I thought today I might address the subject of protest.
At the tail end of last year, I came across this picture posted on Reddit:
Despite an overall positive response to the message, one of the highest ranked comments was a person arguing that the Klansmen, unlike the protestors, had permits to march, while the OWS movements across the nation were illegally squatting. Because they are on private property, it is only right that the police should respond in the ways they do.
I wonder if that person would’ve reacted the same way fifty years ago, when these young men and women were illegally occupying private property.
That’s the Greensboro Four, occupying private property in 1960 in protest of racial segregation. Ought the police to have pepper sprayed them for refusing to leave? The problem with attempting to make out the OWS protestors as criminals who are attacking social order is that this same reasoning has to be applied to criticize the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement, and so on. Even the men and women of the American revolution would, under this blind obedience to the law, be considered criminals and rioters- even traitors. Trying to pretend that the OWS protestors are nothing but vagrants and lawbreakers simply doesn’t work.
However, even if you can’t call them criminals, you can at least call them crazy.
I’m not going to lie, I’m not always a big fan of the crazy outfits some people will wear to protests to make a point. I don’t think dressing up as the Monopoly guy is really all that effective at communicating the messages you want to make.
You’re already protesting en-masse, the satire might be a little overkill…
I’m not saying that I’m right, maybe a couple zombie-protestors is just what you need to drive home a point of mindless consumerism. And I’m not against people wearing what they want to wear- I think the Guy Fawkes masks a la V for Vendetta are actually pretty effective at empowering people and creating a sense of unity. Nevertheless, you still hear people trying to discredit the movement because they don’t like the way the protestors look.
Is this what we’ve really come to? Because the OWS protestors aren’t clean shaven or wearing suits and ties (zombie bankers excluded), they’re just a bunch of moochers? Since when does nonconformity to a social “norm” suddenly create grounds for disproving someone’s views? You could take Jesus, drop him the middle of Times Sqaure, and if he’s dressed in the same clothes he would’ve worn two thousand years ago, then he’d be written off as some hobo or crazy ex-hippie.
But of course, not all the protestors are dressed like something you’d encounter in a post-apocalyptic carnival. You will find protestors cleanly shaven and dressed in suits and ties (who aren’t zombie bankers). What do we call these people?
Hypocrites- or at the very best, spoiled and privileged college kids. That’s right, dress shabbily, and you’re a bum, dress sharply, and you’re a naive idealist completely detached from reality. That’s not to say that such people don’t exist- I have a tough time accepting “revolutionaries” wearing Nike or buying from Starbucks, but to attempt to label the occupy movement as a bunch of hypocrites because they aren’t living in poverty is crazy. No matter what you do, you’re either an outcast of society or from the cream of society- either way, you’re message isn’t worth hearing. Perhaps the best mockery of this line of thought is this picture here:
This seems to be part of a greater issue with protest that people have- a vicious antipathy towards protest regardless of the content or the method. Let me explain.
A criticism a friend of mine once hurled at the OWS movement was that they “Just don’t do anything. They came, they complained, and now they should go home.” Now you might point out that many of the protestors are at the Occupy camps because they have no homes anymore, or even that one of the actions of OWS protestors is helping evicted families reclaim their homes, but let’s just focus on the protest itself. To some degree he- he and others like him- have a point; there’s only so much marching, chanting, and picketing can do. Take this guy for example:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Knesset isn’t going to rip down the barrier-walls in the West Bank or put a moratorium on new settlements because this guy demands it. There are very definite limitations to what this kind of protest can do, and as much as it is decried as pointless, do these critics really want to see the alternatives?
Let’s talk about civil disobedience hear- still (typically) non-violent, but certainly a step up from rallying. We’re talking about sit-ins, human walls, trespassing, and a host of other activities typically leading to charges of disturbing the peace and disrupting productivity. The kind of actions generally associated with MLK Jr., and his inspiration, Gandhi.
Seductive Gandhi is Seductive…
Of course, there are limits on this as well. For all the disruption a group may cause, there’s always the authorities to contend with- you might recall this particular photo:
There’s a case to be made for civil disobedience, but this does really lead back to the original problem of legality. Even if you want to argue for nonviolent actions against the law, one might point out that this is only effective in a situation where there’s a limit on how much you’ll be beaten, imprisoned, or in cases, even killed. I’m guessing that most people wouldn’t have told Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses that civil disobedience would have been the best tactic against the Nazis. Considering that the OWS movement is a form of civil disobedience, one might also simply comment that no effective action is being taken by the protesters.
So what about “direct action”, as certain protestors affectionately call it? Black Bloc tactics. The smashing of windows, the overturning of cars, the setting fire to of public decorations (see the Greek anti-austerity protests), and so forth?
While without a doubt the most confrontational of all the protest methods available to the angry and the frustrated, this is nevertheless the single most universally condemned tactic, even by those who are supportive of the goals in question. “The Black Bloc protestors discredit the movement!” you hear over and over. From the latest NATO or G20 conference clear back to the so-called “Battle in Seattle”, you can hear the authorities railing against these “hooligans” and “rioters” and even the major figures of the protest pleading for non-violence.
And while the destructive methods employed by the more extreme elements of any protest are attacked, ranking in a close second in ridicule is on-line petitioning, Facebook sharing, and a host of other activities shoved under the umbrella pejorative of “Slacktivism”. The past “Kony 2012” campaign, while certainly questionable in its content, seemed to receive the majority of criticism by those who viewed the young people involved as arm-chair activists; at best, misled college kids caught up in the latest cause célèbre; at worst, lazy and entitled brats on a tier lower than the Occupy hipsters.
Now let’s take a step back and look at all of this. Marching- doesn’t work. Civil disobedience- either illegal or still ineffective. Violence- something to be avoided at all cost. Petitions- worse than marching. Added all together, the only acceptable option for people who believe that the system no longer works seems to be abandoning that belief. At this point, we really have to consider the idea that the issue isn’t with how people protest, but with protest itself. That these criticisms are all just rooted in the deeper reaction against public disturbance. There is an element of society who, when asked what action we should take, simply respond “don’t take action!”. Regardless of how you present yourself, or what you do, or to what extremes you do or do not go to- they will always be opposed.
And as disheartening as that might seem- there is positive flip-side to this.
If you just can’t please these people, why bother trying? With the fact in mind that there’s always going to be someone scowling from the sidelines, you’re free to do whatever you want to convince those who are actually willing to listen. If that’s not comforting, I don’t know what is.