Make Protests Fun

1-2-3-4, we don?t want shrill chants no more

| March / April 2003

Mark Sommer is sick of protests. Last fall, he took part in a San Francisco rally against the Bush administration?s Iraq policy. The vibrant, energetic crowd exhilarated Sommer, a veteran activist and director of the Mainstream Media Project, a nonprofit educational organization based in Arcata, California. Not only was the number of people who gathered impressive, but nearly half of them were under the age of 25; Sommer, 57, noted the refreshing energy they brought to a movement that had its last major infusion of youth in the seventies.

But then the speakers began harsh rants against current policy, and the feeling of deflation in the crowd was hard to miss. Sommer realized something that many of those attending large protests in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and other cities would later comment on: Yelling wasn?t working anymore, and the anger that seemed necessary to fuel the movement felt misplaced. So he went home and devised a new strategy: the Global Village Gathering.

?To be driven by fear and anger more than hope and determination is to catch the very illness we seek to combat,? he writes in an essay outlining his plans. Sommer?s proposed new form of protest is an attempt to get back to the very definition of demonstration with carnival-cum-conference events that don?t directly protest anything, but actually demonstrate the kind of world that he, and like-minded collaborators, seek to create. They would be, in his words, ?part Renaissance fair, part music festival, part farmer?s market, part networking conference . . . demonstration projects for a sustainable society.? These ?veritable marketplaces of practical ideas and initiatives? would take place outdoors, ideally, over the course of one or two full days, providing ample time for people to get together to see working versions of alternative technology and culture and to talk, plan, and bring about change themselves.

Music and dance would play a major role in the gatherings, and so would mass silence. ?Everyone has a different version of how they find the deepest part of themselves,? says Sommer. ?Whatever you call it?praying, meditating?to stop and listen to what can be heard when thousands of people stand in silence is transforming.?

Every detail of the gatherings would support and exemplify sustainability: locally grown food would be offered, and bottles, scraps, and waste water would be recycled in ingenious ways. Electricity would be generated from wind or solar energy wherever possible.

Sommer is not certain if any Gatherings on his model actually have been tried yet, but he has received positive feedback on his scheme from the likes of Buddhist author Joanna Macy, Reconstructionist Jewish leader Arthur Waskow, and William Ury, director of the Preventing War Project at the Harvard Law School. He has no desire to promote the Gatherings himself, however. ?I want to incubate and nurture them until they take on a life of their own in the hands and imaginations of many others,? he says. Most of all, the Gatherings are not directed against anyone, not even the corporations and government officials who scoff at sustainability. As Sommer writes, ?It?s best not to condemn where they stand but move to a better place and invite them over.?

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