Praying for Rain: Protest Culture’s Gnarled Husk

The scene is Asheville, a small city in North Carolina with a much higher than average activist population, on a gusty day in late March. A line of about 60 people winds their way up through the center of downtown. In time to the pitter-patter of drumsticks on empty caulking buckets, they call and respond.


“What do we want?”/ “Peace!”/ “When do we want it?” Pause. “Now!” Off-kilter choruses of “there ain’t no power like the power of the people cause the power of the people don’t stop!” break out as the march continues. A single police car ambles by.

It was, on that afternoon, five years since the beginning of the Iraq war –- and protest was the order of the day, coast to coast. A thousand mustered in Washington, D.C. Some attempted to rope off the IRS building with crime scene tape, others harangued contractors from corporations such as Halliburton and Lockheed Martin. Los Angeles had 10,000, San Francisco 7,500 (including bike brigades). There were, as in previous years, the predictable smattering of arrests.


At night, on cue, there were vigils.

Clearer this year than ever is the fact that these protests are not a political movement. Instead the protesters have become another in a sea of alternative cultures. The signs, art and displays now less for the purpose of enacting actual change than engaging in an affirming ritual, hanging out with friends and self-expression. Despite the massive rise in the number of Americans against the war, protest attendance has actually declined.

Three days later, long after the protesters faded, American casualties in Iraq reached 4,000. The Iraqi dead are, literally, countless. As you read this, the blood continues to flow.

Coilhouse, is, of course, a love letter to alternative culture (says so right there in the mission statement). In many cases, all that’s expected from such a culture is affirming ritual, hanging out with friends and self-expression — serving to make the world more weird and wonderful than it was before. There can, of course, be political and social aims as well, but rarely are they the primary focus.

However, the devolution of the protest from political method to cultural theater is different. This is something intended for a particular purpose — to push society towards a goal — and touted as working towards that end by the organizers, groups and individuals who engage in it. In fact, the goals have been abandoned: these days, people go to protests like they do concerts.

It was not always so. The Civil Rights movement made extensive use of protests to accomplish its goals. Gandhi bought an empire to its knees and the Suffragettes got women the vote. In and of itself, it is a time-honored method and by its nature, the most visible. Its successes have lent it a certain romance: the brave marchers, ahead of their time, demonstrating for an unpopular but basic right, facing down the scowling and sometimes violent forces of the status quo.



The real story is, of course, more complicated. The Civil Rights movement used protests and civil disobedience as but one of many tactics. King and his allies organized extensively, giving them the numbers and discipline to make their boycotts, strikes and marches count. Like Gandhi or Emmeline Pankhurst before, they found the weak spots in the political system and attacked them relentlessly. They made friends and cut deals. They won.

The ’60s however, wore on, and the emerging flurry of countercultures merged with political protest for a moment that was as shining as it was brief. The pain-staking, often dull behind the scenes work of their predecessors faded, replaced by a sense that simply creating something different would miraculously bring about a better future. Theatrics, art and marching, present in every political movement in history, now took center stage.

By the time the wave broke, it left behind a generation that merged fighting for change and protest in the popular mind. Not just any protest, but the protest of one moment in history, recycled endlessly in the same slogans, the same tactics and even the same resurrected organizations. Perhaps there is the gut hope that this time it will go right, that the good days will come back. At long last there will be victory.

That has not happened. Instead the same culture has shifted causes as the decades have gone by: Reagan in the ’80s, globalization’s injustices in the ’90s and Iraq in our own time. In the process new generations, their idea of what political action means shaped by those that came before, have channeled their energies into it. Often they’ve fallen away, disillusioned.

A pamphlet for Asheville’s main alliance of peace organizations brags about their participation in protests for a slew of causes célèbres. Front and center is the establishment of a hotline, not to listen to input or connect people (with legal help, advice, organizations), but to provide information about yet more protests. Schedules around the country contain similar lists, replete with special showings of movies the audience already agrees with, potlucks, and the occasional bout of yoga.

Why? Because it’s easy, public and damned if it doesn’t feel like something is being done. Dressing up and waving a sign is more glamorous, after all, than talking to single moms about their problems at 8 in the morning or poring over the details of who in a bureaucracy actually screws things up. And it’s much more likely to get you laid.

In some ways the results (cultural masturbation that they are) resemble nothing so much as tribal warfare — less intended to harm the enemy than please the gods. Occasionally, some braves will rush forward, the ensuing arrest and brief detention a badge of honor, whether or not it actually does anything. The chants continue, up into the air, praying for rain.

When the sky fails to part, the excuses pour out: the media is biased! True. The police are repressive! Absolutely. Our government is run by an unresponsive Versailles-like elite, sans fashion sense! Oui. People are apathetic and lazy! Oh yeah.But is it any surprise they’re not rushing to join a culture whose methods have failed to produce results? And if a movement for change is waiting on a fair shake from the powers-that-be, the sun will sooner go nova.

There are notable exceptions. The massive Hispanic protests in 2006 flooded cities throughout the country and successfully fought off attempts to shove through xenophobic immigration laws.


More recently, the internet collective Anonymous has targeted the Church of Scientology. Drawing from the vibrant and eclectic nature of online culture instead of the gnarled husk of the ’60s, it pulled off protests worldwide. However, it remains to be seen if Anonymous has the staying power to truly damage the cult that it faces.


Almost unseen amongst much of the protest coverage, Iraq Veterans Against the War launched the Winter Soldier testimonies (a tactic from the ’60s that actually deserves to be brought back), bringing the brutality of the war home through the stories of those who’ve had to fight it. If such testimonials were relentlessly pushed in the public eye, it might start to do something. But the current protest culture lacks the organization (or motivation) to carry out such a move.

For all that I’ve been railing at the protest groups, it should be remembered that there are many good and decent people within them who are genuinely trying to do the right thing.

But, to review: New Orleans is a wasteland, many of its refugees crammed into formaldehyde-ridden trailers. There are more nuclear weapons than ever. Torture is acceptable. So are illegal wiretaps. The waters are rising and the atmosphere rife with poison. The economy is being driven into the ground by corporate housing scams. America’s military budget has now grown larger than WWII, thanks to a war that’s lasted longer. The architects of the law defend the president’s right to crush children’s testicles. Thousands upon thousands are homeless, maimed or dead.

To say today’s protest culture has fallen short of its goals is polite. To call it a complete fucking failure is honest. It is not 1967, it is 2008. There’s no such thing as a future you don’t have to fight for. Time for a better weapon.

18 Responses to “Praying for Rain: Protest Culture’s Gnarled Husk”

  1. DJ Velveteen Says:

    Let’s keep in mind that this form of protest is no longer dangerous. No surprise that it appeals to people attracted to real progress, but lack the will or the knowhow to make change – once-hippies who don’t know why it’s not still working, or young pissed kids with no real tools to change hearts and minds yet. Many people aren’t yet aware that this is no longer where the war is fought – The Man doesn’t mind protests on the streets, because they have already been given to us. Free Speech Zones, as it were.

    No small irony that places like Asheville (and my own Bellingham, WA), hotbeds of old liberals and young tube slaves, are spawning yawn-worthy, party-line protesters – while Texas, oft-considered one of the most backward states in the Union, gave us Bill Hicks.

  2. margaret Says:

    While I can see this article as well-intentioned, and as bringing up a lot of valid points, I find several glaring errors in it. First of all, to claim that people are not involved in behind-the-scenes grunt organizing is simply ignorant. For every protest-as-event that happens, we are the same people who staff rape-crisis lines, escort people through the throngs of hate-mongers outside of abortion clinics, write and distribute information about the causes we support, organize call-ins, and provide food-not-bombs to untold thousands of people in untold thousands of places.
    Second of all, this article suffers from the ‘they sure accomplished so much way back when’ syndrome. Forgotten are the very real accomplishments of ‘modern’ protest culture. The anti-nuclear protests of the 70s did, in a very real way, bring the problems of nuclear power to the forefront, at a time when they were simply accepted as progress. this is the reason that few nuclear powerplants are built anymore. The IMF and the World Bank, the anti-globalization movements prime targets, are both limping, wounded, and nearly dead. The “Washington Consensus”, the idea that neo-liberalism is the only way to progress, is dead. And we, the world-wide anti-globalization movement, killed it. With, among many other things, protest.
    To call it a “complete fucking failure” sounds like the excuse of someone who feels like they ought be involved, but doesn’t want to. We -are- a movement, and a worldwide one, of anarchists and other rabble-rousers who are willing to confront global capital and governance wherever it peeks its head. We’ve far less numbers in the USA that other parts of the world, I’ll admit.
    If anything, I would say that the difference between then and now is that the time for vast political compromises is over. If Ghandi hadn’t compromised so much, if the radical women’s rights movement hadn’t compromised so much (to use your examples), we wouldn’t need to be fighting so hard today. We’ve compromised, and we’ve compromised, and they’re still logging all the old-growth in the forests. They’re still expanding the powers of the executive office. If the protest movement needs anything, it needs more people who aren’t willing to be swayed by a “well, we’ll only kill 50% of the remaining forests.”

  3. James Shearhart Says:

    Various thoughts spring to mind:

    Saw a teevee news item the other day, wherein folks have been protesting against nuclear weapons outside of Lawrence-Livermore Labs for twenty-five years. It looked like a Geriatrics Day Trip for a Picnic. Obviously the activity had a profound effect on the Lab.

    Remembered a scene from the Environmentalist episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, wherein the “spokesperson” for an environmental protest action couldn’t seem to explain precisely what it was that they wanted, but sure seemed to be having a good time dancing in the drum circle and chatting with her friends in the parade, er, protect march.

    Seems to me that the protests of the past were about profoundly wrongheaded things (women shouldn’t vote, blacks are inferior, gays are just damn creepy, etc), so to be one of a mass of individuals standing up for change against such injustices was both Right and Just. Ostensibly, when the goal was reached, these folks went home and continued to live their own individual lives.

    These days it seems that folks just want to be part of Something, to be not an Individual with other like-minded Individuals, but to be counted as part of a Group, and to be associated with everything that Group stands for, in order to feel as if they are Right and Just in being a part of the Group because they are accepted in the Group, not because what the Group stands for is Right and Just. The Idea is lost (assuming it was there in the first place) and replaced by the perpetual continuation of the Group. They march and chant and “protest” not for an Idea or for Change, but for the Group, because so long as the Group exists, then they exist, they have an Identity. Imagine what all those protest-y folks would do if their every demand was met….

    Now, if I can get off this soap box without plummeting to my death, I’m gonna go protest the lack of Newcastle in my fridge….

  4. Erin Says:

    “Despite the massive rise in the number of Americans against the war, protest attendance has actually declined.”

    As cynical as it might be, I’m gonna have to say that I personally believe that this is due in large part to the lack of a draft and a completely volunteer army in the United States. People don’t get quite as riled up about something if there’s not a chance that they or their children will be sacrificed for the cause. I could be quite wrong though.

  5. Nadya Says:

    I think that the idea of protesting has lost is power because the media has, throughout the last three decades, attached a stigma to it.

    The best example of this that I can think of is the movie PCU. It’s a typical movie for a typical American audience. The story is about a normal dude who is trying to have a good time in a college that’s been overrun with political correctness. There are groups on campus who are alway protesting called the Artocentrists and the Womnyists who are portrayed in the following ways:

    Afrocentrist: “And the walls are painted white. And the chalk is white. And even the copy machine paper is white. This, my friend, is a white devil’s conspiracy.”

    “Jock: Hey, what’s up, babes?
    Womynist #1: Pack up your rape culture and take a hike!
    Jock: You want a brewdog?
    Womynist #1: We’re not interested in your penis!
    Womynist #2: Wait. I think he’s offering us a beer.
    Womynist #2: Um, yes, we would like… a… beer.
    Womynist #1: It’s, like, if you’re nice to them, they bring you things?
    Womynist #2: Exactly.”

    I will be the first to say that “PC culture” is an easy target with its own merits and flaws, but that’s an entirely different post and debate. The point I want to bring up here is that systematically, through portrayals such as the one above and others on TV shows, commercials and films, our culture has emasculated the idea of protesting and even to a degree the idea of being vocal about certain social issues. I think that it’s affected a younger generation who grew up with these kinds of portrayals in pop culture and that it’s prevented them from feeling empowered to raise awareness about issues they care about, for fear of being lumped into a certain category. The stigmatizing portrayal of protest also affects real protestors, who are taken less seriously by the American public due to these associations. The same as how most real feminists today totally don’t agree with Andrea Dworkin, but yet feminism’s detractors love to drag out Dworkin’s ideas to support their arguments of how ridiculous feminism is, and young women hear those concepts associated with feminism and say “ew, I don’t want to be a feminist.”

    There are, of course, people who make it easy for this to happen. Guys like the one from the Penn&Teller Bullshit episode that James mentioned. The media loves people like that because if anyone complains about the stigmatizing portrayal of protest and the potential agenda behind that, they play footage of that guy back to us and say “see? we couldn’t make this up if we tried.”

  6. el Says:

    @ Nadya: Yes, backlash culture is alive and well.

    Quote of the day:
    “If Ghandi hadn’t compromised so much, if the radical women’s rights movement hadn’t compromised so much (to use your examples), we wouldn’t need to be fighting so hard today.”

    I would like to add that if Mother Theresa hadn’t been such an insufferable ego-maniac, we would all be having a much easier time of things.

  7. Ahna Says:

    I agree that street protest has its limitations, and that in some ways it plays directly into the society of the Spectacle. But would you rather see people NOT take to the streets? Would you prefer a country in which citizens are far too apathetic or scared to publicly address the issues they care about?

    You don’t seem to give any insight into what this “better weapon” of social change should be. Perhaps you believe that if all of the activists were busy working on Truly Important Projects, we wouldn’t have the time to participate in convergences. I agree with Margaret when I say that many of those who march in the streets are the same ones doing the community organizing and working on many other projects besides big protests. And really, what’s wrong with some revelry? Imagine that you spend every day advocating for the rights of people who are being trampled by the government or society, for whatever reason (and there are plenty)–wouldn’t you want a way to blow off steam? A way that doesn’t necessitate the use of alcohol, drugs, money, or even violence?

    I know I’ve had lots of fun at protests, and made new friends. Friends who became radical contacts for other, more “behind-the-scenes” projects down the line. Friends who gave me the courage to spend months volunteering in a New Orleans community devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Friends whose creative energies bring me joy and let me believe that there is reason to continue to fight for a better future. Without these spaces to connect with people who enrich my life, I might not have gone from pissed-off young kid to pissed-off young adult trying to do something constructive with my rage. Street protests aren’t the be-all end-all of activism, but they play an important role.

  8. Jordan Lawrence Says:

    I think DJ Velveteen is about the only one to get it right. The implicit argument of Forbes is that no one cares about some ‘protest’ happening because it won’t cause any serious disruption of someone’s day. The difference between protests now and protests of the 60s is that disruption. If the protests against the Iraq war in 2003 looked anything like those of 1967 then things might have gone differently. But no waterhoses were unleashed, no dogs let loose on the crowds, no rubber bullets or riot squads drowning in people. Protest has become just another commodity in the way Hot Topic made punk an acceptable consumer style rather than a rejection of traditional norms. So when people laugh at the idea of a ‘protest’ against the war just remember that if you’re not getting in the way of someone important then you aren’t doing anything at all.

  9. Jon Munger Says:

    One of the great failings of the protest subculture is that it’s become so easy to pigeonhole. When protesting, you’re not displaying an amazing ability to sing in tune, fashion sense based around bandannas, or the capacity to shout slogans through CS gas. The goal of modern protests is simply too self-serving, and just like anyone in any subculture who doesn’t come up for air from time to time and starts drinking the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to forget just not lightly most people take you.

    Yes, most people, the Middle Americans, the silent majority may agree with you. But they see the facepaint and the thrown rocks and the gas masks and the scores and scores of 20 year olds shouting and they simply want nothing to do with you. And so headway is never gained because alienating people becomes a goal in and of itself.

    Modern protests fail to ignite the mass imagination because the protest itself looks chaotic, childish, and self-aggrandizing. Look at the most successful protests of the 20th century. It wasn’t a bunch of teenagers waving placards and shouting, it was orderly, calm, sometimes painfully boring affairs. People showed up in their Sunday best, marched, and endured indignities quietly. You may not like that, but it worked. It worked because it painted the police and the government not as undertrained Joes just trying to calm a near riot, it portrayed them as brutal thugs on a power trip.

    Most people I’ve spoken to have no idea what the Seattle WTO protests were about. None. All they know is that a bunch of dirty punk rock kids and some trust fund hippies got tear-gassed for breaking windows. And you know why they think that? It was easy for the media to portray that. The media always takes the route of least resistance.

    Imagine instead that thousands of people gathered in Seattle not dressed in gas masks and Operation Ivy t-shirts, but dressed like the most conservative collection of young Republicans out there. And moreso, imagine that they march as a unit, without the chaos or rock throwing idiots that flock to Protests for a feeling of infantile power. How much harder will it be to dismiss them in the public eye?

    Given, it wouldn’t be ‘fun’, or ‘a time of self-expression’, but it would be more effective at gaining the trust of Middle America and rattling the cages of power.

    Nothing threatens authority more than the notion that nobody needs them. And by showing organization, calm, and reason, you tell authority just how obsolete it is.

  10. cappy Says:

    I echo what Erin says — no Draft, no sense of inevitability, no real reason to protest. After all, it doesn’t really affect you unless you want it to, right?

  11. Martin Says:

    I happen to know the author, before he became the muckraking journalist that I admire today. While he is certainly critical of the protest movement in general I am not tempted to conclude that he opposes it as a tactic for social change. Protest does bring change. David admits that and includes excellent examples of its effect in his article. But the ‘anarchist/protestor’ subculture does need some self analysis. If you look solely at the examples shown in the article you see the need for this without picking apart how David says it.

    In an early comment, Margaret states:
    First of all, to claim that people are not involved in behind-the-scenes grunt organizing is simply ignorant. For every protest-as-event that happens, we are the same people who staff rape-crisis lines, escort people through the throngs of hate-mongers outside of abortion clinics, write and distribute information about the causes we support, organize call-ins, and provide food-not-bombs to untold thousands of people in untold thousands of places.

    The we in this statement should be amended to a ‘some’. And that ‘some’ is not who is being criticized in his article. Some people do all these things mentioned above and more unmentioned without being part of the great international ‘anarchist’ movement. It is equally ignorant to claim that this movement has killed exploitative international Capitalism. Sure seems alive and well to me.

    The “global capital and governance” that Margaret’s movement is hell bent on smashing(for good reason) isn’t peeking it’s head anywhere. It runs the show, brazenly and openly, more so in America. I think the gist of David’s article is plain. If we are to combat the challenges facing global society today assuming that a protest movement that is based on an ultraradical approach ie. anarchism, the tearing down of global and regional government and capital structures, is doomed to fail. In part, because it plays to a niche group instead of realizing that war and governmental malfeasance is a foe to more than just your group of government hating friends. Wouldn’t it be fun to go show everyone just how much we hate it? Or could protest, in all it’s various forms, incorporate everyday people who might agree with part of what you think, instead of everything you think? Opposition to these challenges isn’t only the purview of the ‘movement.’ And I think that’s the fucking point. (Fucking added for emphasis)

  12. Jerem Morrow Says:

    While there are excellent points throughout ze comments, I’m going to have to side with Martin on this, not that sides are necessarily being taken. Just, y’know…lack of a better term. Not only do we share ze same sentiment, but he beat me to it und said it more succinctly than I ever could.

    Imagine what we could do, we COILHOUSErs, if we could manage an as-needed Borg-like hive mind.

  13. Tequila Says:

    “…To say today’s protest culture has fallen short of its goals is polite…”

    That’s a bit unfair. In The States protest culture has not evolved as readily as it could have. It seems stuck in the 60’s by and large with even a refusal to change hackneyed chants. In an age where the police and those being protested against can dictate when, how, and where protesters can be…it’s doomed to fail before the paint is dry on the day glow Che Guevara banner.

    Look at last summers protests in Burma, the current ones in Tibet, and those in LA not long ago.

    Protesting can still be effective in getting needed attention and dangerous as all hell. When the LAPD beat down Latino protesters they did so knowing those involved were not the same high profile and more mixed crowds of weeks earlier. After all violent confrontation usually occurs when the aggressors have the advantage…

    That changed in the 70’s.

    It’s what made that decade the last real era of protest in the US as an effective strategy. Caesar Chavez used that to great effect as other groups became more well armed and capable or taking on aggressors like the police. This escalation in firepower brought in the FBI to sabotage groups like the Black Panthers for example and set a precedence of undermining ANY organizations that would follow in their wake.

    The organization needed to make protests effective require the kind of people that make everyone from local police to homeland security uneasy. Too many things legally and socially are stacked against those who want to be the core of any movement…as the 60’s showed us there is always a contingent ready to bomb, assassinate, and undermine the real threats to the status quo. It’s why MLK and Bobby Kennedy got a bullet while Teddy and Jesse Jackson continue to do…what they do.

    Of course it didn’t help that many organizations for social change in the 70’s would later be corrupted from the inside out by their own ambitious and at times wildly out of sync members. The roots of some of the most violent gangs today go back to this era as does modern domestic terrorism.

    “…We -are- a movement, and a worldwide one, of anarchists and other rabble-rousers who are willing to confront global capital and governance wherever it peeks its head…”

    That’s what keeps many heavily armed. History has shown repeatedly that self styled “anarchists” do more harm than good. Having seen the first hand results of born-again communists, hard nosed socialists, and political extremists in various Latin American countries…one sees how the freedom fighters of one week become the neo-fascists of the next. Not labeling you or your movement as such mind you …but too many times one gets excited about a social movement only to see change so drastically when they take the reigns of power.

    “Imagine instead that thousands of people gathered in Seattle not dressed in gas masks and Operation Ivy t-shirts, but dressed like the most conservative collection of young Republicans out there.”

    Then they’d be a GAP ad circa 1998 or so…one can’t leave out social class in these scenarios. Those in power and those with wealth are a small circle…they won’t be fooled let alone pleased to embrace the lower classes no matter how they look. They need and want to stay on top…they control the majority of the wealth in this country, and sadly…they know it and band together to maintain that. Can’t protest away the influence of billions upon billions of dollars…even during a weak economy.

    But little miracles still occur. Lets not forget the banding together that got Diz out of Dubai. May not have taken to the streets but the protesting spirit was alive and well if online and backed by people willing to put up cold hard cash.

    Protesting should always be just one of tools used for social and political change not the be all end all punch some see it as.

  14. Richard Says:

    “These days it seems that folks just want to be part of Something, to be not an Individual with other like-minded Individuals, but to be counted as part of a Group, and to be associated with everything that Group stands for, in order to feel as if they are Right and Just in being a part of the Group because they are accepted in the Group, not because what the Group stands for is Right and Just.”

    I’m fairly sure that describes every group, gang, mob, club, subculture, band, religion and state there has ever been – except the last sentence, which I think is on the wrong track.

    I’ve been to virtually every major anti-war demonstration in London since the first ones back before it started – when you had 1 in 60 people in the entire country turning out on a weekday, from all classes and ethnic groups – to the more recent ones, which felt rather less …uh, all-inclusive. The thing is – everyone marching there knew what they were marching for. In an age of interminable wristband campaigns, manufactured rock and revolution-as-advertising-slogan its very easy to be cynical about the motivations of people on these things… whether they saw themselves as individual actors in a movement or allowed themselves to be carried along in a group isn’t really relevant – I’m sure most people (including myself) assume the first and act according to the second, and thats just human mentality.

    That aside aside, I can’t disagree with anything in the main article – mainly because i’ve felt the same way for a very long time, and its a vaguely dispiriting feeling… as to why I keep going on these things – well, I always assumed it was a morale thing. Remind people the problem still exists, that people want to solve it, remind yourself the same thing by being part of the group. If it makes people more confident, serves to empower individuals through the group – well, cool. So much the better. …But, like you said, its just one tool, and not the best, only, or even primary means of change.

    In that link to the Scientology-protest pictures the person posting them talks about how calm and polite the London police are at most demonstrations – I’ve noticed that to, but something else as well – in their apparent concern for the safety of all involved and ‘respect for the right to protest’ they’ve always ensured a gap between the protest/parade/whatever and the people watching from the street. PCU and films like that are the same thing at a larger level – division of a protesting group from the people they’re trying to reach.

    I’ve tended to believe in the idea of cultural hegemony – the rule of ‘common sense’ as defined by a majority that in turn serves to lay down the boundaries and controversies within society, I suppose. A positive movement for change would change those boundaries of ‘common sense’ towards a better society, in the same way that the Suffragettes broke down the ‘common sense’ idea that Women were incapable of making political decisions. The current protest movement isn’t achieving that with vapid slogans and closed-off marches. It seems to me that the really successful protest movements (in whichever direction) in the era of mass culture won through by actively promoting an alternative to the system they saw as flawed – new means of social interaction (look at all those working mens clubs that were originally founded by the Trade Union Movement…), new forms of culture, literature, art, new lifestyles and means of supporting them…

  15. dforbes Says:

    Oh my there are a lot of detailed and intelligent responses here. Reminds me once again why I like this site so damn much.

    Nadya: A very well-put and valid point about media (though PCU did at least have George Clinton to redeem it a bit). But I’m not sure where the chicken-or-egg comes in this situation. Did the media backlash come first, or did the increasing insularity of protest culture make such a backlash/stereotyping far easier?

    From my own experiences both participating in protests and covering them from the media side, I can say that while there’s certainly some smug bias against the protesters, a lot of protest groups can try the patience of even the most sympathetic reporters or correspondents.

    All the same, the onus is now on would-be rebels and rabble-rousers to find a way around being marginalized and break old impressions. The media, by its very nature, has a shark-like quality — at some point a tactic innovating or gripping enough will get their attention — and new technology is reducing the stranglehold of traditional media and allowing more voices in.

    Erin, cappy: The lack of a draft is certainly a factor. But there are a lot of people out there affected by Iraq directly, through their friends or family. To use one example, the northeastern part of NC, where I grew up, has as its representative one of the most ignorant, theocratic, conservative politicians I have ever met.

    But the same guy was also one of the first Republicans to switch over against the Iraq war, because his constituents were getting very, very angry that a parent had been away longer than they were supposed to or that a child never came back. A less insular, better organized protest culture could gain some serious ground.

    Jerem: Hive-mind it is! Now that would surprise the hell out of the various forces of the status quo.

    All together now, in creepy unison… We are Coilhouse…

    Ahna: I’m staunchly pro-revelry and obviously I want people to go into the streets, but I’d like for said culture to get it together/adapt enough to actually make a significant impact on the issues its targeting. I think its clear that’s not happening. As for the “better weapon” I think the three recent examples of more successful/innovative protest tactics given offer some damn good starting points.

    Tequila: The piece is targeted at the modern, Western variety of protest culture. I’m glad you made that distinction, as the cultures of Burmese, Tibetan and Latin protest are quite different. Chavez is an excellent example of effective protest.

    And yes, little miracles shouldn’t be forgotten. I tend to believe, cliche as it may sound, that ultimately there’s no such thing as unbeatable odds.

    Margaret: I simply disagree. The anti-nuclear protests barely made a dent in public support for nuclear power. Three Mile Island, however, made a huge impact as people feared for their own safety, while economic changes (especially around oil), led the nuclear power industry to scale back. As James pointed out, nuclear research has continued on and the nuclear power industry is now setting up for a comeback.

    I think any declaration of victory over neoliberalism is very premature, as the IMF and World Bank are still functioning and carrying out much the same agenda as before. The latter took more of a real hit from Wolfowitz’s incompetence than it ever did from angry activists. If anything, the reaction of neoliberalism’s architects to the anti-globalization movement (meet in secluded areas) has sharply shown the limits of relying on protest.

    While plenty of individuals within the protest culture may do good in their own right — something I did point out above — the fact remains that any movement that sees declining numbers and clout while more and more people come to agree with some of its basic goals has a serious organizing problem.

    As for getting rid of compromise, it’s worth remembering that whatever flaws the effective movements in the past (there were plenty of failed ones) may have had, they still won their basic goals. Utopia didn’t break out, but the British left India, women got the vote and centuries of racist laws came tumbling down. Importantly, all those movements very specifically refused to compromise on some core points. They also realized that a movement that eschews all compromise is going to become an isolated band of purists who never get close to achieving their aims.

    Richard: Your last paragraph in particular is perfectly, completely right.

  16. Ahna Says:

    In response to the “better weapon” point: I was hasty in jumping on that, and I’ve re-read the examples. Here are my new thoughts:

    I would love to see Winter Soldier testimonies and others like it pushed more into the public eye, and will keep that in mind the next time I meet with other organizers.

    The Anonymous protests don’t seem all that different from various other protests, in agenda or aesthetic; slightly different enemy, same signs & masks.

    The Hispanic protests of 2006 are awe-inspiring, and I wish that Americans would turn out in droves like that. But that’s your whole point, I suppose–that Americans AREN’T turning out. The occupation of Oaxaca, Mexico by the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) which began with the teachers union strike in May 2006 had me & many of my friends begging the question, “Why can’t this happen in the U.S.? Why can’t WE take over radio & television stations?”

    The obvious answer is that we don’t have the massive showing of solidarity that fueled the APPO. I don’t know when we will. I don’t have the answers…but until I do (hah), I doubt I’ll stop marching in the street.

    (Unless the government decides to roll out its “better weapon”, the Active Denial System on protesters in the U.S. Bringing it up makes me feel paranoid, but seriously, they have a ray gun that’s technically non-lethal…how long before the cops decide to stop using tear gas canisters that bandana-clad youths can lob right back at them, and opt instead for a machine that can “inflict enough pain to make you instantly stop whatever it is you’re doing” from over a mile away? Maybe the next protester fashion trend will be mirrored suits!)

  17. Eric Arden Says:

    Well thought out and well written. While being a sort of econo-military conservative and an American, I may question the rationale of many protest movements (especially those that originate on American campuses), and the like, but I am absolutely ecstatic about the fact that these things can occur without significant governmental reprisal. I love the fact that this site can exist; a catalogue of fantastic people and ideas that can only flourish under the banner of well meaning and well protected civilizations. Art like this can only thrive when bellies are full and the subways are running. It takes a lot to keep this going, much of it morally questionable to people too comfortable to consider the checks on the table at the end of our happy hours. I see nations like mine as a body, with the left (at it’s best) as the heart, and the right (again, at it’s best) as the will and the means to keep it all running and keep it all safe. Love what you’re doing. Have since I ran into it. Keep it coming. And fire at will….

  18. 903: What's Yours is Mine - Page 25 Says:

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