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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Throw bills from the balcony

I know it's dangerous to read more into one event than it warrants, and you have to watch out for those dreaded media and conservative narratives, but this AP story about today's protest in Washington, D.C. certainly has a Vietnam-era feel to it:
Several thousand anti-war demonstrators marched through downtown Washington on Saturday, clashing with police at the foot of the Capitol steps where more than 190 protesters were arrested.

The group marched from the White House to the Capitol to demand an end to the Iraq war. Their numbers stretched for blocks along Pennsylvania Avenue, and they held banners and signs and chanted, "What do we want? Troops out. When do we want it? Now."


About 13 blocks away, nearly 1,000 counterprotesters gathered near the Washington Monument, frequently erupting in chants of "U-S-A" and waving American flags.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert "Buzz" Patterson, speaking from a stage to crowds clad in camouflage, American flag bandanas and Harley Davidson jackets, said he wanted to send three messages.

"Congress, quit playing games with our troops. Terrorists, we will find you and kill you," he said. "And to our troops, we're here for you, and we support you."
Well, Buzz, we all want good things for our troops and bad things for terrorists, so mainly you've stuck it to us with your fashion choices. I'll raise you a Charles Manson tattoo and call you on Altamont. Let me know when you enter the 1980's and start buying Izods and argyles.

My crystal ball needs a new needle because the albums keep skipping, but it seems we are in some kind of calm before the storm. I don't mean that all hell is going to break lose tomorrow, but given the fact that nothing in our Iraq policy changed after the ballyhooed Bush Report, I give it two years tops before a whole lot more people are willing to go into the streets. I could be wrong, naturally, but I do sense a change.

The caution that must be raised is that today's protests, even with relatively substantial numbers of arrests, are tame compared to the 1960's. One interesting aspect is that the vastly lowered transaction cost of organization and communication wrought by the internet has not led, so far, to the use of the medium to organize strategic, nation-wide protests designed to ratchet up pressure on the government. In short, there is not a broad-based direct action movement outside the ANSWER coalition, and whatever one thinks of ANSWER, it seems unlikely that after four-plus years ANSWER is the answer.

That's not a slam at those who currently organize protests, but a recognition that things simply have not gotten to the point where public opinion has shifted enough. Organizers can only do so much. There has to be a shift in public opinion towards that direct action. It's worth considering whether the obvious lack of progress in the small step of starting to end the occupation of Iraq will mark the beginning of such a shift.

By comparison, the civil rights movement in the 1950's and early 1960's was engaging in civil disobedience rather than simply demonstrating, with all that entails. There was a commitment to be arrested over unjust laws and a willingness to endure great physical hardship, and even death, without resorting to violence one's self. A person would have to be pretty sure that elections alone are never going to achieve one's goal before going that route. There's no doubt that Martin Luther King and the myriad other people in the civil rights movement understood they had to go that route, but even they had their doubts at times.

Doubts about electoral politics were, to my way of understanding, a tremendously sad aspect of the tragedy of the 1960's regarding the Vietnam War. As much sacrifice, blood and terror that civil rights advocates endured, they had won an historic and ultimately lasting victory. The franchise had been secured for blacks, but within a few short years the peace movement that sprang forth from nuclear freeze, civil rights and free speech roots on (mostly) white college campuses had come to believe that electoral politics was not going to end the war. Shut out from the levers of power in the Democratic Party, and with the Republican Party, as now, not an option, what was to be done?

I oversimplify, of course, as any short discussion of the time period must, but I believe that basic tension between "establishment politics" versus "direct action" was real and that we face the potential of such a tension reappearing among Democratic activists. There are notable signs of growing frustration within the netroots, much as there was among young activists who formed such initially democratic organizations as SDS.

That being said, old-fashioned street protests have become entirely predictable and are mostly underplayed or ignored by the media. Police forces are far, far more professional than a generation ago when it comes to dealing with protests, meaning that the mindless savagery of a Bull Connor or a Richard J. Daly is not on display. To be clear, there may be individual acts of inappropriate police behavior, but it sounds like today's protesters had to work pretty hard to get arrested.

I would hasten to add that the progressive blogosphere has tradionally eschewed street protests, by and large, but given that the stakes are rising I believe there will be a greater willingness in the future to consider them.

It's easier said than done, but perhaps what is needed is a form of direct action that is more creative, less directly confrontational but far more subversive of government legitimacy over the occupation of Iraq. If you've heard of "freeway blogging" perhaps you'll forgive the clumsy appellation "Daily Show Direct Action." (And I can hope, anyhow, that Jon Stewart would forgive it and recognize it for the compliment it is.)

If anyone could come up with something against the war as brilliant as this account of a counter-demonstration against white supremacists in North Carolina they would be lionized forever:
White Power!” the Nazi’s shouted, “White Flour?” the clowns yelled back running in circles throwing flour in the air and raising separate letters which spelt “White Flour”.

“White Power!” the Nazi’s angrily shouted once more, “White flowers?” the clowns cheers and threw white flowers in the air and danced about merrily.

“White Power!” the Nazi’s tried once again in a doomed and somewhat funny attempt to clarify their message, “ohhhhhh!” the clowns yelled “Tight Shower!” and held a solar shower in the air and all tried to crowd under to get clean as per the Klan’s directions.

At this point several of the Nazi’s and Klan members began clutching their hearts as if they were about to have a heart attack. Their beady eyes bulged, and the veins in their tiny narrow foreheads beat in rage. One last time they screamed “White Power!”

The clown women thought they finally understood what the Klan was trying to say. “Ohhhhh…” the women clowns said. “Now we understand…”, “WIFE POWER!” they lifted the letters up in the air, grabbed the nearest male clowns and lifted them in their arms and ran about merrily chanting “WIFE POWER! WIFE POWER! WIFE POWER!”

It was at this point that several observers reported seeing several Klan members heads exploding in rage and they stopped trying to explain to the clowns what they wanted.
I can't easily find an account of this clown-ter protest anywhere in the traditional media, but it's so brilliant it doesn't matter whether it actually happened as described or not. If it did, it should go down in progressive annals as one of the greatest direct actions ever, and if it didn't, whoever wrote it up should get a special award and a lot of money to keep doing it. What we need is not more arrests, but more white flour, combined with continued efforts to change the Democratic Party.

Ideas are more powerful and valuable than anything else, you know. Something has to give sooner or later, and the later it occurs, the higher the cost to our national security, our troops and our country's unity.

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