New Orleans If I had a thousand dollars for every time someone, well-meaning or evil-intentioned, said to me, that “I could agree with ACORN, but I can’t agree with your tactics,” then we would have enough money in the bank to organize for years. For all those making such gratuitous and self-serving comments, the irony is lost that without the tactics we used, they would not even be acknowledging our demands. In the basic physics of political protests, it is only the actions, that provoke reactions.
As the saying goes, the “winners write the history,” and we might add that in the case of social movements, the losers dilute the history of their loss so that they can deny their defeat. Men never demeaned women. Whites never hated blacks and natives. On and on, a version of history is rewritten, as if it was just one huge misunderstanding, rather than a saga of struggle.
A story in the New York Times headlined, “Why Protest Movements are ‘Civil’ Only in Retrospect,” seems like a script for Captain Obvious, but in fact it is probably a good reminder for all that the transition to change will be at the top of our lungs and with rough edges dragging everywhere on the way. Statutes will fall. There will be arrests. Rage is pent up and will be explode in various directions.
The reporter reminds that…
Public opinion has a poor track record of predicting what will be effective: A Gallup poll in 1961 found that 57 percent of Americans thought sit-ins and the Freedom Rides hurt the chances of integration in the South. And after the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, Gallup found that 74 percent of Americans believed mass demonstrations harmed the cause.
Let’s tell the truth, people hated Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and an endless list of others, local, national, and global. Some people hated them and what they stood for enough to kill them. Baton Rouge native Rap Brown famously noted that “violence is as American as apple pie.” There are still no statutes to organizers or protestors against the War in Vietnam, even if there are still hundreds of monuments around the south to Confederate bannerman of the Civil War. For every Samuel Gompers park in Chicago, there are a hundred of statutes, museums, and libraries commemorating business titans and the rich.
In forcing change there are few pattycake tactical options. The Times quotes Richard Pierce, a Notre Dame historian, who…
…studied a nonconfrontational civil rights movement in Indianapolis and found that it was no more successful than the confrontational movements in other cities. “They never marched, they never protested out loud, they negotiated, they used meetings — they were still held back.”
In fact, confrontation and direct-action works, as University of Pennsylvania professor Daniel Gillion has found.
Dr. Gillion ranks the intensity of protests by giving one point for each of nine characteristics: more than 100 participants, duration longer than a day, backing from a political organization, participants carrying weapons, a police response, arrests and — regardless of which side causes them — property damage, injuries or deaths. He has found that the intensity of protests in a congressional district affects the voting record of the district’s representative, and that intense protests are associated with higher voter turnout among people who are ideologically aligned with the protesters.
Here’s the message: sorry about that. Change is hard. It’s messy. Get over it.
Never forget that the famous Frederick Douglass quote is longer than the simple slogan most remember. His full sentence was:
Power concedes nothing without struggle and once the vigilance of struggle subsides, will seek to re-impose the comforts it once enjoyed.
The kumbaya of revision and co-optation later can’t alter the reality of disruption inherent in the hard fights that win the change. This process is difficult, and as Douglass counsels, endless.