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March 22, 2005

Protest Culture

By Jim Dallas

The Washington Monthly has a piece up about contemporary protest culture. The author concludes:

Perhaps in an age when blogs have given average people the pundit's power to bring down network anchors and Senate leaders and shape the nation's political agenda, dissenting Americans no longer need protests and marches to be heard. Yet there remains among many a need for something more—to have an adventure, to experience an historic event, to make direct connections with like-minded people. This existential desire, plus a certain nostalgia for the good old days, fuel much of contemporary march culture. Which is fine: Protesting for protesting's sake serves a market. But so do rock concerts and tractor pulls. If today's marchers want their efforts to mean a great deal more than that, they would do well to recognize the real reason why the marches of yesteryear are remembered. It wasn't just about the messengers. It was about the message.

This reminds me of an episode during my freshman year of college. I was bored one afternoon so I started walking around downtown Austin just to learn about the place. Eventually I managed to run into an anti-death penalty protest that was being organized down in Republic Park. To be honest, I've always been somewhat against the death penalty (because, frankly, there's something tacky and morally offensive about the degree to which capital punishment is employed in this state); although to be sure I've also always been more or less indifferent.

So I stopped by just to see what was going on. A couple minutes later somebody handed be a placard. It wasn't too much longer before I was more or less caught up in the moment, which I went along with mostly out of sheer Gonzo-esque curiousity. After all, we hear a lot about this great Austin protest culture, so I wanted to know what it was all about.

(At the time, I was a peon page-designer at the Texan; despite the fact I had no power over editorial copy at the time I never found it coincidental that the managing editor gave all staffers a good warning about getting involved in protests a few days later).

But my experience begs the question - how many people are involved in these things by accident, sort of like Forrest Gump?

Later on in my college career, I pushed the UDs to get active in the campus anti-war movement. There are of course somethings that are so important and likely to sway opinion (as I think a lot of people thought in the months before the war in Iraq started) that people of good conscience have to be involved. And then of course there's everything else.

Posted by Jim Dallas at March 22, 2005 01:42 AM | TrackBack


But my experience begs the question - how many people are involved in these things by accident, sort of like Forrest Gump?

Interesting question - my first protest was somewhat accidental, too. I decided to cut through the South Mall on my way to class one day back in 1997 in the off chance that I could sneak a peek at Jesse Jackson, who was there to speak out about Law School Prof Lino Graglia's offensive comments. I got swept up in the moment and, next thing I knew, was occupying a building.

Maybe protest movements need to use the "accidental protestor" as an organizing strategy?? :)

Posted by: Sarah at March 22, 2005 09:19 AM

And it begs another question: Have protest strategies become outdated, nostalgic, and ultimately counterproductive, especially when unlinked from any specific legislative reform (e.g., with King, the Voting Rights Act)? Certainly all the shock value has gone, and the courts have adjusted the laws to substantially accomodate all manner of civil disobedience.

Protest politics plays to the narcissism of the participant, but too frequently achieves little to nothing, or, sometimes can be counterproductive. Conceiving the '60s antiwar and civil rights movements as the only models for lefty activism, IMO, the left has eschewed older models of mass organizing from the populist and union movements (and newer models developed by e-activists and electoral political consultants) that require more organizational discipline and a sharper focus on changing policy.

Saul Alinsky said radicals owe it to their principals to be effective.

I also don't think much, by the way, of people holding protests for the sole purpose of getting press or making pointless public pronouncements. To me, if your only goal for an activity is to get in the media, you're wasting your time. Nobody's lives will be better, even if you achieve your aims. You're just helping them sell advertising.

Posted by: Scott at March 22, 2005 10:48 AM

For me, it was back in 1969. I was taking a short cut through the Main Building on my way to the Academic Center and was greeted by a cloud of tear gas. It turns out the Campus Cops were gassing some war protesters. I wasn't all that political back then, but once I'd paid the price, I figured I was part of the movement.

Posted by: Charles Watkins at March 22, 2005 11:30 AM
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