Non-Violent Protest

In lieu of armed rebellion, the US left (in particular) is fond of (addicted to?) the peaceful demonstration.  Washington DC has been the setting for at least four massive demonstrations since Trump’s election, with the Woman’s march of January 21, 2017 the most remarkable.

I think demonstrations are of a fairly limited utility at this political moment.  I don’t know when the turning point was reached, but I do think of the large demonstrations against the second Iraq War, which were acknowledged by the Bush administration as marvelous proof that America is a “free” land and just as sublimely ignored.  The manifestation of widespread dissent had no impact at all on the government’s actions, even as the ability of that dissent to express itself was subsumed into the government’s larger narrative about its impeccable virtue.

So the first problem is that our government—and the way that democracy in these United States is currently configured (more about that in a subsequent post)—cannot be moved by demonstrations.  The politicians neither fear the popular will (since they are securely isolated from it) nor have any moral conscience to be awakened.  The contrast to the civil rights movement could not be more stark.  That moral campaign indicted a country for its failure to abide by its stated ideals—and that criticism had some bite and moved some political actors to work for change.  (Yes, the fact of the Cold War helped to move those politicians, but there were also some real changes of heart, with Lyndon Johnson himself a prime example of someone led to do the right thing.)

The second problem is the current polarization that is aided and abetted (if not actually created) by people receiving their “news” from different sources.  The demonstrations of the civil rights era were aimed as much at swaying general public opinion as at changing politicians’ hearts and minds.  There was an intended audience: the vast public that barely knew the realities of segregation or the extent to which Southerners would go to resist any changes.  We hardly lack for all too invisible injustices in our land today.  But making them visible has become harder because of our fragmented public sphere with its sophisticated channels of distortion, disinformation, and constant outrage at the perfidy of one’s political opponents.  The left’s demonstrations add no new converts to its ranks, a marked contrast to the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s.

A third problem is persistence.  The civil rights and anti-war movements were long and experienced more failures than triumphs.  Today’s demonstrations are, all too often, one-offs.  Demonstrations are almost completely useless if not attached to movements—and movements require organization, funds, full-time staff, and the ability to stay in for the long haul.  The right’s careful, deliberate, and mostly successful destruction of labor unions over the past seventy years (ever since Taft-Hartley) has deprived the left of the solid base a movement needs to sustain itself.

A shared culture, a shared way of life that extends beyond political commitments, is required to sustain a movement.  The people in the movement need institutions and public spaces that are exclusively (or almost exclusively) theirs.  The union hall functioned for blue collar labor the same way that black churches, school, colleges, and neighborhoods functioned for African-Americans. The feminist and gay rights movements created local institutions (women’s centers, health clinics) as a crucial feature alongside the more national organizations like NOW or the Humans Rights Campaign. It is one of the ironies of the civil rights movement that the end of segregation vastly weakened the ability of blacks to act in concert.  A movement that enlists people whose lives are fully intertwined with one another’s is most likely to succeed through its ability to last.  The dispersal of blacks into the wider society hampered their ability to act together politically.

College operated as that set-apart space for the anti-war movement.  The problem there, of course, is that students pass through, graduating after four years—a problem somewhat mitigated in the 60s by activists moving into graduate programs and by colleges not taking students off the rolls (because that would make them eligible for the draft) even when they weren’t actually doing any course work.  The campuses belonged to the students as their base of operation and that segregated place where they shared a life.

In short, weekend warriors are not enough—especially when they traipse down to Washington to march with total strangers in the name of vague ideals like paying attention to science.  Because the other thing that sustains a movement is an identifiable and achievable goal.  (I am not a fan of Occupy, obviously.  I do not see how it could have ever had legs.)  The civil rights movement had the goal of ending legal segregation and barriers to voting.  The anti-war movement aimed to end the war.  Those are easily articulated and very achievable goals.  Same for gay marriage or for feminist campaigns directed to rape and domestic violence laws.

First conclusion: demonstrations must be attached to movements if they are to bear any fruit.  Second conclusion (more controversial): under current conditions, demonstrations don’t do very much to advance the causes a movement might embrace.  At best, it seems to me, demonstrations might be good for the morale of the already committed.  See how many of us there are!  But even that one time gathering is no substitute for a shared life together—and I don’t know where that shared life exists except perhaps in some of the famous “liberal enclaves” like the Chapel Hill where I dwell.

I often complain that the left marches on Washington while the right gets itself elected to school boards.  But that’s a bit unfair in the sense that in Chapel Hill the left does involve itself in local government, and puts forward its winning candidates for the state legislature and Congress.  The problem is not so much neglect of the small-bore processes of democracy as it is the failures of democracy in our time.  (I am being very careful not to say, “the deterioration of democracy on our time.”  I want to be agnostic about how well democracy worked in the past.  No need for unjustified nostalgia.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be very precise about the exact form the current failure of democracy takes.  That will be the subject of subsequent posts.)

Demonstrations and social movements, after all, are the tools citizens resort to when the normal processes of democratic government are not working to address pressing problems and injustices.  Demonstrations and movements are extra-constitutional, tactics developed alongside constitutional procedures for political action.  What I am saying, then, is that the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s seem less likely to succeed today than in the past—and will certainly never succeed if demonstrations are not linked to movements.  Right now, I do not see any coherent movements on the left—only lots of agitation and an ability to bring a lot of people out onto the street on weekends.  But during the week those same people return to their ordinary lives, which are lived in fairly complete isolation from the people they marched with on Saturday, while there is no one working during the week to keep the hopes and demands of the Saturday demonstration on the front burner.

Apart from the movement issue is a question about the level of civil unrest.  There are many ways short of violence for citizen action to disrupt business as usual.  The spontaneous flocking of people to airports at the announcement of the first Trump travel ban offered one example—and seemed to me by far the most effective thing the left has done since Trump’s election.  In general, I don’t think the left will have an impact until it forces a confrontation by way of massive civil disobedience and/or the creation of massive disruption of life as usual.

Several points to make here: 1. The injustice being protested must be an obvious and dramatic one.  There has to be good reason to believe that a majority would find the government’s actions outrageous.  A good example would be any attempt by the Trump administration to begin mass deportations.  2. I think civil unrest will only work if it occurs in several locations around the country.  Focusing on Washington is a mistake—or a sign of a deeply undermining limitation.  A movement is necessary to coordinate nation-wide action.  But the movement only shows its strength by being capable of nation-wide action.  There have been calls for such action, but no one has come remotely close to being able to pull it off.  We are not France or Egypt, small countries where action in the capital is enough to shake the political foundations.  If we are going to sit on bridges to stop the morning commute, it has to happen in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and half a dozen more cities to have the impact we want.

All of this says: the left needs to get organized.  The right has its mega-churches. And its think tanks. And its Chambers of Commerce and corporate lobbyists and donors. The left doesn’t really have anything comparable. It has a few mega-donors (George Soros and the like), but no institutional bases and no full-time staff.  And it has very few places where it shares a way of life.  Its extra-constitutional responses to Trump are going to continue to be ineffectual if all this remains the case.  And it better not let its ability to turn out a million people for a protest march—or get millions of signatures on those never-ending petitions one is asked to sign—delude it about the effectiveness of its opposition to rightist policies.

Next up is a consideration of constitutional politics—i.e. elections and court cases—and the resources they offer to the left.

3 thoughts on “Non-Violent Protest

  1. I agree that on their own demonstrations don’t do very much in the way of changing laws, say, or moving towards impeachment. But let us not be too cynical. Demonstrations have been a key ingredient to resisting the Trump administration The women’s march and the airport protests after the Muslim ban were a powerful show of democratic self-determination at a moment when key aspects of civic life were suddenly under threat. Marches are visible evidence of our right to speak freely and congregate and thus enact a refusal of Trump’s authoritarianism. Do we need to organize as well? Yes. Do we need to roll up our sleeves and work? Yes. But these demonstrations, precisely in connecting to other, powerful movements like those that took place during civil rights, are one aspect of the national preservation of our values. Just imagine how deafening the silence after Trump’s election would have been without any. And get in touch with me if you want to sign up to do some work.


    1. Thanks, Florence. I think demonstrations are great insofar as they show people they are not alone, that they have allies. I am just responding to what I saw as the misplaced euphoria that the post-Trump demonstrations generated. Having gathered people together, having shown how many of us there are, there needs to be the next move, not the next demonstration.


      1. Makes sense, John. I think we basically agree, though I think demonstrations have the added value of making resistance visible under an autocrat, in other words as an exercise of free speech. I and most of the folks I knew demonstrated and then went to our first precinct meetings, and work has ensued from there.


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