Balkinization  

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Sterilization of Public Protest

Brian Tamanaha

In the period leading up to the Iraq War I walked in two anti-war protests, one in D.C. and the second in New York, both attended by over a hundred thousand protesters. It was the least I could do, and the most I was willing to do, to express my opposition to what I thought was a senseless war. (We know how that worked out.)

I had never before participated in any public protest; nothing moved me to do so until then. I thought it would be exciting, invigorating, a genuine democratic moment—people speaking out to government. It didn’t turn out like that, however, at least not for me.

These events felt pathetic, impotent, slightly ridiculous. What got me down wasn’t the notable presence of hippies from the sixties (wearing the same clothes, now retro hip), people hawking anti-war goods, conspiracy kooks, and the counter-protesters waving American flags against the anti-war folks (“America—Love it or Leave it!”). That was all interesting.

What got me down was that the protests felt like empty rituals, theatre acted out for ourselves. Worse that that, perversely, it felt almost as if we protesters were complicit in legitimating the coming war itself, precisely because our actions made absolutely no difference (as everyone knew at the time). These events allowed the United States to exhibit its benevolence, to demonstrate that this is an open society where the people can express their opposition to the government (never mind that no one in power is listening).

Most public protests nowadays resemble nothing so much as parades—entertaining spectacles for the participants and onlookers. Licensing requirements, location restrictions, police escorts, temporary barriers (the standard accoutrements of public protest), controls imposed in the name of national security and public order, have drained the “protest” out of protests (although current events in Pittsburgh are perhaps pushing beyond this).

A terrific study of the sterilization of public protest is Timothy Zick’s recent book, Speech Out of Doors, reviewed here. It is a sobering account of what it's like to be treated like sheep (without recognizing it?).



Comments:

I think public protest can matter, especially on a small scale (e.g., protests of local action). This doesn't erase the pain expressed here, sure enough. For instance, the two hosts of a "Gay USA" split on the value of an upcoming protest in D.C. to promote homosexual rights.

Tea party protests and protests at health themed town halls etc. have received a lot of attention. More so in coverage probably than war protests. I wonder -- how much effect do these conservative leaning affairs have? For good or ill, I do think they had some effect.

Anyway, I do respect those who protest. It seems akin to a t.v. movie I recently watched again where Paul kept on preaching in public, year after year, with apparently little to show for it but rocks, whipping and derision.

Not quite as bad here, but I think in various cases the end result can be as powerful.
 

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Brian:

I disagree that today's protests are sterile simply because of basic time, place and manner restrictions or because a protest may be initially ineffective because it represents a minority viewpoint.

The Tax Day and Independence Day Tea Party protests in which I participated were both orderly and initially represented a minority viewpoint being ignored by the Dem federal government. However, because their arguments resonated, the Tea Party protests swayed popular opinion over the Summer. By the time of the enormous 9/12 march on Washington, the Tea Party movement arguably represented a majority opinion to which Washington pays close attention.

Freedom of assembly still works. However, the protestors need to offer arguments that the population will accept.
 

Good points, Joe and Bart. The tea party protests were effective in ways the anti-war protest was not.

Both the tax revolt and the pro-war effort had significant populist appeal.

This populist support is subtly reflected in ways in the contrasting ways protesters were viewed and treated: the anti-war protesters were un-American, unpatriotic, and subversive; whereas the tax protesters were "true Americans" expressing their views.

Perhaps the sterilization I refer to matters more in connection with genuinely unpopular--that is, not populist--causes.

The signifcance of Zick's book is that it draws out the implications of the technology of control. This has nothing to do with the particular subject of the protest (which my post focused on), but can be applied in all protests.

Brian
 

By the time of the enormous 9/12 march on Washington, the Tea Party movement arguably represented a majority opinion to which Washington pays close attention.

# posted by Bart DePalma : 1:26 PM


Baghdad, the idea that the tea-baggers represent a majority opinion is laughable. As is your contention that Washington is paying attention. The only people paying attention to tea-baggers are the clowns at Faux News.
 

Large scale public protest stopped being effective when the Man learned not to break heads. It felt silly and ineffectual because it was (I was there too, thinking the same thoughts, so don't feel bad). Without the sense of injustice and oppression from the other side, marches are just self-indulgence from people who don't want to do more.
 

At the end of their protest the tea-baggers were reduced to lying about how many people showed up. Are blatant lies about how many people are marching really a good indicator of success?
 

The linked review of the book in fact references the protests I noted. It's worth reading.

As to unpopular causes, one thing to add is that the efforts can be as much about the people involved as the people they are apparently trying to convince.

Self-expression can be important even if the results on public policy is small.
 

I think a major reason why our anti-war protests have become so lame is because people are protesting against things they're ultimately not too affected by. In the sixties, many of those marching were either at risk of being drafted or were close to someone who was being drafted. With a all-volunteer force, there's less of a sense of urgency.
 

I was witness to the situation John Martin points as I was deferred during the Korean War and drafted and served my time before Vietnam began. Without a draft, very few, especially with the current economy, are prepared to protest AfPak. But what may not be lame may be the million man march on Washington, DC, to the steps of SCOTUS, carrying, open and concealed, to protest any efforts to non-incorporation of the 2nd Amendment's application to the states.
 

One of my first major protests was the 1993 LGBT March on Washington. It was pretty huge -- definitely several hundred thousand, some estimates (perhaps inflated) say a million. Anyway, you could certainly make the argument that the direct impact of that march on actual political goals was minimal. But for me, the impact was that I (who was living in Texas at the time) realized that I was part of a very large community and movement, and it was personally very empowering for me. Now, certain aspects of the LGBT political struggle -- i.e., the ability to be in the closet and therefore the fact that you can feel awfully isolated at times -- may have made that effect peculiarly strong. But I would think that in many ways that's the largest effect of protest marches, is the empowerment of the participants, not any direct impact on political issues.
 

The fundamental lack of traction for citizen protests is a consequence of the rise in the power of the corporations. If you want your citizen protests to count, find a way to cause the corporations backing the politicians to back off.

With the concentration of money in the hands of corporations, who in turn fund (i.e., buy) politicians, they can buy all the votes they might lose by ignoring the people on the street, so that anything but a massive, long-term groundswell of people simply doesn't matter.

Only public protests so large as to constitute threats to public order are sufficient to compel political action -- but of course such a threat to public order would result in massive counter-demonstration efforts by the authorities, which would reduce the number of demonstrators (as we saw in the GOP national convention in Minnesota).
 

Shag:

But what may not be lame may be the million man march on Washington, DC, to the steps of SCOTUS, carrying, open and concealed, to protest any efforts to non-incorporation of the 2nd Amendment's application to the states.

THAT would definitely scare the bejesus out of the powers that be. Tom Paine would be proud.
 

Not likely to happen: The NRA, and probably only the NRA, could put together that kind of march, and the NRA isn't into big protest marches. Too many opportunities for something to go wrong, and then the one shooting, probably not even by an NRA member, in a crowd of 1.5 million, is the only thing the news covers.
 

SCOTUS will over the years face more problems with limitations on 2nd Amendment rights at the federal and state (if incorporated) levels than with limitations on abortion rights. While the NRA might want to go slowly, there may be individuals out there, many of them, anxious and prepared to challenge limitations in both federal and state courts at relatively low costs. Talk radio will be prepared to egg them on. "We shall overcome" may be used to inspire a million man 2nd Amendment march but not inspirationally with words and reason as was the case with the civil rights marches of the 1960s but with, dare I say it, the force of arms. Heller opened a door that SCOTUS may find difficult to close or control, even moderately. Are there potential anarchists out there prepared "to scare the bejesus out of the powers that be" that good old Tom Paine could be proud of? Let's see, where did I put my backpack?
 

Shag:

Our founders were revolutionaries who just finished an armed rebellion fought largely by local popular militias. They had a rather significantly different view than you about the role of an armed citizenry and its government. You may recall Tom Jefferson's famous quote:

"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty...And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."
 

It would be nice if our intrepid backpacker provided the source, including date, of TJ's quote to examine it in context. Perhaps it is time for dueling quotes of TJ. But for the time being, we need lots of Airwick for the "natural manure" that emanates from our intrepid backpacker's Backpack of Lies.

By the Bybee (still not forgotten), carrying guns into bars may not result in anticipated violence if the guntotters abide by "Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes" popularized in Concord at the time of the Revolution.

In any event, our intrepid backpacker continues shooting blanks. I'm 1 year short of 80, so applying TJ's 20 year rule, that's about 4 rebellions in my lifetime. What were they besides the Reagan Revolution, the Contract on [sick!] America and Timothy NRA McVeigh's blast? Perhaps our intrepid backpacker's forthcoming work of friction [sick!] could be converted to a screenplay titled "Rebellion Without A Cause."
 

I think John Martin has it right. Without a draft, anti-war protests are unlikely to ever again gain the traction that the Vietnam War protests had. Of course, during Vietnam, we were sustaining at times over 200 deaths a week, but there is no way that we could do that with a volunteer only army. The military has had trouble reaching its recruitment goals as it is, with the Army notably lowering its standard and accepting undesirables. We’ve also relied heavily on the Reserves and National Guard, whose members never expected to be called up for this sort of war (nor should they have expected it, IMO).

As for other protests, I thought we the people made the ultimate protest in the last two elections by convincingly voting the Republicans out of power. In a more perfect world, that would have brought about dramatic change in the direction of the country. Instead, we find out that most Democratic politicians are beholden to corporate masters just as the Republicans are.

If you vote the rascals out of office, but nothing changes, what is there left to do?
 

"If you vote the rascals out of office, but nothing changes, what is there left to do?"

This is where Sandy Levinson steps in & talks about constitutional change.
 

Hank raises a good point. The only massive wartime demonstrations in the United States were actually draft protests during the Civil War and later during the Vietnam War.
 

Our intrepid backpacker says:

"Hank raises a good point. The only massive wartime demonstrations in the United States were actually draft protests during the Civil War and later during the Vietnam War."

I agree wholeheartedly with the first sentence as I did with John Martin's similar point earlier that Hank mentions. With regard to the second sentence, there were protests in the WWI timeframe which were stifled by restrictive wartime statutes making such actions criminal that according to SCOTUS were not violative of the First Amendment. Recall Schenk in which Holmes' short opinion came up with the line that falsely yelling fire in a crowded theatre was not speech protected by the First Amendment, thus upholding Schenk's conviction. But Schenk did not yell fire in a crowded theatre. Rather, Schenk used public streets and distributed pamphlets to advise about his views that conscription was unconstitutional. Holmes in effect apologized with a subsequent dissent in a similar case involving the same or a similar statute. We know that in times of war, congress can overreact with legislation that is constitutionally questionable in limiting the rights of individuals, including the First Amendment speech and press clauses, e.g. Bush/Cheney post 9/11.
 

By the time of the enormous 9/12 march on Washington, the Tea Party movement arguably represented a majority opinion to which Washington pays close attention.

You don't say. Those two gazillion protesters on Sept. 12th certainly convinced me that the Tea Baggers are regnant supreme in American public discourse and polity, and not the 2% nutters and flakes they seem to be. Yes, Nixon's mighty Silent Majority has once again raised its head, and thanks to crocodile-tears 2-bit actors like Beck, frootloops like Bachmann, and grating whiners like Mark Levin, the true pulse of this country has been taken and it's nothing but roses for the GOP in 2012....

Cheers,
 

Polling killed protests. There are only two reasons for protesting -- to convince other people to support your cause, or to make yourself feel like you're Doing Something. The latter, obviously, is inward directed and isn't likely to have any effect. As for the former, how is a protest going to sway other people? Well, they could listen to your explicit message. But that's not likely to be helpful; there are few people going to say, "Gee, I used to support the war, but now that I see people waving signs that say 'No blood for oil,' I've changed my mind."

Or, they could see, "I used to think I was alone in opposing the war, but now that I see 10,000 people marching against it, I realize I'm not, and I'm energized." That's great in a regime where the media is controlled and the depths of opposition are not reported. But here, we get tracking polls every day showing how many people support and oppose the war. Nobody needs to see a march to know that people oppose the war.
 

Sometimes marches may be intimidating or provocative and perhaps intentionally so. Sometimes marches take place just because they can, with the benefit of the First Amendment. Think of hate groups that march, especially when the march is in a community that includes many of their targets.
 

I think John Martin has it right. Without a draft, anti-war protests are unlikely to ever again gain the traction that the Vietnam War protests had.

Agreed. And that was why Shrub had to avoid a draft for his war, and that in turn was why he outsourced so much of his war to private companies; as well as put "stop loss" and the like in place, and bought Rummy's happy talk on how few boots on the ground would be needed. All bad moves, of course; but again, Shrub had to avoid a draft. The public would never have supported his adventure in the sand otherwise.

Likewise Shrub had to minimize coverage of the reality of the occupation. Shrub was wont to deplore television coverage of Iraq that he said concentrated on the negative, reporting the bombing, not the progress. This of course was nonsense; the fact was and remains that very little coverage conveys any real sense of the reality on the ground. If it did, if it had, again, there would be less public support. There was a reason Shrub kept the cameras away from the body bags.

So: public protest may be seen here as more of an effect than a cause. The outrage expressed in larger, more frequent, more vigorous protest is also the more widely, deeply felt outrage to begin with. Where it starts is individual impressions widely shared. The group march isn't a bunch of folks who happened to end up there that day. It's a result of those folks coming to hold strong views before the protest was even mentioned.

Perhaps protest is also more effective when the public views the protesters as like them and speaking for them. Some protests I recall featured protesters that struck me as eager to marginalize themselves.
 

David Nieporent:

Or, they could see, "I used to think I was alone in opposing the war, but now that I see 10,000 people marching against it, I realize I'm not, and I'm energized." That's great in a regime where the media is controlled and the depths of opposition are not reported. But here, we get tracking polls every day showing how many people support and oppose the war.

Here, they see 70K, and says it's 2 gazillion. When told this is blatantly false, they have a TV station that assures them it is in fact true. And when they see polls that show them to be the mean, nasty exremists they are, they dismiss them as biased by the Socialist-Owned Media™....

Cheers,
 

we get tracking polls every day showing how many people support and oppose the war. Nobody needs to see a march to know that people oppose the war.

Actually, I think that statement would have to be qualified a bit to be true.

I think a review of coverage of the war would turn up few stories that gave a full picture of how widespread and deep American opposition was, but plenty of stories that uncritically repeated utterances by Shrub and Shrub people that implied opposition to the war was a small minority.
 

But here, we get tracking polls every day showing how many people support and oppose the war. Nobody needs to see a march to know that people oppose the war.

And yet, our representatives seem to totally ignore such facts. There have been majorities for some time that want us to get out of Iraq. We’re still there.

A majority of Americans support a single payer health care system, yet it is a total non-starter in Congress.

I don’t expect or want my representatives to blindly follow polls. But when they go against what the majority of their constituents want, they should be willing to explain why their position is the better one.
 

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