Why demonstrations?

Demonstrations were among the main reasons why I was politically agnostic in high school and college. The student bodies were fairly liberal, and there were episodic demonstrations on a series of issues: anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, against US Central American policy, pro-clerical-workers strike, busing to Washington for pro-abortion rallies.
The demonstrators had slogans but didn’t have particularly cogent explanations. I have stronger opinions on the issues now, having learned how to research, and having more perspective to weigh conflicting evidence. Students seemed to go to demonstrations the same way they went to parties — word spread about the cool place to mingle with friends. Instead of alcohol, slogan-chanting made people feel good and lowered inhibitions.
What was worse, it wasn’t clear to me how gathering in a sports field was going to have the least bit of difference on the policy issue. Ronald Reagan and international arms control negotiators weren’t going to pay any attention to a group of young people standing on the grass and chanting slogans.
Only on apartheid divestment did a group of students — with wealthy alumni parents and allies — have a direct impact on the people making decisions.
Demonstrations still puzzle me most of the time. When the faithful rally on the issue of the day, what are they trying to achieve?
The classic civil rights demonstrations revealed that there were massive numbers of people who cared about racial equality — enough people to effect elections. The demonstrations made it impossible to ignore segregation. Massive demonstrations provided confidence and unity to people who were isolated and downtrodden.
But it’s really hard to see what most demonstrations and rallies achieve these days, other than making the demonstrators feel good. Politicians pay attention to money and voters. Demonstrators want to get on TV. But television-watchers will just see a bunch of yelling people. Does that actually persuade any of the TV-watchers to change their minds?
The attempts in Boston and New York to pen up and stifle demonstrators were disturbing. The constitution protects the right to peaceably assemble. People should be free to gather and speak.
Most demonstrations and rallies seem like ritual re-enactments of forty-year old battles, with as much political impact as a Society for Creative Anachronism gathering.
Please let me know what I’m missing.

One thought on “Why demonstrations?”

  1. I agree. I think demonstrations are a decreasingly valuable form political action.
    There was a time (maybe the 19th century) where the physical space in cities was so important you could put up barracades to block the streets, or storm the government building and you pretty much had taken over the city (and therefore, the country.)
    Then, as the state became more technologically powerful and “informational”, control of the space was less important. The army could suppress even the largest mob. The government could go elsewhere and still get on with business.
    In the age of television, large protests took on a new significance in symbiosis with the media. The media got a big, photogenic story, and was willing to translate that into “the people really care”. Politicians and business (kind of) took notice.
    However, governments appear increasingly immune to this. They realize that the “caring” of large protests doesn’t necessarily show up in elections. The media has got “bored”. Demos are no longer a big story. Plus, increasingly right-wing, television either diminishes the protestors or spins them negatively.
    In the nineties, the anti-globalisation crowd briefly made the story interesting again with new tricks and that brought the media’s attention back. Also, by more explicitly focussing on *economic* institutions and issues like WTO and third-world debt, they had a fresh story.
    But with the media attitude shifting after 9/11 it was clear that protest in general was going to be frowned upon under the new patriotism. So it’s very unlikely that demos no more than confirm that there’s a bunch of (weird) people s/pissed at the government/WHO HATE AMERICA!!!!/g)
    Supporters of demos claim they have another function : to help raise the consciousnes and feeling of solidarity of those who attend. Such people go back to their communities re-energised with the sense that there are thousands who think like them. In fact, given some hand waving evolutionary psychology story about communities of 150, I suppose the average brain is probably tricked into thinking that a couple of thousand people is the whole world … for the duration of the demo. So it may well have this positive effect. But that’s never been enough to sell it to me.
    We desperately need new forms of political action.
    But the other issue is that there is also a “safety in numbers” question. Given the new understanding of fourth generation warfare, we can imagine how smaller groups of protestors could probably cause more trouble with targetted protest “attacks” on key infrastructural points. But it’s much easier to catch and castigate as criminals, people engaged in this kind of protest, than people blocking the streets in large numbers. (Who normally have to get licensed by the police, anyway.)
    Large demos have their place. But I suspect the formulaic, officially sanctioned demo is a tired cliche which has very little effect.

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