supportively fighting
the totality of oppressions. One big step in this direction will
be for larger movements to support smaller ones and for richer
movements to help pay the way of poorer ones , unreservedly, with
peoples bodies and with resources too. Thats something worth working
on in our convention organizing, and beyond.
Keeping Folks Involved: The Stickiness Problem
Millions of people come into proximity of the left, participating
in various events and projects, but later leave. There are many
reasons why people often don't stick with it. Not least, however,
a movement that can persevere over the long haul with continuity
and commitment needs to uplift rather than harass its membership,
to enrich its members lives rather than diminish them, to meet
its members needs rather than neglect them.
To join a movement and become lonelier is not the way forward.
To join a movement and become less humorous is not the way forward.
We need to prioritize making our projects places that folks from
all kinds of backgrounds would want to spend their time even if
it werent the moral and socially responsible thing to do. I don't
mean that changing the world can become all play and no work.
Movement building of course involves lots of tedium, lots of hard
work, and we cant always be doing precisely what we prefer, much
less precisely what we would have preferred in a just world. But
there is no reason to make movement building as deadening as possible,
rather than as rich, varied, and rewarding as possible.
Movement participation should provide people full, diverse
lives that real people can partake of, not merely long meetings
or obscure lifestyles so divorced from social involvement that
they preclude all but a very few from partaking.
Our Values, Our Movement: Our Own Structural Adjustment Problem
We seek to end racism and sexism in society. We know that
to be credible at that we must also persevere to reduce and finally
end racial and sexual hierarchies inside our movements , because
otherwise we are hypocritical, we arent inspiring, we suffer the
ills of these oppressions ourselves, our movements will not attract
or retain much less empower women and people of color, and we
also wont be able to retain our anti-racist and anti-sexist priorities
outwardly. There is more work to be done on this score, but the
insight is good.
However, we also seek to end economic injustice and class
hierarchy in society. And we have to realize that to be credible
at that, it also has implications for how we behave in our own
movements. We must patiently, calmly, and constructively restructure
our movements so that they no longer replicate corporate divisions
of labor and of decision-making power and market norms of remuneration.
This must become a priority to avoid class-centered hypocrisy,
to become inspiring, to not suffer (or perpetrate) class alienations
ourselves, to attract, retain, and empower working people in our
efforts, and to retain our economic justice focuses outwardly.
Class, needs to be brought back into priority alongside race and
gender,Äînot in place of them,Äîand in ways
that address not only the ills of capital, but those of high-level,
decision-monopolizing, managerial and coordinative workers, too,
and, in particular, the positive needs of labor.
Reaching Out: The Megaphone Problem
It is a constant refrain , how come you leftists are always
talking to the choir? Yes, there are probably some activists who
do this because it is easier than reaching out to people we don't
know who may disagree with what we have to say, and who may even
be hostile at times. Leftists with this insular attitude ought
to rethink it, of course. But the main explanation for why people
on the left are most often talking to people who are also on the
left or who already wish to be on the left, is that the left doesnt
have a megaphone that we can shout into that is loud enough to
be heard by folks who arent already all ears to our messages.
Our media is still very small and therefore reaches overwhelmingly
only folks who are already looking for it. We reach the choir
because only the choir is in position to hear or see our shows,
plays, print communications. So we need to strengthen our existing
alternative media, supporting and enlarging it, and we need to
pressure mainstream media as well , but we also need to take seriously
the problem of how the left gains media mechanisms that place
left views, analyses, agendas, and visions in the face of the
whole population rather than appearing only in hard-to-find nooks
and crannies that people have to search for to even know we exist.
Where To, and Why? The Vision Problem
What are you for is another constant refrain from those we
try to organize, or from bystanders, and even from many people
in the movement, especially as they sometimes feel doubts. It
is a very fair question. And the absence of good, accessible,
shared answers ought not be defended as somehow enlightened, nor
justified as accurately reflecting the difficulty of the issues.
Pure and simple, our absence of vision ought to embarrass us.
We need vision that is held openly and publicly, subject to
continual refinement and not shrouded in obscurity. We need it
about economics, political institutions and law, families and
kinship, culture, the ecology, and international relations. We
need it to inspire, provide hope, inform criticism of what is,
orient long-term strategy and short-term program, and change us
from being mostly negative to being mostly positive. The bottom
line is, people in this country and around the world long since
know that the basics of society are broken, or, more accurately,
that they never worked humanely in the first place, and that countless
lives are lost and endless souls sundered as a result. What people
doubt is that anything better is possible. If we don't talk vision
and strategy accessibly, compellingly, and with breadth and depth,
we arent talking to the real obstacles that prevent most people
from seeking change.
Pick Up the Tab: The Money Problem
Finally, there is a very odd condition in our movements. We
know that money matters in society, but we don't seem to realize
that money matters on the left too. Where does it come from? How
is it handled? Is it empowering a few to the detriment of the
many? Is there enough? Most leftists don't know the answers because
this topic is basically taboo. Try to find essays and ruminations
much less proposals about how events, projects, and demos should
be funded; much less how the funds that do come in should be redistributed
among efforts. Mostly, you cant. There is a gigantic silence.
Heres but one current example: There is endless talk on the left
about using the internet constructively, which is good, but there
is almost no talk about how to have left internet operations generate
revenues. Maybe this sixth focus should have been called the Ostrich
Problem. At any rate, ignoring how we get and handle money is
a dead-end approach beneficial only to those who monopolize control
of what marginal monies the left now enjoys. This too needs to
The Bottom Line: Why Demonstrate
So whats the bottom line? Why go to Philly? Why go to LA?
How should we go, with what priorities, slogans, tactics? Even
more important, why organize others to go there, or to protest
at home, and to keep involved in the future? And why organize
where you live, work, or go to school, not just about these events,
but more broadly about social change generally?
The answer is that we protest and organize to raise the social
cost to elites of maintaining the policies we want changed and
to thereby force immediate gains benefiting those now suffering
most. And the answer is that we organize to empower and enlighten
diverse constituencies and to create lasting beachheads of organization
and commitment in an on-going process of movement building aiming
at fundamental , and yes, revolutionary change.