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.’
The 1963 march in Washington was one of many devices used by the civil rights movement. Others included bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Rides to integrate buses — not to mention calls for armed resistance from the black power movement’s militant wing. Most importantly, these tactics were in service of a long-term strategy: to rally Americans around the mainstream values of inclusion, equality, and freedom.
By contrast, today’s mainstream protesters are operating in a vacuum. ‘Many of us are disillusioned with the tactics, strategy, and partisanship within the antiwar movement,’ a student organizer told the Indypendent in early February. ‘There doesn’t seem to be much interest in talking strategy. Action has become ritualized. And frankly, without a major shake-up of the status quo in the movement, I can’t imagine how the movement could ever become a relevant force in shaping U.S. foreign policy.’
Civil disobedience of the sort associated with Mahatma Gandhi was used to particular advantage in the civil rights movement. Media images of black protesters facing police batons, water cannons, and savage dogs were effective because they illustrated — dramatically — the immorality of Southern-style segregation.
This unity of medium and message is singularly lacking in the case of the antiwar movement. It would be one thing if Iraqi civilians were resisting U.S. tanks nonviolently (like African Americans in the 1950s, the average Iraqi citizen bears the greatest burden of U.S. policy). When a middle-aged war opponent signs a form or pays a modest fine after blocking the steps of the courthouse, however, or when an aging hippie with a multimillion-dollar film career speaks from a podium, it lacks a certain power.
The first step toward building a movement is getting people’s attention, which is not easy. There’s no doubt that during the ‘Battle in Seattle,’ the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization, street demonstrators found some visceral satisfaction in smashing windows at a McDonald’s or a Nike store, but the acts themselves were unimaginative and overshadowed the cause.
One example of a successful anticorporate campaign is the Bubble Project (www.thebubbleproject.com), launched in 2002 when Ji Lee, a thirtysomething New York ad man fed up with his trade, printed thousands of stickers shaped like blank cartoon bubbles and then slapped them on posters and billboards around the city — an open invitation for passers-by to fill in the blank.
The results, documented in Lee’s book Talk Back (Mark Batty, 2006), were hilarious, subversive, and encouraged participation. Now there are bubble commentaries around the world, ranging from the political (a grinning model on an insurance company billboard asks, ‘Why doesn’t the government insure our health?’) to the absurd (the Starbucks mermaid asks, ‘Have you seen my nipples?’). Although he has been fined a few times for vandalism, Lee isn’t a revolutionary — he’s simply trying to ‘transform the corporate monologue into a public dialogue,’ he says.
‘The idea is to look for cracks in the system and exploit them,’ says Steven Kurtz, a founder of the group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), best known for its 1994 book The Electronic Disturbance (Autonomedia), an early critique of the Internet that called for digital disobedience.
One CAE project in Halifax, Nova Scotia, featured a fake cultural tour — complete with glossy brochures, commemorative icons, and LCD displays — that highlighted injustices in that city, including a sewage-infested Halifax harbor. One display was mistaken for a bomb and the police’s terrorism squad took charge. By the end of the day, the harbor was at a standstill. The larger public pegged police paranoia and antiterrorist overkill as the real culprits.
The Yes Men, undercover impersonators who pose as corporate spin doctors and show up to speak at big business retreats, turn the rhetoric of globalism on its head. A group called Improv Everywhere deploys hundreds of slow-motion shoppers to jam up the pace of commerce in retail outlets like Home Depot. The Center for Tactical Magic has dozens of tricks in its bag, including a ‘tactical ice cream unit’ that hands out propaganda — and ice cream — from a cart that doubles as a high-tech communications unit during protests. These groups aren’t always linking their actions to a broader strategy for change, but their creativity is inspiring.
When it comes to that broader strategy, another movement is emerging that could lead the way for activists: collaboration and cooperation with the enemy.
There are times when it’s right to fight — and fight creatively. The left’s us-versus-them mentality, however, represents strategic shortsightedness. It alienates potential allies with the power to act and instead causes them to react defensively.
Of course, it’s far easier to shout slogans than it is to sit down at the table and hash out, say, energy policy. But that’s exactly what groups that want change are starting to do. Consider the movement to prevent the clear-cutting of Canada’s rainforests on the Clayoquot Sound. Fourteen years ago, environmentalists, backed by overwhelmingly favorable public opinion, organized what was then the largest civil disobedience campaign in that nation’s history, resulting in 1,000 arrests. The clear-cutting continued. So instead of facing off against the logging companies again, the activists targeted their customers — the largely U.S.-based corporations that were buying the paper. They launched a creative education campaign with clever advertisements and other tactics to alert the public about where their phone books were coming from.
Then activists made allies within these same corporations with whom they collaborated to find alternatives to Clayoquot lumber. ‘It’s not about moving on from confrontation,’ explains Tzeporah Berman, strategic director of Forest Ethics, an organization that grew out of the Clayoquot campaigns. ‘It’s about understanding which tool you use from your tool belt. Confrontational tactics like blockades kick the door open. But if all we do is protest, without actually helping to define the solutions, we’re as thin as a placard.’
Success stories like Forest Ethics serve as a model — and a reason for relegating nonviolent civil disobedience to its rightful place as only one of many approaches. Public opinion is with progressives on a whole range of issues, from reforming health care to ending the Iraq war. It’s time we come down off our high horses, get creative, and take back change.
Joseph Hart is a contributing editor for Utne Reader.