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Why I’m Done With Protests

Why I'm Done With Protests

My involvement in protests began shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Like many Americans, this was a shocking wake-up call for me.

I assumed naively that our government would deal with the fallout with analysis and right action. When they began talking about invading Afghanistan, I thought that they would target a few extremists in caves somewhere in a country that had greatly suffered from the Cold War games between the U.S. and Soviets. Soon, it became clear to me that we were bombing the country rather indiscriminately. I was struck with the conviction that what we were doing was harmful, vengeful and was not accomplishing what we were claiming was our aim.

This led me to find as many alternative news sites as I could, to figure out what was “really” going on. My wife, who was less attached to the idea of a benevolent government’s benevolent actions, had a ready supply of newspapers, internet sources, etc. Reading these, it quickly became apparent to me that there were some ulterior motives driving the bloodlust, with people’s fears being manipulated to those ends, yet none of this information was being discussed in mainstream media venues. I decided that I needed to act and planned to protest at the weekly farmer’s market in our town. It must have been a bizarre scene, as just my wife and I walked through the crowds with our hand-made signs. Eventually, we were surrounded by a mostly hostile group and engaged them in some back and forth. I found the whole thing exhilarating.

A small peace group that had existed apparently got word of our little protest and joined us during the next week’s market. Several Quakers and the progressive student association from the local university, otherwise known for its conservatism, joined the effort. We continued marching each week, to a generally negative response or indifference. The first time I heard someone yell, “Support the troops” in our direction, I almost laughed at how ridiculous that sounded. As if sending troops to fight in a dubious war was somehow supportive. Yet, it seemed to give those hollering a kind of self-satisfaction that really made me want to do violence to them. But, hey, we were a peace group after all, and I was surrounded by Quakers, who were somehow able to maintain an equilibrium as I yelled back at the hecklers.

Things got worse as it became obvious that the Administration was planning to go to war in Iraq and they started ramping up the propaganda. Catcalls about Saddam Hussein, mustard gas and mushroom clouds pervaded the air. Again, I would try to engage with people, but had no success making a dent in the conviction instilled in them by all of the mainstream media outlets. Some of us set up a “Peace Table” at the Farmer’s Market, hoping to have more of a chance to have civil discussions with passersby. Each week I would try to set up a prop to persuade people come to the table. Once, we had a cardboard box filled with rocks with a sign saying “Weapons of Mass Destruction Inside.” People would walk gingerly to the table, afraid to look in the box. However, most would just walk by, avoiding eye contact. Another time, I went to WalMart and bought a collection of patriotic, war-based toys, noting “All these toys were made in China.” The irony was lost on most, and only children would approach the table to see the toys, before their parents would usher them away from the scary peace man.

As the push for an invasion of Iraq intensified, we planned a large march at a park in the center of town. It was exciting to see several hundred people come for that march. Many of the protesters who came were in throw-back, hippie, tie-dyed shirts, and some younger folks donned anarchist black. I wished people would dress more in regular work-a-day clothing, but I was at least happy to get a crowd. There were also a couple of counter-protesters, one holding a large cutout of a cardboard thumb in a “thumbs up” position and the other with the “Let’s Roll” refrain. A local news crew came and immediately went to the two counter-demonstrators, who received a sizable portion of the news attention that evening. I was incensed. And it was the same with every march we put on, as if there was some need to present the “other side” when that was all that anyone had been doing in the media.

Meanwhile, most of my friends stayed on the sidelines, even if they claimed to oppose the war. Some seemed put off by the people who were coming to the marches. Perhaps they were also influenced by all the propaganda that painted Saddam Hussein as the greatest threat since Hitler. It occurred to me later that we, the protesters, were the proverbial “crippled children” who did not follow the Pied Piper into the cave.

As things heated up, it became apparent that our protests were going to be for naught. It was a fantasy that we could somehow change people’s minds. Internet be damned, our information and admonitions, whether from me or the United Nations, fell flat in the face of the propaganda from the mainstream media. Clearly, people prioritize the information they receive in terms of its popularity and social acceptability. Truth and facts seemed to have little effect. As demonstrators of dissent to the dominant opinion, we were tagged as borderline traitors. I could see the look of disgust on the faces of those trying to shop downtown without being disturbed by our ragtag mob. I don’t believe we changed a single person’s mind about the war.

By the time “Operation Shock and Awe” started on March 22, 2003, I was demoralized. In spite of this, I continued our “Peace Table” at the Farmer’s Market, once again looking for the magic tool to shift communal awareness. Probably fueled in part by anger and resentment, I created signs with realistic pictures of the victims of the US-led bombing campaigns, then stood with my arms folded as people passed by, shocked at this assault to their senses and averting their eyes. On some level, it felt good to get even a momentary reaction of shame from people who had largely been impenetrable throughout my time protesting. The police were called, but they could find no basis to arrest me. I made the front page of the paper the next day; I felt a combination of pride and foolishness. I realized my soul was feeling spent and powerless. I was done with the protests. Fortunately, as a psychiatrist, I had the ability to find work overseas and made arrangements for a job in New Zealand. I was too angry and bitter at just about everyone to stay in the U.S.

When I got off the plane in New Zealand, my shoulders felt light and empty. My anger had dropped to a less lethal level and I was able to get some perspective, while desperately explaining to the Kiwis that I was not “one of them.” I had signed on for a year, there, but stayed another after George W Bush got reelected. It felt like one last slap in the face. When I returned to the States, I vowed to avoid getting involved in protests.

Years later, I made one exception shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I caught wind of a protest planned at a beach in the area that borders a nuclear power plant. I arrived early and saw a wedding going on at the beach adjacent to the protest spot and suggested to one of the leaders of the protest that we move to another location out of respect for the wedding. He replied, “This is the area we reserved.” People began trickling in, with the usual hippie garb, signs and other props, such as gas masks, loudly chanting as the wedding continued less than 50 yards away. Clearly, this protest was not going to be effective in convincing anyone of anything (least of all, the wedding party). I felt only a sense of shame and embarrassment as I walked away.

Today, I’ll admit I have no idea what an effective form of protest looks like, but getting together as a group with signs and props feels archaic and useless, almost as if it was invented by those who want any dissent to be easily dismissed. The only thing that really changed anyone’s mind about the war was when we began to lose. Likewise, only a few more nuclear accidents will bring down that industry. We appear to be mere observers of the processes of higher ups, who control the narrative, our votes only confirming what was already established. I won’t say that no protest has value, but it would take a lot of convincing to get me back out on the streets.

Editor’s note – guest author Steve Pittelli wrote this partially in response to Mark Kruger’s piece “The End of Protest” which you can find here, and subsequent Twitter conversations.

Steve Pittelli

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Steve Pittelli is a retired psychiatrist. You can find him on Twitter and his own blog Unwashed Genes.

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44 thoughts on “Why I’m Done With Protests

  1. Thanks so much for writing this post. My political commitments and my analysis of what was going on in the events you discuss are probably different from yours in some ways, but your post is certainly an honest and vivid portrayal of your experiences.

    I’m reminded of being on a bus back in CherryPlatte shortly after the Iraq War of 2003 started. A woman on the bus was wearing an anti-war button, which must have been difficult to do out in public at that time. I admired her courage. CherryPlatte is liberal-ish but still not a welcoming place for dissent about military actions, especially after the action(s) have started. I should have at least told her I respected her courage in wearing that. But I didn’t.

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  2. The war in Afghanistan has been going on for 15 years now with no resolution in sight. It has utterly failed to change the facts on the ground.

    I’m done with war as a method of resolving international disputes.

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    • The war in Afghanistan has been going on for 15 years now with no resolution in sight. It has utterly failed to change the facts on the ground.

      The facts on the ground are we can keep this up basically forever, and they showed us what happens if we walk away.

      I’m not sure what “peace” even means in this context unless it’s “we walk away and let them do heinous things, maybe including to us”.

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  3. Thank you for writing this. I shared your feelings about the wars we started after 9/11, especially Afghanistan. I have never been drawn to protests as a way of venting my want of change, but I understand the impulse. It’s absolutely why I write, so we all have our forms of expression. I appreciate your honesty in telling your story.

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  4. The bit about how people were dressed is interesting, in that it shows that protests are actually theater, and that the costumes matter. How the protesters dress is a huge signal regarding whether others will take the protesters seriously or not.

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    • Somewhere during my evolution from gay marriage opponent to gay marriage supporter, I recall stating repeatedly that if only they would tone down the pageantry during their protests it might help move things along. I’m sure that opinion is considered prejudiced by many people, but optics do matter. As a hunter that tries to never wear camouflage unless I’m heading into the woods, and is always conscious of the image I’m portraying, sometimes you just have to play the game.

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        • True. I wasn’t personally bothered by the costumes, etc. Even when I was opposed to gay marriage I never had a problem with gays themselves. I understood the culture that developed in that community and in some ways respected their confidence to march in costumes, etc. I just felt like it harmed their ultimate goals. I suppose that is the question that every protest group must deal with. How much do you work within the system and how much do you fight against it? For every gay man or lesbian woman that was marching in a parade, there was probably three other members that felt uncomfortable doing so but would have cosigned onto a civil rights case or worked within the system to change things that way. And of course there were many who did both.

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          • The radicals and respectables are the yin and yang of advocacy and change; like Malcolm X and King. The respectables always think the radicals make their entire side look like idiots; the radicals always think the respectables are content with the status quo. As a respectable myself it’s too easy to sneer at the passion, the tone deafness and the, mmm, questionable tactics of the radicals. I have to remind myself, though, that it wasn’t my side of that equation who got the ball rolling on this whole thing or who laid it all on the line.

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            • Very true. One of the weaknesses of the current protest movements is they don’t have strong big name Respectable leaders. They got the the radical part down pat but seem fixated on not having strong national leaders. The Occupy movement seems like the best example of how to piss away a lot of energy with monty python level group org.

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  5. Well before 9/11, protesting went from “a thing people do when they feel strongly about an issue” to “a thing protesters do because that’s why we call them protesters.”

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    • The History department that I did my undergraduate in was very conservative during the late 90s. When I started my second degree in the Anthropology department I soon discovered that it was more liberal. A friend talked me into attending a meeting of the Student Anthropology Club, because there were ‘a lot of cute girls in the club’. I remember being flabbergasted when the chair of the department began advising the girls on how to cover their mouths if they were tear-gassed while protesting an upcoming World Trade Summit in Canada. While my friend was right about the cute girls, that was not my scene. They came by their liberalism honestly, but the activism was clearly more about perception among their peers.

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    • What I remember from the 90’s was that protesting meant abortion on the right and either Free Palestine or Free Mumia on the left.

      It was something that Troo Bleebers did but it wasn’t really something that you’d expect to see normal people doing.

      Now? Normal people protest.

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      • Recreational outrage is pretty popular these days. Add on top of that the influence of social media and people now being able to be seen being outraged and there you go. I’m tempted to call it the Golden Age of protesting, but that’s not right. Golden Age implies something good. Peak protesting? Probably not yet.

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          • It’s only condescending in the sense that it’s something I am constantly vigilant against and think it’s a huge problem. I assume you actually do know the definition, but this will work.

            “Getting mad and venting about political, religious, racial, or other topics and venting about them to the point at which it becomes a hobby. People who enjoy recreational outrage always have something they are mad about that is outside of their own sphere of influence. This is particularly common on Tumblr and Twitter.”

            and…

            “An act of indulgence, publicly expressing your opinion in an argument that seems controversial, yet lacks any adverse arguments.

            Patting yourself on the back for expressing outrage for a topic in which the point you are making is obvious.”

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            • Can you cite some examples of protests which satisfy these conditions (lacks any adverse arguments, the point being made is obvious)? I was under the impression that anti-protestors’ criticism of protestors, and protesting as a culture for that matter, is that those folks goals are prima-facie rejected, not that they’re so obvious everyone agrees with them.

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              • When I was talking about ‘recreational outrage’ what I mean is that I think there is an increasingly larger contingent of Americans that attend protests/marches because those that make ‘recreational outrage’ a hobby is a growing demographic. Because of the social component that goes with it, what better way to scratch that issue than join those causes that seem low-risk. For example, the Women’s March of 2017. As I wrote about it then, it had no clearly-defined agenda but it was the cool thing to do. And a generic march about women ‘lacks any adverse arguments’. The same with the March for Science. You can’t really argue against ‘science’ unless you are in the unfortunate fringe that would prefer it was still the Middle Ages.

                When a movement is perceived as low-risk, it will attract the recreational outrage crowd so they can blow up Instagram and Facebook with their cause of the day. “Grrrr….we’re mad. Maybe Matt Damon will show up!”

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                • Hmmm. So you don’t see a direct line from the Women’s March through women leaving the GOP in droves on to the midterms where women are projected to outvote men in important districts and states by 6, 8, 10 percentage points? Seems like recreational outrage* may the just the thing to get out the vote, no?

                  *{{The caravan is only a thousand miles away, yo!}}

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                  • We’re talking about the dynamics behind today’s protests. Regardless of how things have progressed since then, the Women’s March was the day after Trump was sworn in and two months after many of those same people voted him into office. It wasn’t a specific anger, but something driven by pop culture.

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                    • It wasn’t a specific anger, but something driven by pop culture.

                      This is one of those times when if you were to ask those folks if their anger was sincere and specific, and they said “yes, yes it was”, you’d respond by analyzing their claims away as something else, right? “No, you’re wrong about that. You weren’t really sincerely pissed off about Trump. Instead, you’re just a pop-culture lemming who doesn’t know the contents of your own mind.”

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                      • Given the disparity between the vote in 2016 and how many women ‘found religion’ two months later…I think that is justified.

                        Like I said, some people just like to be outraged. It’s not just formal protests. It’s also how they approach blogging, commenting, the news sources they read, etc. And I do thibk this is more prevalent today, which is driving more and more casual protesters. You haven’t actually refuted that point.

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                        • Wanna know how we get President-For-Life Commandante Ocasio-Cortez?

                          This is how we get President-For-Life Commandante Ocasio-Cortez.

                          I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.

                          If you want to make a point that there is a rising tide of outrage that is spurious, you probably have solid ground.

                          But then, we would be talking about inflammatory rhetoric which is designed to appeal to the worst aspects of human nature and who is driving that.

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                          • “…I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.”

                            I think I made it clear in my comments that I don’t take them very seriously. I absolutely think inflammatory rhetoric ON BOTH SIDES is driving recreational outrage. Afterall, they need something to outrage them in the first place.

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      • I was in college during the beginning of the Iraq war and I remember the campus protest leaders just transitioning seamlessly from living wage and Palestine directly to Iraq. They didn’t even take off the white-boy keffiyehs.

        It would have turned more heads if they stopped protesting.

        More non-protestors than usual came on board for the Women’s March (me included), but they still set the tone. If you recall that in the very beginning, it got taken over by professional freelance activists for optics reasons. One wonders what a protest movement without protest people would have looked like.

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  6. At the university where I work, there has been an extended debate about whether or not students should be allowed to disrupt visiting speakers with whom they disagree using chants, signs, horns, and other noisemakers. What’s interesting to me is that people who think they should be permitted to and those who believe they should not be permitted to disrupt both claim the side of defending free speech.

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  7. What is a protest, really? It’s “petitioning the government for the redress of grievances”. To a conservative that phrase means a politely worded letter to your congressman wrapped around a nice, fat, campaign contribution. If one simply must make the issue publicly, then a more strongly worded letter to the editor might be acceptable.

    Protest? Publicly??!! That’s unruly, disorderly, and disruptive. Disgusting.

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    • Are we doing caricatures now? Great! To a leftist, protesting means going to the 7-11 and buying the newest Ben & Jerry’s flavor, then coming back 10 minutes later and throwing a brick through the window, then asking your dad to send a big fat check to his congressman.

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  8. Man, I feel old. We protested a quarter-million American deaths in Vietnam. People were willing to go to prison or leave the country. Women who would marry me, sight unseen, to keep me out of the draft. Test scores high enough the Air Force would take me and keep me in the US as a programmer. Both of those would have left me having to live with the ethics, given my physical size, of sending someone else impressed into military service to die in the Vietcong tunnels.

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  9. This is a great piece, Steve, I really enjoyed it a lot. And your blog looks really interesting, looking forward to checking it out in more detail. Thanks for writing.

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  10. “…I tease, but really, there is this air of condescension to your comment where you don’t take the protesters seriously.”

    I think I made it clear in my comments that I don’t take them very seriously. I absolutely think inflammatory rhetoric ON BOTH SIDES is driving recreational outrage. Afterall, they need something to outrage them in the first place.

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  11. So last night I went to a fundraiser, put on by two local groups (of one of which I’m a member), to raise bail money for women in ICE detention centers here in Texas (I say centers because, while it was originally planned for the closest one, in the suburbs of Austin, activists’ interventions have resulted in ICE moving women around to avoid activists). The organizers, and workers at the event, were by and large the people you’re most likely to see at any given protest here in town, and if you read this, almost everyone you will see in that video was there. We had fun, raised a fair amount of money, and strengthened some alliances with more targeted local groups. It was a pretty successful night, and again, almost everyone there is pretty active in Austin’s left protest scene.

    The point of mentioning this is that, if you’ve been involved in movements that use protest, you know that the protests are the tip of the iceberg; that they serve a bunch of purposes depending on the situation: annoying racists from the news, say; or preventing alt-right groups from successfully demonstrating; or raising awareness of a particular issue, large or small; or showing solidarity with other groups; or recruiting/organizing; or just venting anger with a bunch of like-minded people (see the above-linked article).

    I find it hard to believe anyone involved in protests, particularly since Occupy, isn’t aware of all this. Are we producing radical change? Nah, the system is still the system. Have we done any good whatsoever. We sure as hell have here, sometimes on a large scale (city ordinances and the size of a recent housing bond), and sometimes small (bailing a few women out so they don’t have to suffer the abuses of ICE). And I know Austin’s not unique in this (in some ways, Austin’s protest culture is more conservative than it is in other cities, and therefore less effective).

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