The End of Protest
There’s a lot of talk about the “mob” these days. Of course, whether a group of angry people is a mob or just a group of concerned citizens exercising their rights is disputed on all corners of the Internet. I won’t focus on whose side is winning or who has the moral high ground. I look forward to the diatribes in our excellent and enthusiastic comment section on that topic. Instead I want to address a larger concern – futility. Protest as a method for change has become a shallow caricature of its more effective past, and it is currently energized by participants with very little apparent knowledge of that past.
Given the hagiography of the 60s, protesters and organizers can be forgiven for thinking protest marches and rallies are the noblest of pursuits. The King era saw remarkable progress surrounding issues of race and equality. But new protest organizers are learning what the March for Life horde on the national mall has known for a decade – protest rallies and marches no longer sting. Marching and chanting have lost the power to move the needle. There are exceptions of course, but I contend that protest has an ever diminishing power to move us. With a few caveats (border policy on children for example) it is hard to point to significant policy changes that are a direct result of a protest movement in the last 5 years, in spite of record setting rallies and marches. Why is protest suddenly so impotent?
I can think of three forces at work.
1. Preaching to the Camera
Modern protests aim for mass media attention at the exclusion of everything else. In a 2011 study, Sarah Sobieraj assembles data from the 2000 and 2004 presidential election cycle where she studied protest movements, methods and goals. In her excellent book, “Soundbitten”, she analyzes 50 different groups and makes a compelling case that protest movements have abandoned the work of building an internal culture in favor of a “dogged pursuit of mainstream media”. With the rise of social media this tendency has worsened. Protests desperately want to “go viral” and in pursuit of clicks and views they are willing to try increasingly outrageous tactics.
The result is that a “protest” (at least a planned one) is a predictable theater of outrage and outlandish behavior. It’s a fun party of like minded folks (plus screaming) – rather like a Kruger family reunion. They come together to support each other and “tell it like it is”. Previously produced for CNN, protests now target Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Protest groups have morphed from a lens focusing on injustice, to a Disneyland of outrage, the happiest, angriest place on earth. Sobieraj points out that this single minded focus on mass media erodes efforts at the many other activities that go into building a movement.
Dr. King’s movement had leadership training, and workshops. It lobbied state and local officials. It energized and encouraged the faithful with mass-meetings. Volunteers fielded literature campaigns, recruiting drives and the list goes on (See Taylor Branch’s excellent 3-volume history of the era). The media garnered at marches and events was important, but it was only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Moreover, King taught a philosophy of action based on non-violence and love that lent a larger narrative of dignity to his followers – and core followers were trained and indoctrinated into that philosophy. He appealed to their “better angels” as a source of unity and action. This remarkable narrative held long enough to accomplish much before some leaders began to tire of turning the other cheek and the movement began to fray. It was more than a decade of grueling, often disheartening work – mostly behind the scenes.
Not so modern protest, which is more of an “event” than a movement. The focus is not on educating, understanding or outreach. It is closer to “heightening the contradictions” – bold, brash, often sensational antics or theatrics designed to get views, clicks and coverage. It’s singularly ineffective. With everyone in their own filter bubbles, these antics become badges of honor for like minded viewers (look at these brave women who are not going to take it any more) or fodder for sniping and ridicule (look at these crazy people screaming obscenities). Fill in your own version of the story based on your world view. None of it promotes higher ideals or principles. There’s no narrative – no appeal to better angels. More importantly, it is not effective at building allies or changing official’s positions. It has lost the ability to persuade.
2. Seductive Unilateralism
Protest movements no longer believe in persuasion as a goal. This is an underlying narrative that runs counter to King’s movement. King and his followers were essentially powerless. They were a group of oppressed minorities demonstrating through non-violent action that they had an inner humanity and dignity that transcended racial stereotypes. Their efforts highlighted injustice. They were designed to win allies and reduce the damage done by racism to both blacks and whites. After his house was bombed, many of King’s followers were ready to turn to violence. He responded, “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them.” Love was a mantra for Dr. King. He believed in love and non-violence as a transcendent force, not a tactic. He built bridges and made allies.
Meanwhile the mantra of modern protest is that of Howard Beale in the 1976 film “Network” – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.” It’s aggressively confrontational, angry, sordid, profane, ugly, dehumanizing and degrading. Whether it’s bellicose MAGA types shouting obscenities at the press at a Trump rally, or raging leftist hipsters driving a senator from a restaurant, it self-consciously diminishes the humanity of it’s target and by extension it’s own members. Why are movements unconcerned with allies?
One reason may be the normalization, even ennoblement, of hate. Disagreement is gone, replaced by demonizing, diminishing and dehumanizing opposition. This no compromise position threatens to hoist modern protest on its own petard. You can deal with people who share your humanity but see the world differently. You can’t make a deal with the devil. I know the temptation to see the opposition as beyond the pale and not worthy of compromise. But if you take that position, you are not walking in the shoes of Martin Luther King – who thought all men, even the white men who oppressed and denigrated him in the worst way, were worthy of dignity and dialog.
I suspect modern movements feel they should not need allies, either because they are in the majority, have “right on their side” or are on the “right side of history”. Modern protesters believe:
- Most people believe like me.
- If someone does not believe like me they will after they are properly educated.
- If they still don’t they are evil and anyway a minority.
The truth is that most issues that generate protest will never rise to command a majority opinion – let alone a super majority. Education does not necessarily help. People see the world differently.
Yet rather than building bridges and making allies protest movements focus on “winning” – mostly this means “owning” the opposition on social media. Here’s the hard truth. If you are not a “super majority” – able to command a culturally hegemonic position on your issue – you will need allies to make progress. Thinking you have the luxury of “settled truth” on your side is a suckers game. Allies don’t come through scolding or shame. They certainly don’t come your direction in response to hate. They are built, painstakingly, from the ground up, outside of a media bubble through personal interactions that include dialog and give and take. With apologies to Theodore Parker, history is not an arc and it doesn’t bend toward justice. History is an ugly tapestry made by weaving our lives together and making space for one another.
3. The Predictability of Protest
Finally, there is the cost of protest. The 600 souls on the Edmund Pettus bridge were directly confronting injustice and willing to bear the consequences. Protest has always had elements of theater, but the folks on that bridge were peacefully confronting an adversary with real power over them. They were not just “playing to the camera”. It was raw, visceral hatred of dogs and truncheons against quiet righteousness. It galvanized Americans into action. But it wasn’t theatrics. The consequences were real – the fear was real.
Let’s say you are an aspiring protest leader who wants to highlight the under-representation of purple flowers vs red in the florist industry. You have a group of 200 people who call themselves the “purple petal pushers” and you plan to protest in front of the local florists. What’s your next step? You call city hall and get a permit. They explain the rules to you and you explain them to your group. On the day of the protest police arrive and politely cordon you off into a protest area where you chant “purple pollen power” for a few hours and throw petals at passers-by (nice alliteration). You get a 2 paragraph write up in the local newspaper and 20 seconds of local coverage – not bad.
Make the issue right to life or science or the environment, multiply it to one hundred thousand marchers, change the newspaper to the Washington Post and the coverage to CNN and you have modern national protest in a nutshell. A typical protest as an event is entirely predictable. The venue, the theatrics, the police response, the coverage – these are all well known in advance.
The results are predictable as well. The reason Selma had the power to move us was its character of going against type. Blacks in the fifties were seen as low class, powerless, lacking in dignity, base – it was a shock to see them assert their rights as Americans and rise above their stereotypes right before our eyes. So too gays in the 70s were cast as perverted, unfathomable, degenerate – it was truly mind boggling to see them out of the closet marching proudly in a parade.
Modern protest has all the same theatrics – from large meetings with stirring oration to chanting to colorful costumes and outrageous behavior. But it is no longer novel, shocking or disturbing. It isn’t shaking up the status quo – protest is the status quo. Protest is ennobled as in the “best traditions of democracy”. It is institutionalized to rid it of the possibility of violence. Protest used to be a risk; now it’s a right. Protest used to expose us; now it allows us to feel included.
There are other lessons of the 60s. Within King’s movement many became dissatisfied with the pace of progress and the group began to splinter. Even before his death the progressive attention was fracturing among a disparate list of groups who vied for attention and became increasingly violent and aggressive. In 1971-72 during an 18 month period the FBI counted 2500 bombings in the US.
As of this writing 10 “suspicious packages” have been uncovered as sent to prominent critics of President Trump. While we have a very long way to go to match the violence of the late 60s and 70s, it’s possible that a repeat of that era is in the offing. If non-violent protest is no longer effective, the next step to “ratchet up” the pressure is violence. The consequences of a turn to violence are always negative and diminish the movement’s goals and the possibility of achieving them.
If you have read my other writing you know where I stand. I believe there are two competing world views with substantial constituencies. We have to make bargains to make progress. All other roads result in careening from one guard rail to the other. If a guard rails breaks, will we survive the crash?