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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.

Ahem.

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.

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32 Comments

  1. James F. Epperson  •  Nov 17, 2011 @12:25 pm

    After the Kent State shootings, people who did not like the antiwar protests would walk around saying things like, “The score is four—next time more.”

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Nov 17, 2011 @12:40 pm

    Nope, it is as is was, and, unless we figure out a way to change things, evermore shall be…

    Maybe, if OWS starts up again, the protesters could change a couple of things.
    First, take the time and save up some money, if possible.
    Buy some business attire – suits, pants suits, briefcases, etc.
    Then, come back to protest around Wall Street dressed like the 1% – highlighting that dressing the part isn’t enough, that too often, you need to be a child of the 1-2% to enter and stay there.
    Too bad that jeans and t-shirts are cheap, and business attire is expensive. Goodwill, maybe?
    Second, any food, like pizza, that comes in – split that and offer everyone passing by 1% of the slice of pie or Twinkie, or whatever.
    And then, to demonstrate the difference between your 99% and their 1%, eat the whole rest of the pie, and puke from the excess. Tell people that you’d rather throw up and waste the pie rather than share a single bit of the remaining 99% (I’m kidding about this last one, of course, since it would be unhygienic – AND gross).
    Just some goofy suggestions on a rainy Thursday.

  3. amanda  •  Nov 17, 2011 @1:11 pm

    I agree with every word of this. I feel like the generation who is in the spotlight of OWS (my generation) was raised with this very idealized picture of the Vietnam War protests but no real understanding of what really went on.

  4. PurpleGirl  •  Nov 17, 2011 @1:28 pm

    Maha — you are so right. I vividly remember the reaction to the Kent State shootings and it wasn’t to support the students. Many, many people expressed the belief that the students brought it on themselves. Students were being seen as spoiled brats having a tantrum, they had managed to get out of serving unlike the sons of the working class. (My brother had dropped out of college and joined the Air Force rather than be drafted into the Army.) Yeah, parents wanted their kids in college but at the same time, other adults (the parents of other kids) saw college kids at parasites and hippies.

  5. moonbat  •  Nov 17, 2011 @1:34 pm

    I happened to watch the movie Easy Rider last night; I remember when it came out in 1969 and I also remember the Kent State shootings, a year later – I was in high school at the time. The huge (and deadly) divisions in the country back then – portrayed in the movie and a year later in real life, at Kent State, are obviously still with us.

    The left needs moral leaders who can articulate the left’s position in moral terms, and who can organize and mobilize people, in the way that MLK did. People like Drew Westin and George Lakoff have been saying this for a long time. The various signs and articulations that come out of OWS are individual efforts to articulate a moral position, and which of course get lost in the overall noise created by the protest, and even more lost when the media selectively amplifies certain aspects of the protest (urination; defecation; violence by a few) over what it really is about.

    The point of protest should be communication, and as you’ve been stressing, it must be highly disciplined. Obviously not enough people (hardly any?) understand this, much less are able to discipline an entire group toward this effort.

    This is a great, lucid article, a good companion to your earlier writings on this subject. I suggest (if you can work the html) in creating a sidebar on this site that would be a handy reference to what I would call the Art and Science of Protest.

  6. Felicity  •  Nov 17, 2011 @1:53 pm

    It is interesting to read your view, maha, and that of people posting today on this site because I experienced a completely different reaction to the Kent State (Massacre, what we called it.) Everybody I knew at the time deplored it, calling it an unjustified slaughter of innocents by the Ohio National Guard – but that is, this is, the West Coast. Today, even here in the political mixed bag that lives in LA, when conducting a public protest, it’s rare to get an overt negative reaction from passers-by.

    I must admit that most, if not all, of our previous protests were meticulously planned ahead of time. Police were notified. Merchants were notified, when necessary. Parameters were marked. In other words, the entire demonstration was choreographed to a gnats eye. I submit that along with your suggestions, the OWS demonstrators do likewise. (Police don’t like surprises, are uncomfortable not knowing what’s coming next, thus their over-reaction at times.)

  7. Dan  •  Nov 17, 2011 @1:57 pm

    Not sure I agree that a “moral” message is the correct way to go (who’s morality shall we choose to use?).

    I’d rather see practicality highlighted: the loss of jobs, etc., means the country will fall apart, eventually. This will indicate that the US is not God-ordained as the best place in the universe, as the pseudochristians keep trying to promote, and it will be obviously the pseudochristians’ own that will be destroying the country. THAT will take a lot of education.

    After all, if you are a true-believer in the religion of Capitalism, there is no higher morality. However, if you inform them of the hit they are taking in their pocketbook in order to be a true believer, you might peel away some of the more practical believers (you’ll never get to the true acolytes, of course).

  8. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:08 pm

    It is interesting to read your view, maha, and that of people posting today on this site because I experienced a completely different reaction to the Kent State (Massacre, what we called it.) Everybody I knew at the time deplored it, calling it an unjustified slaughter of innocents by the Ohio National Guard – but that is, this is, the West Coast.

    i suspect big chunks of California reacted the same way most midwesterners did, and blamed the students.

    I also suspect that a lot of the people who were REALLY REALLY INTO the Vietnam antiwar movement and SDS and all that remember it all as being much more effective and glorious than I do. I was not REALLY REALLY ACTIVE; I was sympathetic to the cause and showed up for a demonstration now and then, but most of the big stuff happened far away from me, so I was watching from a distance and also noting the reaction of people around me who were not activists. And I saw plainly that most of the antiwar movement was accomplishing nothing but making Richard Nixon some kind of hero. Most of the time, the demonstrators were the Bigger Asshole. The biggest exception was Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who seemed to get through to at least some people who hadn’t been sympathetic before.

  9. Felicity  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:09 pm

    I can’t get my head around understanding the park sleep-ins, their purpose, their particular message, their intended accomplishment. Stick to daily marches. March in groups behind signs which indicate your affiliation – a union, any organization well-known to the public in the chance that a (bystander) may feel like he is being directly represented. In other words, the marchers aren’t strangers, in fact they may be voicing my/your grievances.

  10. Stephen Stralka  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:12 pm

    Yeah, I ran into a comment the other day, in a discussion of the movement, where some kid made a dismissive comment about the “now-aging Gen-X-ers.” And I thought, What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m a now-aging Gen-X-er myself. Am I not invited to the 99% party?

    And yes, the dude was blathering about “new paradigms” and so forth. I kind of wanted to tell him that “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say” is not actually a brand new paradigm, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to put it without sounding uncivil.

  11. moonbat  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:12 pm

    Dan, you raise several good points. Morality at its base is practical, and the practical points you raise absolutely need to be made – it’s a hugely important dimension of the message. Although many forms of morality could be chosen, the one we should use, is the one our opponents claim to adhere to: Christianity for the most part. They need to be confronted with their hypocrisy, with their idolatry of money over people. I don’t care if someone wants capitalism (selfishness really) as their guiding moral force, but don’t cloak it in the phony Christianity that’s embraced by people on the right.

    Until we can punch through the narrative that our opponents believe, and which they think justifies their actions and beliefs, they will barely hear the practical arguments we can make. On the other hand, the practical arguments – if they can be heard – are a good way to begin raising doubts in their minds over the narrative they’ve bought.

    I’ve been a bit sloppy with my words above, and I want to clarify things a bit. I think capitalism can be a good thing, but it shouldn’t reign. There’s a saying: the markets are a terrible master but a terrific servant (or something like that).

  12. Stephen Stralka  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:13 pm

    I also just want to add that I have no idea why the movement hasn’t started calling itself Occupy America yet. I googled it, and got some hits, but not enough. When you’re doing propaganda, it needs to be simple, catchy, and memorable. The Tea Party Patriots (sic) have got at least that much right. Instead we’re throwing around lead balloons like OWS and “the Occupy Movement.”

  13. Felicity  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:15 pm

    maha, I think you’re right in that the CA valleys, we call them the valley-people, are a political u-turn away from the Coast. And, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War that you mention supports my thought that marching behind a sign, identifying yourself as belonging to a specific group, goes a long way towards getting public support.

  14. joanr16  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:20 pm

    I thought this was interesting:

    http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/17/the-unlikely-occupier-who-just-cant-stop/?hpt=hp_t1

    Not just the participant’s articulation of her experience, but the fact that it was prominently posted on CNN’s website.

    As for Kent State, I was only 13 at the time, but I remember it taking many years before most people I encountered felt that the students had been murdered. Those kids were throwing rocks and bottles, you see. Rocks and bottles! The cops had to defend themselves, so the thinking went.

  15. Lynne  •  Nov 17, 2011 @2:38 pm

    I tried to remember back to this. I was 24, newly married and living in the hills of northern Idaho, of all places, because my husband was employed in constructing a dam on the Clearwater river.
    I was horrified, and so were at least some of my neighbors in our company-owned neighborhood. If enyone felt differently, they didn’t say anything. No doubt, the highly conservative townspeople may have had other opinions, but we didn’t share ideas much.
    When I returned to Seattle to visit, the people I knew also expressed dismay.

  16. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @4:31 pm

    It’s hard to find polling information from that era, but Wikipedia says that “A Gallup Poll taken immediately after the shootings showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students, 11 percent blamed the National Guard and 31 percent expressed no opinion.” I truly think if you could go back and look at other polling of the period, that’s what you’d find.

  17. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @5:33 pm

    dismissive comment about the “now-aging Gen-X-ers.”

    Heh. I thought it was just us Boomers who had screwed everything up. I guess it’s your turn now. :-)

  18. Candide  •  Nov 17, 2011 @5:37 pm

    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

    OK, the following isn’t about OWS, but fits the theme of Maha’s opening statement:

    The Great Firewall of America
    http://www.osnews.com/comments/25342

    I spend quite a bit of time on geek websites (I’m a Linux addict), and SOPA is getting a huge amount of attention. Since I’m outside the range of Foxnews and Limbaugh (other than online editions), I’ll have to ask the rest of you if SOPA is getting any news coverage at all in the USA.

    It IS a big deal. At the least, it will put Youtube out of business. It could be twisted to put Mahablog out of business if someone has an interest in doing so. Would be a handy way to repress all political blogs, such as OWS – would allow ISPs to block their twitter feeds, Youtube vidoes, etc. Google is the main company leading the charge to fight this, Microsoft wants it (probably just because they hate Google), Apple has remained neutral. Please take the time to understand this issue, it is huge.

  19. Davis X. Machina  •  Nov 17, 2011 @6:54 pm

    Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” treats the reaction to Kent State, and the invisibility of Jackson State, at some length.. It wasn’t pretty. The rumor that one of the victims was a hippie so smelly that the ambulance crew had to keep the doors open is par for the course.

    (Google Books)

  20. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @7:00 pm

    Candide: Why not the theme of the rest of the post? Or didn’t you read any further?

    What you describe is a very serious matter.

  21. Tom Hilton  •  Nov 17, 2011 @7:38 pm

    Two polls sum up the situation for me: in one (from Tuesday, I think) people were souring on the Occupy movement; in the other (yesterday) there was majority support for the ideas behind it.

    What that says to me is that it’s time for progressives to shift focus away from OWS itself (it’ll go on, but with diminishing returns) and onto trying to turn positibe public opinion into concrete action.

  22. Candide  •  Nov 17, 2011 @7:41 pm

    Maha asked:
    Candide: Why not the theme of the rest of the post? Or didn’t you read any further?

    Fair enough, I didn’t comment about the main theme of your post. Basically, I’m not disagreeing. The public will often side with their oppressor. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome, on steroids. Not a new thing really.

    But I do think that the USA is entering into a new level of repression. Americans have seen their freedoms steadily eroded, especially since 9/11. Death of democracy by a thousand cuts. Beating and arresting OWS protesters was one such cut. SOPA is the next one – I fully expect that Obama will sign it into law, and even praise it. And there will be more after that.

    So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.
    – Padmé Amidala

    Don’t ask me for my solution – I don’t have one in my back pocket. The most optimistic thing I can say is that when societies become sufficiently brutal and corrupt, there is a breakdown of lawn and order, followed by bankruptcy and collapse. With luck, it won’t be too violent, but no guarantees. Something will arise from the ashes, hopefully (but also not guaranteed) better than before. Take a look at the ex-Soviet Union for a recent example.

    Good luck to the younger generation. We are bequeathing them an unholy mess.

  23. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @8:58 pm

    Candide — I think what’s changed now is that the means to squash liberty are more sophisticated. The urge has always been with us. Certainly American history is full of episodes of encroaching totalitarianism. The McCarthy era is everyone’s favorite example; there are others. But Joe McCarthy was an amateur by today’s standards. He was done in by the sophisticated new technology of television. Today’s McCarthys are much more skilled and have far more dangerous resources at their disposal.

  24. Ed  •  Nov 17, 2011 @9:18 pm

    Interesting trip back into 1970 on that link! One irony was seeing the column by right-winger Russell Kirk praising the California head of schools, the ultra-right, fanatical Bircher Max Rafferty. The column praises Rafferty for innovations such as making it possible for Spanish-speaking schoolchildren to receive bilingual education! That is something that today’s wingers deplore as a lib’rul plot, and seeing that the Red-baiting Max Rafferty supported it back in 1970 says something about today’s political extremists.

  25. Ken_L  •  Nov 17, 2011 @10:22 pm

    ‘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.’

    I think you’d win the bet. The people you describe have always thought of themselves as entitled affiliates of the ruling classes. They are protesting at their perceived loss of privilege I suspect, exactly like their counterparts in the Tea Party.

  26. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 17, 2011 @10:22 pm

    Discussions of the Civil Rights movement give credit to MLK and the nonviolent protests engineered to produce social change. That’s true, valid and incomplete. There was also the spectre of the angry black man, personified best by Malcom X. America, as I remember it, was caught between the threat of peaceful, permanent institutional change, as MLK advocated OR riots, revolution and chaos which Malcolm X threatened. Attempt to maintain the status quo became futile. Change was inevitable – but what change? This is only my opinion – but a major reason MLK prevailed is BECAUSE there was the perceived threat of an all-out race war which would have destroyed the South like Sherman’s march.

    Before someone else points it out, violence by black revolutionaries was limited, bordering on non-existent. But the fear of the Black Panther Party was real – and race riots were happening, not orchestrated by anyone, but spontaneously. History won’t mention Malcolm X because his angry vision did not prevail (thankfully). But without the threat of violence, would the MLK’s dream have been welcome? There is no definitive answer. Suppose for discussion, I’m on to something.

    The strategy would be ‘good cop- bad cop’ writ HUGE. The ‘bad’ faction that advocates vandalism and anarchy and rejects political answers through elections should be publicly expelled from OWS.
    Hopefully, they will find a name and forum of their own, because the threat of revolution and anarchy could validate the goals of OWS (which are undefined) as the lesser evil. As I see it, OWS should sponsor voter registration & voter participation with a push for candidates of ANY political persuasion not owned by Wall Street. Reject corporate money, reject the Koch Bros. And Soros and Norquest. Stand up for the 99%.

    The goal would be simple. Drive the money changers from the temple. Our government is the temple. Democracy (not capitalism) is the true religion. Merchants in the temple aroused in Christ the only anger or violence attributed to him in any of the Gospels. (BTW, I am not Christian.)

    Drive big money OUT of Congress and our legislators will find answers (imperfect ones, but answers). Right now, the vast majority of Congress in BOTH parties are working for the 1%.

  27. maha  •  Nov 17, 2011 @11:32 pm

    There was also the spectre of the angry black man, personified best by Malcom X. America, as I remember it, was caught between the threat of peaceful, permanent institutional change, as MLK advocated OR riots, revolution and chaos which Malcolm X threatened. Attempt to maintain the status quo became futile. Change was inevitable – but what change? This is only my opinion – but a major reason MLK prevailed is BECAUSE there was the perceived threat of an all-out race war which would have destroyed the South like Sherman’s march.

    Well, first, although Malcolm X certainly took radical positions, from what I read about him he continued to evolve and may have been moving in a different direction the last couple of years of his life. Note that Malcolm X died in 1965 and the Black Panthers became active in 1966.

    I was only a teenager when he was killed, but I don’t remember that Malcolm X was causing much alarm in my segregated white rural Missouri community. He seemed a far-off, marginal figure. Martin Luther King scared the stuffing out of folks, though. Most didn’t want de-segregation. They didn’t want to remove the signs from the bus depot advising African Americans to not stay in the community over night (not in those words). I remember the grown ups saying that one of these days Martin Luther King was going to show up with a bus full of black people to move into the community. He never did; we were the boonies. But I think people knew that MLK was bringing an end to Jim Crow, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, because he was right. Deep down, I honestly think it was dawning on at least some people that he was right. Not everyone, but some.

    I don’t think the threat of violence from black radicals was a factor at all, from what I observed. Angry black people acting violently was something that could be dealt with. Martin Luther King was something else again.

  28. Swami  •  Nov 18, 2011 @12:51 am

    Doug….Excellent comment, it brought back memories.

  29. Doug Hughes  •  Nov 18, 2011 @8:07 am

    I know. Malcolm X was a Black Muslim, killed by Black Muslims for moving to a more moderate religious and political position after he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and discovered that true Islam is not a violent religion. The Black Panther Party was a totally different group. But some historians have evaluated the race riots as significant – the potential and expanding result if society failed to address institutional inequality.

    Starving people will riot. It’s that simple. That fact toppled the Czars of Russia and the French royalty. As conservatives attack the social programs of the New Deal, they creare dessparate situations for growing numbers of people who will have nothing to loose. People in the US think there is some magical exemption here to this natural law. It ain’t so. I hope the Powers somehow become aware of this fact in time. Then they might pay attention to the safety net FDR created…. because it also protects the rich from the rabble by keeping the rabble fed.

  30. Felicity  •  Nov 18, 2011 @11:21 am

    Rove may no longer be the brain behind the brainless man in the Oval Office, but Rove’s continuing life’s work – he freely admits it – is to create “a fundamental realignment of power” in this country.

    People who know Rove compare him to Machiavelli, who Rove reads (every year, by the way.) Watching, reading, listening to the Right Wing’s reaction to the OWS, among other (insidious) demonstrations of democracy at work, we should keep in mind what Machiavelli once said, “The great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances as though they were realities.”

    An aside in remembering Kent State – from a Nixon operative at the time, “We don’t want to defeat the opposition, we want to destroy them.”

  31. moonbat  •  Nov 18, 2011 @1:43 pm

    Doug wrote:

    Starving people will riot. It’s that simple. That fact toppled the Czars of Russia and the French royalty. As conservatives attack the social programs of the New Deal, they create desperate situations for growing numbers of people who will have nothing to loose. People in the US think there is some magical exemption here to this natural law.

    My sense of it, is that conservatives know this, but just don’t care. They think those with nothing to lose can be managed. They furthermore see the impoverished as a basic threat to their own way of life – and so they are more than willing to fight using any means necessary. They fight for their cause like an animal cornered.

  32. Diane  •  Nov 20, 2011 @10:30 am

    I was in high school during Kent state. I remember that people were against the protesters and did feel the students should not have been doing what they were doing and did blame them for the shootings.
    You have to understand that the ‘students’ back then were the children of the WW II generation.
    They did everything so their children could have a better life. And a better education. I am not condoning their ideas or behaviors, but theses people were my mother, my relatives and their friends. They did not know what to make of that generation.
    And, they were taught to obey, blindly, any authority figure, police included.

    Today, the students are the sons and daughter or even grandchildren of those protestors . We, that generation were raised on civil disobedience.
    I remember the phrase “always question authority” came from that time.

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