There is a great deal of blather on the Web today about how the United States has entered into some new phase of political repression. It’s like no one could have predicted that OWS might be buried in a smear campaign and then dispersed by the Powers That Be with impunity.
Let’s go back in time just a bit. David Atkins writes about the Kent State shootings — “It’s hard to believe today, but at the time, the public overwhelmingly blamed the students for the Kent State Massacre.”
Yes, and it’s important to understand this. A few days ago on some Salon comment thread I ran into a guy who was advocating more confrontations with police; like this would always work in OWS’s favor. And then he claimed that the Kent State shootings had galvanized public opinion against the war.
And I said, no, it didn’t. I remember. Most people thought the shootings were justified. The guy refused to believe me. The fact is that by the time of the shootings a majority of the public had already developed serious misgivings about the war in Vietnam, but they hated the antiwar movement more than the war. So innocent college students could be shot in the back on their own campuses, and most of the public was fine with it. I doubt very much there was a measurable change in public opinion about the war, one way or another, because of Kent State.
“In a battle between police and public protesters, the majority of the nation will usually side with the police,” Atkins writes. Again, this is true, and let’s look at how this works with the Bigger Asshole rule.
If you are new here, the Bigger Asshole rule is an axiom of public demonstrations — the purpose of a public demonstration is to make your opposition look like a bigger asshole than you are. Because, whichever side gets the public’s sympathy, wins. And the bigger asshole loses.
The purpose of a public demonstration is to change public opinion. It is not about “expressing yourself” or, primarily, about “speaking truth to power,” even though you may be doing that. “Power” doesn’t care what you think, and your demonstrations don’t frighten them. What does frighten them is that perhaps the public at large will sympathize with you and begin to call for whatever reforms you are demonstrating about.
This is true because usually the only thing that will compel Power to change is overwhelming public pressure, preferably accompanied by popularly supported reform legislation.
However — and we’ve seen this time and time again in U.S. history — if the public gets a look at you and decides it doesn’t like you, the public will be perfectly OK with whatever the police or National Guard or others do to you. Because in most people’s minds, you will be the Bigger Asshole. And this is true even if the public more or less agrees with your position.
See how it works?
Complicating this is the fact that establishment news media will likely be complicit in any smear campaign Power wants to hit you with. Lies will be told, and believed. News stories will focus on the worst behavior of the demonstrators, even if that worst behavior is far from representative.
If, in a group of 10,000 people, one guy does something obnoxious or shocking, that’s all most people will hear about your demonstration — what that one guy did. And in most people’s minds, that one guy will be representative of all of you.
I saw this happen over and over again during the Vietnam antiwar demonstrations. All it took was one guy waving a North Vietnamese flag or screaming obscenities or throwing a rock at police, and the peaceful demonstrating of thousands of others would be ignored.
And, yes, probably sometimes these were provocateurs, but not always. Some of these hotheads will be on your side, and you may feel great reluctance to tell them to get lost. But you must. Because hotheads hurt your cause.
This is why demonstrators have to be very smart about media relations and very disciplined about how they present themselves to the public. Yes, lies will be told, but if there is no visible basis for the lies, not everyone will believe them.
Enough of the general public sided with Martin Luther King and his civil rights demonstrators to gain popular support for civil rights for racial minorities. That’s because MLK and his crew were very disciplined. I might add that MLK and his crew certainly were not taken by surprise by anything thrown at them by police. They’d spent their whole lives being oppressed by Power. They knew how to discipline themselves to not react, because in those days an African American who acted out tended to not live very long.
In our current situation, I’m willing to bet most of the hotheads are white, middle or upper class, and male. They’ve never had to discipline themselves to not react.
Keep in mind also that in most of the clashes between union organizers and Power in the 19th century, the general public sided with Power. The general public also was just fine with the Wounded Knee massacre and with the detention of Japanese Americans in World War II. If there had been television and the Internet back then, things might have been different, of course.
My point is that we’re not entering into some new age in which Power can take the law into its own hands and brush away opposition like so much dandruff. This is the way things have always been. If you are going to engage in public demonstrations, you have to be well prepared for it.