Monday, September 11, 2017

Anatomy of A Protest

The Media's Movement


My daughter and I attended a rally and march against a small far right group in downtown Portland yesterday.  Here and around the US, the frequent protests against the right have gotten massive amounts of media coverage.  I'm generally all for protests getting media coverage, but the extent of the coverage is so disproportionate compared to the way the media usually covers leftwing protesters and social movements, one might develop the impression that there is some kind of massive movement against the right and the people in the White House who represent the right.

There is no such social movement occurring in the United States today.  In order to think there is such a movement happening, you would need to be staying home from the actual protests, and just watching them on TV and on your social media feeds.  If you're a leftwinger from the US and you do Instagram and most of your friends are politically somewhere in your camp, you probably saw lots of pictures of protests yesterday.  If you were listening to NPR or watching MSNBC, you heard and saw scenes from various protests both yesterday and today (they're still talking about yesterday's protests on the news today).

If you have been participating in these protests, you would only think you're participating in a mass movement if, as they say in the entertainment business, you believe your own bio.  That is, if you believe what they say on the news.  Or if you've never been part of a social movement before, and haven't read much about past or contemporary social movements in the world.

I do not mean to be critical of anyone who is organizing against this horrible administration or the administration's rightwing supporters.  But as someone who is here on the ground in one of the main cities that gets national media coverage on a regular basis for being a center of this stuff, I feel like it's worth jotting down some notes, while it's all fresh in my brain -- if only for those hypothetical future historians who may be trying to make sense of what was going on here in the year 2017.  (Plus I'll be speaking to a class at a university in a few days and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on the subject.)

Backing up slightly to set the stage here, I attended two similar protest rallies in the past couple months in Portland.  At one of the rallies the sound equipment they had was so inadequate that only a few dozen people standing right around the speaker could hear anything.  The other few hundred people there were just quietly standing around, trying not to make any noise, so they might hear the occasional word being said from the speakers.

At the next rally, I brought my battery-powered amp and stand and such, thinking I'd offer to provide sound for the rally.  I saw they had a much better sound system all set up, so I didn't offer mine.  They had inexplicably set up their sound system in an area that was like ten feet down some stairs from where most of the rally participants would be standing, and on top of that, no one seemed to know how to turn up the volume, and once again, what was said from the speakers was inaudible to most of the several hundred participants.

I have learned that unless I know rally organizers and/or the people with the sound gear personally, it's usually wise not to offer to help, lest I be seen as an unwanted intruder.  Certainly offering to sing in such a situation can be seen as an unwanted intrusion, since decisions about who's going to speak or sing and for how long are generally made by committee in advance at such protests -- and this practice has merits, as well.

Several weeks in advance of yesterday's rally I got in touch with the organizers and offered to bring my amp, and I offered to bring my guitar if they wanted me to sing (separate offers, if perhaps related ones).  I also explained that my amp was not ideal for a crowd of several hundred, but that it was better than what they had used at these other two rallies.  I got word a few days in advance of the rally that they wanted me to bring my amp but that they weren't sure if they wanted me to sing.

In terms of whether or not they wanted me to sing, the question was whether to have me open the rally with a couple songs when it was officially scheduled to start at 12:30 pm, whether I should sing a few songs before the official start time as the crowd was gathering, or whether I shouldn't sing at all.  The day before the rally, I got messages from two different organizers, one saying I should sing as the crowd is gathering, the other saying I should sing at 12:30 to kick off the rally.

I figured if there was some question about whether people wanted me sing as part of the official rally program or not, maybe it would be more diplomatic for me to sing before it officially started, so that's what I did.  I started playing around noon, when there were several dozen people sitting or standing around, waiting for the rally to start, largely in silence, some talking quietly, a couple of groups of people with certain roles (security, medics) having meetings.

Although people could hear me fine, and I was singing songs related to the protest they were attending, there was a strangely morose atmosphere in the park.  At first the only tepid applause came from the couple of people there I personally knew.  After a couple songs, tepid applause came from a few more people.  Around 12:15, a couple hundred students marched to the park.  I think they were coming from Portland State University nearby.  Many of them were marching behind banners for a variety of small socialist political parties, mostly campus-based, parties that have little or no presence in the city outside of the college campuses.

They came in chanting a variation of one of the chants that has been interminably popular since the Sixties.  Sort of the left equivalent of a nursery rhyme, or "Happy Birthday" or something equally cloying.  For some reason, as they walked in they didn't want to fill up the park, but mostly wanted to stand behind their banners in the area where the speaker was set up, facing the few people who were already in the park.  There wasn't room for all of them there, so, since I was in front of the mic, I encouraged them to keep coming in.  I think my advice was contrary to their plan, and so they naturally ignored it, so it took quite a while for everybody to manage to find a space in the spacious park for these strange logistical reasons.

I don't know if they had been planning on keeping up with their chants until the rally began, but I think I messed their plan up, with my pre-rally entertainment going on.  I figured they'd have time for more chanting later, so I kept singing into the mic.  The crowd was of course now much larger, and applause after songs was thus a little louder, but still basically polite applause rather than anything enthusiastic.  I think I was as perplexed by the looks on the faces of people there, especially the students, as they were by me.  They looked like they were thinking, "who is this guy?  What is he doing?  Why is he doing it?"  I felt like I was visiting from another planet and singing in an alien language, even though I was doing songs about recent events with which everyone would have been familiar, such as the recent murder-by-car of a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There seemed to be some confusion about who the MC was supposed to be, and how the chants went that the MC was supposed to lead.  One of the MC's, a Lakota veteran of the struggle at Standing Rock, repeatedly referred to the KKK as the KK.  There was no one trying to keep speakers to the time limits they had previously agreed upon as far as I could tell, and the speakers went on longer than planned.  Halfway through the rally, someone else showed up from a labor contingent with a sound system was that better than the one I brought, and there was a haphazard transfer between my system and his that included someone not related to either sound system helpfully putting the microphone in front of the speaker and causing painful feedback.  (I tried not to sound condescending when I quickly explained during the transition that putting a mic in front of a speaker causes feedback when everything is turned on.)

Aside from me opening the rally with music, which I believe only happened in the first place because I was offering the use of my amp, the only music was a lovely a cappella song the Lakota woman sang in Lakota.  The speakers were all pretty good, talking about struggles that people are facing now with the repeal of DACA, racist attacks, ever more restrictive policies against taking refugees, and other things.  Most of the speakers were young, and all but one of them were people of color.  The one white person who spoke was a rabbi named Deborah, I believe.  Having attended many rallies where most of the speakers were white men, this was a welcome change.

The woman who introduced the rally to begin with said right off the bat that the process of organizing the rally had been challenging.  I had heard that from other people involved, as well.  I think there were something like 72 organizations involved with getting several hundred people in the streets.  I don't know what the difficulties were in the organizing process.  (I'm not an organizer of such events and I have no intention of becoming one.  I have other priorities that make better use of my skills in the service of the people.)  Considering that about 90% of the crowd was white, perhaps choosing to have all but one of the speakers be people of color was contentious, I don't know.  I wonder if the fact that there was no music, poetry or other such forms of expression in the program was part of the contention.

For all the arguing about the program that evidently went on, apparently very little attention was paid to the logistical aspect of anybody being able to hear the program, given that they were using me to do sound and I had already explained that what I had wasn't ideal for the situation, and the guy with the sound gear that was good for the circumstances showed up well after the rally had started.

So basically, it was a rally very typical of the sort of rally students in Portland have been organizing periodically since I moved here ten years ago, and very typical of the sorts of rallies students and the usual suspects in the progressive community (or the left, or the activists, or whatever you want to call that small sector of the population that reliably shows up to these sorts of things) have been organizing in cities across the US for a very long time.

That is, this is what a rally looks like in the absence of any kind of social movement backdrop.  In the context of a vibrant mass movement, you would see many different contingents of people organizing many different sorts of things, including music, food, art, and civil disobedience.  Lots of people would be spreading the word about lots of upcoming events, and there would be areas of town where everybody knows they can go to physically be with and work with other participants in the movement.  And, with far less media coverage, if any, there would have been far more people present at such a rally and march -- if there were a social movement happening now in the US that's worthy of the term, as the term is understood by participants in such movements historically.

What's a bit different now as opposed to a few years ago is the Black Bloc is now more widely known as Antifa (yes, of course Antifa has existed for a long time, but it didn't become such a well-known word until very recently).  And Antifa had their own rally, separate from the one the 72 organizations organized.  Antifa's rally was I think somewhat smaller than the one I was at.  I couldn't tell, because once the marching started, the two rallies merged into one march, more or less.

Being with my 11-year-old daughter, I strategically stayed away from the center of the action once the march was going, but from what I learned from friends a couple hours later was at least one of the seven people arrested was arrested for throwing a bottle of water at a riot cop.  The number of riot cops was probably in the low hundreds -- after fighting between rightwingers and Antifa at a recent protest where the police were largely absent, yesterday the police were doing their more traditional thing of keeping the groups apart with their bodies as well as barricades and police vehicles.

When the Antifa crowd can't reliably get more than a few dozen people to come to one of their own protests, they usually just join other protests where their "diversity of tactics" is unwanted ("diversity of tactics" being Antifa's antipathy to agreeing on tactics with everybody else and their desire to do their own thing anyway).  Since Trump, Antifa is able to get crowds in the low hundreds in certain cities at least now and then, so they've been calling their own protests against the right.  The right, in this case, being represented by not more than ten people waving flags by the waterfront behind a wall of riot cops.

At various points throughout the downtown area you could see and hear young people dressed head to toe in black, faces covered, yelling at cops and yelling at random Portlanders who happened to be downtown at the time and had the temerity to ask them why they were wearing masks.  Whether the other six people arrested had thrown stuff at the cops or were just acting aggressive or not doing anything at all, I don't know.  Those who were arrested were, according to people I talked to, violently thrown to the ground by the police.  In other words, the police were provoked, and they responded with excessive force, as usual.

At the end of the march, at least half of the people who originally came to the Terry Schrunk Plaza, where it began, reconvened there for yet more speeches.  This time it was more of an open mic.  This time I wasn't in the background quietly advising each speaker to speak directly into the mic, so some of the speakers were much more audible than others, and most seemed to be representatives of student socialist groups, reading speeches from their phones that sounded like they could have been written by Karl Marx himself.

If the patriotic dude in the pickup truck across the river in Vancouver had successfully driven his pickup into the crowd of marchers as he apparently wanted to, instead of getting arrested by the Vancouver police before he had the chance, and if a hurricane weren't currently destroying parts of Florida and if fires weren't still engulfing much of the forestland of the west at the moment, then we'd be seeing Charlottesville-level coverage of these events.  As it is, media coverage has been impressive, but not quite that massive.

I remember one time there were tens of thousands of people committing civil disobedience, shutting down a major city in the US during a time when there was something approaching a mass movement in this country, around the turn of this century.  It was barely covered in the news at all.  At the time, it was widely understood on the left that if the protest had had any chance of getting media coverage in the first place, this chance was blown by the fact that Michael Jackson had gotten nasal surgery that day.  It ain't like that now -- you can have the biggest Atlantic storm in recorded history and the biggest forest fires in recorded history happening in different parts of this country at the same time, and a few hundred people protesting in Portland will still make national news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I'll be very excited if a mass movement does develop in the US, but evidently, as much as it may try, the media can't create one by itself, and a few socialist groups from the university still can't create a social movement by themselves either, no matter how much they wish their rhetoric could match the reality.

I don't want to beat up on anyone who is trying to do useful things, and I applaud everyone's efforts, regardless of how effective they may be.  I applaud people for trying.  That's what I do with my music -- I tell stories of people and movements who have tried to make a difference (including those that have made a difference, not just tried to).  I think it's important to play that role -- the role of cheerleader.  This is what I'm trying to do by singing and providing sound for protests, no matter whether they're well-organized ones or not.  I'm just trying to do my part, and other people are, too.  And I don't know what series of things need to happen to make a real social movement get off the ground -- if I did, or if anyone did, such a movement would be happening now, and a long time ago.

What I can say for sure, though, is that social movements don't look like this, and I think it's important for people to understand that, in the hopes that they don't get too discouraged by what they're seeing -- in case they think this is what a social movement looks like and they feel discouraged and dejected and just want to go hang themselves instead.

No, this isn't a social movement, but it might be a building block for one -- maybe.  Though I suspect if we're going to have any hope of building a real movement, we need to hold frequent public events that look more like movement events would look -- forward-looking events, talking about the world we want to create, not just the one we want to tear down, and events that communicate these messages through music, art, food, community, laughter, love for humanity, and taking over physical spaces -- buildings, city parks, forests -- and holding onto them through various legal and illegal means.  This is what democracy looks like -- not a small gathering of mostly student socialist groups joined by angry teenagers with masks on throwing water bottles.