Even though I take part in them now and then, I am ambivalent about antiwar protest marches and demonstrations. On the whole, I don't believe they have any tangible effect. (Note: I am a veteran of Vietnam-era protests and had the same opinion back then.)
Ah-HAH, you say. The immigration marches just showed you. Why can't antiwar marches get the same respect?
Good question. And I believe I have an answer.
Sometimes it ain't what you do, but the way that you do it, that matters. Some demonstrations have changed the world. But in my long and jaded experience some demonstrating is a waste of time. Some demonstrating is even counterproductive. What makes effective protest? I've been thinking about that since the big antiwar march in Washington last September (yes, I was there; afterward I suggested some rules of etiquette for protesting). I started thinking about it more after Coretta Scott King died, and I saw historic photos of civil rights marches in the newspapers.
What's striking about that photo? Notice, for example, the suits. Yeah, everybody dressed more formally back in the day. But this brings me to --
Rule #1. Be serious.
Study the great civil rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s. People in those marches looked as if they were assembled for a serious purpose. They wore serious clothes. They marched both joyously and solemnly. Most of all, they carried themselves with the dignity befitting a great and noble cause.
And if they chanted or carried signs, the chants or signs didn't contain language you couldn't repeat to your grandmother.
The antiwar protests I've attended in New York City, by contrast, were often more like moving carnivals than protests. Costumes, banners, and behavior on display were often juvenile and raunchy. Lots of people seemed to be there to get attention, and the message they conveyed was LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM, not NO IRAQ WAR. Really.
And, please, nix the street theater. It isn't that I don't enjoy some of it -- I am fond of Billionaires for Bush -- and a display of flag-draped coffins moving down the street has real impact. But most of the time street theater is juvenile and tiresome and reminds me of bad summer camp skits. Except raunchier.
Which takes me to --
Rule #2. Be unified of purpose.
One of my ongoing gripes about antiwar marches is the way some groups try to tack their own agenda, which many others in the demonstration may not share, onto marches. International A.N.S.W.E.R. is a repeat offender in this category. Most of the marchers last September were in Washington for the sole purpose of protesting the war. But ANSWER hijacked CSPAN's attention and put on a display so moonbatty it made The Daily Show; see also Steve Gilliard.
Message control is essential. During the Vietnam era, I witnessed many an antiwar protest get hijacked by a few assholes who waved North Vietnamese flags and spouted anti-American messages, which is not exactly the way to win hearts and minds --
Rule #3 -- Good protesting is good PR.
I know they're called "protests," but your central purpose is to win support for your cause. You want people looking on to be favorably impressed. You want them to think, wow, I like these people. They're not crazy. They're not scary. I think I will take them seriously (see Rule #1). That means you should try not to be visibly angry, because angry people are scary. Anger is not good PR. Grossing people out is not good PR. Yelling at people that they're stupid for not agreeing with you is not good PR. Screaming the F word at television camera crews is not good PR.
Rule #4 -- Size matters.
Size of crowds, that is. Remember that one of your purposes is to show off how many people came together for the cause. But most people will only see your protest in photographs and news videos. More people saw photographs of this civil rights demonstration in August 1963 than saw it in person.
The number of people who marched for immigration reform over the past few days was stunning. It's the biggest reason the marches got news coverage. The overhead shots were powerful. On the other hand, last September I wrote of the Washington march --
The plan was to rally at the Ellipse next to the White House and then march from there. Only a small part of the crowd actually went to the Ellipse, however. Most seem to have just showed up and either stayed in groups scattered all over Capitol Hill, or else they just did impromptu unofficial marches as a warmup to the Big March. ... It would have been nice to get everyone together for a mass photo, but that didn't happen. Too bad. It would have been impressive.
As I waited on the Ellipse I could see vast numbers of people a block or two away. The Pink Ladies, for example, had a big contingent and were busily showing off how pink they were -- LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT HOW CLEVER I AM -- but they seemed to evaporate once the official march started. (Re-read Rules #1 and #2.)
Anyway, as a result, there were no photos or videos that effectively documented how big the crowd really was. You had to be there.
A sub-rule -- IMO, an occasional REALLY BIG demonstration that gets a lot of media attention is way better than a steady drizzle of little demonstrations that become just so much background noise..
Rule #5 -- Be sure your opposition is uglier/more hateful/snottier than you are.
In the 1950s and 1960s white television viewers were shocked and ashamed to see the civil rights marchers -- who were behaving nicely and wearing suits, remember -- jeered at by hateful racists. And when those redneck Southern sheriffs turned fire hoses and attack dogs on the marchers, it pretty much doomed Jim Crow to the dustbin of history. I think Cindy Sheehan's encampment in Crawford last August, although a relatively small group, was successful because of the contrast between Sheehan and the Snot-in-Chief cruising by in his motorcade without so much as a how d'you do. Truly, if Bush had invited the Sheehan crew over for lemonade and a handshake, the show would've been over. But he didn't.
At the same time, if Sheehan's crew had yelled obscenities or thrown rocks at Bush's motorcade, it would have helped Bush's approval ratings considerably. But they didn't.
This takes us back to rules #1 and #2. You don't win support by being assholes. You win support by showing the world that your opponents are assholes.
Rule #6 -- Demonstrations are not enough.
It's essential to be able to work with people in positions of power to advance your agenda. And if there aren't enough people in power to advance your agenda, then get some. Frankly, I think some lefties are caught up in the romance of being oppressed and powerless and can't see beyond that.
Remember, speaking truth to power is just the first step. The goal is to get power for yourself. Fortunately, the netroots revolution is showing us the way to do just that.
I don't know how to persuade people who march against the war to let go of self-indulgence and exhibitionism and get serious. I once posted the opinion that I am weary of the "old fringe that's stuck in a 1970s time warp of identity politics and street theater projects and handing out fliers for the next cause du jour rally," and boy, did I get slammed for that. Clearly, I had just slaughtered a whole herd of sacred cows. Imagine whistling "We Shall Overcome" at a Klan meeting.
But I direct your attention to an article by Sam Graham-Felsen in the February 13, 2006 issue of The Nation, "The New Face of the Campus Left."
Ever since the heyday of left-wing campus activism in the late 1960s and early '70s, progressive students have struggled with looking frivolous, reactionary or cliched to their peers. At the University of North Carolina senior Jessica Polk says students have long been "sick of what the left is doing--they want to walk to class without being handed a flier about a rally or vigil."
I was a college student in the late 1960s and early '70s, and I assure you a lot of people felt the same way back then. Anyway, the article goes on to make the point that "The right actually ends up looking cooler than the left," which has resulted in large numbers of impressionable young people identifying with the right against the left. Not the effect we should be going for. I also believe the antiwar movement today is floundering because of lack of cohesive leadership. The dignified presence of Martin Luther King guided the great civil rights protests and made them exemplary. Judging by some demonstrations I've seen, the antiwar movement is being guided by Sideshow Bob.