My time is winding down here in McCarthy, and so I’m trying to enjoy the last week of my time in Alaska, which isn’t hard to do with all the September sunshine, a welcome relief after an Angry August of rain and cold. It’s also easy to enjoy the time here because as more and more folks disperse in the annual Alaska diaspora, the bar empties out save for locals.
Last night I was chatting with a local buddy at the bar. He lives in McCarthy now, but he’s originally from California. We started talking politics and culture, and eventually he began reminiscing about attending Iraq War protests, back during the Bush years. The protests seemed to have left a distinct impression on him, mostly negative. They felt a bit ineffective, quixotic even. He mentioned a certain festival type of atmosphere, with fire jugglers.
I mostly remember the Iraq War from the other side, because in the early 2000’s I was still a conservative and still very hooked into right-wing media. I voted for Bush twice — enthusiastically in 2000 and then much less enthusiastically in 2004. During that era, I remember protests being reported by right-wing pundits as a trivial thing. For the right-wing media, protesters were a form of entertainment, especially for someone like Rush Limbaugh, who has a natural comic sense and has used that gift to great success in satirizing leftist protesters and activists.
It only makes sense that protests would evolve, as politics changes. There are still violent protests in the traditional style, but a protest today might as well involve fire jugglers or meditation cushions.
But are protests effective? We live in a time period where activism is now mainstream, so more people than ever are attending protests. In the meantime, though, we have a government succeeding in a massive roll back of civil rights, and we have a President who is destroying the democratic foundations of the Republic as well as the governmental checks and balances put in place by the Founders — and they don’t give a shit about protests.
“Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option”
As Micah White puts it: “Just think of the three years many activists spent on Black Lives Matter versus the 18 months it took Trump to sweep into power.”
Micah White is an activist and was a co-founder of the Occupy Movement. Shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, he wrote Protests Won’t Stop Trump.
“Nominally democratic governments tolerate protest because elected representatives no longer feel compelled to heed protest. The end of protest is not the absence of protest. The end of protest is the proliferation of ineffective protests that are more like a ritualized performance of children than a mature, revolutionary challenge to the status quo.
“Activists who rush into the streets tomorrow and repeat yesterday’s tired tactics will not bring an end to Trump nor will they transfer sovereign power to the people. There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world. Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option.”
I’d like to go on record saying that I like fire jugglers. I appreciate going to protests where there are things like mindfulness circles and fire jugglers, because it lifts the spirits to join in solidarity, and it’s an important forum for solidarity and fellowship. Even a gathering that is more festival than a protest can still play the critical role of raising awareness on issues. Physical presence is important, and anytime activists occupy a space, good things can happen. So, it might be overly simplistic to say protests are ineffective.
Even so, activism must evolve. Politics are always evolving, and so must activists. To illustrate the point, consider that when protests raged against Nixon and the Vietnam war, the media situation was very different. Roger Ailes was a mere media consultant to Richard Nixon, just before the Nixon ship sank, and later Ailes would go on to build Fox into the right-wing spin machine that it is today. Fox and their friends on other media have succeeded, in fact, in painting any and all activism as merely serving the so-called “liberal elites,” which is pretty much the opposite of what activism is actually seeking to do.
So, how must activism evolve? According to White, it’s about power, which makes sense to me. The litmus test for activism is whether it is moving us toward a world that is less destructive/violent/abusive/exploitative.
“Activists can win wars or win elections,” White says, “There is no third option.” As such, activism must always center itself on the task of seizing sovereignty:
“American activists must move from detached indignation to revolutionary engagement. They must use the techniques that create social movements to dominate elections.”
“Concretely speaking, activists must reorient all efforts around capturing sovereignty. That means looking for places where sovereignty is lightly held and rarely contested, like rural communities. Or targeting sovereign positions of power that are not typically seen as powerful, such as soil and water district boards or port commissions. Protests will remain ineffective as long as there is no movement-party capable of governing locally and nationally.”