I feel the aging baby boomer's ambivalence about the Occupy Wall Street (Seattle, LA, etc) movement. On the one hand, I am entirely sympathetic with the goal of getting notice and doing something about economic injustice in America. And I encourage the kids to get out and make noise.
On the other hand, I've grown cynical about protests, demonstrations, and taking to the streets. Teamsters and Sea Turtles, how did that work out? I've been a protester myself, starting with anti-Vietnam war marches in the late '60s to screaming my lungs out at the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001. I've also covered numerous protests as a reporter, including WTO in 1999.
The unfortunate truth about WTO was that it was a wonderful counterpoint to the free-trade juggernaut, but the coalition was not sustainable. Anarchists and Pat Buchanan: not a good marriage. The outpouring of passion in the streets, reflecting many of the same economic justice concerns expressed by the occupiers today, lacked coherence. The issues are complex, the solutions various. It has to stay simple to be most effective.
From a media standpoint, the only thing that made WTO news and gave it the kind of coherence TV understands was when the black-clad cohorts began smashing a Starbucks and attacking a Nike store. That had the effect of getting the message out globally, but it tainted the message.
Protests, right and left, are always a mess, an amalgam. People are there for different reasons, with different values. Not all Tea Partiers are racists, but a few have shouted epithets. Not all Sea Turtles want what the rest of America wants. Portlandia exists outside the mainstream, as the TV show says, in an alternative timeline where Al Gore won. Unfortunately, in the real world, he did not.
The longer protests go on, the messier they get. Draw a few reporters and you also draw people with fringier agendas. In the '60s, if you opposed the war, you might find yourself marching next to Black Panthers. Opponents to the WTO included right-wing Frenchmen and people opposed to takeover by the Illuminati. The Tea Party crowd includes people who don't believe Obama's birth certificate. Staying on message becomes impossible with a media looking for outrage, controversy, something to boost the next news cycle. It's reality TV, and someone's always willing to hog the camera, jump the shark, be a jackass.
Effective protest tactics are often off-putting as well. One is for protesters to create drama, and make enemies to keep the faithful fired-up. The media, even friendly media, quickly become the enemy because they will not cover a demonstration to any protester's satisfaction, and their motives are always suspect. Which leads to DIY media, which is America's biggest unpaid industry. This ensures that bias will be embedded and we can all go on believing what we are predisposed to believe.
Another conjured enemy: law enforcement. In demonstrations, some cops just go nuts. Others, however, are provoked, or made to look bad. Demonstrators will over-dramatize injury or oppression to make a point. Nothing rallies troops like waving the bloody shirt, no matter who's responsible for the stain. Even peaceful protests thrive on martyrs. To be taken seriously, you must be able to ratchet everything up to 11.
The main benefit of public protest — demonstrations, marches, sit-ins and the like — is how it can help a person realize they are not alone, to feel for a few hours, days, or weeks a collective energy surge and support. I remember standing on top of the old Monorail terminal at Westlake over Pine Street during an anti-war demonstration circa 1970, and getting goose bumps as I looked down on the swarm of protesters below who looked like me, who wanted what I wanted. The end of my marching days came when as a monitor on an anti-war march on Broadway, I was almost pushed through a plate glass window by my own people as the crowd surged to attack a Safeway that was defying a boycott on grapes. Call me shallow, but I didn't want to die for grapes.
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