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Commentary :: Organizing : Politics
The Face of Protest is A Changin'
21 Mar 2005
Modified: 22 Mar 2005
The critical issue to emerge from this weekend is not medical ethics, but the failure of the US anti-War movement to focus public attention on the fear, death and suffering caused by President Bush's foreign policy. There are two reasons for this failure: control of the media by political forces that support the Evangelical agenda, and refusal of the US progressive movement to move beyond the protest style of the 1960s anti-war movement. As a result, the new face of protest in America has shifted from anti-war to religious militancy.
To read and comment on the complete analysis, please visit http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/3/21/14289/8783
Daily Kos.

The big story of the weekend should have been the massive anti-war march that took place simultaneously in dozens of cities around the nation and the world, involving hundreds of thousands of people. That should have dominated the front pages of America's newspapers.

Instead, a few well organized and politically connected religious militants managed to elbow the anti-war movement out of America's kitchen table conversations. As of today, Americans continue to be assaulted by the ongoing debate over the long-term healthcare decisions of one woman in Florida. As of 9am Monday morning, it was as if the anti-war movement didn't even exist.

The Face of Protest

The dramatic success of the religious militants to seize the protest headlines brings to the surface a disturbing question: Are progressives no longer the face of protest in America?

It seems that they are not.

This weekend's news coverage was plastered with images of religious militants in Florida with red tape across their mouths, the word "LIFE" scrawled on it. These images, may of them of young women, are disturbing on many levels, offensive, annoying--they are many things, but they are also memorable.

What about the images from the anti-war protest? Anything memorable there?

Nope.

This weekend's anti-war protest was pretty much like all the others. Lots of people some famous, most anonymous. It doesn't seem that the protest movement was very organized at all. No real effort was made to dominate the news. No single image was promoted by a centralized PR wing of the protest. Just lots of people coming together in opposition to the war.

Now, to question the primacy of anti-war protests in the progressive movement in America is pretty much heresy. It's dangerous to suggest that anti-war protests should no longer play a central role in progressive politics--at least not as they exist now. But that is what needs to happen. Progressive politics are no longer served well by large anti-war protests. This is not to suggest in any way that the protests should end. But they should not be staged with the expectation that they will have any impact whatsoever on politics.

Anti-war protests have become consumer events in progressive politics. They are no longer the driving engine of protest politics as they once were in the 1960s and 1970s. The sooner progressives realize that the mantle of protest politics has been usurped by religious militants, the faster progressives will regain their initiative and reinvent an inspiring, progressive approach to political protest.

Protest Economics First, Then War

Not all progressive approaches to protest are out of date. Here is one example of an inspired approach to progressive politics that stormed the front pages during the RNC in New York City, last summer, held the headlines and left a lasting impression:

The so-called http://jeffrey-feldman.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/pinkslipthumb.jp "Pink Slip Protest" was an inspired progressive protest organized by People for the American Way. The concept was to have thousands of people standing evenly spaced, holding pink unemployment slips up in the air, along the entire stretch of road that was travelled by RNC delegates from their hotels to the convention center. The protest lasted about minutes in New York and was also staged in other cities.

Walking along the streets during this protest was an amazing experience. Thousands of people stood silently holding up a piece of paper, evenly spaced at about 15 feet apart. There were no drums, no loud music, no shouting. It was a completely different protest aesthetic than I have ever seen before. And it was effective--both emotionally and politically. The protest garnered a great deal of political attention and momentum for issues important to the progressive movement.

Did the protest end unemployment in America? No.

Did the protest defeat George W. Bush in the election? No.

But it was still a very important change in protest politics for several reasons.

First, it was a progressive protest focused on economic issues rather than against a war. This is a very vital, very courageous shift on the part of PAW.
In progressive circles, anti-war protests are top dog. Protests on economic policy are a distant second.

But if progressives in this country want to be the face of protest again, then they better start following the example of PAW's pink slip demonstration. They better start protesting economic policy first, then foreign policy.

The second important change was the dramatic emphasis on design.

There was a time when packing hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the National Mall was the be-all-end-all of a political movement. Those days are over. In the age of 24-hour cable media, it is far more effective to think of a protest in terms of one person's picture reproduced a million times in the media, then to think of a protest in terms of a picture of one million people shown only once in the media.

That's exactly what the Pink Slip demonstration did so effectively: give the media a real human face, a person holding up a pink piece of paper. It was memorable, reproducible, and had a lasting impact.

Third big change to protest politics introduced by the Pink Slip Demostration was that it stood still in one place. It wasn't a march.

In New York City, there is a protest March for just about everything under the sun. Just about every time I turn around, there's a protest march somewhere. But what are they marching for? Where are they marching to? It's never clear.

If 20th-Century protests needed to march someplace to be effective, 21st-Century protests need to stand still to achieve their desired impact.

The genius of the Pink slip Demonstration was that it used the motion of regular car traffic as part of the staging of the protest. The impact of the protest was achieved when the cars drove by, and it could not be avoided. When there's a march that shuts down city streets, it's only those who choose to attend who get the picture, and that tends to be people who are in the protest.

The Need for A New Era of Progressive Protest

These three changes seem to be crucial to the new era of progressive politics:

1. Protest Economics first, then foreign policy.

2. Stage a protest that uses the motion of the viewer, rather than a march.

3. Think in images of individuals, rather than photos of faceless crowds.

Of course, the religious militants in this country have not become good protesters by following these three changes. They have made the primacy of religious law over American law their top priority. That approach has been highly effective for American religious militants in recent years much the same way that it was highly effective for Iranian religious militants in the 1970s.

But the religious militants have been effective at supplying the media with memorable images of individual protesters, and they have been effective at using the motion of the viewer for strong effect.

So, the time has come for progressives to ask some hard questions and to think seriously about whether or not the old-school anti-war march is still the demonstration of choice.
See also:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/3/21/14289/8783

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Comments

Re: The Face of Protest is A Changin'
22 Mar 2005
Very nice article Jeffrey, and one which I agree with completely.

Well said.
Re: The Face of Protest is A Changin'
22 Mar 2005
I agree with points two and three, but why should we focus on economics first and foreign policy second? What does this mean anyway? Hold up an anti-taxcut sign at 1 p.m. then switch to a free palestine sign at 2? Or are you suggesting that the public will be more receptive to critiques of current economic policy more than foreign policy? Aren't the two intertwined in enough ways (think outsourcing, foreign military 'aid', the world bank) to raise the issues together? Again I agree with points 2 and 3--they take into account the reality of the corporate-dominated mass media. I wish you'd elaborate on the first point though.