Means to Change: Street Demonstrations

Posted: June 3, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Politics
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Anarchist Cookbook front cover(This is an earlier, considerably shorter version of a piece that will appear in The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015.)

 

When many, probably most, people think of political protest, they think of one thing only: street demonstrations. Some people probably think of them as the only form of political protest.

How effective are they? Many activists (including me, in my more cynical moments) have noted the ritualistic aspects of street marches and have dismissed them as a waste of time, as simple political masquerade.

There’s reason to do so. In themselves, isolated marches, no matter how large, seem not to do much beyond “raising awareness.”

As an example, I took part in an ant-war march in San Francisco in 1991 near the beginning of the first Gulf war. A quarter of a million people took part (with some estimates being higher). The march went from the ferry building to civic center (about a mile). Market was completely packed and the march lasted, as I recall, about six hours. Apparent net result? Zero.

In fact, the only street protests that have ever succeeded have been those that occurred day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year. The anti-Vietnam War marches are, of course, the prime example in the U.S. They ranged from small to massive, and took place for years in communities across the country. But they didn’t exist in a vacuum. They occurred in a context of campus occupations, draft resistance, cultural upheaval: political music (Bob Dylan, The Fugs, Phil Ochs, Country Joe and the Fish, and too many others to mention), street theater (notably The Living Theater and San Francisco Mime Troupe), ongoing radical political groups (SDS and the Black Panthers most notably), a burgeoning underground press (countercultural newsweeklies springing up in every major city and a lot of smaller ones), and a feeling, no matter how delusional, that anything was possible.

In contrast I took part in an anti-SB 1070 march in Tucson in 2010 with roughly ten thousand, other people. A much larger number marched in Phoenix, with some estimates in the fifty thousand-plus range. There were a few other large marches in Phoenix during the first half of the year. Net result? Apparently zero, other than “raising awareness.” The governor signed the bill, and following one final protest march, that was that.

The lesson seems to be that isolated street marches rarely succeed. Those that do are usually those whose participants repeat them over and over, in the context of (preferably many) other ongoing political, economic, and cultural resistance activities.

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