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News ::
Message, image and empire (english)
29 Mar 2003
Being effective is not just about getting numbers to rallies and events:
Why I believe we should build on the connection between American Empire and this war
Being effective is not just about getting numbers to rallies and events: Why I believe we should build on the connection between American Empire and this war
Being effective is not just about getting numbers to rallies and events:
Why I believe we should build on the connection between American Empire and this war

Visit for anti-empire posters

Two main strategies seem to dominate discussion about how to effectively oppose this war. One strategy is to get large numbers to represent the size of opposition to this way. This strategy focuses on the assumptions that if large enough numbers show up and speak out against war, people on the fences will move to our side and people in favor of the war will see that the nation is not united. It is also built on the premise, although in a half-hazard way, that by bringing large numbers together we can conduct outreach for further organization for and fundraising. Another strategy is to make the cost of war high - to resist in a public and disruptive way to make it clear that war cannot go on with business as usual.

I think that a third strategy is being overlooked. This strategy is to focus on a battle of images and messages. While large numbers and attention gathering disruptions are key tactics to this strategy (in that they help getting messages and image out), these two types of activity are just that: tactics. I believe that by employing numbers and disruptions as strategy we are making a serious error by wasting valuable resources. Large numbers, arrests, civil disobedience and distributions are only useful in that they convey a message. The message that these things happened is not enough. But it also not enough to simply say that we need to convey a message, since we all know that the corporate media makes it very hard to do this, as the coverage from our activities is limited to the fact that we did something. We know that our speeches and our arguments against the war will rarely be part of the coverage of what we do. And it is not enough to simply say that message matters, since most participants in anti-war protests to date have brought with them signs and posters - all carrying their message for why they believe war with Iraq is wrong.

Two challenges emerge when trying to convey message as our first and foremost strategy. The first is that we need to find a unifying message - one that we can share enough to make sure the message is repeated and emphasized. It is easy for the government to stay on message, as there is way to set and enforce message control. Unlike the government, we don't get paid to say and do what we do and we don't have to do as we are told. Each anti-war participant gets to say and do as we each please - which is not only a fact but, for me at least, a preferred fact. This means that unified messages must appeal broadly and must have room for personal takes on the issues. The second challenge is that what we say and do can be easily distorted by the media (a media that I may not like or trust, but that many Americans rely on and believe in). This means that our message must not only be super-conveyed with even more consistency and discipline than what is required of the government, but that to report anything we do must convey our message in an implicit way.

Overcoming the first challenge (that of unity and consensus amongst anti-war protestors) requires focus on the message itself. An "umbrella-idea" must be generated and then accepted or utilized by people across the political spectrum. It must be an idea acceptable to both mainstream liberals and to the most radical and active amongst us. For this, it must be broad - not focusing on anything too specific or drawing up any divisive issues within the left. But focus on an idea too broad and we risk working for an idea without meaning, or whose meaning can be used against us. Words such as peace and ideas such as supporting the troops are both meaningless in this way. Pro-war spokespersons speak of securing the peace through this war, and many Americans buy it. And everyone knows that our support of the troops is an attempt to muddle the issue when pro-war activists try a message without meaning. Worse, these rallying points lack honesty for many opposed to war. For many of us, pacifism is not why we oppose this war. So we cannot honestly speak against war as a thing in itself - as we are not opposed to all war, just ones like this. Given these challenges, I propose that we instead focus on an idea is that is both broad and specific: Empire. Empire and the machines of empire includes much of what the left already opposes - including this war. And few in the left support empire in any form. There are clear contrasts to empire - from anarchy to democratic republics to international institutions. Regardless of which alternative we prefer, we all oppose empire. But the case that the current administration strongly support empire can be reasonably made, so empire can be used to contrast our view with their views. In other words, another feature of the idea of empire is that it is not such a bad thing that no one could reasonably support it.

Overcoming the second challenge requires that we think in terms of images and messages at every level of our organizing. First, we need to stick to one unifying message - such as empire. From this message different themes and takes of the themes can emerge, but empire (or another unifying idea) must be central. Otherwise, our message will be forever fragmented and lost in the images produced by those in favor of war for empire. This means that loss of civil liberties should be conveyed as a loss due to the expansion of empire. And that anti-immigrant actions must be connected to the building of empire. War must be conveyed as an act of empire. The government must be portrayed as empire. The WTO and IMF must be discussed in terms of empire. Second, in order to get past the blackout, we must do things that imply empire. Protests and actions must be at their heart symbolic. Examples of this include the closing of the financial district in San Francisco (not the entire city), an action that was implicitly symbolic. Other examples could include locating protests at symbolic locations when the United States first fought the British Empire and taking war protests to buildings and parts of town with empire in their name (Empire State Building). Third, we need to better coordinate our message at protests and actions. Twenty people blocking traffic in front of the Empire State Building surrounded by one hundred people with graphically clean signs with one message "No War for Empire" can more effective in message projection than 200,000 people marching together. For this, I suggest we go back to the work of ACT UP and carefully review and copy the tactics used by this group. Messages were clear. Events were designed to get media there. And then the media had to include the message to cover the event.

Finally, I think that is important to stay in charge of our messages. We need to be the ones defining what type of a president Bush is. Every time someone sees a rally or protest, they need to be reminded that Bush is acting as an Emperor. Stickers, flyers, posters, signs, banners, websites all need to convey this (or another compelling idea). Once again, look to ACT UP and how effectively they conveyed Reagan as an agent of genocide. The posters and images produced by ACT UP were memorable, focused, clear and about framing the issue. ACT UP was a relatively small group given how they were able to get their point across. We the much larger numbers of anti-war protestors, we should be as much in control of our message and image as was ACT UP. We should be very worried and changing our tactics given how few people know our reasons for opposing this war. And we should be charging a much higher political price to both Republicans and Democrats for choosing empire over democracy.

As an aside, I want to suggest that the word "empire" is useful, and that "imperialism" is not. The only reason why I make this assertion is that imperialism is a word that the left has over used. While empire is a fresh word, ready to be defined in this new context.

Visit for anti-empire posters

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