In 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.