Protest Is Dead. Long Live Protest.

Dump your signs and slogans -- it's time to make change


| Utne Reader May / June 2007



Forty-three years ago, 250,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., to register their support for the civil rights movement. They carried signs and listened to Joan Baez sing 'We Shall Overcome' and to Martin Luther King Jr.'s now-iconic 'I Have a Dream' speech.

They were taken seriously. The U.S. Justice Department readied emergency troops to quell rioters (although no one rioted). CBS television canceled its afternoon soaps to report the protest live from beginning to end.

Earlier this year, when United for Peace and Justice mobilized its latest march on Washington, the event barely registered. A few TV cameras clustered around Jane Fonda, who was at her first protest in years. The networks virtually ignored the demonstration. Another day, another protest.

On its face, the antiwar movement's impotence is puzzling. As this issue went to press, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a staggering 67 percent disapproval of President Bush's handling of the war -- a level that matches public sentiment at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when street protests, rallies, and student strikes were daily occurrences.

The problem is that American peace activists have been marching down the same cul-de-sac for more than four decades, a tactic that, during one of the nation's most tumultuous periods, is proving to be a dramatic failure. A generation of rabble-rousers, schooled in 1960s-style dissent, have adopted nonviolent civil disobedience not only as a default tactic, but in later years as a profession, a lifestyle, and, most disappointingly, an end in itself.

'A street demonstration is only one form of protest,' says Jack DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 'and protest is only one tactic that can be used in a campaign. If it's not a part of a dedicated strategy to change policy, or to change power, protest is only a form of political exhibitionism.'