Seattle lefties take to the streets again. Only sound and fury?

A new protest movement against Wall Street brings with it a need to figure out what lies beyond signs and sit-ins. WTO reminds the author of pitfalls to avoid for the protesters in Seattle and elsewhere.

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Occupy Wall Street protesters during a demonstration

A new protest movement against Wall Street brings with it a need to figure out what lies beyond signs and sit-ins. WTO reminds the author of pitfalls to avoid for the protesters in Seattle and elsewhere.

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.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, spreading from city to city, has a chance to be a kind of antidote to the Tea Party: not all the outrage is on the right. And there will be politicians who will do the demonstrators favors: already Herman Cain is playing the role of Spiro Agnew by telling the kids to go to school and get a job. Translation: protesters are losers.

But it's also worth remembering that while protests and occupations can highlight issues and outrage, in themselves they don't lead to a solution. The Tea Partiers rather brilliantly transformed their movement into votes and got their folks elected, and they have taken command of the federal government bargaining table. The WTO protests never amounted to much politically because they couldn't deliver at the voting booth. 

Nor could the antiwar movement. When people say that America's young people are the answer, I know that's true but I also worry about whether they will translate their power into effective action, like voting. In 1972, 18-year-olds (like me) got the right to vote. The biggest beneficiaries with an anti-war Democrat on the presidential ballot? It was Richard Nixon and Agnew, who enjoyed a landslide and received a majority of the youth vote. Hard to believe, but it reflected a not-so-silent majority who voted when hippies did not.

I think the '60s have largely been misread. The counter-culture was mostly just that, cultural: long hair, sexual mores, drugs, movies, and music. But the political war was won by the right. Kids who hated protesters in the '60s have grown up to become libertarians or Tea Party activists — but they were also once part of the vanguard of a conservative counter-revolution, the Reagan Revolution, that continues to this day. They exhibit all the traits of their generation: an ability to hold two conflicting ideas in their head at once with narcissistic determination. "I want my taxes cut and my Medicare intact."

Lefty baby boomers rebelled not just against the right-wing establishment, but the liberal one created by their New Deal-, Great-Society-supporting parents. It was Lyndon Johnson, one of the most effective liberal presidents of the 20th century, who was driven out of office by the left of his own party. It was the left that rioted in Chicago and shouted down Hubert Humphrey at the Seattle Center Coliseum in 1968 and helped ensure his defeat by Nixon. The legacy was Reagan, two Bushes, and Democrats who only get in office by running against their own party. The right got Washington, D.C., Wall Street, and the military. What did the left get? Hollywood, NPR, and a few bike lanes.

So, it's great for today's protesters to highlight who the class war is really against (and it ain't the rich), and it's good to create a counterpoint to the Tea Party to gain media face time. It's true that it might force a redefining of the economic debate. It is doubly important to have young people, especially, stand up for their future. But it won't mean much unless there are real political numbers to back it up, if they can't be translated into House or Senate seats. That means votes. It's the only way to trump the advantages money can buy.

Protest movements can also deflate, disappoint, and make cynical its participants. It's a danger. Fortunately, some of the spokespeople I've heard for Occupy Wall Street have been refreshingly articulate, able to out-fox Fox. More of this, please: smart debate and the refusal to let your opponents define the terms of the discussion, to pick the battlefield. For the movement to be effective, it'll have to be hard-nosed, pragmatic, and aim for long-term results.

Otherwise, it'll go the way of WTO's demonstrators. You can see those old Sea Turtle costumes hanging in the Museum of History and Industry.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.