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Rebel, Rebel, Your Face Is a Mess

Photo by Ted Soqui

SMITH’S BAR ON EIGHTH Avenue and 44th Street is a blue-collar oasis in the theater district whose back bar is pasted with union decals — a place so Irish it doesn’t even need to hang the republic’s tricolor above its register.

“What’s going on across the street?” a regular asked last week while paddy wagons sirened past the windows.

“Ah, just some dickheads who decided to sit down on the sidewalk and have a wee protest,” the bartender snorted. “They’ll spend a comfortable night on a concrete floor.”

Outside, the dozen or so lean-looking kids who were getting arrested in front of the GOP-booked Milford Plaza hotel saw their work a little differently, having come (some, thousands of miles) to shake America out of its moral and political trance. By convention’s end, about 1,800 protesters had passed through the temporary pokey at Pier 57. However, relatively few GOP delegates personally saw the demonstrators during their five days in New York City, let alone had their sightseeing or business at Madison Square Garden interrupted. Perhaps more important, the anti-war brigades had earned little sympathy from those not already on their side — from people who might be called the Smith’s Constituency. The New York City Central Labor Council, for example, declined to participate officially in the huge August 29 anti-Bush march in favor of its own rally — which, unlike the United for Peace and Justice march, was held three distant blocks from the Garden’s entrance and whose stage was not even permitted to display pro-Kerry or anti-Bush signs. It would have made more sense for the unions to join the UFPJ, but I could practically hear the unease in the voices of the labor leaders I spoke to about that possibility.

By convention’s end most of the young dissidents’ focus, in the way these “convergences” always seem to shake out, had shifted from attacking the GOP to denouncing the conditions of their incarceration. Some time soon members of the activist left are going to have to ask themselves the same question that haunted their parents during the Vietnam War — how do you translate large street demonstrations into political benefits? Or rather, how can an anti-war movement meet the Smith’s labor guys halfway when it can’t shake the Seattle Gone Wild image that has dogged it for the past five years?

Traditionally, society’s powerless have acquired clout either by withholding their labor or by resorting to organized violence. In the 1960s, however, a third way seemed to emerge — the media happening. Such happenings could be events like draft-card burnings, street rallies or the unfurling of a protest banner over a high-profile building. Their main goal was — and is — to galvanize like-minded but emotionally isolated people who, until now, had believed no one shared their opinions. This activity has its roots in the 19th-century anarchist credo of “the propaganda of the deed” and appeals to those unable or unwilling to create work stoppages or seriously hamper the orderly machinery of government and commerce.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH THIS McLuhanesque approach is that it requires a media willing to record and broadcast the event in question. Nearly 45 years ago, the fire-hosing of a few San Franciscans off the City Hall steps for picketing a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing was national news — today much larger events get crowded out whenever Paris Hilton locks herself out of her car. More to the point, the media in the 1960s were comparatively more diverse and more willing to cover protests, but are now concentrated in the hands of even fewer corporations whose regard for American dissent ranges from visceral contempt (Fox News) to refined condescension (The New York Times). Add to this a ruling Republican Party that cheerfully characterizes Democrats as The Party That Hates God, and you begin to see how anyone to the left of John Kerry has lost the game of public opinion before they ever leave the dugout.

Last week’s protesters mostly filled New York’s streets with color and good behavior. Even when they broke the law, they did so with passive gestures that only momentarily snarled traffic in places no sane motorist would have been during the convention anyway. Still, it was the cops whose “restraint” was praised by the press and the protesters who were branded as terrorist helpers by Bill O’Reilly and others for merely tying up law-enforcement resources.

“There is this new culture of the pampered protester,” deputy NYPD commissioner Paul Browne told me outside the Garden. “The kind who wants to protest but who whines about the discomfort of having to go to jail. A lot of the protesters have complained about not being fed vegan meals, even though we served tofu.” The New York Daily News dutifully picked up this theme with an editorial headlined “Whiners, Wusses & Wimps.”

The left’s dilemma cannot be solved in a seminar or with a conference call, but some things can be done to improve its message. None involve wearing ties or removing piercings:

• Civil disobedience should not be expected as the centerpiece or postscript of every protest. Breaking the law may provide a self-gratifying catharsis for participants, but it alienates the very people whose opinions and votes are nominally being fought for.

• Enter paddy wagons singing — don’t act shocked and upset when arrests occur and cops get rough. Either the left’s critique of American society begins with an assumption of repressive tolerance or it doesn’t.

• “Hey hey! Hey ho! So-in-so has got to go!” no longer cuts it — replace all singsong chants with soccer-type cheers that reverberate much better against buildings.

• Direct actions need leaders. Text-messaging and collective intuition are all very nice, but at some point someone is required to yell “Go!” when a crowd gathers at a crosswalk — otherwise everyone may as well show up already wrapped with arrest netting.

 

The RNC’s main lesson, however, should be that the corporate media consist, as Marx once put it, of the “gentlemen’s gentlemen of the press,” and that their job is to present the ruling mythologies as scientific fact. Our job is to challenge that mythology and the policies they create. A protest event should not be aimed at cameras but at the hearts of people staring out the windows of Smith’s or from their trapped cars.


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