Walter Russell Mead:
The news that 175 people were arrested over the weekend in a Chicago OWS protest started me thinking about the ritualized nature of left demonstrations. The drums, the chants, the defiance, the arrests — and, sometimes, the glass smashing and the fire setting: it all unfolds according to a predictable pattern that in its modern form is essentially unchanged since the Vietnam War.
And it also made me wonder: what is the point?
In a mass democracy where everyone has a vote, and normal peaceful demonstrations carry no professional cost or personal stigma, if 100,000 people gather in Central Park for a protest rally it means that about 8,000,000 New Yorkers chose not to attend. It is not really news and it doesn’t mean much about where the city is headed.
In America, probably fortunately, protest is so widespread and cost free that no particular protest means anything much. 500,000 people can march through Washington DC to protest Roe vs. Wade; no laws change, no judges change their minds, no politicians (not running for the GOP nomination) change their stands. Ditto “million man” and “million mom” marches.
Perhaps, like the Tea Party, the OWS folks will go on to become a potent force in politics — though to do they will have to develop a clarity and purpose of outlook that is still lacking. If so, the OWS protests will be remembered as the launching pad of a political movement, but the action will have to leave the streets to produce change. Signing nominating petitions, raising money, launching websites, turning out caucus and primary voters, attending local government meetings: that is what makes change, not living in squalor or even making love in the park, not getting arrested in acts of civil (or uncivil) disobedience.
Maybe I’m just stupid and old, but whatever the movement you are in and whether it comes from the left or the right, I truly don’t see the point of getting arrested at a protest rally these days. The civil rights marchers engaged in civil disobedience had a clear strategy and when they got arrested or were beaten up by the police, it had an impact on public opinion. Not fringe public opinion or upper middle class left wing college student public opinion, but middle middle and lower middle class people who had never thought much about the ugliness of segregation but now suddenly saw it in action — and it made them feel sick to their stomachs. The courage and quiet dignity of the civil rights protestors, and the hatred and brutality they brought out in their opponents, brought a moral reformation to the United States.
Their tactics were directly related to their goal, and they demonstrated the truth of their cause by the way their dignified nonviolence clashed with ignorance, violence and hate.
Nate Silver of The New York Times estimated that 70,000 people turned out last Saturday in OWS protests across the country. Over 80,000 football fans turn out for every Notre Dame home game.
It’s October. Next year is a presidential election year. The White House, 1/3 of the Senate and the House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with numerous state and local offices.
OWS hasn’t produced a single candidate, policy proposal, issue or demand.
Other than the groovy experience of protesting, what’s the point?