Monday, April 28, 2008

Pointless protests

After the officers who killed Sean Bell were found not guilty, Rev. Al Sharpton -- at no suprise -- organized a peace march in opposition to the verdict. Though the story has been receiving national coverage, fewer than 200 people actually assembled for the march. While some people were shocked and disappointed about the low turnout, I was neither. Perhaps an even greater injustice to the Bell family than the verdict itself is the notion that organizing a march will somehow alleviate everything that has gone down. This is what 'movements' have been reduced to: meaningless demonstrations against social injustice that lead to little change -- if any at all.

As another example: I was watching the Daily Show not too long ago (apparently, the real “Most Trusted Name in News”). On it, Jon Stewart and his staff made a mockery of anti-war protesters. As left-leaning as a show can get, many liberals have been up in arms about how the Daily Show could make light of protests; what many people consider a powerful expression of resistance. Sadly for them, videos like this are the very reason why today’s liberalism is fading sentiment:

Though this video was done in jest, the point of the video is pretty pragmatic: it’s easy to mock today’s protesting and organizing because it’s simply NOT effective anymore. Keep that in mind the next time you paint your signs, wear your buttons, kiss random strangers, and come up with catchy rhymes to chant in the street.

There is no denying that protests were once laced with social significance and were indeed an important part of progressive movements of the past. But today’s protests are nothing than insipid and failed demonstrations of people doing ridiculous and outlandish stuff. Protestors today have no skill for organization, no mission, no strategy. All they have is tons of hot air and lots of paint. Any toughness they think they have is merely a product of habitual exposure and inurement; complimented by the mental and moral elitism to which they lay claim. Quite frankly, none of this matters to policymakers. It may be annoying to them, but certainly will never again create an impetus for change.

I think I should be clear on something: I’m always amazed (pleasantly) to see people – especially younger people – exercising their rights to be politically charged. And far be it for me to begrudge anyone the opportunity to protest the moron who has cursed our nation over the past seven years. But at the same time, I think it is time that some responsible, progressive minded person understand what the score really is. We are cultivating a culture of people who see today’s organizations through the lenses of protesters from four decades ago; people who can organize demonstrations powerful enough to rattle the very foundations of the greater society. They try to emulate those organizations in today’s time to combat the various social and political dynamics faced in the present. But sadly, they just don’t get it. What was effective back in the day will not only be ineffective today, but is borderline lunacy.

For starters, protesters today often fall into a pretty damning (albeit superficial) trap: being defined by their actions and their looks. When fake blood covered anti-war protesters somehow infiltrated a hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, people chalked this up to silly antics by liberal loons with too much time on their hands. Rather than this being an effective strategy to end this nonsensical war, this demonstration merely contributed to the foolishness they were trying to protest. When Al Sharpton picks up his bullhorn to proclaim his anger, people pick up their earplugs. BAMN; a left-wing advocacy group came out in groves to protest when the anti-Affirmative Action proposal; the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was being introduced. Despite their protests, it still passed in to law overwhelmingly. Similarly, the Berkley anti-Marine shop demonstration wound up being defined more by the ridiculous antics of the protesters than the actual outcome of the protest itself. This may hurt some feelings, but parading around in the streets, having the occasional lesbian moments (i.e. with Code Pink), and singing and hugging may give the media something to talk (or laugh) about, but it certainly doesn't bring this country any closer to progress. It doesn't present solutions to racism that we got from Affirmative Action. It doesn't get us out of Iraq. It won't bring Bell's killers to justice. It's all just incessant noise.

During the 60’s and 70’s you could make a compelling argument about how organizing efforts that were considered awkward could – in fact – defy the status quo. In a culture that called for conformity on every turn, dress, hairstyle, and behaviors put a foot right on the throat of what was forced on society as being “normal.” Challenging that system ensured that neatly drawn out plans of going to the right college, marrying the right person, getting the right job, and subscribing to the ‘right’ morals could be averted if one so chose.

Fast forward to today. Some of the very conformist expectations that were once opposed are not only still in existence today, but they have become a mark of validation. Likewise, the same system classes exist to promote those conformities. But using crazy clothes and hand-in-hand protests don’t get the job done today. I mean, with clothing for instance: the same rummaged look that came to define a movement forty years ago is now sold for hundreds of dollars at Urban Outfitters. Tactics of movements from days gone by are – in no way – threatening to the status quo. If anything, seeing today’s protestors is more of a relief to the power structure; as it suggests weak and socially irrelevant opposition to their agendas. A thousand people making out in the street, marching to the beat of Janis Joplin, and donning pink t-shirts does not strike fear into the hearts of a systemic power structure. Progress won't come about because of these types of demonstrations. For that matter, these demonstrations are not even legitimate enough to get political parties to endorse candidates who will even address the issues being demonstrated.

Protests of today can now be ignored because...well...protestors of today are different. Elected officials know that once their little protests are done, most of the participants are going to go back home and complain with their buddies over tofu and a glass of soy milk. Riots in the street are a thing of the past. Campus takeovers are lost in legend. Even non-violent approaches like using the power of the vote are met with apathy and laziness. At the end of the day, nothing will change.

I’m certainly not implying that the only way to tame the social power structure is by waging a full-scaled Les Miserables-style revolution. No. Instead, we can fight and protest in a way that will draw attention to a cause and will cause the policymakers and leaders to take notice: hit them in their pockets. Imagine the chaos if we stopped working, stopped buying, stopped making companies and interest groups rich. They would cave one by one. Disrupting commerce is the way to make a real statement. Unfortunately for us, we’d take the hit as well. On top of that, many some institutions that have been subjected to boycotts are not necessarily rooted in commerce. It’s for those reasons why protests and boycotting – while having its share of effective outcomes – will never be a holistically effective method of opposition.

At the end, all we’re ultimately left with are organizers who can do as good a job as any to give people headaches, but are absolutely useless when it comes to bringing about change. That’s the only card we have. And that's why "rage against the machine" is nothing more than a tagline.


5 "Insiders" spoke their mind. Join in...:

heiresschild said...

it's interesting you're doing this post today when the truckers are here in D.C. to protest the high cost of gas. they were supposed to park at the D.C. Stadium and walk to the capitol, i believe it is, in protest. i was wondering how this would help to lower prices?!! it'll certainly make rush-hour traffic going home a mess, if nothing else.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Hi Andre,
I am trying to understand the reason behind the Bell tragedy. I don't understand it. Is it racial? Is it to do with "profiling"? Is it the sign of an increasingly right wing society? Is it just abuse of police powers?

Andre said...

@ Sylv: In some respects, commercial boycotting; similar to this truckers strike (is it a strike?) can work. But most organizations regarding high gas prices either don't exist or are complete failures. People in general can not or will not go without certain things. That's why Walmart will always be in business. That's why oil companies have no motivation to reduce prices. That's why protests have become worthless. As it relates to social justice, there have been some incidents of successful organizing (i.e. the Jena Six), but those success stories are far too in between.

Still, I'm curious to hear how the protest goes. I hope I'm proven wrong on this one.

@ LGS: I don't think the Bell story was as much racially charged as anything else. Yes, the victims were black; but so were the officers. I wouldn't say that it's politically charged either. I think this case speaks more to your last suggestion: the abuse of police powers; more especially the excessive and irresponsible execise of power. Unless Bell was a 300 foot tall, 50,000 ton Japanese mutant, there is NO reason to fire off 50 rounds at a person. These officers abused their power; and an innocent man (even when his reputation may suggest otherwise) is dead.

Kenya said...

Even in your pessimism about protesting, you have to at least agree that a seed has to be planted before anything can come about. Sure, some organizations - like Code Pink - are pretty silly. But at least they've established a platform. They've at least planted a seed.

Malik said...

Well said. If you don't have effective tactics and a solid game plan to go along with your passion, I don't care how fired up you are, you're gonna lose the fight, and lose hard.