Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Protests, Then and Now

Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about how America is the most divided it’s been since the 1960’s. But given all of the social progress made over the course of that tumultuous decade, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I was not around during the 60’s, but my mental image of that era is filled with vivid images of people protesting: at Selma and the March on Washington, on campuses all over the country, even at the Pentagon.

Which got me thinking, how are today’s mass protestors doing? (My thoughts on the NFL’s anthem protestors—and celebrity protests in general—are somewhat separate and not covered here.)

Last month, I was somewhat taken aback when I read about some anti-fascist rallies:
The explicit goal of the November 4 protests, which have been warped into a number of increasingly bizarre, "antifa"-related conspiracy theories by right-wing media, is to remove Trump and his administration from office. In order to achieve that end, millions of people will have to take to the streets of cities like New York, Austin and San Francisco, demanding that the administration step down, organizers tell Newsweek. It’s something that will not be achieved with the actions of only a few left-wing radicals, they say.
WTF?!? Am I the only one who thinks that holding an antifascist protest in SF is like Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders marching down the streets of Harlem instead of down Hwy 80 from Selma to Montgomery? If you’re protesting fascism, why in the world are you holding your protests in the most diverse places with the fewest white nationalists and their sympathizers? Why not go to where the Trump voters actually live, like the Deep South or Kansas? If that’s too far for city people to travel, how about taking a bus from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, PA or from Detroit to one of those Michigan counties that went for Trump? Or is that still too inconvenient for people?

Given all this #Resist talk, what are people actually doing to resist our president? During the 50’s and 60’s, the protestors organized very effective sit-ins which not only highlighted the racism and oppression of “separate but equal,” but just as importantly, disrupted lots of segregated businesses. And who can forget the cries of “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” causing Lyndon B. Johnson to not have a moment’s peace:
The president and his principal spokesmen were finding it harder each week to avoid the chanting protesters, who seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in history, a president was unwelcome in public in most parts of the country, making him a veritable prisoner in the White House, "hunkered down" there, to use one of his favorite expressions.
Fast forward to today, when we have a grossly narcissistic guy who cares most about his image, his money, and his opulent properties, so how is the fight being taken to that guy? Certainly lots of people are being blocked by him on Twitter, but what is most noticeable to me is how much he still gets to enjoy playing golf almost every week. So why aren’t people protesting every single weekend at Mar-a-Lago or Trump National Golf Club? Why aren’t they blocking off traffic, as protestors have done in Oakland and St. Louis? Why aren’t protestors shaming everyone who goes to those Trump properties with shouts of “Hey hey DJT, all your lies won’t set you free!”? Is this asking too much, if indeed this man is as dangerous as we think he is?

Speaking of which, one of the most infuriating things I read this year is this account of what actually happened when anti-Trump protestors came face-to-face with Trump supporters at a Trump rally in Arizona:
Elsewhere in the city, the police had done a masterful job of ensuring that large groups of pro-Trump Americans were separated from groups of anti-Trump Americans. The two groups were usually placed on either side of wide barricaded streets, but on this corner, there were no barricades, no police nearby, and access between the two groups was unobstructed.

Which made it all the more surreal and tragic how genial and almost embarrassed the interactions were. 


The Trump supporters looked up and down at their sudden audience, and, if they could get over their astonishment, smiled and held up their phones to take pictures.

And when the protesters saw just how unarmed and unassuming most of the Trump supporters were, and how free they were of signs, weapons, anything — they were left speechless.

That was a strange thing. There were a hundred or so protesters standing on the high steps, and at any given time a few dozen Trump attendees passing them on the sidewalk, but for much of the time they were in close proximity, and no one said anything.

Something was happening there, in that close confrontation between the two groups. There was recognition. There was the uncomfortable knowledge that they were in many ways very similar people. The rally attendees were not frothing at the mouth and were not spouting racial epithets. They were moms, dads, teenagers, and families who for whatever reason have an exceedingly high tolerance for wretched behavior and the absence of moral leadership from their chief executive.

Thus the protesters were flummoxed. It seemed cruel and strange to yell “Nazi” to a pair of grandparents in yellow polo shirts, or at a trio of Eagle Scouts, and so given the chance to say something directly to Trump supporters passing by them, mere inches away, much of the time they said nothing.
How about “Shame, shame, shame!” or “Your emperor has no clothes!” or “We want a president, not a wannabe dictator!” Am I just being unrealistic? Are my expectations too high? I think that on some level, this lack of basic effectiveness at protesting is one reason why the man is still in office.

Has our consumerist culture (see my last blog post on this), smartphones, and the internet made everyone so complacent that they don’t know how to break out of their own little bubbles to stage an effective protest anymore? Do we really think that some hashtags, clever signs, and funny hats are enough?