I attended my first real, full-on political rally and march today. I was there as an observer – and thank God, because I would have died of shame to be associated with these buffoons. I did, however, learn some lessons (none of which I’m backing with sociological evidence, so if you read this and actually know something about it, please feel free to point out what a buffoon I am). Here they are:
1. Protests like this one seem to be largely political-identity masturbation. Strikes and boycotts work because they have economic impacts; protest marches work when they scare people (I have a pet theory that militants during the Civil Rights era had a lot to do with the success of the pacifist branch of things, but it’s not something I’ve really studied). This protest achieved nothing except letting the people involved think that they were making a difference, when in actuality they all probably set their causes back a bit (see points 2 and 3). Lots of young people looking cool in their riot bandanas, etc. But I’m sure they all felt like they had done their duty – after all, as one march leader chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” That’s exactly what democracy looks like, if you’re a 17th-century aristocrat: the wailing of thousands of voices, achieving nothing.
2. In order to make a big scene, you have to align yourself with so many other political groups that you threaten a lot of your credibility. I mean, how can you have hippies, Communists, anarchists and Black Panthers at the same rally? Each associating with the others just makes them all look radical, naive, and stupid to the people that are most likely to be sympathetic to each. The World Trade Organization protesters have the same problem – you’ve got union workers advocating protectionism to help domestic labor mixing with fair-traders who see trade as a way to reduce poverty in developing countries.
It’s the same problem with political parties themselves – hell, it’s the basic problem of human association: balancing the strength of numbers with the dilution of individual goals. In order to have an impact, groups have to align; but by aligning, they lose control over the type of impact they make.
3. People are FUCKING STUPID (imagine I said that in the voice of Yahtzee Crenshaw). I have never heard so much naive bullshit in my life, and I very nearly transformed into a 60-year-old white Texan oilman just so I could feel vindicated by how FUCKING STUPID THESE DERN LIBERALS ARE. Block after block of slogans: “Fight the power! “Revolution!” “Rise up!” as if slogans actually DO something, or as though they even know what the word “revolution” means. They take credit for whatever progress the US has made while denying any responsibility for anything bad that’s happened. Because, you know, their marches made the minimum wage increase happen! And their choice not to vote – or to vote for Ralph Nader (or somebody else with an equally good chance of winning the election, like Eugene Debs) – CERTAINLY didn’t have anything to do with the ascent of the Bush administration. By about halfway through the march – after one group of people laid down on the ground and then stood up triumphantly to chants of “Rise up! Rise up!”, as if anyone other than themselves was moved by that piece of theater – I was really hoping that someone would give the police an excuse to gas the whole lot of them, just for their smugness.
4. There is tremendous irony in a rally that advocates free speech while creating a hostile environment for dissent. Example: at one point during the rally, a speaker was slandering the police, and then told the crowd, “If you disagree, speak up!” I seriously considered raising my hand – I know and like a number of cops, and my stint as a teaching assistant for a police and society class has given me a degree of insight into the problems inherent in forcing a small percentage of the population to have to deal with all of society’s worst shit – but (ahem) I was there on sociological business. But I wonder how many people in that crowd would actually agree to a wholesale, indiscriminate “fuck you” to all police everywhere – and how many would admit it in private.
I do like the crowd’s message in this one, though, right around 2:30. That’s a message we can ALL get behind.