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The End of Protest

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.

Wither To

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?


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58 thoughts on “The End of Protest

  1. Good points all. Point #2 I’ve been harping on a lot recently: the lack of empathy in our politics. We’ve gorged ourselves on what is fundamentally a Marxist idea: false consciousness. The idea that all “reasonable” people agree with us and that if anyone doesn’t it’s either because they are uninformed, mentally unfit or under the baneful influence of evil outside forces (e.g., the Koch brothers or Soros).

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  2. I think you are indulging in a hagiography of your own here.

    First, the civil rights protests were not peaceful, at all which is why they were so effective.
    They helped move the social attitude precisely because of the footage of peaceful people being attacked by snarling dogs and firehoses.

    Which was the point!
    King and his group knew what to expect and planned their marches in exactly the locales where they knew they would provoke the authorities into reaction.
    Rosa Parks was not just some tired lady who wanted to sit. She was a well trained activist, and her resistance was carefully planned out in advance.

    Protest marches are just one tool available to groups. They never have changed anything by themselves, but only as a part of a larger coordinated series of actions. In addition to the marches, the civil rights groups had lobbyists, lawyers, and fundraisers to apply pressure to legislatures and candidates.

    And finally, what makes anyone think modern marches like the Women’s March aren’t effective? We are approaching an election which sees an unprecedented number of energized and popular female candidates and organizers- this didn’t just happen by magic.

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  3. Loved this piece Mark. I found myself nodding along for most of it.

    When I was working on my history degree I took a ‘History of the 60s’ class one semester. We spent a LOT of time talking about the Civil Rights movement, the various committees, major figures, tactics, history, etc. It was inspiring. I can’t say I have been inspired by many demonstrations/protests since (with the exception maybe of the Science March which was just too cool not to love).

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  4. Growing up in a small west coast college town, not 15 miles from a nuclear reactor, most of my friends, also children of professors, would go to protest this plant that had been there for over a decade. They would gather, and after making the usual noises, cross the prescribed line and be arrested by the police. Like clockwork. This would happen once a month or so and garnered no attention. Everyone knew how the academic community (at least the noisy ones) felt, this was simply cheap theater.

    One other time though, I was driving through town and I noticed people lining the streets, both sides, but just standing there. And as I drove, going slower and slower I noticed more and more of these people, men and women, young and old, all holding baby dolls. Not blocking traffic getting in anyone’s way, just standing there. For the whole day. I realized that this was a right to life protest, and it convinced me of their sincerity. While I may not agree with them and their actions, when other people tell me to this day some other motives for their beliefs I can only shake my head in dismay.

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  5. Like Chip, I think you are misreading the 1960s Civil Rights Protest. They did not work because they were non-violent. They worked because they were non-violent protests that sparked an extreme and violent backlash. This violent backlash was captured in photographs and news and it became untenable for the group MLK denounced as moderates favoring calm and order to do anything but accept the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

    Have you seen the photo of a sit-in where the lunch counter protestors look like they have an entire pantry dumped on their heads? Have you seen the fil of the First March from Selma to Montgomery where Alabama uses dogs and fire hoses to break up the march? Have you seen the footage of white southerners attacking buses containing freedom riders and beating them to a bloody pulp?

    This footage was in newspapers and on TV and it is really hard to watch and maintain any stance in favor of the Southerners.

    As Chip said, the Civil Rights protestors knew that this would happen.

    When it comes to Vietnam, the picture is also complicated. Despite contrary belief, more Greatest Generation types opposed the war than the Baby Boomers. Hollywood and media makes us vastly overestimate the number of people that were really hippies. The protests did not end in war in Vietnam. What ended the war in Vietnam was the footage showing on the News and the since that it was a quagmire and getting worse.

    As to why protests are not effective these days, a lot of organizations figured out that you can merely ride out the storm and ignore instead of giving in and conceding. Did Exxon fess up to climate change because a bunch of people wore silly T-rex outfits in front of their offices? Corporations also figured out how to co-opt and commodify dissent. The little girl in front of the Wall Street bull was put up by a financial firm. A very large one at that.

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    • Saul – I hear what you are saying, but consider what I wrote:

      It was raw, visceral hatred of dogs and truncheons against quiet righteousness.

      Perhaps I didn’t make that point forcefully enough.

      I recognize that it was the violence that galvanized public opinion. But there are 2 things to note. First the violence was that of injustice against a non-violent just cause. It wasn’t protesters using violence – the violence was reactionary. There are plenty of examples of protesters using violence but almost all of them show the diminishing return of hate and anger as a tactic or philosophy.

      Secondly Kings movement made allies and worked with them for progress. LBJ used the national mourning at JFK’s death to push through his agenda of civil rights (See Robert Caro, Goodwin, Zeitz etc). It was the joint effort of Kings movement combined with progressive politics, a “moment in history” and a talented legislator all converging to make political progress. It probably would not have happened without Selma, but these other factors were equally important.

      As for your second point – yes, organizations can ride out the storm unless a “movement” can command and actual majority. That’s part of the point. Movements aren’t trying to assemble coalitions and build a base of consensus that might move the needle. They treat their issue like settled truth, rage against the machine, and then they are bewildered when it doesn’t work.

      FYI – the exon pic was just something I found that illustrative the theatre of protest. Not even sure the date. ;)

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      • I think the distinction between violence in the protest vs. from the backlash gets to something else modern protesters missed: every progressive advance in civil rights has relied in large part on what is now known as “respectability politics.” The civil rights March on Washington had matching signs and a dress code. Marriage equality was won when most people decided that the existing laws were stopping regular, respectable people from doing regular, respectable things. Women broke barriers in the workplace in large part because… they went into the workplace and did good work.

        I get why respectability politics got a bad name. It leaves out some people who can’t be made respectable based on non-conformity on some other axis. It seems unfair to play by somebody else’s rules.

        But the death of respectability politics also plays into the “arc of history” slash “false consciousness” attitudes that, as you pointed out, have done so much to limit how persuasive protesters can be.

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  6. Other contributing factors: the number of people, the amount of media, and the amount of leisure time. There are hundreds of protests every day. They start to become background noise.

    I made a comment on a recent thread to the effect that a culture of irony undermines the trait of charm. Irony also undermines the seriousness of protest. Remember Jon Stewart’s rally in Washington that didn’t have an agenda except to tweak Glenn Beck? Once you demonstrate that people will join protests for literally no reason, it’s hard to take the phenomenon seriously. Think about flash mobs: people who meet up in random places for a choreographed dance. It’s a cute idea, but it undermines our normal response to others.

    ETA: There should be some discussion of how twitter “mobs” and the like simulate the activity of mass movements. They increase the numbers of participants but trivialize the idea of commitment. There’s got to be some spillover.

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    • Pinky,

      I think you are spot on with this point. Part of the “institutionalization” of protest is that they are sort of a common activity of the politically active. It’s almost as if the issue takes a backseat to the activity.

      I had forgotten about the Jon Stewart thing – great illustration.

      As for Twitter mobs – yeah that is going to get a lot more traction in the coming year. Every ugly indecent in real life is now tying back to some level of ugliness on line.

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  7. What’s interesting about the comments so far is that everyone is ignoring the first point – the “dogged pursuit of media” that squeezes out all the other things that used to come with protest movements. What about it folks?

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    • I think that varies a lot by protest and movement. For instance, while the alt-right wanted media coverage, the people in Charlottesville, and in Boston and elsewhere afterward, who protested in response to other alt-right events I think were less concerned about getting media than about saying “No. You have no support here” or “You aren’t going to scare us into quiet submission.” (or other versions of Never Again).

      I think a lot of the Women’s March really boiled down to turning out to show a refusal to be cowed by the politics of domination that had been on display in so much of the Trump campaign and are still there in the administration. (And as Chip pointed out, it followed a MLK Jr model in leading to training, workshops, and networks for continuing action).

      Now, that said, yes a lot of protests seem to be little more than media events. And even those that aren’t often fail in terms of moving the politicians. So why does it continue?

      I’d suggest it’s because politicians aren’t the primary targets, businesses are. Get enough eyes on an issue with enough people obviously behind it and the folks who make their living selling stuff to people will take notice. Companies aren’t good or evil, moral or immoral, but they are *profit-driven*. And both news organizations and politicians depend on them for funding. Make an issue clearly popular/unpopular with a large number of consumers – esp young target market consumers – and you will move the needle. But it won’t happened with just one protest. The movement has to be big enough and sustained enough to get the attention of the people who do market studies.

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      • I just watched Tim Pool’s recent piece on Apu. It got me thinking along these lines. People don’t target politicians – maybe people don’t have enough faith in them – but they protest against Starbucks, Gab, James Gunn, et cetera.

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        • Hey, even liberals can understand where the free market works…

          Also I’d say it’s not so much that people don’t have faith in politicians as that they have great faith in politicians caring most about the places with deep pockets. ;)

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          • Is that it, though? I almost sense that people consider politicians to be irrelevant. Not in a libertarian kind of way either. They believe in the power of government; they just don’t see any connection between politicians and governance. If you want something important done, you go straight to the people who run everything: PayPal.

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  8. The anti Iraq war protests were a big turning point in my thinking about the efficacy of protests. Dozens of millions of people crossing all political orientations and economic classes engaged in a massive collective action to signal disapproval of Bush’s intention to invade Iraq on a pretext of obvious lies, an action which Bush quickly and conveniently dismissed as the expression of a “special interest” group”.* And it worked! I realized in those moments** that contemporary US politics had shattered the baseline of an agreed upon sense of non-political humanity and decency from which prior protest movements derived their success. Human decency, in this case the rejection of obvious lies being used to justify massive military aggression, was reduced to a political rather than a non-political – or perhaps pre-political – human position, easily dismissed as the natural and perfectly predictable expression of ones (scare quotes) “political opponents”.. (Cuz by definition that’s what political opponents do. They reflexively oppose. :) I’m not suggesting that the same type of politically motivated weaponry used by the Bush administration to dismiss his anti-Iraq war critics hadn’t been deployed in previous generations, but just that the texture of the response coupled with how well it worked was, in my view, a turning point in our politics.

    *And thinking back on that time I wonder if there were contemporaneous suggestions, which I can’t now recall, that those massive protests were a political stunt funded by George Soros etc.

    ** Maybe I was late in coming to this realization…

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      • Perhaps – but you run the risk of my second argument when you make this point – the idea that a given protest should succeed. When a protest doesn’t work we often turn to the idea that people in power are “ignoring” the will of the people. Yet when protesters we disagree with fail we think of it as, “those crazy people at it again”. These are both pretty shallow views of the problem.

        How do I evaluate a protest? Do I use poll numbers? Do regions matter? Is it sheer numbers “in the streets”? How deep is the movement? Does it include strikes and boycotts (mentioned elsewhere in comments)? Lobbying efforts? Election drives? Any attempts at persuasion or is it all just sound and fury?

        Trump and Bush both can be thought of as honoring a hefty constituency when they chose/choose to stay the course. Bush was reelected – it remains to be seen if Trump can duplicate that feat – but their followers are not patsies. They have real power exercised in the voting booth. To affect real change protests must do more than simply blame politicians for somehow coopting the will of the people to their own ends. They must persuade more of those constituents to agree with them.

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  9. Interesting analysis. but I think you either underestimate or miss entirely several recent events and developments:

    1. Black Lives Matter has followed a more “Dr. King” like formula in its development and growth. Ditto “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. While neither has made substantial inroads (yet) nationally, both have used calculated disruptive protests to motivate change and challenge what was thought to be politically settled reality. BLM is also working to grow activists, to canvass votes and to Get Out he Vote, all of which are necessary accomplishments in addition to marches.

    2.If Mass-March protests were truly background noise, you wouldn’t see state legislatures taking up – an din a few sad cases passing – bills that make legitimate forms of protest either illegal or dangerous. Such legislation is aimed at squelching successful (albeit local) forms of protest. There would not be a need felt to do this absent a belief that such protests can and do work.

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    • BLM is interesting because in a lot of ways, they get the same response King got. BLM protests are often met with a considerable, if more restrained, show of police force.

      Where it fails (when it fails), is when the protestors decide to fight back. Once a protestor throws a punch, the state is instantly justified. It’s wrong, but that’s now how people see it.

      Juxtapose the UC Davis protest where the cop leisurely sprayed sitting protestors with the actions of Antifa. That cop was roasted, but people actually enjoy watching the police beat antifa.

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    • Philip – great points.

      As for BLM I’ll say the jury is out. It is a young movement and needs a charismatic leader (these modern movements seem devoid of actual leaders) to provide direction. But I do think it has the makings of a renewed movement focused on injustice. Even so, it is going to need allies among other groups – white liberals etc – to make progress.

      As for number 2, I don’t think that’s a great point. That’s pretty low level skirmishing and there’s a case that activating state legislatures to take an interest in suppressing your movement is sort of helpful in that it raises the profile of protest (the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church as they say). We’ll see though – these are both excellent points. Thanks Phillip.

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  10. 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.

    Actually, no. The next step on the right is to ratchet things up to random violence. The left has another option they do first, which…in a way, sometimes contains violence also, but often not, but the right is forbidden from using it.

    Specially, going after business interests and causing economic disruption. That is actually what caused the success of the civil rights movement.

    Rosa Parks, for example, didn’t succeed because she sparked protests, or because…I don’t even know how people think she succeeded, honestly. She succeeded because she caused a _bus boycott_ that crippled bus companies, which in turn causes them to close, which crippled all commerce. Seriously, this problem was so serious the government tried to outlaw black taxi drivers giving discounted rides to black people. MLK and others were _literally arrested for arranging carpools_. Not illegal marching, not any of his ‘non-violent’ protests, but literally telling black people not to use the bus and offering to drive them places. This, more than anything, is what caused the political backlash to get a lot of people on his side.

    Later…do people know what MLK was threatening _when_ he was killed? The thing that actually caused the Civil Rights Act to happen? A General Strike in Memphis.. All black people in Memphis put down their tools, walk out, and go home. And…what if he decided to call for that nationwide? That, right there, was such a large threat to the US economy that the US government was terrified that the whoever stepped into MLK’s shoes would impliment something like that, so we got the Civil Rights Act _before_ a clear next leader stepped up.

    So after peaceful protests fail, the next step for _the left_ is to find some sort of business interest profiting from, or just near, the unjust law and…punch them in the face, hopefully metaphorically. This causes the business interest to either back down, or sometimes even support them. Or it causes a huge overreaction from the moneyed interests, like it did with the arrest of King.

    Now, it’s not always metaphorical, and sometimes it’s really stupid, and you get nonsense like the Earth Liberation Force burning construction sites or car dealships or whatever. Or people throwing trashcans through Starbuck windows. I’m not saying this is some perfect system, or can’t include actual violence.

    I’m just saying there’s an additional stop on the left’s path forward. Even if, for some reason *cough*deliberatelyleftoutoftextbooks*cough*, the left is prone to forgetting that almost all their victories did not come from people standing in the streets, it came from people standing in the streets and threatening to block traffic forever. But the left does tend to remember this when push comes to shove. For example, had the Muslim ban not been almost immediately blocked by the courts, I wonder how long the _polite_ airport protestors that first weekend would have remained polite. And I’m reminded of the people who, when they realize that their flight is being used to deport refugees, have stopped the plane from taking off. At some point, the left starts throwing sand into the gears.

    The right doesn’t ever seem to go in this direction. They just skip right over that step to directed personal violence against the people leading the opposing side. For example, after the court victory after the bus boycott, the segregations threw a hissy-fit of violence against both black leaders and the bus riders, instead of just…boycotting the buses. And…I already mentioned what happened to MLK.

    This is because the right, to be blunt, is mostly operated by people that have no desire for them to cause economic disruptions, so almost never get pointed that way.

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    • Oh, and nothing in that post should be construed to imply that the left wouldn’t eventually get to violence. Just that there is an additional stop along the way…and, honestly, historically that option works so well the left doesn’t ever go past it.

      Ann Coulter had a hilarious tweet recently, when trying to claim the recent bombs could be from a liberal, of: From the Haymarket riot to the Unibomber, bombs are a liberal tactic.

      Which is..a somewhat confused statement. The Haymarket riot(1), in addition to being 132 years ago, was…a disaster of a legal case. (Also not really a bombing in any traditional sense.) And way more people died in that labor dispute than the _singular_ explosive device that was _probably_ hurtled by an anarachist. That entire protest was a response to the police killing two union members the previous week! If someone wants to argue that the anarchist movement back then was somehow ‘liberal’, which is actually a really weird argument, okay, but that’s a bit of an absurd example.

      The Unibomber was…uh…not liberal. He too was an anarchist. He had pretty strong condemnation for ‘leftists’ in his manifesto. (This is not to imply he was the converse, he also had some pretty harsh word for ‘conservatives’ also.)

      And, in fact, if there’s one political group that actually has consistently resorted to violence (Not just bombs, but including them.) in modern history, it’s _anarchists_. Both ‘on the left’, and ‘on the right’, although the far left and the far right sorta wrap around and meet back in the middle. They might have slightly different ideas how society will organize itself after they tear down the government, but until that impossible point is reached, they are almost indistinguishable.

      And they, them specifically, are the people who resort to violence. Perhaps because they correctly realize that the political system is not going to dismantle itself, or perhaps they are anarchists _because_ they realize they can’t get what they want through the political system to start with.

      Ann Coulter is sorta right, though, if you look at the 60s and 70s. The left used a _lot_ of bombs back then. If someone wants examples of the left blowing things up, there it is!

      The reason I suspect that she didn’t want to go there is that back then, the left, or a lot of the more active part of it, talked about the government and ‘the system’ like…like…well, the same way a lot of the right talks about them now.

      I sorta think it’s telling that as the right has become more anarchistic over the past few decades, it has also become more willing to use…well, I’ll just say ‘the rhetoric of violence’. Talking about overthrowing things and tearing the government down and whatnot. (Even after they gained control of the government, they keep going after parts of it!) And sometimes this turns into actual violence.

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    • I don’t know if the right never tries economic disruption, but they seem really bad at it. I think that is partly because the things they want to protest are often too specific. Sure, blocking the doors to the abortion clinic might shut that clinic down, but how do you scale that up such that the rest of society is willing to take you seriously? The left, when they’ve used the tactic to great effect, were looking for a much larger systemic change.

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      • There’s also a numbers game involved in boycotts. I mean, folks on the right have tried to run boycotts of everything from Star Wars to Nike to protest ideas or stances they objected to. But that was either overwhelmed by the buying power of people who couldn’t give two figs about their grievance (Star Wars), or actually benefited their targets because as word got out people on the other side of the issue (who make up a larger share of target market) were *more likely* to buy the targeted company’s products. Which is why Nike could hardly contain their joy at all the buzz from the right condemning them for using Kaepernick.

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        • Yeah. It’s not that the right can’t figure out targets, although the right has done some hilariously dumb things in that regard because of poor direction. Guys, destroying stuff you already bought is not a boycott. And refusing to buy stuff you weren’t going to buy is _technically_ a boycott, but businesses tend to care about the actual changes in numbers and not just what you say you’re doing.

          But the real problem is that the right does not actually have numbers on their side. The left does.

          Or, to put it better, the right and left are mostly equal numerically in the sense of supporters, but not actually equal in the sense of engaged supporters. The left has a lot of people who actually care about their stuff to a level enough to do a boycott, whereas the right has…well, a very small number that really really care, and then a lot of people who have to be prodded into action. And on top of that, the people on the left who care are the young ones with disposable income, whereas the loudest and most annoying on the right are often the elderly, who…aren’t changing their purchasing habits at this point.

          And the thing is, unlike polite society where we pretend it’s all the same, the corporate world will actually do the math. And not just in the present moment, but through a future lens.

          Everyone is 100% aware that Disney made the right choice not to try to stop Gay Days. The SBC boycott went away over a decade ago, and never hurt them, whereas now they, somewhat randomly and with literally no effort or even _acknowledgement_ on their part at all, host one of the largest Gay Pride events on the planet.

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          • Interesting discussion and direction y’all are taking. I wonder if you could address effectiveness however. Disney made the right call. Who’s end did that serve? I’m trying to draw a path between activism and change – I’m not sure Disney gets me there.

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          • There are a handful of examples of boycotts (or boycott-adjacent acts) that have worked-ish from “the right”.

            An example of a for-real boycott was the boycott of All-American Muslim back in 2011.

            That one was fairly straightforward. Letters were written, Wendy’s Corporate was called, sponsors dropped quietly, the show was cancelled. There was a minor counter-boycott of Lowe’s but… well, as you say, refusing to buy stuff you weren’t going to buy ain’t exactly eye-catching to the bean counters.

            But there are some weird dynamics going on right now in various corners of entertainments. I’m sure you’ve heard of #gamergate, for example. There are a number of games (big titles!) that crashed and burned due to the target audience not jumping on board.

            Mass Effect: Andromeda, for example, may well have killed the Mass Effect franchise. (Sales were bad enough that they killed all DLC plans and this picture got passed around for a while.) Was this because of a boycott? Was this because the game sucked because it was made by the b-team and it was released to much mockery? (Hell, was it because of how the Mass Effect community was treated following the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending?)

            I dunno. But there was a boycott announced. Maybe the boycotters just got lucky.

            I understand that there was a fan backlash to The Last Jedi and it was taken out on the Solo movie. It resulted in the Boba Fett being killed.

            There’s a handful of books in the comics industry that got announced with great fanfare and then quietly cancelled due to lack of sales.

            Does that sort of thing qualify as a boycott?

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            • That one was fairly straightforward. Letters were written, Wendy’s Corporate was called, sponsors dropped quietly, the show was cancelled. There was a minor counter-boycott of Lowe’s but… well, as you say, refusing to buy stuff you weren’t going to buy ain’t exactly eye-catching to the bean counters.

              TLC’s and reality TV’s audience is rather…wonky. In fact, a lot of TV channels have weird audiences.

              That said…2011 was, by my calculations, six hundred and fifty-three years ago, and I have a feeling that companies were slightly more gullible about boycotts back then. Nowadays you have people announcing boycotts over every single random thing, so they actually have to pay attention to what has any sort of support, and what is just some random guy inventing a campaign, which is what happened with All-American Muslim back in 2011.

              But there are some weird dynamics going on right now in various corners of entertainments. I’m sure you’ve heard of #gamergate, for example. There are a number of games (big titles!) that crashed and burned due to the target audience not jumping on board.

              The reason that certain big titles are in trouble isn’t #gamergate, it’s because the people who play games (I don’t want to say ‘gamers’.) have stopped pre-ordering crap, and a lot of studios have decided to cut so many corners they are producing crap. (Hence the current round of enticements to get people to pre-order.)

              Game companies need to stop announcing titles on deadline and trying to presell on that deadline months in advance. That’s a _really_ stupid way to write software.

              Mass Effect: Andromeda, for example, may well have killed the Mass Effect franchise. (Sales were bad enough that they killed all DLC plans and this picture got passed around for a while.) Was this because of a boycott?

              Erm…was there a ‘boycott’ of that? I know a lot of people go around using the term boycott nilly-willy, and there are plenty of articles named ‘Why you should boycott Mass Effect Andromeda’, but boycott often just seems to mean ‘Here are the reasons you won’t like the game’.

              Was there any sort of organized effort to get people to not buy the game for reasons other that ‘it is a crappy game’?

              Was this because the game sucked because it was made by the b-team and it was released to much mockery?

              One of the reasons.

              (Hell, was it because of how the Mass Effect community was treated following the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending?)

              Well, that’s why _I_ didn’t buy it. Not any sort of ‘boycott’, but, in addition to the game having a lot of problems…I can no longer trust Bioware to not write crappy story endings, so I’m not going to buy RPGs by them.

              I understand that there was a fan backlash to The Last Jedi and it was taken out on the Solo movie. It resulted in the Boba Fett being killed.

              And that was…Disney falling for Russian trolls. Seriously. The ‘make boycotts from the right look more serious’ trickery managed to invent a new tactic (Specifically, a foreign government) and resulted in making enough noise that when a somewhat mediocre movie came out to mediocre box office, it managed to trick Disney.

              We’ll probably see more of that in the future.

              And I’m not saying that right-wing boycotts _can’t_ work. Like, legitimately work, where the company calculates an actual threat to income and reacts to that. The left may spend more money on average than the right, but that’s not actually the determination most of the time….there’s not magical equal boycotts they’re facing on both sides.

              And, like you said, often it’s not boycott vs. boycott, it’s boycott vs. expanding sales. Or even reduced sales vs. expanding sales.

              But…companies are getting better at figuring out what they should attribute to controversial choices, vs. just crappy work on their part. They’ll keep getting fooled by new astroturf stuff as it’s invented, but all that has a very short half-life

              There’s a handful of books in the comics industry that got announced with great fanfare and then quietly cancelled due to lack of sales.

              The comics industry is operating in a complete fantasy world at this point, where they base what they do on _comic book shop pre-orders_. Seriously. They come out with books that have a lot of interest, and comic book shop owners don’t order them, and the books fold after six months…and then a year later, they’re incredibly popular trades and electronic downloads, and everyone say ‘Well, that was a stupid decision’, and the companies _keep doing that_ because they are idiots. (They’re really luckly they have all this IP they can make into movies.)

              Did you know there’s a #comicgate that’s claiming to be the #gamergate of comics, deliberately? And they don’t even have any sort of ‘ethics in journalism’ to claim…they just don’t like how comics have all these women in them, and most of them are wearing clothes and doing things. It’s hilarious. It’s like, #gamergate but without any pretense of non-misogyny.

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      • Sure, blocking the doors to the abortion clinic might shut that clinic down, but how do you scale that up such that the rest of society is willing to take you seriously?

        I wasn’t talking about disruptions to the actual people doing the disliked thing…if a company shows up selling Dalmatian fur coats, you can’t ‘boycott’ them and expect that to help. I’m pretty sure they were not expecting non-cartoon villains as customers anyway.

        What is useful economic disruption is threatening _adjacent_ parties. People who deal with the people you find objectionable. Like the stores _selling_ the Dalmatian fur coats.

        At best the abortion clinics protests might put pressure on the neighbors to have something done, but…there’s not much those neighbors can do.

        Likewise, the boycott of Chik-fil-a over the owner’s behavior. That’s basically pointless. That wasn’t ever going to do anything. The person it harms is willing to take that harm. (I boycott them, but not to change anything…I just don’t want to give him any of my money.)

        The left has been remarkably successful at merely recording Fox News and sending the footage to various businesses that are running ads on it, saying ‘This is the content your ads are airing next to. Do you support this?’

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    • The “economic activism” argument is an interesting one – and it goes along with my first point. King’s boycotts and strikes were indeed effective and threatening to power structures and they showed the depth of the movement – it was not just about marches and protests. He wasn’t just single mindedly trying to “raise awareness” through media exposure. There was a whole cornucopia of activity surrounding the movement including wielding whatever economic power they possessed. That sort of makes my point.

      Meanwhile, efforts at boycotting products have been ineffective lately however. New Balance is doing just fine. Nike seems to have benefited rather than been hurt by the backlash. The NFL numbers are down – but that was kind of a trend before the whole kneeling dustup.

      Companies can adapt to a neutral position – or do just enough to seem responsible. They are in business to carve out the largest market share. If that means catering to good ‘ol boys in Alabama and Hipsters in NY out of the same side of their mouth they will not lose any sleep doing that.

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      • Meanwhile, efforts at boycotting products have been ineffective lately however. New Balance is doing just fine. Nike seems to have benefited rather than been hurt by the backlash. The NFL numbers are down – but that was kind of a trend before the whole kneeling dustup.

        Your examples are of the people leading boycotts against things people do not care about. Which often end hilariously.

        The right is exceptionally good at that, but, as New Balance proves, the left’s threats can be just as dumb…no one was actually going to boycott a shoe company because they literally said one thing supportive of Trump.

        But, the thing is…it worked _anyway_. You think the boycott was ‘ineffective’, but the point of a boycott isn’t to hurt a company, the point is to make them change. And…they did. When they were attacked, they tap danced all over the place and you haven’t seen them making any pro-Trump statements at all. Especially since racist morons caused them to get a new-founded ‘white supremacist stamp of approval’ that they obviously had to refute.

        Vs, say, Nike, that built an ad campaign out of what happened.

        When threatened with a boycott by the left, companies take it seriously, even when the threat is rather empty. When threatened with a boycott by the right, companies completely ignore it, because _all_ threats of boycott by the right are empty.

        The right may have more brute economic power in this country due to the wealthy, but the interesting thing is that the wealth don’t buy thousands of pairs of shoes or trips to Disneyworld or pizzas. I’m sure if there’s ever a _yatcht_ boycott, they will take a right-wing threatened boycott seriously, but until them, most companies can do basic math and say ‘Let’s not piss off the twenty-years that are spending a lot money’.

        Except, perhaps, the NFL, but professional sports are almost all operated by monopolistic elistist morons who basically live off the public teat in a giant con game, so of course they can’t do math.

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        • But, the thing is…it worked _anyway_. You think the boycott was ‘ineffective’, but the point of a boycott isn’t to hurt a company, the point is to make them change.

          Yes – but.. to what end? Companies adjust to their market to maximize profit. That doesn’t make them more socially responsible or advance the conversation per se. The past point of boycotts and strikes has usually been to alter unjust behavior by that company – to move the needle of public opinion. Do you feel that’s happening in your examples? You think Nike’s success moves the needle? I wonder if it simply confirms biases that the left have about their overall power and righteousness while the middle and right simply roll their eyes at them.

          Note, you are persuasive that there is some value there, but I’m still not confident of the result. “Changes” are not the same thing as results. Looking for causal pathways eh.

          I think you make some excellent points David – a bit too sarcastic for my tastes at times but I like the dialog. :)

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    • The next leftist economic boycott might be against companies that aid ICE in rounding up immigrants or the security state. This includes security companies in general, which are going to be hard to boycott and certain internet providers like Amazon. That is also going to be hard to protest because of their ubiquity.

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  11. Someone pointed me to the HyperNormalisation documentary.

    The word hypernormalisation was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology who was born in Leningrad and later went to teach in the United States. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), which describes paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. He says that although everyone in the Soviet Union knew the system was failing, no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo, and politicians and citizens alike were resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed hypernormalisation.

    The basic idea is that “the West” is doing the same goddamn thing right now.

    To bring this around to the idea of protesting, most protests seem to be operating within this new status quo within this failing system. Protests as sympathetic magic. An attempt to externalize social stigma from the smaller group to the larger group of people in charge.

    The protests are people fighting against the fakeness but the tools of the fakeness are the only tools available.

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  12. Mark,

    I think I agree with you, but I differ from you in how I get there. I don’t draw as sharp as a distinction as you do between the supposedly more effective protesting of the 1960s and the less effective ones of today.

    1. I’ll emphasize a distinction you make in your OP and in the comments, although I’ll use slightly different terms. The distinction is between “protest movements” and what I’ll call “protests events.” A protest movement is what you praise King for. A long term campaign for persuasion and building resources to realize an ideal. A protest event could be an instance in a protest movement, or a one-off, or one in a series of one-offs.

    2. Protest events are more likely to succeed when…

    2a. …when the protest events are part of a “movement culture” such as you describe. And the movement culture is designed to appeal to broad range of people, not necessarily a majority, but broad enough and accepting enough to alienate as few people as possible.

    2b. …when the protest events target a specific policy, the more specific the better. One reason some civil rights protests worked was because specific pieces of legislation were on deck and some of the policies that legislation was designed to overturn were easy in concept to overturn (banning state-imposed segregation and banning voting restrictions).* When King turned his attention to advocating for open housing in the north and for fighting poverty, those issues were messier and any given protest event was less likely to have an effect. (The poor people’s campaign as a protest movement might have been different, but the marches for open housing were probably less effective as protest events.)

    2c. …when the protest events have a bad guy who can be shown to have reacted unfairly to event participants. As you point out concerning the Edmund Pettis bridge event: “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.” I would add that without the violence, it would have been harder to galvanize Americans to action (or at least support). When King went to northern cities and encountered politicians who were willing to meet with him but who, according to those politicians’ critics, didn’t do much substantively to help King’s goals, he was less successful.

    2d. …when the protest events do their best not to alienate people, or to alienate as few people as possible. King almost definitely alienated white segregationists in the south, but his protests, as you note, garnered support outside the south, not only because of the justice of his cause but also because at first he tracked more closely to fighting de jure southern segregation.

    2e. …when the protest event is part of a quasi-official system of popular input into policy. An example I can think of is the fabled “bread riots” of early modern Europe or (more darkly and much more unjustly) the anti-Jewish pogroms that were tacitly or more than tacitly encouraged by some European leaders. Those protests “succeed” in part because the state benefits from catering to them (bread riots often involved the state taking apparently magnanimous action to save the “poor” from exploitation from others and pogroms deflected anger toward an unpopular minority).

    3. Protest movements are less likely to succeed when they are perceived by those they’re trying to persuade as preachy. People usually don’t like being preached to, even when they agree with the sermon, especially when they didn’t volunteer to go to church in the first place. It’s probably hard for a protest movement not to appear preachy, especially to unrepentant people who refuse to listen. But that’s the problem protest movements face.

    4. None of my points about what’s likely or less likely to succeed is a list of thou shalt’s or thou shalt not’s. Sometimes you (the generic you) may be in the right and must engage in less effective strategies because the short term stakes are so high. It’s also possible my assessment of what’s effective and ineffective is off.

    Again, to the extent I differ from you, it’s that I believe the nature of protests–both protest movements and protest events–are inherently unlikely to succeed, except perhaps where the conditions from 2e are present.

    *True, it gets harder “in concept” to overturn private discrimination and devise a review mechanism to enforce voting rights. So my point is muddled a bit. But still, there were specific pieces of legislation being considered.

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    • Gabriel,

      Fantastic comments – thanks!

      Your distinction between events and movements is one I was trying to make – though less clearly than you. But I was also trying to point out that currently “events” are defined as synonymous with protest movements. “Event” planners have similar expectation to “movement” builders – and they are sometimes disappointed when they don’t move the needle – but partially this is because they miss the hard work of protest movements (vs. simply protesting).

      Part of the point of the Sobieraj study is exactly this point – that issues generate protest groups which immediately short circuit in an “event” culture narrowly focused on media coverage instead of building a movement culture through what she terms “internal” group building activities.

      2.b – yes! love this point thank you. I wanted to speak more about this but can only cover so much so I scrapped that point. But yeah, part of the “rage against the machine” type of protest is that it covers too much ground and is not tied to specific group action per se. Also there is a sort of shying away from charismatic leadership – maybe that academia’s fault (I blame those structuralists). For movements to succeed they need leaders as point persons to focus energy and goals. There are those who think this is not the case, but I’m of a mind that individuals do matter – the moment has to be right, but still.

      2.C – I want to agree with you but it’s tricky. King went out of his way not to vilify his opponents (although many surrogates had less constraint). It’s important for a movement to have a cause imbued with righteousness – a “noble” cause. Movements who play the hate card sometimes succeed, but they are playing with fire, and they eat into that sense of “being on the right side” – both externally and among certain members. I think injustice when highlighted creates it’s own villain. So I’m ambivalent. :)

      2.d – yeah this is one of my main points or main conclusions and I think I probably feel more strongly about it. Movements must build allies. In particular, given that most movements will never command a hegemonic majority, they will absolutely need allies to succeed in any sort of policy arena. This, I think, is the most glaring failing of modern movements.

      2.e An excellent point – I’ll think about that some more. well done.

      4. Agreed. It’s hard not to be preachy. Moreover, it’s hard to mobilize anger into action without falling into all these traps. That’s why Kings non-violent workshops, mass meetings and indoctrination were crucial – he had to get enough converts to non-violence to control the tone of the movement. Not everyone was on board, but enough were on board and for long enough, to generate successes.

      Great analysis – thanks!

      -Mark

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  13. “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”

    I think most people believe this. It’s certainly apparent on the left. Those are the people I typically encounter since I live in an suburban/urban enclave in the Mid Atlantic. Woe to anyone who thinks differently.

    There’s a lot I don’t care about–basically what other people believe. You do you. I’ll do me. Sadly, most people, but it seems more on the left (but it could be bias due to where I live, will not/cannot leave me the hell along and must pass laws to make my life better (which doesn’t–it just increases my taxes–and actually makes my life more difficult.

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    • I think Mark was focused on National movements, rather than local.

      And places like Austin, Seattle, Madison, etc. might not be good examples, since the local governments seem almost eager to hear protestors pleas (since it gives them political cover to do what they wanted to anyway).

      But maybe I’m wrong, I’m not dialed into the attitudes of local government in Austin.

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      • Ouch Chris hit me again! :)

        I acknowledge there are spots where protest culture is part of what moves political action – Seattle, Austin are good examples. But they are also good examples of protest as a cultural “institution” rather than a disruption (point 3). They routine yes? Kind of like how Howard Stern was once shocking but now we are like “meh”. Meanwhile you have to make a lot more noise to be heard when most protests follow a predictable pattern and there are so many of them.

        In my view (and I’m often wrong) protest movements can’t be a “routine” part of the political process. To be effective they events need to disrupt the status quo (stick) while at the same time working through a lot of other channels and means to build internal support and win allies (carrots). You never want to hear, “Well we thought most people wanted policy A but not enough Austonians came out to protest so we tabled the bill”. If protest becomes another expected part of the process it’s day is done.

        That may have been tangential to your point, but as Dan Quayle said, “I stand by all my misstatements”. :)

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        • There are probably few cities in this country where protest culture is more active and effective right now than Baltimore and Chicago. The important thing to remember is that there is not one “protest culture,” and that there is no movement that is a protest movement. For the most part, there are activists and organizers (and hangers on of various sorts) who work with groups who are doing lots of things, protesting being only one of them. Protests are used for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a fairly spontaneous expression of anger or outrage.

          It is undeniable, as I believe you noted, that protests against the Muslim ban were initially successful nation wide. What is important to recognize is that while those protests were huge, they were generally organized and made possible by activists who protest a lot of things, and have the activist networks to quickly organize large scale protests across groups.

          Anyway, wherever you are now, find your local socialists, and I promise you’ll realize you’re wrong.

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