What's the Point of Protest?

After two years of massive public demonstrations,
the war's still on and Bush will be inaugurated again.

by Karen Loew

1/18/05, www.commondreams.org


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 parlance.

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 battles."

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 this administration."

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 opposition known.

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 (krloew@aol.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.

Dissent page

Index of Website

Home Page