Thursday, August 28, 2008

On the importance of demonstrations (or not)

After demonstrating against the Republican National Convention in Detroit (1980), I also joined the Yippies in demonstrating against the Democratic National Convention in New York City the following month. It was very different. In Detroit, our every move was clocked. As I said in my piece on that convention, unmarked cars containing unmarked law enforcement followed us everywhere. Not only were we harassed, there were carefully-targeted arrests of leaders. But in New York? Nobody cared. Nobody thought we were worth following. The multiple demonstrations got all swallowed up by the general cacophony of the city. At peak hours, there might be several protests going on simultaneously, separated by saw-horses in strange configurations arranged to allow continuous traffic-flow outside Madison Square Garden. I recall Irish Nationalists demonstrating alongside PONY (Prostitutes of New York), replaced later by some unnamed Cold War hawks demanding the head of Jimmy Carter.

We didn't necessarily have a grudge against Carter, as we did against Ronald Reagan. But the Yippie tradition (since the banner year of 1968) was to demonstrate against both parties.

The big event was the anti-nuclear die-in, blocking the delegates' entrance, which was even covered in Newsweek. This was the only time I remember New Yorkers just off the subways, actually stopping and looking confused for a few minutes. I remember a couple of them blinking for a second: WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE DOING, LAYING IN THE STREET? Some of the activists sported radiation-burn makeup, which did give one pause, as they moaned, gurgled, groaned and got into the whole street-theater of the event. (One activist spoke from the podium: "If you people at the curb aren't into dying, you know, laying on the ground and everything, you could just stumble around and throw up, if you'd like.")

I don't remember any other event bringing New York to anything remotely like a standstill. I made note of the fact that if you think your convention will be trouble, take it to New York. The DNC, still smarting from major riots in 1968 and 1972, took their party to New York in both 1976 and 1980, and managed to neutralize the rowdy opposition of street-demonstrations, quite admirably. As I passed out leaflets during the die-in (I wasn't going to LAY ON THE NASTY CONCRETE), several New Yorkers asked me what was going on. Oh yeah, the convention. Shrug. New Yorkers aren't impressed by much.

Left: The Yippie flag.

That night, we stayed at the Chelsea, with countless radicals crammed into a room and sleeping all over the floor. The first room we entered had the words NANCY SPUNGEN SLEPT HERE scrawled on the back of the door in red paint. Ha ha. "I'm not sleeping in this room!" one guy hyperventilated, "Is this the SAME ROOM??!" and he sufficiently spooked us into going to another room. (We never did find out if it was the same room.)

It was hot, stuffy and uncomfortable. I didn't enjoy it. I questioned if any of this was doing any good. In Detroit, the constant harassment by law enforcement made us feel like we were engaging in some important revolutionary act. New York? Forget it. We were just part of the circus.

Signe Waller, widow of Jim Waller of the Greensboro 5, managed to get inside the convention during Carter's acceptance speech and explode a firecracker, getting herself hustled off the convention floor forthwith. There were periodic busts outside for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest... and that was it. I did not attend another national political convention's counter-demonstration after that.

I have seen precious little coverage of any demonstrations in Denver. Are activists saving their ire for John McCain and the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis? One can only hope. Or are demonstrations simply not the happening thing these days? Why do you think that is? Certainly, we didn't have blogs and the internets to broadcast our POVs in those days. Climbing up on the proverbial soapbox, starting a picket line or writing commentary in alternative newspapers were our only outlets.

Demonstrations were focal points then, and now they seem almost like mere formalities.

Cross-posted at Feministe.


white rabbit said...

I rather think the firecracker letter offer (I enjoyed that) got away lightly with being hustled off the convention floor. Nowadays she'd have been tazed or just plain shot dead I suspect...

thene said...

Brad Hicks posted just the other day about the unimportance of demonstrations. Go read, you might want to rip him a new 'un.

Ravenmn said...

Cross-posted my response to your marvelous post, Daisy!:

If I weren’t up to my eyeballs organizing a mass demonstration in St. Paul next week, I’d have the time to respond to some of these comments more thoughtfully with links and book recommendations.

The shorthand version: mass demonstrations are not meant to have immediate effect. They are part of a broad array of activities that make change happen. If you read the history of people who have organized mass demonstrations over the last hundred years, you’ll see that many were left with the idea that they had no effect. It is only in the years that follow that we discover the effects. For instance, you discover that somebody who first got active in the demonstration you planned 10 years ago has now become the right leader with the right ideas and the right community to make change happen. Mass, legal demonstrations are very often the starting point from which tomorrow’s activist leaders are launched.

The people who are the target of mass demonstrations will NEVER admit that the demonstrators had any effect, even when we do. It was only through the release of the Nixon wiretaps that we could hear Nixon and Kissinger shelving plans to bomb Hanoi when they saw millions in the streets in 1971 and realized how many more would rise up if they carried out their plans. We rarely get that kind of confirmation of our effect.

Mass demonstrations are the place where people in the military and their families meet and expand their movement. As in the Vietnam war, it is traditional for veterans to lead the today’s antiwar marches. Veterans for Peace is having their national conference in town right now in order to coincide with the RNC convention and to express their outrage. When enough soldiers resist the war makers, as they did at the end of WW II, as they did in Vietnam and as they are starting to do in Iraq, the war can no longer be prosecuted.

There is no sure way to predict which action will make a difference in today’s world. After all, there weren’t any social theorists and activist strategists who predicted that a Gold Star mother sitting in a ditch in Texas would have a huge effect on public discussion.

I believe it’s important to avoid getting caught up in the “that won’t work” pessimism. Actions that had no effect when we tried them a year ago can make a huge difference today. For me, not making an effort is unacceptable.

Kim said...

Talk about images that won't quit!
Looks like you had a lot of fun!