Protesting 102

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American History, big picture stuff, blogging

(Please note I’ve turned comment moderation on; the spam is back.)

Sara Robinson at Orcinus has written a lovely commentary on my old Protesting 101 post from 2005.

Unfortunately, several of Sara’s commenters don’t get it. I think they’re still caught up in the romance of being Outcasts and Rebels, and Speaking Truth to Power, and are not serious about taking and using power to effect change. A couple of random observations:

The point of a protest is not to change the minds of politicians but to gain public sympathy for a cause. It’s a change in public sympathy that eventually brings about changes in politics and policy. With this in mind, I cannot emphasize the Bigger Asshole rule enough. Protests are effective when the protesters make the people they are protesting look like bigger assholes than they are. Gandhi, for example, made the whole British Empire look like assholes. But when the protesters come across in public as a pack of assholes, the public will just write them off as, well, assholes, and usually will sympathize with the Powers That Be. This is not the effect protesters want to achieve.

There’s nothing magical about getting arrested as a form of protest. It’s fine to be willing to be arrested, but getting arrested in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. If you don’t have much in the way of public sympathy before you were arrested, then the arrest will have no significance. People will just think “good; they jailed the son of a bitch.”

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21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. BlackBloc  •  Feb 22, 2007 @1:21 pm

    [Comment deleted; see commenting rules, especially 7c. If you’re going to comment here, you have to behave like a grown up. — maha]

  2. A Canadian Reader  •  Feb 22, 2007 @1:34 pm

    Maha,

    I commend you for filtering the comments. I am disgusted by the comments I read on sites that publish interesting, thoughtful pieces. There are some very weird puppies out there, both on the right and the left.

  3. BlackBloc  •  Feb 22, 2007 @2:07 pm

    OK, let’s try again without the snark so at least the valid points might get through.

    You’re always going to be the Biggest Asshole. That’s what the right-wing media decided prior to you even going to the protest. If you don’t fit into that prescribed media role, they just won’t talk about your protest. That’s what happened to the millions who got out on the streets to protest the Iraq war all over the world. Media silence. So it doesn’t make sense to restrict your tactics based on something that you will not change anyway.

    Second, the public is more open to radicalism than the media or the elite thinks. Seattle resulted in an influx of activists in causes that had been moribund for years prior. And I guarantee you it didn’t happen because people marched and shouted slogans.

    Third, the goal is not image, it’s victory. If it means getting dirty, so be it.

  4. maha  •  Feb 22, 2007 @4:12 pm

    You’re always going to be the Biggest Asshole.

    Then Gandhi failed, and Martin Luther King failed, alas. I must have read the history books wrong.

    That’s what the right-wing media decided prior to you even going to the protest.

    Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Corporate and right-wing dominance of mass media gets in the way of reaching people. That is correct. We’re going nowhere without media reform. However, I also think that the age of mass media is coming to a close, thanks to changes in technology, which could be to our advantage.

    So it doesn’t make sense to restrict your tactics based on something that you will not change anyway.

    I’m suggesting that people “restrict” their tacctics based on what succeeds, as oppose to what fails, and in fact what is counterproductive to the cause.

    Second, the public is more open to radicalism than the media or the elite thinks. Seattle resulted in an influx of activists in causes that had been moribund for years prior. And I guarantee you it didn’t happen because people marched and shouted slogans.

    I don’t think people should shout slogans, but never mind. IMO Seattle was more of a mixed bag than you realize. I think, for example, it fed into right-wing narratives that helped turn voters out for right-wing candidates (like George Bush) in November. I can’t prove that, but I remember a pretty hard-core public backlash that you might not have felt on the West Coast but which was palpable elsewhere.

    Third, the goal is not image, it’s victory. If it means getting dirty, so be it.

    Then you will lose. You will commit the mistakes of the past, and lose, and the Right will rule forever. Thanks much.

    “Getting dirty,” dear, plays into the Right’s hands. It’s what they want. Your idea of “getting dirty” is similar to the righties’ ideas about fighting terrorism. We go into Iraq and bash heads and kill people, and then we’re surprised when it comes back to bite us.

    So, go ahead and be a Public Asshole for Peace, if that’s what you want, and keep our troops in Iraq! Then, on to Iran! I hope you’ll be proud of what you will accomplish.

  5. BlackBloc  •  Feb 22, 2007 @5:00 pm

    The backlash means you’re doing the right thing. When the Right is not trying to destroy you, that means they think you are impotent and unthreatening.

    In any case, I’m not an Asshole for Peace. I’m an Asshole for Class War, and I intend to win it. The war is just the symptom of a bigger problem. Ending the war won’t do any good if it makes it harder to reach the real goal.

  6. maha  •  Feb 22, 2007 @5:12 pm

    The backlash means you’re doing the right thing.

    No, the backlash means you’ve got a long struggle ahead of you. The only way the backlash works in your favor is if you manage to make the backlashers look like bigger assholes than you are.

    For example, almost the entire Vast Right Wing Conspiracy is backlash to the 1960s counterculture, and we’re still living with it. The backlash has lasted longer than the counterculture did.

    Well, you’re done now. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. terry  •  Feb 22, 2007 @6:23 pm

    Okay, I am violating your rule because I did not read Orcinus’ post. I read some but I am supposed to get some work done too and many are a little long and dense to just rip through. What struck me about your post was that while I agree with it, I may have a semantic quibble with the idea of getting jailed. The quibble is between protesting–a right I think is covered by “petioning the government” and civil disobedience–emphasis on civil-which requires that the practioner accept the punishment. While I do not disagree that civil disobedience is often motivated by narcism, at least when practiced by individuals, both Gandhi and Dr. King made great use of civil disobedience in their respective crusades. I do not think we disagree on any essential point, except that if it is civil disobedience, I think jail is essential. If it is a protest–ie petioning the government-then you have to be overstepping the right in a manner which may dismay public opinion to get jailed which as you point out is not the goal.

  8. maha  •  Feb 22, 2007 @6:28 pm

    Terry — you misunderstood my point, although you’d have had to have read the Orcinus comments to understand the point. In particular, I was responding to the notion that provoking police just to get arrested has any value as a protest tactic.

  9. r4d20  •  Feb 22, 2007 @7:20 pm

    Maha,

    You stirred up a nest of “revolutionaries” whose only experience with violence is First Person Shooter video games. I loved the part about how Seattle was “Urban Guerrilla Warfare”. I mean, can get anymore “Freshmen Angst”??

  10. Bonnie  •  Feb 22, 2007 @8:04 pm

    May or may not be off topic: Keith Olbermann is calling the British pull out of troops in Iraq, The Blair Ditch Project.

    Puts a smile on my face.

  11. moonbat  •  Feb 23, 2007 @12:51 am

    I’d like to suggest this thread, Protesting 101 and 102 as a subject fit for a Robert Greenwald type of film. He could turn this into a great training video – what to do, versus what not to do. Yours and Sara’s ideas need to reach a lot more people, and as we’ve all discovered there’s a lot of resistance to looking honestly at what works and what doesn’t. A good video would cut through a lot of the clutter, fast.

  12. Summerisle  •  Feb 23, 2007 @1:29 am

    You should read Orcinus more clearly. A few posts ago, around MLK day, he posted extensively how, yes, most people thought that MLK was ‘the bigger asshole’.

    And an interesting thing about Gandhi and his prescription for non-violence, or, in this case, non-resistence. He said when asked what the jews should do when faced with German death camps, because World War II was going on at the time, that they should walk into the camps with dignity and not resist in order to be a symbol to the world.

  13. Summerisle  •  Feb 23, 2007 @1:31 am

    Make the backlashers look like bigger assholes….

    Guess what? That’s what the entire democratic response was to Reagan and Bush I. Worked wonderfully!

  14. maha  •  Feb 23, 2007 @7:32 am

    Guess what? That’s what the entire democratic response was to Reagan and Bush I. Worked wonderfully!

    Guess what? You’re an idiot! The Dems did nothing of the sort!

  15. maha  •  Feb 23, 2007 @7:37 am

    You should read Orcinus more clearly. A few posts ago, around MLK day, he posted extensively how, yes, most people thought that MLK was ‘the bigger asshole’

    Some did, but since I am well old enough to remember that time I understand that most did not. I don’t need to read Orcinus to know that.

    Re the death camps — I’ve never heard that quote, and without the context I have no idea what/if Gandhi said. But you can’t deny what Gandhi accomplished. Well, you could, because you’re a twit, but most could not.

    Bye, son. You just won a spot in the twit filter.

  16. Technocracygirl  •  Feb 23, 2007 @9:21 am

    I loved the part about how Seattle was “Urban Guerrilla Warfare”. I mean, can get anymore “Freshmen Angst”?

    I lived in Western Washington for most of my life. I was in Bellingham during the “Battle of Seattle,” but, being a college student, I knew people who protested, and, being a denizen of the greater Seattle area, I knew people who lived near the protest areas.

    It was urban guerilla warfare. No, it wasn’t even a hundredth of the real urban guerilla warfare going on in Iraq right now, but what do you want to call herding protesters into residential areas and setting off tear gas? Why is the “Battle for Seattle” known and other WTO demonstrations not? Because the police used tactics that pissed off people who weren’t protesting. The fairly well-liked police chief was forced to resign because so many people were ticked off.

    Unfortunately, I think the protesters came off worse, as a lot of people had the idea that if those “d*mn stupid hippies hadn’t protested,” none of the civil disturbances would have happened.

  17. maha  •  Feb 23, 2007 @9:51 am

    Why is the “Battle for Seattle” known and other WTO demonstrations not? Because the police used tactics that pissed off people who weren’t protesting. The fairly well-liked police chief was forced to resign because so many people were ticked off.

    Ah, The Bigger Asshole Rule in action.

    Unfortunately, I think the protesters came off worse, as a lot of people had the idea that if those “d*mn stupid hippies hadn’t protested,” none of the civil disturbances would have happened.

    I dimly remember the news stories about it, and several times since I’ve noticed various lefties proudly holding up Seattle as some kind of high-water mark of the American Left. But the rest of the nation barely noticed it, and it’s not clear to me what the Battle of Seattle actually accomplished, or if anything is different today because of it. If anyone can fill me in on this, please speak up.

  18. moonbat  •  Feb 23, 2007 @12:13 pm

    …it’s not clear to me what the Battle of Seattle actually accomplished..

    The Borg simply adapted and changed their tactics. They now create massive cement and chain-link barriers around their meetings and expect all manner of violence, at this periphery. The press yawns and the meetings go on. Up next, we’ll have a clip about how depression affects millions of teenage girls, after these messages.

  19. maha  •  Feb 23, 2007 @1:01 pm

    moonbat — so, according to the flamers, the Battle of Seattle is the model to follow even though it didn’t accomplish anything, while Gandhi and Martin Luther King were losers.

    OK. The picture is clearer now.

  20. Emma Zahn  •  Feb 23, 2007 @1:07 pm

    Have you written anything similar for blogging?

  21. Charlie Quimby  •  Feb 25, 2007 @12:24 pm

    Jeffrey Feldman (of Frameshop) makes an interesting observation about protest in his upcoming book, “Framing the Debate.”

    He contrasts the lack of impact on public opinion by large scale protests with Cindy Sheehan’s initially solitary campaign. He says she succeeded in reframing the issue from a matter of immoral policy to a personal event of loss, transforming the iconic image of protest from an angry mass in the streets, to an anguished mother standing beside the road to Bush’s ranch.

    Whether you buy this (and Sheehan) or not, I’d agree her protest was more effective — both in terms of media coverage and in helping change public opinion. So, one more point in favor of the “biggest asshole loses” theory.



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