Monday, January 29, 2007

Protests' Purpose vs. Spectacle

Ignore the pressing political issues of the day for a second. I want to turn to an important piece of the political pie that has changed this country intrinsically more than once in its history.

The protest on Saturday provides a bunch of talking points, but I’m most interested (mind you, I’m not well read on the aesthetics, planning, etc. of protest) in the purpose vs. spectacle paradigm I saw therein.

What I mean by purpose is the overall goal of the protest. Specifically, Saturday’s protest was organized by United for Peace and Justice to voice displeasure at Bush’s troop surge. But, and here I find the first problem of large political protests like this one, various other organizations often piggy back (or hijack, depending on your preference) these occasions, and Saturday was no different. I began to feel implicated by the other organizations—for example, those with “End the Occupation in Palestine” signs—such that I felt forcefully grouped into them. It was almost as if I was forced to wear a Packers jersey.

This is an important point because what’s so sweet about protests (in the US) in the first place is its most basic characteristic: that thousands of people from across the country can come together and feel safe to voice their opinions to the people who represent them and the country at large. But the views that protestors espouse are individual, specific, and personal—often, they are integral constructors of one’s personality.

In other words, there’s a contradiction between a basic philosophy of protest—power in numbers—and the personal aspect of voicing what you think the problem is in a government that represents you.

I don’t want to look over the fact that protests are not only meant to voice and show displeasure. They’re definitely meant to CHANGE the problems. So we should add that to the list of purposes that also includes the specific display against the troop increase and the general display against many other issues.

Turning to the spectacle part now, I am almost overwhelmed with impressions. The first thing I saw at the protest was a group of about 150 anarchists (black flag) confronting a police blockade like a white blood cell. Their chanting and coordination was impressive (reminded me of the orcs in Lord of the Rings) and raised my blood pressure, besides redirecting lots of attention from whomever was speaking their way.

The spectacle, I think, is where a protest derives its power and what decides its success. It’s no secret that protests are meaningful as much for how they voice their views as for what the issue is. Certainly, numbers play an important part—especially in a democracy—but huge protests (like the one in 2005) can use their numbers to manipulate ambivalent attendees. Think about the palpable tension at sold-out arenas.

I began to understand how protests could spiral violently, all I had to do was feel my pulse.

In the end, I was happy that so many people turned out to express themselves, but was equally happy to head back to GW and escape the packed, noisy scene there on the mall. Thinking back, I wonder if the purpose bled into the spectacle a little, or if the two fused into one. From a different perspective, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the goal of protesting as making a scene and drawing attention, two ideas that rely solely on spectacle.

Mostly, I still wonder about the impact of protests, and how little the majority of them actually do. But I’ll never disregard them, not in this country.

[As a side note, the three best (funniest) posters I saw at the protest were these: “Women say pull out,” “Bush is the world’s biggest poopy,” and “The Nintendo Wii is a Gillion times cheaper and a Ka’Zillion times awesomer than the war.”]