Sunday, November 20, 2011

Smarter protest, please

Phil Paine, continuing this earlier post:

Shakespeare didn’t have Romeo and Juliet commit suicide in the first act, and then let the remaining characters pitch tents on the stage and chat aimlessly for the remaining four acts.  That was because Shakespeare was a dramatist.  His aim was to move people to emotion, to make them think, to shock, horrify, or delight them.  Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that he was pretty good at it.  Today’s protesters could learn a thing or two from him.
As I mentioned in Part 1, the Occupy protest movement began by taking advantage of new methods (the social media), and then quickly reverted to an old formula.  The advantage that social media offered was the ability to bring people together quickly to do some strategic and dramatic thing —- to surprise.  The “flash mob” is the appropriate template for a protest using social media.  The flash mob originated as an amusement —- one in Toronto called people to a pillow fight in front of the Eaton Centre.  There have been some political protests using this technique, and these have been dubbed “smart mobs,”  but their use has been very limited, so far.  The key to the flash mob’s effectiveness is its ability to end as dramatically as it begins.  This leaves those in authority disconcerted, and makes them look incompetent.  It has the same advantage in protest that guerilla tactics can have in military conflicts.
The Occupy movement has squandered the opportunity to move into the modern age of protest.  Social media were used to bring people together, but once there, power reverted to the traditionalists, and the only thing they could think of doing was squatting down and staying put.  The smart mob turned into a “sit in,” a protest relic from a generation ago that is notorious for its ineffectiveness and tendency to alienate the very people that the protest is supposed to convince.


If you speak to these old-schoolers, it won’t be long before you hear them prat­tle non­sense about how they are con­tin­u­ing the tra­di­tions of the Civil Rights Move­ment in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They are delud­ing them­selves. The Civil Rights activists were not amus­ing them­selves. They did not go out on pic­nics. They were deal­ing with the Ku Klux Klan, and with cor­rupt and vio­lent state gov­ern­ments in the Amer­i­can south. They were in con­stant dan­ger. Civil Rights activists faced the seri­ous pos­si­bil­ity of being tor­tured or killed. Every­thing done was aimed at pro­ject­ing an atmos­phere of seri­ous­ness of pur­pose, and of clearly delin­eat­ing the moral issues involved. Any­one who wants to see real protest in action could do no bet­ter than to study the events of the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cott of 1956. Protests like this led to a gigan­tic trans­for­ma­tion of Amer­i­can soci­ety, one of the most dra­matic in world his­tory. Take note of the fact that Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Aber­nathy did not orga­nize cat­fish fry-ups, spon­sor water­melon eat­ing fes­ti­vals, or instruct their fol­low­ers to dance the madi­son. They did not paint them­selves blue. They ratio­nally, intel­li­gently, and bravely, cal­cu­lated which actions would pro­duce the desired results, and under­took them, mak­ing huge per­sonal sac­ri­fices to do so. The Amer­i­can pub­lic came to realise that it was the State Gov­ern­ments and the Klan who were the sav­ages, the forces of chaos. 
I have become pro­gres­sively more annoyed with the Occupy move­ment because of its utter fail­ure to heed these sim­ple and obvi­ous facts. We des­per­ately need to get the Amer­i­can and Cana­dian pub­lic to under­stand the trou­ble we are in, and the dan­gers we face over the com­ing years. Intel­li­gent protest is one of the things that has to be done. I’ve out­lined some of the rea­sons why the protest we are see­ing is not intel­li­gent or effec­tive. Next, in Part 3, I will dis­cuss the types, dynam­ics, and struc­ture of protest.
Read the whole thing. 

Image:  Boycotting the segregated bus system, 1955


  1. Rosemary White7:46 pm

    Phil, Steve has posted links to your very good arguments and suggestions. I only wonder if they should and could be shared with the Occupiers who seem in need of direction and fresh ideas.

  2. It's doubtful that the present Occupiers would heed my advice. Others, preferably unsullied by political science or sociology courses, are better suited to the task. There is a huge reservoir of talented people in both Canada and the U.S. who avoid political activism because they think it can only be the kind of foolish stuff we are seeing now. Those are the ones I want to reach.