18 February 2007

Organized protest: Civil obedience

  • Feb 18, 2007

Organized protest: Civil obedience

Ever seen those fundamentalist evangelical christian fanatics gathered at gay parades and abortion clinics?
They gather up a good group of like minded people, they have signs, slogans, chants.

Has seeing them ever made you think maybe gays really are going to hell, or that abortion really is worse than murder? Even a little bit? Even for a moment?

My guess is no. You look at them, and think they are idiots, you are disturbed that they feel something so disgusting with enough conviction to even be there. You wonder why they care so much about issues which don't even directly affect them.

And yet, so many of us feel that, when it is ourselves holding the signs, saying the chants, that we are somehow influencing people, changing peoples minds, raising awareness perhaps.
Anyone who is still unaware, doesn't care. Anyone who is on the other side, just thinks poorly of the protesters, they aren't going to have a change of heart based on a chant or a slogan. Perhaps a long, in depth dialog, showing facts they may have been unaware of, demonstrating the logical fallacies of their assumptions, on so on, but not a chant.
Those people who do things like "honk" a horn in support, they were already on our side to begin with.

Then there is the idea that it will somehow influence politicians.
An elected official either gets your vote, or they don't. If you approve of them 51%, they have no reason to care if that increases to 99%, because you will already vote for them. That increase would cause a corresponding drop in some other demographics' vote. Like wise, if you like them 49%, they just as well may alienate you all the way, as they have already lost you.
(Hence "non-binding resolutions", get just enough support, without any political backlash)
Unless you have a city wide general strike, chances are any protest, however large, is actually composed of a fairly small subset of the population.
Outside of actual voting, why should they be concerned with the will of the citizens? Because they get there power from the fact that we choose to give it to them. They make the laws, but if the entire society, or a significant portion of it, doesn't follow one of them, it becomes meaningless. It is extremely unlikely at this particular point in time in this country, but the possibility of a coop always exists.

So the question becomes, how strongly do the citizens object to the actions of their leaders? What are they willing to risk, or sacrifice?

In the case of a protest, basically nothing. The individuals involved have very little risk from being there. It costs only a few hours of time, and having to stand or walk.
And, it seems most protests, anything short of the majority of a population, has little or no real effect.

Compare to those actions which have had the intended effect.

Ghandi taught not only to be peaceful, but also civil DISobedience. The negotiations began only after he led hundreds of people to publicly break one of the laws they objected to (that being a law against making your own salt direct from the sea, instead of buying it)
The protests against segregation included Rosa Parks' riding in the white section of a bus, and dozens of people sitting at white only lunch counters.
People were protesting Vietnam for years, but much of the country supported it - the protests became a good deal more meaningful, more relevant to the government, when people began publicly burning their draft cards.
There are only so many people who can be arrested. If enough people start breaking the law - risking jail, police beatings, a permanent record - the government gets closer and closer to losing control.
That power is by our consent; breaking the laws they impose is a withdrawal of that consent. So that scares them.

The writers of the constitution built support from citizens by building in freedoms and safe guards. But like any leader, they wanted to remain in power, and ensure that mostly elites held that power in the future. So, saying bad things about the government is legal, but words which might encourage (even implicitly) revolution or law braking have been outlawed by congress and upheld by the supreme court throughout American history, especially during war time ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_ConstitutionSedition ). There may be a reason why they don't mind peaceful, law abiding protests. Even the military, which is largely exempt from the constitution and the bill of rights, (no right to jury trial, for example), allows civil protests.


Not that it does any harm either. But we are deluding ourselves if we tell ourselves that we are really accomplishing something significant. If we really feel strong, we need to start breaking some laws. Interrupting the smooth running of business in America. Rile the people and scare the government. If we are not quite ready for that, I at least, choose to use my free time doing something fun.

When MoveOn is circulating methods of guerrilla warfare, someone let me know; of course, they can't really do that, because they would get shut down in an hour if they did. I'm not really blaming them. I just wonder where the spirit I hear about from 50 years ago went to.

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