The Devin’s Advocate: Some Thoughts On Protest Movements

As the Occupy Wall Street protests get more coverage and spread across the country, Devin weighs in on some philosophical and practical matters about protest movements.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. - Mr. Spock, quoting earlier thinkers and explaining Occupy Wall Street.

In the last two weeks the Occupy Wall Street protest has mushroomed, and there have been spin-off protests in most major cities in America and in a bunch around the globe. The protests went from ignored to ridiculed to suddenly being taken seriously. Gandhi knew how that went:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

That was how Gandhi outlined the stages of non-violent activism, the model that the Occupy Wall Street protesters have been basically following.

In those  weeks I've seen lots of people not quite understand what is going on, specifically in Occupy Wall Street and more generally in protest movements, so I wanted to write something that gives non-protest minded folks an understanding of the nature of a protest movement. Before I got into writing about movies I worked in community organizing and was a fairly radical lefty; I've been pepper sprayed and tear gassed and clubbed by police. I've never been arrested, but not for lack of trying.

So here, in handy bullet list format, are some thoughts on protest movements, presented as responses to complaints I've heard:

- The protesters don't have a 'plan'.

People criticize Occupy Wall Street for having broad complaints or, more commonly, for 'not having a plan.' Quick: what was the plan advocated by the protesters in the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famed 'I Have A Dream' speech? That march was to support civil and economic rights for African Americans, but there was no specific law they were backing.

The same is true of Occupy Wall Street. The idea here is to battle the pernicious influence of corporations in politics; the protesters are alarmed that 1% of the people in this country control the wealth and thus have all the political power. They're also alarmed that people who recklessly crashed our economy are not only running around free, but allowed to battle regulations that would stop them from doing it again.

The way that protest works is like this: the people register their anger in a way that the political structure cannot ignore; ideally the political structure responds by creating legislation or regulations that assuage the protesters. The 1963 March on Washington was a huge part of why the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed in 1964 and 1965.

- The protesters want attention.

People have said that Occupy Wall Street is just a bunch of kids who want attention. Well, duh. You don't do protests in secret. Getting media attention is THE key aspect of a good protest. It gets your message out to more people - people who might be sympathetic - and it means that the political power structure cannot ignore you. Getting media attention is the most surefire way to make sure your protest works.

As for those who think that the Occupy Wall Streeters will fuck off once the media gets tired of giving them coverage - remember that these kids were camped out for two weeks before any camera crews bothered showing up.

- The protests are disruptive.

If getting media attention is your number one way to make your protest effective, being disruptive is your number two way. A protest that is easily ignored is simply not a good protest. People need to be made aware of your presence and your gripes, and that means disrupting daily routines and taking over public spaces.

There is a fine line to walk here - if your protest becomes too disruptive the locals will see YOU as the problem, not the thing you're protesting against. People in America are hardwired to accept authority and think that anyone who is against authority is automatically a troublemaker/problem/pest, and being too disruptive will only prove that to people. The Occupy Wall Street protests have managed a perfect level of disruption, occupying parks and public spaces while only occasionally causing massive street closures (and so far only on weekends).

- You'll get arrested.

Civil disobedience is one of the cornerstones of non-violent protest. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and many, many more laid their own bodies on the line to prove their commitment and to make a point. Thoreau popularized the concept in  his essay Civil Disobedience (Resistance To Civil Government), where he explained that he did not pay taxes because of his opposition to legalized slavery.

Thoreau called the government a machine that created injustice; following up on that metaphor Mario Savio, a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, said this, which has always inspired me:

"There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part; and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop, And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all."

You may recognize that from Battlestar Galactica, where it was repurposed as a speech given by Chief. Anyway, this is the heart of civil disobedience - the idea that the power structure is so unjust and so wrong that we must grind it to a halt in order to address the problems. Gandhi and MLK both engaged in civil disobedience and both happily were arrested for it; modern Occupy Wall Street protesters who volunteer for civil disobedience are trained in how to properly submit to arrest and what to do when they're taken in.

- Protesters don't have jobs.

Maybe. It's certainly easier to be a full time protester when you're young; my time as an activist was in my 20s, when I wasn't so worried about making money or going to the doctor. Youth always energize protest movements, and it makes sense  - it's their own future they're fighting for. But all good protest movements expand to include many people, and the fact that senior citizens and major unions have been joining Occupy Wall Street protests, the fact that the LAPD is donating food and equipment to the Occupy LA protest, means that this isn't just some flash in the pan college sophomore stunt.

- Protests don't change things.

This is not only a cynical line of reasoning, it's a stupid one.The United States of America traces its founding back to protests - specifically acts of civil disobedience, many of which were violent. In the 20th century we saw time and again protests profoundly impacting policy.

Not every protest movement is effective, but protest is not an end in itself. Protest is only one tactic in an arsenal that anyone committed to creating change in the world must wield. Protest is usually the most exciting and glamorous tool, but it isn't the be-all-end-all of social change.

- The Occupy Wall Streeters are hypocrites.

This stupid picture sums up this stance:

It's important to understand that just as Martin Luther King Jr wasn't against white people and Gandhi wasn't against British people, Occupy Wall Street isn't against corporations. The crowds are protesting the undue influence corporations have in our lives and our political structure. The protesters have the radical belief that the United States of America should have a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The protesters believe that just because the richest 1% have more money they shouldn't have more influence. Corporate and business influences have always been present in the United States government, but in the last few decades most politicians and corporations have stopped pretending that they wield unequal power. The United States' status as an oligarchy seems to have become official as corporations quit even pretending to work for the common good, and have started claiming that their good IS the common good.

The Occupy Wall Street protest is decentralized, something that has become more prevalent in protest movements in the last few decades (largely because the 50s and 60s proved that the government will systematically destroy any leaders of any social change movement), and so there will be some protesting who do advocate redistribution of wealth or extreme libertarianism or any one of a thousand other fringe positions. But the basic gist of the protest is simple, and ironically a position the Tea Party protesters held before their movement was fully coopted by business: the economic crisis was caused by misdeeds, and the perpetrators of those misdeeds should be held accountable. Further, the system needs to be changed so that these kinds of mideeds cannot happen again, and so that ultimate political power is taken out of the hands of the few and given to the many. The rich are not our rulers or our betters, and any system that kowtows to them is fully corrupt.

For more information on Occupy protests in your area, check out Occupy Together, an unofficial clearinghouse of information about meetings and protests across the country.

Below is a link to buy Rules for Radicals, one of the truly great books ever written about protest movements. Saul Alinsky, the father of modern American community organizing, wrote a guidebook that is profoundly detail oriented, smart and practical. While the right has attacked it as communist or socialist it truly isn't, and ANYONE looking to create change in their community should read it, whether you're part of Occupy Wall Street or trying to get a Stop sign put at the end of your block.