Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Frequently Asked Question

Last weekend at a dinner party attended by several sf writers (including me), the question arose, “Why aren’t people out in the streets?” This question is so frequently asked that no one even bothers anymore to finish stating the question with the objective being “out in the streets” would presumably serve. And in fact it’s so familiar a question that I’ve never really taken a good look at it. No doubt it will be raised at WisCon this year, just as it was last year.

Everyone sitting at that table was smart. (In some cases, very, very smart.) And yet it apparently did not occur to any of us to propose a rephrasing of the question that would allow us to do more than play with the occasional data point and many amorphous generalizations about “them.” There was a comparison made, of course, to the Sixties. Someone did mention that the Military Draft had been a powerful motivator, but there was still dissatisfaction that things had gotten this bad and “people” weren’t out in the streets making life difficult for the Evil Overlords. And then someone did mention Cindy Sheehan: she was out in the streets. But not one of us thought to ask, “Why aren’t we out in the streets?” Now, having realized that not one of us asked that rather obvious question, on rephrasing the question “Why aren’t people out in the streets” to “Why aren’t we out in the streets,” I find myself faced with a new, related question: Who do we think “people” are, if not ourselves?

In fact, of course, there have been “people” out in the streets since Inauguration Day 2001. (That was one of the last occasions I myself was “out in the streets.”) Code Pink shows up everywhere. And the Raging Grannies. And parents of soldiers. And veterans. They’re constantly out in the streets. And some of those people who’ve been out in the streets have been serving unprecedentedly harsh jail sentences—many of them nuns and priests and other deeply religiously motivated people.

So tell me: why do you think all we aren’t out in the streets? If the only answer you can think of is necessarily framed in terms of “they,” then you’d also better answer the question of why you are not a part of the “them” you want to see save us all.


Rachel Swirsky said...

I kind of feel like the blogosphere is my out in the streets.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I think Rachel is onto something with her observation. I know that posting my political reactions on In This Moment has made me feel like I was contributing something constructive to the debate.
I did go to a big antiwar march here in Washington back in January. (You can read my reaction to it here. ) But I went out of duty, out of a need to be counted, rather than out of any feeling that people gathering in the streets was going to do anything of value. Most of the speeches were uninspiring. And -- as I pointed out on In This Moment -- even the members of Congress opposed to the Iraq war didn't bother to come out and speak. In some ways, it feels like protests have become as much an established part of our political dance as pep rallies for candidates and going to vote.
I say this because protest marches felt a lot different to me the Sixties and Seventies, and I don't think it's just because I was younger and more idealistic. The civil rights marches were dangerous and risky ventures -- gutsy people putting their lives on the line. And while most of the antiwar marches weren't quite that risky -- the killings at Kent and Jackson State in the spring of 1970 notwithstanding -- they were a lot less orchestrated. People had to fight for parade permits -- it wasn't a given that you'd get one. Arrests were common -- and not the token arrests that every politician, activist, and actor engages in these days. And you could feel the fire among the protestors. I didn't feel much fire at the January march. Duty, yes. Fire no.
I think where I'm going with this is that the way we're protesting right now isn't exactly taking to the streets, even when we're marching. And I don't think street protests are going to be effective unless something happens that is so dramatic that a large number of people just pour out of their houses in protest (as has happened in at least one of the former Soviet states).
We're awfully damn comfortable in the US -- as Timmi pointed out, we've got a volunteer army, so most of us aren't directly affected by the war. I'm not sure people take to the streets in that old fashioned way unless they start thinking they don't have much left to lose. We can deplore foreign policy from a distance while still going about our lives.
One more thought on this subject -- and this is one I've been wrestling with for the last six and a half years: When the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore back in December 2000, I was very angry. But I remember saying, "The court is wrong, but I'm glad there's a decision. And I'm glad I don't live in a country where people riot in the streets over something like this."
After I realized what an unparalleled disaster the Bush presidency was, I found myself thinking, "Oh, God, we should have rioted. We should have protested. We should never have accepted that election."
Thinking that, though, lets me know something else: I really don't want to be in the streets. I'd like to find a way to fix things without making my own life uncomfortable. I'm not proud of this feeling, but I don't think I'm alone in it. Real protest is hard and risky. I think to a very great extent human being avoid it if they possibly can. I suspect only saints and martyrs can consistently do that work based only on moral principle.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Yes, one of the underlying assumptions of the question "why aren't people out in the streets" is that being out in the streets would mean the same thing now as it did in the 20th century.

In the 21st century US, being out in the streets chiefly means being ignored by the political class (who, when the direct action in question doesn't inconenvience them, are wont to make condescending remarks about how demonstrations "prove" that everyone in the US enjoys "freedom of speech"). Regardless of the size of the turnout, the "news" media will "report" on it only if there are arrests or people are injured by police violence or traffic gets snarled up as a result. & what they report is not what the demonstrators are attempting communicate, but peripheral matters that shed no light on anything but how the media itself works.

Also, as you say, Nancy, marches feel very different now. (For me, February 1991 was the turning point.) & since I've always believed that part of the point of being out in the streets is to boost activists' sense of community & morale, to me personally it feels almost counterproductive.

Josh said...

There were maybe fifteen years in which USians were visibly "out in the streets" last century, and the people shared three attributes;

a) living in a time of great economic prosperity

b) having some justified faith that the news media might report on their activity

c) having a sense that there were limits to how the state would punish their activism


a) a person may justifiably fear losing his/her jobs on accounta being absent for a march and subsequent incarceration

b) having seen how the press covered the *huge* demonstrations in January 2001, a person may be more interested in fighting the news media than in taking to the streets (how do you suppose Atrios became a celebrity?)

c) having seen what was done to the GATT demonstrators in Florida and the RNC demonstrators in New York, being aware of the possibility that they could be banned from airplanes, and generally aware of the state's utter lawlessness, potential street-takers are more frightened than forty years ago