Alex Blaze

So you want to be an activist

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 22, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: LGBT, March on Washington, protest

We had a few discussions about organizing and actions in the queer blogosphere and on TBP last week. No matter what anyone does, it's important to keep our eyes on the prize: actions and demos aren't about expressing our anger, they're about effecting change. Try to be like ACT-UP, not Code Pink.

I found this post from Markos Moulitsas insightful. He discusses why the teabaggers were ineffective but the immigration protests got people's attention and moved a debate. It applies to this situation:

Now's as good a time as any to take a break from mocking the teabaggers in favor of a more serious look at what they accomplished yesterday.

I've never made a secret for my distaste of most street protests, and of groups like Code Pink that think they are accomplishing anything with their street theater. But when I set out to write Taking on the System, my book on effective organizing in the 21st century, I had to dig deep to figure out why I didn't like them, and how to differentiate the usual ineffective ANSWER-organized protests with those that actually had a positive effect (e.g. the Jena Six and pro-immigration protests of a few years ago).

I finally determined that for a protest to be effective it needed to:

  1. be novel and/or unexpected
  2. have a sympathetic, singular, and media-friendly message
  3. provide great visuals
  4. tap into a hot-button and timely issue.

The usual leftist protests fail most of these, falling into the worst, cartoonish stereotypes. They feature a mishmash of causes and issues, with no unifying theme. Is the protest about the Iraq War? Or Palestine? Or American imperialism? Or freeing Mumia? Or legalizing marijuana? Or blah blah blah blah? Who the heck knows? Who the heck cares? This is a classic clip from the Daily Show after one such protest:

Stewart: On Saturday, a 100,000 strong peace march descended on Washington seeking to crystallize America's dissatisfaction with the war into one single idea.
Clip of young male speaker: Peace!
Stewart: Okay.
Clip of male speaker: Justice!
Stewart: (pause) Fine.
Clip of male speaker: Environmental protection!
Stewart: (pause, confused look on face)
Clip of male speaker: No racism!
Stewart: (dumb-founded, and then says in Valley Girl-like voice) Dude! I didn't hike from Oberlin for this.

There's nothing novel, new, or interesting about these protests, making them easy to ignore. We've seen them a million times, the visuals are easily mockable, with the dreads and the stupid puppets and whatnot. And not only are they patently ridiculous, but we saw just how ineffective they were during the Bush years. No one gave a damn about them, not the media, not powers-that-be (in either party), and certainly not the public.

It wasn't the protest movement that moved the Democratic Party left on Iraq, it was Joe Lieberman's loss in his Democratic primary in 2006. Prior to that, Rahm Emanuel, as head of the DCCC, was telling Democratic candidates to steer clear of the war. After that primary, the Dems fully embraced ending the war in their campaigns and won huge that fall. In other words, the anti-war cause was best served via electoral politics. After Lieberman's loss, not even the media could ignore the saliency and validity of the anti-war position. "Patriotism" could no longer be used to silence anti-war voices, we had helped mainstream them.

So now conservatives are out in the cold, far from the levers of power. They are feeling marginalized, ignored, powerless. We know the feeling. It wasn't long ago that we were there. But instead of adopting the tactics that best served liberals on our way back to power, conservatives seemed to have learned the exact wrong lesson, adopting our most ineffective ones.

And having decided to do street protests, rather than learn from the people that have done effective street protests (like the pro-immigration forces), they decided to go the Code Pink/ANSWER route.

So looking at our list above:

1. be novel and/or unexpected

Other than anti-abortion protests, the Right doesn't really do protests. Their instinct is to laugh at the hippies out on the streets, not take to the streets themselves. So yeah, these were kind of new and unexpected. Give them a point.

2. have a sympathetic, singular, and media-friendly message

What was the message? Too much taxes? I didn't see many bank executives and Wall Street types out on the streets. And coming on the heels of the biggest tax cut in American history, almost entirely directed at the middle class, this message didn't have much salience. Furthermore, the theme of these protests "taxation without representation", was pretty silly considering that these people did have representation. It's just that they lost the elections, which sort of happens in a democracy. "Representation" doesn't mean you always get your way, it means that you have a vote. So it was an indefensible frame to base the protests around.

That's probably why the crowds didn't easily rally around it, deciding to freelance it instead. So there was talk about pork barrel spending! And bail outs! And wanting to stick a knife in Obama's eye (at 1:07)! And secession! And Obama's birth certificate! And Obama taking away their guns! And the American taxpayers are the Jews for Obama's ovens! And Obama is Hitler! And blah blah blah blah.

Conservatives were doing their best to impersonate the "free Mumia!" crowd.

Throw in the terrible name (you really don't want to be associated with sex acts), and it simply wasn't a great message day for these guys.

3. provide great visuals

Did the country really need another group of people getting together to chant crazy slogans and wave stupid signs? It's boring and trite when the ANSWER/Code Pink crowd does it, and it's boring and trite when dumbass conservatives do it. I mean, after all the time conservatives have spent mocking those dirty fucking hippies, they really thought it'd be a good idea to do the exact same thing?

The small number of protesters certainly proved counter-productive. If you claim a mass popular uprising, you can't have hundreds of people show up to events. Remember, conservatives claimed that 10 million anti-war protesters back in 2003 were fringe (Bush called them a "focus group"), what's that make 100-250,000 protesters nationwide? That's less than what some cities got during the anti-war and pro-immigration rallies. If we wanted to paint the protesters as part of some fringe (which we did, because they are), there was no better way to do so than to laugh at the pathetic turnout.

Throw in an exclusively white crowd protesting our nation's first black president (to the great delight of the Stormfront crowd), and really, the visuals were simply terrible. There's only so much that Fox News' tight crowd shots could do to pretend otherwise.

4. tap into a hot-button and timely issue

Tax Day is a good time to protest taxes, sure, but their problem is that taxes aren't currently a hot topic of national debate. As much as they may think otherwise, the nation is focused instead on economic matters, as the financial, jobs, and real estate crisis has decimated families and plunged us into the worst economy since the Great Depression. People like government stimulus spending. Many are benefiting from it. The only people who have any gripes about taxes are those making over $250,000 a year, and there isn't going to be any broad sympathy among the broader public for that crowd (hence the small crowds), especially in this environment.

So what did the teabaggers ultimately accomplish yesterday? They proved that even with the combined might of Fox News and Conservative Talk Radio (and their tens of millions of listeners), they couldn't mobilize a significant part of their base to take to the streets. They showed that their views, contrary to their beliefs, are simply not striking a chord with the broader public. They showed that they have learned the worst lessons from progressives (while we were learning the best lessons from their side). They gave their ideological opponents (like us) more visual proof of their fringiness (like Texas Gov. Rick Perry talking secession). And they did a great job motivating and entertaining our side as well (we had our best traffic day in a while yesterday).

So what now? The teabaggers are talking about a new round of protests on July 4th, which will likely feature rhetoric and signage, on our nation's most patriotic holiday, dominated by talk of secession and independence from ... the United States of America.

Go for it. For a floundering movement desperately seeking a leader (Sarah! Rush! Glenn!) and a cause, there's nothing better for us than seeing them stick with the ANSWER/Code Pink playbook.

I don't agree with 100% of what he writes there, obviously. While protest didn't stop the Iraq War, electoral politics hasn't been all that effective either. I mean, yeah, Lieberman's a douche, but the war's still going on.

But many of the actions I've heard people discuss for LGBT people aren't impressing people who actually have experience with LGBT organizing because they've seen these tactics fail. Take, for example, the proposed March on Washington, about which I'm rather agnostic (as in, go if you want to go, but know that it's not going to do much for the movement). There's a reason no major LGBT activists who've actually done stuff have stayed away from endorsing it and no major org is helping out.

Is it novel and/or unexpected? Well, marches on Washington happen all the time, and we did it back in 2000 to little effect.

Does it have a sympathetic, singular, and media-friendly message? Hell, I can't even figure out what they're asking for, and it doesn't seem like they can either. Ending job discrimination? Hate crimes? Marriage? DADT? AIDS funding? HIV travel ban? Being able to walk down the street holding your SO's hand and not getting stares or being hassled? Obviously not stopping civil service discrimination against trans people, since we saw how the community crapped all over that one last week.

"Full equality now" is a great rallying cry for some in the community, but it doesn't really mean much when you stop to think about it. Especially considering that equality in the law and equality in effect are two different things and that few people outside of our activist community have taken the time to memorize the list of legislation we somehow decided we all wanted. I wouldn't be surprised if mainstream media coverage just calls it a "gay marriage protest."

Will it provide great visuals? Several hundred people standing in a lot in Washington? Doubt it.

Does it tap into a hot-button and timely issue? Well, it it happened right now it would. The mainstream media cares about LGBT rights this week. Will they in October? Don't really know.

That's just an example, and don't make the comments all about the March on Washington since, as I said, it ain't about that. The MOW won't die without me and it isn't going to hurt anyone other than, as Greg Varnum pointed out, youth who will show up without food, lodging, or money for a ticket home.

What this is about is people who want to get into the business of organizing. Actions and demos aren't supposed to be about "expressing our anger" or providing a "something" for the phrase "just do something." They're supposed to change people's minds and actions. That's it. And if they can't accomplish that, then they're not worth it.

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Don't forget the importance of using a readable font on your protest signs!

Thanks, Alex.

As I understand it, the MOW *is* in fact a march for "marriage equality," but organizers want to pretend otherwise to prove that they actually care about other issues. And I don't get this bit about "full equality." Or, rather, pardon me, to use the preferred nomenclature of the gaycon gay marriage crowd: "Full EQUALITY!" (they're particular about those capital letters). I mean, seriously, what's half equality? Or lesser equality? Is equality (itself a dubious concept, but that's for another day) not enough? Sigh. So like the gaycons to want more, MORE than anyone else could ever have.

Oh, that lot just confuses me anyway.

Like you, I don't agree with everything in Moulitsas's post. For one thing, I think that the multiple messages at anti-war rallies are relevant; it's a question of framing war as a multi-issue event. The severity and reach of the wars of the recent decades are not limited to single issues, and the protests shouldn't be either. War is linked to the environment is linked to the wrongful incarceration of people of colour is linked to racism is linked to the immigration crisis and so on. The fact that liberals like Stewart can't comprehend the multiple causes and effects of wars doesn't mean we shouldn't try to.

mixedqueer mixedqueer | June 23, 2009 11:23 AM

"The fact that liberals like Stewart can't comprehend the multiple causes and effects of wars doesn't mean we shouldn't try to. "


also, code pink's actions and "street theater" seem more about being heard rather than just yelling, to me at least. i don't demonstrate in that way, myself, but i also don't think it's useful for us to demonize and ridicule it. it is but one angle of attack, and we should be fighting for revolution on many fronts.

National and local marches may not produce any immediate, tangible results, but I think they can serve to motivate participants so they keep fighting in more practical, grassroots ways -- which can be tedious to the max. I think large gatherings can be energizing for those who participate, serve as useful networking opportunities and provide some entertaining fun before, during and after the events. This can be as important in keeping people involved and optimistic as more serious activism activities.

We must also never forget that such events can draw in new people who have never been that out in public, around so many like-minded folks. It can be a rush that hooks people into further and deeper involvement in the cause.

I don't see why any of this should be either/or. Every angle of attack has its pros and cons. I, for one, am definitely going to the march because it's been a long time since I've been in a large crowd of GLBT people for anything other than Pride. I miss it and I think it will invigorate my activism, not replace it.

I think the time of marches have gone by. They were effective at one time and some people do listen to them, but I think that the ones that count just think of it as another one of those radical marches.

Mainstream TV is one of the best outlets to make people look at what is going on in the world. How does Hollywood do it? We have a lot of different advertising gimmicks now and the marches of the 60's are really remarkable history but this is 50 years later. Different tactics.