The Contemporary Protest Movement

war_protest_102809.jpgIn a book I have tentatively entitled, The People Out of Doors: The First Amendment, The Expressive Topography, and the Preservation of Public Liberties, I examine the many limitations on contemporary political protest and other First Amendment activity in public places. One of the things I thought much about while I was writing the book was the continued relevance and salience of the traditional public protest in an era of hyper-technology. In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Crowley touches on this theme in a piece about the methods and effectiveness of the anti-war protest movement. Crowley’s principal focus is on modern-day methods of protest and, in particular, protest organizing. As he reports, protest repertoires like conference calls, lobbying, and mass emails are replacing the public demonstrations, door-to-door canvassing, and street theatre used in earlier social and protest movements. Crowley wonders whether technological advances in communications and organization will actually create a more effective protest movement than existed, say, in the Vietnam era. He seems skeptical — and with good reason. Thus far, despite organizational improvements, fundraising successes, and regular access to legislators including House and Senate leaders, the anti-war movement has achieved little tangible progress in halting the war or bringing home the troops.

Crowley’s piece highlights two substantial errors that contemporary protest and other social movements seem vulnerable to making. The fact that, as Crowley states, “[t]he Internet, not the street, not the campus, is the fundamental component of today’s anti-war movement” portends a premature abandonment of the streets and other public places. The Internet is a necessary tool for organizing, raising money, and conveying messages. Indeed, no contemporary protest movement can succeed unless it harnesses the benefits of bandwith. The first error, however, is to assume that the Web can replace tangible places of protest, and that democracy-by-technology can replace on-the-ground grass-roots activity. The “virtual march on Washington,” staged online by one of the principal anti-war movement organizers, could not produce the solidarity or impact of a real march on the Capitol. Nor can online polls and petitions replace more embodied forms of protest and protest organizing. As I argue in the book, the people cannot effectively self-govern solely by sitting in front of computer monitors and typing on keyboards. Although they did not ultimately produce legal reform, last summer’s immigration protests showed how a tangible public presence can attract attention and at least start a national dialogue. By contrast, who watched or even noticed the “virtual marchers”? Anti-war protest organizers have not yet entirely abandoned traditional protest repertoires. But they are moving in that direction. The people must continue to assemble “out of doors,” both in the physical/tangible sense and in the sense that they occupy spaces outside mainstream political institutions.


The second error relates to the difficulty in situating a movement “out of doors,” in the sense that it is truly removed from institutional politics. Political scientists have shown that particularly since the 1970s, the act of protesting has itself generally been institutionalized. Changes in public permitting laws and methods of protest policing are largely responsible for this phenomenon. Protest organizers have also been co-opted. Organizers now regularly meet with police and arrange in advance such things as arrests, the location and contours of demonstration zones, and parade routes. What is happening, as Crowley’s article shows, is that the organizers of protest movements are becoming further integrated into the core political establishment. As one principal organizer put it: “Last time [it] was done in the streets. People were concerned about civil society breaking down. You have to play in politics, which is something we do very explicitly.” Disruption and contention, two of the principal assets used in prior social and protest movements, are being replaced by polite entreaties and cooperation between protesters and legislative staffers. The absence or rancor, passion, and genuine protest (properly targeted, in the case of the current war, at both parties) indicates that protest organizers have not only been institutionalized, but in fact are in danger of being captured — by the very political process that has thus far produced the “endless war” movement members decry. “Playing in politics” is fine up to a point; indeed, it is sometimes strategically necessary. If they continue down the present path of institutionalization, organizers will occasionally win the war of words with slicker media campaigns, more precise polling, and coordination of political messages with legislative allies. Without an effective “out of doors” protest movement, however, the Bush Administration will win the political battle over the war.

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4 Responses

  1. You will sell more books with a better title says:

    A much better title is: Assemble This! How Government Crushes Dissent by Regulating Public Space

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    The book sounds interesting and important, although I too might suggest a more catchy (i.e., less wordy) title (or shorter subtitle).

    This is a subject that in the main has interested me since my pre-teen years when I first learned of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. And I’ve been involved in anti-nuclear campaigns (with the Abalone Alliance in California) and was active in the early days of the Green movement before it changed (lamentably, from my perspective) its orientation away from social movement politics and canalized its socio-cultural and political energy into party politics (which I have nothing against in principle, it was just that I thought Green values were better served by not becoming a political party and thereby suffering the fate of previous third parties, etc.; Ralph Nader’s campaign was able to exploit this party focus and we all know what came of that). I thus have the temerity to recommend works that I think are essential historical, sociological, and otherwise analytical accounts of previous social movements, countercultural activities, and political protests in this country (and a bit abroad) that should prove indispensable to understanding and assessing your argument(s).

    The temptations of the routinization and co-optation of protest and the ebb and flow of social movements are recurring themes in the literature. And there are significant historical lessons to be learned from many of the political failures on the Left (On this, please see Richard Flacks’ Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life, 1988; Flacks is a retired sociologist and one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society and has remained active on the Left, of late working on community issues like affordable housing). I hope the following prove useful to those first coming to this topic or who want to deepen their knowledge of the subject:

    Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! (San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1972).

    Breines, Wini. Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989 ed.).

    Case, John and Rosemary C,R. Taylor, eds. Co-Ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).

    Cohen, Robert and Reginald E. Zelnick, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

    Cooney, Robert and Helen Michalowski, eds. The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1987).

    Epstein, Barbara. Political Protest & Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991).

    Flacks, Richard. Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

    Fraser, Ronald. 1968, A Student Generation in Revolt: An International Oral History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

    Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980).

    Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987).

    Horne, Gerald. Fire this Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (New York: De Capo Press, 1997; first publ. 1995).

    Hunt, Darnell M. Screening the Los Angeles “riots:” Race, seeing, and resistance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

    Kann, Mark E. Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1986).

    Katsiaficas, George. The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987).

    Lynd, Staughton, ed. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

    Mann, Eric. Taking on General Motors: A Case Study of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open (Los Angeles, CA: Center for Labor Research and Education, Institute of Industrial Relations, University of California, Los Angeles, 1987).

    Marable, Manning. Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (London: Verso/NLB, 1985).

    Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1991).

    Melville, Keith. Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Styles of Life (New York: Morrow Quill, 1972).

    Miller, James. “Democracy is in the Streets:” From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

    Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984).

    Munoz, Carlos, Jr. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement (London: Verso, 1989).

    Nicosia, Gerald. Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement (New York: Crown, 2001).

    Payne, Charles M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).

    Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).

    Stepan-Norris, Judith and Maurice Zeitlin. Talking Union. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

    Tokar, Brian. The Green Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future (San Pedro, CA: R. & E. Miles, 1987).

    Whalen, Jack and Richard Flacks. Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989).

    This list is hardly exhaustive. For instance, books on “radical” ecological movements are conspicuously absent, and more recent research on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party (and Black Power movement) are missing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Virtual protest is virtually meaningless. You need action and physical presence to be seen. Photography ends wars. Email doesn’t. And this administration knows it, or they wouldn’t have disallowed photojournalists from photographing the flag-draped coffins returning to US soil.

    http://mylifeofcrime.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/kent_state_massacre.jpg

    http://www.geogr.uni-goettingen.de/kus/personen/vn/napalm-girl1972.jpg

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    “Organizers now regularly meet with police and arrange in advance such things as arrests, the location and contours of demonstration zones, and parade routes.”

    To some extent this is not a new phenomenon, as the rationale for this grew up in the context of nonviolent theory and practice (especially its theory of *civil* disobedience), it being thought that it was important to be open about one’s goals, methods and tactics so as to lessen the possibility that police agencies would make inferences about what was being planned that would cause them to react all out of proportion to events. It was thought to help lessen the incidence of fear and mistrust on both sides of a protest as it was understood that those enforcing the law were not the enemy, and openness served to preclude wrong assumptions or beliefs about motives (say, an intention to simply cause chaos and violence, engage in mindless breaking of the law or display egregious disrespect for the rule of law, etc.) that sent a wrong or misleading message about the aims and goals of a particular action, thereby helping to reinforce the integrity of actors committed to the theory and practice of nonviolence. Such openness was further thought to enhance one’s image in the eyes of the general public, to reassure folks activists and protestors weren’t hell-bent on wanton destruction of private and public property or revolutionary violence of some sort or another. None of this denies the possibility that nonviolent protest, from its most innocuous forms to civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and boycotts, may serve as a precipitating cause that brings to the surface latent conflict or structural forms of violence, but the theory and practice of nonviolence entails doing whatever one can to lessen the likelihood of avoidable hence needless suffering or violence such that the attention of all parties remains focused on the short-term strategic goals and long-term ends of those involved in nonviolent campaigns.