The news that 175 people were arrested over the weekend in a Chicago OWS protest started me thinking about the ritualized nature of left demonstrations. The drums, the chants, the defiance, the arrests — and, sometimes, the glass smashing and the fire setting: it all unfolds according to a predictable pattern that in its modern form is essentially unchanged since the Vietnam War.
And it also made me wonder: what is the point?
There was a time long ago when political protest really mattered. The Vietnam protests didn’t end the war (and didn’t keep Nixon from carrying 49 states against George McGovern in 1972), but they helped end the draft. The civil rights movement led to some of the most profound social changes this country has ever seen. Before that, there were labor and suffragette marches, not to mention the mass rallies and torchlight parades that helped bring us the joys of Prohibition.
But these days the old style protests remind me of political conventions: empty and pointless (though noisy and publicized) rituals. In the old days, political conventions were where strong institutional parties met to select their nominees. It was usually not clear going in to a convention who the nominee would be, and sometimes they dragged on for up to one hundred plus ballots. They were newsworthy because they made news.
These days political conventions are a total waste of time. They function as infomercials for a nominee who is almost always in control of what is left of the party machinery before the formal investiture at the convention itself. The choice of the vice presidential nominee is theater, not drama: it is an attempt to keep the ratings and the news coverage up for an insufferably dull and utterly pointless event. We pay attention to them because they used to be important and have become a habit — but they are vacuous spectacles and it is getting harder and harder to tune in.
I wonder if protests are facing a similar death: if they are turning into reenactments and rituals rather than actual political events.
In a mass democracy where everyone has a vote, and normal peaceful demonstrations carry no professional cost or personal stigma, if 100,000 people gather in Central Park for a protest rally it means that about 8,000,000 New Yorkers chose not to attend. It is not really news and it doesn’t mean much about where the city is headed.
Back in the day, when most workers in American industry had workweeks of seventy and eighty hours, had little or no formal education and lacked the money and the leisure to do much about politics as individuals, mass demonstrations really meant something. People were giving up all the leisure time they had in a week, they were risking being blacklisted — losing their jobs and being blocked from working in their field in a time with no unemployment insurance or social safety net — and they were walking into situations where “police brutality” meant getting killed or disabled, with no lawsuits or compensation.
Those demonstrations meant something; they were a powerful signal that could not be sent any other way that people were deeply stirred and that something needed to be done. Those protests were news, and power brokers and policy makers paid attention.
Those demonstrations were often the only way people had to show what was on their minds and how deeply they felt. These days, when the electorate is being constantly polled, and cable news channels are feverishly tracing every tiny tick in public opinion, demonstrations don’t really tell us anything. Nor do they change things much; if the Tea Party had stopped with rallies, it would have been forgotten very quickly. It was only when Tea Party activists stopped dressing up in those ridiculous three cornered hats and started organizing, fundraising and attending town halls that the movement had a substantive impact.
There are places where protests are still news. When throngs of people defy dictatorial rulers, something is happening. As the world waits to see whether soldiers will gun the demonstrators down in the streets or break ranks and join them, news is being made. Here in China, there is a surprising degree of concern — from people connected to the government — about the possibility that OWS style protests could spread to the PRC. Ironically, the OWS protesters who have the biggest impact could be thousands of miles away from New York. But protests in non-democratic countries matter more than in democratic ones. When people are angry, frustrated and/or idealistic and hopeful enough to put their lives on the line in support of political change, this matters.
In America, probably fortunately, protest is so widespread and cost free that no particular protest means anything much. 500,000 people can march through Washington DC to protest Roe vs. Wade; no laws change, no judges change their minds, no politicians (not running for the GOP nomination) change their stands. Ditto “million man” and “million mom” marches.
Perhaps, like the Tea Party, the OWS folks will go on to become a potent force in politics — though to do they will have to develop a clarity and purpose of outlook that is still lacking. If so, the OWS protests will be remembered as the launching pad of a political movement, but the action will have to leave the streets to produce change. Signing nominating petitions, raising money, launching websites, turning out caucus and primary voters, attending local government meetings: that is what makes change, not living in squalor or even making love in the park, not getting arrested in acts of civil (or uncivil) disobedience.
Maybe I’m just stupid and old, but whatever the movement you are in and whether it comes from the left or the right, I truly don’t see the point of getting arrested at a protest rally these days. The civil rights marchers engaged in civil disobedience had a clear strategy and when they got arrested or were beaten up by the police, it had an impact on public opinion. Not fringe public opinion or upper middle class left wing college student public opinion, but middle middle and lower middle class people who had never thought much about the ugliness of segregation but now suddenly saw it in action — and it made them feel sick to their stomachs. The courage and quiet dignity of the civil rights protestors, and the hatred and brutality they brought out in their opponents, brought a moral reformation to the United States.
Their tactics were directly related to their goal, and they demonstrated the truth of their cause by the way their dignified nonviolence clashed with ignorance, violence and hate.
We could still have marches today that made a real point. If 100,000 homeless veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, people would pay attention and something would likely be done. But events like that are rare. Just as political parties have debased and devalued the political convention, so the culture of protest over the decades has turned what used to be a major event into a sideshow.
The media still covers protests like it still covers other camera-friendly pseudo-events like political conventions and G8 and G20 summits; the media beast needs to be fed, and events that produce images do not have to produce results to get onto the “news”. That media coverage in turn draws people to these pseudo-events; groups like Code Pink, Koran-burning preacher nutcases and the “fundamentalist” loons who try to disrupt military funerals are addicted to media exposure and measure their effectiveness by the screen time they get.
The self evident futility of this cycle — the media mistakes a pseudo-event for something real and covers it; protestors mistake media coverage for influence and step up the protests — is one of the reasons that the whole concept of protest has become so debased.
Unfortunately for the left, the more “typical” a protest looks, the less important it appears. A march of 10,000 bankers up Wall Street would get more press attention than a march of 25,000 “usual suspects”: scruffy students, angry longers, semi-professional media hounds, veterans of multiple protests. That was one reason the early Tea Party protests got coverage: they had a high proportion of the kind of people who don’t usually do this — neatly dressed suburban moms and middle aged Rotarians. 50,000 students dressed in retro leftie nostalgia gear protest “the system”: not news. 25,000 coiffed and well dressed elderly ladies with pearl necklaces and professionally groomed lapdogs shut down Times Square: news.
Being futile, irrelevant and pointless does not mean you stop flopping uselessly around. Political conventions would have died out some time ago, but the advent of cable news networks (with their insatiable appetite for live events, their ability to survive on lower ratings than the major networks and their hunger for low cost programming) has given them an extension. Currently, the desperate hunger of the center left for a populist upsurge of its own is putting wind in the sails of the OWS protests; we shall see.
Right now they are more likely to hollow Wall Street out than to change its ways. Financial businesses are already looking at ways to cut costs by getting out of the high priced glass canyons of lower Manhattan; dispersing the financial center into anonymous malls and office parks across a wider area (and perhaps in states that don’t have an income tax as zillionaires nervously eye possible changes to the federal tax code) looks much more attractive if Wall Street is going to be a target for protests.
Evacuating Wall Street is the obvious response to the OWS protests; look for the slow trickle of financial center business to less conspicuous — and cheaper — locales to quietly speed up.