Before get into the thick of it, here’s a pretty big disclaimer: many Americans would consider me a part of the “radical” left. In 2003 I marched my feet off against the Iraq War. In 2011, I was a part of the Occupy movement. And taking to the streets is not something that I’m not averse to doing again.
That being said, here’s what I want to talk about: the ways that Progressives, particularly those that protest—including me—have failed in the last decade. Here’s where I think the “Left” can do to be more effective.
First, progressives eschew the very notion of hierarchy. This is in contrast to conservatives, who embrace it wholeheartedly. This becomes a problem because, as a rule, progressive movements are much more diverse than conservative ones. When people on the left get organized in large numbers, it’s the result of an emotional and organic outpouring. When conservative groups like the Tea Party get together, it’s often times directed by a centralized organization or media outlet. As a result, progressive protest movements tend to be very disorganized by comparison.
One manifestation of this disorganization is the frequent lack of cohesive demands. Successful protest movements in the past have kept to a very rigid strategy. Make a moderately sized proposal to change or abolish a current law. When you have applied enough political pressure through protest to change that law, pick another small thing that needs changing, and apply pressure once again to change it.
Broad change that lasts is achieved through incremental action.
Because politicians, regular people, and everyone in between need something cohesive to legislate. If you desire social justice in the world, well, that’s great, I agree with you, but how are you going to legislate social justice? A broad, vaguely defined demand accomplishes little. A rapid series of smaller protest movements that go after one law and then the next? That gets something accomplished.
The Progressive movement won’t accept organization; it runs against their culture. But without organization, they can’t collectively interact and bargain with anyone outside of their movement.
The modern American left is the epitome of big tent. That diversity is nothing but refreshing. But in mass demonstrations, it is abjectly harmful. I can’t begin to describe the frustration I have felt when seeing groups who are projecting their own interests on to the issue at hand. Many large scale protests in San Francisco, regardless of the original intent, have become a catch-all for anyone with similar interests. Nudists at an anti-war protest, or Palestinian sympathizers at an Occupy march, I have seen them all. If the message lacked cohesion before, it becomes destroyed now. It is simply counter-productive.
To an outside observer, modern protest movements are a bewildering mass with no spokesmen, leaders, organization, or consistent message.
An even more harmful schism exists. Did you know that most people arrested for violent crimes during the Ferguson protests are from out of state? And this, from the Chronicle: “The protest started peacefully at 5 p.m. at Sproul Plaza, but protesters were soon joined by groups of black-masked demonstrators looking for trouble, onlookers said.”
This is the “Black Block.” They believe not in progressive change, but violent revolution. The problem is, they lack the creativity or intelligence to create their own events, let alone attract large numbers of followers, but instead leach off the events organized by people trying to advocate for reform within the system. Their actions discredit what would often otherwise be peaceful protests. Those active in Progressive movements, myself included, need to double their efforts in identifying and excluding the violent from their events.
Make no mistake, this minority of violent, idiotic miscreants are the single greatest threat to contemporary protests.
There has been a long tradition of protest in the 20th century. But in the last 40 years, many leftists have forgotten which protests are effective for what causes. I think this is a corollary of a lack of any kind of centralization. Progressive protest movements tend to be wild and flailing, with as much an idea of cohesive goals as they do of strategy.
Marches and rallies remain an important cornerstone of protests. Included in the modern repertoire of protests are die-ins. Often performed at shopping malls, these are pitch perfect! They are public, they are visible, and they force people to think critically about what is going on.
But how exactly does blocking highways do anything but inspire public rancor? What, exactly, is the cause and effect that leads from stopping a highway to a decrease in police brutality? I understand that protests need to have some level of disruption so they can’t be ignored. But past a certain threshold, they can cause a level of antipathy amongst otherwise sympathetic allies.
In a sentence, here’s what’s wrong with contemporary protesting progressive movements:
Due to their decentralization, progressive protesters utilize arbitrary methods to achieve vaguely defined goals.
If what I’ve just written makes you angry, let me reassure you that this isn’t borne of any kind of spite. I believe in most of what the Ferguson protesters do. I just want to see their ideas come to fruition.