March 30, 2008
Another March 19 has come and gone, leaving those of us who organized protests of five years of war to muse about what we accomplished.
The actions here in San Francisco were pretty successful. We had more people participating than we have had in the last four years, though unsurprisingly, not close to the numbers who came out in 2003 when the war first began. There were 165 arrests, most of people who chose to be arrested, and that was a lot more than any single action in the last four years as well. Which in itself is interesting, because in the 1980s, when the U.S. was involved in covert wars in Central America that hardly anyone knew about, we used to occasionally have actions where 500 people got arrested.
It’s not that getting arrested is the be all and end all of activism, it’s just that it’s one indication of how much personal risk people are willing to take to express their opposition to a government policy. I always assumed that the more egregious the government’s actions were, the more people would be willing to engage in resistance that carried some risk to themselves. But in fact, the opposite has proved true, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that.
First, it’s been several generations now since there was a major example in this country of mass nonviolent action actually being effective in changing policy. In the eighties, the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, and the antiwar actions of the sixties and seventies, were still fresh in a lot of our memories. There were even people who had been involved in the labor movements of the thirties who were participating in those actions. But people who are 35 and under today don’t even know about most of the movements of the eighties which used direct action: the anti-nuclear movement, the movement against the contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, the sanctuary movement, even the anti-apartheid movement in its grassroots community aspect. It seemed a couple years ago that the immigrant rights movement would provide a modern example, which like the Black civil rights movement, might have rippled to create an activist awakening among other communities. But, for reasons that not being a part of that community, I can only speculate about, that massive uprising quickly dwindled to a movement of the hard core.
Second, a friend pointed out, with cable TV, there are so many more options for what to watch, and that’s compounded by the nearly limitless resources of the internet, while in the sixties, seventies and eighties, everyone was watching the same news. The opportunities to opt out of news altogether mean that even the rare glimpses of the Iraq war on the mainstream television news go unseen by a majority.
At the same time, the overwhelming barrage of disturbing images and stories from all corners of the world causes people to shut down. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Winter Soldier hearings at work, and when people would come into the center where I work alone on Fridays, I would tell them what it was. “What’s a war crime?” asked one man, a 30-something African American who is a supervisor in the records department. I explained briefly and he was momentarily shocked: “We’re doing that?” But then he said, “I like to maintain a positive outlook, so I can’t think about things like that.” My coworker who came in at 3:00 p.m., a 60-something working class Jew and life-long leftist, said something very similar: the news is too upsetting, and she is done thinking she can do anything about it, so she tunes it out.
On March 19, I was part of a group of about 30 people who walked around in orange jumpsuits and hoods (and a few of us in masks of prominent politicians) doing theater in areas heavy with shoppers and tourists. Many people came up to us and said, “Thank you for being out here,” which at first was gratifying but quickly became deeply disturbing. What will it take, we started to ask each other, for people to move from saying, “Thank you,” to saying, “What can I do?”
I used to think that actions would do that, that people might not decide they could do what we were doing, but seeing us take action would motivate them to think about what they were willing to do. In fact, I think that once that was true, and I think the consumer mentality that the ruling class has worked so hard to promote over the last twenty years has destroyed that possibility. Whether it’s a vigil, a blockade or a die-in, people see it as the same as a billboard, a street band or religious fanatics ranting at them – part of the ambience, something maybe trying to elicit a reaction, but not an invitation to DO anything.
It is, of course, hard to convince people to participate in activism when you can’t point to any specific action and say, “Look at the effect it had.” When I told an Israeli friend who is also a U.S. citizen about the March 19 actions, she pissed me off by saying, “That doesn’t do anything. If everyone stopped paying taxes, that would do something.” It pissed me off because one, there is no chance that _everyone_ is going to stop paying taxes, or even that a lot of people are going to do it. It is extremely difficult to actually stop paying taxes; you can’t have an over-the-table job, you can’t have a bank account, and you can’t own any property. So only a few people are going to do it; a few people already do, and it’s a noble act of conscience but not something that actually hurts the government as much as the government can hurt them. And second, it puts the cart way before the horse. If “everyone” was about to stop paying taxes, we certainly would have been able to get the 68% of everyone who opposes the war to come out to a peaceful demonstration, and we can’t even do that. The point is not the specific act, but that we have to figure out something we can get everyone who opposes the war to do, and that in itself is a monumental task which we are nowhere near being able to accomplish.
The warmakers have made it clear that they don’t care what people think. Cheney said it flat out in the runup to March 19: “We don’t make policy based on opinion polls.” They do care, though, what people do, at least if what those people are doing makes it hard for them to continue governing. So the $64,000 question is, what is there that masses of people would actually do that the government would care about? It would not necessarily be one thing, but some set of things which would signify actual resistance, not resignation.
We can’t just sit around waiting for everyone to stop paying their taxes, but we do need to reframe the concept of resistance. One thing we need to stop doing is equating resistance with demonstrations. I think demonstrations are important, but they are only one kind of resistance. There are people who are never going to go to a demonstration, because, as my friend Jean says, they are just convinced that’s not something people like them do. So we need to open up discussions which will elicit “culturally appropriate” (credit to Jean again) forms of resistance for different communities. But that’s not going to happen by itself, and it’s not as easy as it sounds because anything that is effective is going to come in for repression. If enough people start hanging “Stop the War” signs in their windows that the government feels that’s a threat they can’t ignore, they’re going to outlaw hanging signs in windows.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that if that happened, fewer people would be willing to do it. Repression can energize resistance as often or more often than it discourages it, because people figure that the government doesn’t repress things that aren’t making a difference.
The other day, I got an email at work, from a secretary forwarding a job from the attorney she works for. I’m not sure whether it was the secretary or the attorney, but one of them had as her epigram the quote from Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I thought, if someone who works at a big corporate law firm chooses that tag line for their email, maybe we’re closer to winning than I thought.