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In Defense of Protest

In Defense of Protest

H. Bradford

1/15/18

Across the world next weekend, there will be marches to mark the anniversary of the Women’s March.  Last year’s marches in defense of women’s rights brought over five million people together in events held in over 80 countries.  Despite the historic size of the marches and the epic accomplishment of bringing so many people together, these event has been widely criticized.  Worse,  the very notion of protest has been critiqued as ineffective, outdated, or inferior to other methods of social change (namely, electoral politics).  Disagreements about tactics or critiques of events themselves have the potential of helping movements to grow, become more inclusive, correct mistakes, sharpen messages and demands, etc.  At the same time, there is something deeply pessimistic, and worse yet, submissive to capitalism, about the critique of protest itself.  This is why I will take a moment to defend protest.


Why Protest?

To begin, it is useful to ask what is the point of protesting?  From an organizer perspective, the general goal of protest is to bring a group of people together to highlight an issue or injustice and make a demand.  This action is a public display of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a call for change.  The power of protest is that it is visible, massive, public, uniting, and disruptive.  Another positive aspect of protesting is that it can be done immediately, without having to wait for election cycles.  For those who are alienated from the political system, it is way to voice an opinion or concern which may not be addressed by politicians or ruling parties.  It is also an opportunity for those with power to react with promises, concessions, or changes to avoid being ousted from power.  Ideally, protest is a method of challenging and reshaping power.  It can be a pathway to revolution.  For example, in March 1917, women gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia to march, mainly demanding bread (or an end to war time food rationing).  They were joined by striking workers and within a few days, the protests swelled to 200,000- demanding not only food but an end to the Tsar itself.  Tsar Alexander abdicated eight days later, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule.  One of the early events of the French revolution was The Women’s March on Versailles, which began on October 5th, 1789 when women began rioting in Paris’ markets over the cost and scarcity of bread.  This swelled to thousands of women, who marched to Versailles Palace to not only demand bread but political reforms.  Certainly, very few protests in history have resulted in such dramatic overhauls of systems of power.  But, there are many examples of protests that resulted in significant reforms.  The March on Washington in 1963 pushed the United States government towards passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  While social movements employ a variety of tactics, protest in one form or another, played an important role in many social changes in history from winning women the right to vote to earning the right to an eight hour day.

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Women’s March on Versailles

Protesting doesn’t work…

While historically, protests have won us many of the rights we often take for granted, there is a great deal of cynicism that this tactic works or remains relevant.  It is easy to see why people may feel that protesting fails.  In recent years, there have been many massive protests that have not resulted in much significant or obvious social change.  In February 2003, millions of people around the world protested the Iraq War, but this did not avert the war and over the years, the anti-war movement his dissipated into invisibility.  The Occupy Movement drew attention to such things as economic inequality, the commons, bank bailouts, and fictitious capital, but it was ended largely through the criminalization of the movement (i.e. law enforcement broke it up).  Climate change threatens to bring on a mass extinction event and it seems protest has done little to slow it.  Protest could not stop Scott Walker from hobbling public unions in WI.

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February 15th Iraq War Protest

Redefining Success:

It is hard to know the impact of recent protests, since history continues.  We live in a moment of time, only able to see the defeats behind us.  Successful protests seem to be somewhere further in history or in some far off place in the world.  When success feels distant, it is easy to become demoralized.  Many people may not even be aware of past victories won through protest, because mainstream history tends to focus on great individuals rather than the accomplishments of mass movements.   Viewing history in this manner makes it hard to imagine the possibility that ordinary people can come together en mass and create social change.  This is why it is useful to both redefine what success looks like but also refocus history.  Because I am a revolutionary socialist, my ideal vision of success is the end of capitalism.  I would like to see a world where no one goes hungry, war is no more, climate change is stopped, everyone is housed and clothed, reproductive rights are a given, education is free, health care is a human right, and all people are treated with dignity and full humanity.  This requires both a long view of history but also a long view of the future.  In this viewpoint, protest in the interest of this future is never a failure.


Consider the Iraq War movement.  The failure to end the U.S. war on terror is painful.  But, was this movement a failure?  My first steps to becoming an activist were in 2003.  That was when I became a socialist.  Before I was a feminist activist, I was an anti-war activist.  It is through considering global issues like war, poverty, and colonization that I became a socialist to begin with.  It is through becoming a socialist, that I became a feminist.  On a personal level, the Iraq War movement was part of my political coming of age.  I imagine there are others like me.  And, there are those who participated in their first protest when they attended the Women’s March last year.  That will be part of their political coming of age.  These protests did not bring down patriarchy or thwart U.S. imperialism, but they are part of the process of creating people who will make change.  Even when protest fails in a traditional sense, it can be powerful in personal ways.

Image result for women's march

At the same time, while some protests have not yielded the necessary and immediate results that one would hope for, they have not been for nothing.  There are plenty of times that I have participated in protests of less than a dozen people.  This certainly feels like a failure.  However, it puts a message out into public space.  It may spark a conversation.  At the minimum, it shows the world that this is an issue that a few people think matters.  On the other hand, there are much larger protest movements that may be seen as failure since they became smaller or disappeared.  The Occupy movement resulted in the popularization of a tactic: to occupy!  It also generated interest in anti-capitalist politics and perhaps in spotlighting social inequality, inspired other movements, such as the movement for $15 an hour minimum wage.  The Women’s March last January was followed by a burgeoning of feminist activism over the past year including #MeToo and the International Women’s Day Strike.  The story is not over because history is not over.


Alternatives to Protest:

There are of course, alternatives to protest.  To clarify, when I speak of protests I refer to activities such as marches, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations.  These are public events with participation ranging from a handful to millions.  Alternatives to protest include such things as voting, boycotts, divestment, petitions, lawsuits, strike, riot, terrorism, and warfare.  A strike would be a wonderful tactic since it wields a lot of social power.  However, it is not an easy tactic to pull off because many people fear losing their jobs, union membership is not widespread, and most people do not have experience with even more basic labor activism.  This is an aspirational tactic which protest could and should be built towards.  Terrorism and warfare are not on the table for most activists because they are violent, can result in criminal charges or death, are usually not mass movements, and alienate potential supporters.  Boycotts, petitions, and divestment can be useful tools in an activist tool box.  The only shortcoming is that they are often private, so those who are not involved in the movement may not know about them and those who are involved may not feel connected to a larger movement in the same way a protest brings people together.  Legal actions can also be a useful front, but again, this is not as public, massive, and visible.  Even voting or electoral politics can compliment protests.  But, none of these things should replace or usurp protests (well, strikes could but usually massive strikes also include protests).  It seems to me, when there is critique of protest, the alternative tactic suggested is voting.

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This is an example of protest combined with divestment.  In this case, activists were asking for divestment from apartheid South Africa.  Apartheid in South Africa was ended through a variety of tactics, including riots, labor organizing, divestment, protest, international sanctions,  boycotts, armed struggle, etc.

Political Process and Protest


I am extremely alienated from the U.S. political system.  Because both major parties fully support the continuation of U.S. capitalism and the resulting imperialist foreign policy of violence, poverty, and oppression, I can’t get behind Democrats or Republicans.  Therefore, I tend to avoid activist events that involve meeting politicians, phone banking for politicians, or really, anything that diverts energy towards getting candidates elected.  I am open to these tactics for candidates from anti-capitalist parties, but the goal shifts in these situations.  Since individuals who are not a part of mainstream political parties are not likely to win an election, the goal of campaigns tends to be more educational.  These campaigns might be used to point out the political shortcomings or hypocrisies of other candidates, educate people about socialism, or popularize anti-capitalist ideas.  This approach may be hard for others to understand, but at my core, I don’t really care about the existence or well-being of the United States as a nation.  I care about the working people or oppressed people of the world.  Thus, I find it hard to participate in the electoral process of the United States, as once again, both parties generally want to continue the U.S. dominance of the world and capitalism.  Still, I do not absolutely rule out participation in the political process as an activist tool.  I simply do not emphasize it as a prominent tool.


Bringing the topic back to protest, if social movements are effective in mass mobilizations, they can shift the political system without necessarily voting.  For instance, if a protest movement becomes widespread and it seems clear that public sentiment has shifted, politicians will shift.  After all, they want to be re-elected or at least see that their party is re-elected.  Social movements make it “safe” for mainstream politicians to support same sex marriage, utter the word climate change, or proclaim that they are for the 99%.  Thus, the horse is always social movements and the cart is the politicians being dragged along to speak to public sentiment.  Mainstream electoral politics doesn’t favor the brave.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to build space for alternative parties and reforms to our political system that create more opportunities for political representation from a variety of viewpoints.  This won’t happen with the acceptance of lesser evilism, a concession to perpetual disappointment, disempowerment, and disillusionment.


Why so Cynical?

I think there are many reasons why protests are critiqued.  I have only touched on a few.  At the heart of some of the critique is the notion that they have not been working.  It is certainly sad and frustrating to see so much misery and destruction go on, seemingly unchecked.  And, while I can be optimistic about small victories or alternative successes, this means little to those who struggle without a living wage, are brutalized by the police, watch natural resources wrenched from the earth while the planet warms, cannot afford housing, die of preventable disease, live in warzones, or all of the other sufferings in the world.  Change is needed immediately and systemically.  Protests themselves sometimes fail to be inclusive or fail to connect to other struggles.  Beyond this, there is the problem that most people are not engaged in political struggle.  The “masses” are often dismissed as fat, stupid, and reactionary.  It is hard to see our future liberation in the faces of the oppressed in our midst.  Once again, one might find inspiration in the long view of history.  In 1524, illiterate peasants gathered in the Black Forest and managed to create demands, create a banner, and elect leaders, launching the Peasants’ Wars in Germany (which were brutally suppressed, but it is always impressive when a group with little political experience or social leverage manages to organize and fight).  Our president recently designated Africa and Haiti as “shithole” places.  The Haitian revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history- which horrified Europeans with the reality that Black people could defeat white power and govern themselves.  The “shithole” countries of Africa managed to eventually defeat European colonial rule, even if they have not yet defeated capitalism, post-colonial economic relations, and legacies of exploitation.  I bring these examples up because when the masses are dismissed as too stupid, too lazy, too addicted, etc. it not only underestimates them, but concedes that some people are inferior.  This notion of inferiority is thinly veiled classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or other isms.  It is unfortunate that this dismissal of ordinary Americans and the elitism inherent in this sentiment only serves to make Trump more appealing.

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If this is your image of why Americans can’t liberate themselves, consider the classism, fat phobia, ageism, ableism, or other isms which cause you to write off sectors of society as incapable of social change.  People can be mobilized towards many things- from Black Friday shopping to White supremacy.  But, if a person can be mobilized towards these things, then can also be mobilized towards progressive social change with organizing that speaks to the conditions of their oppression and honors their humanity.


There are alternative methods of social change, which certainly can be used with mass demonstrations.  All of these methods may inevitably fail.  Protest as a tactic remains viable inasmuch as it is a visible, social, collective, public expression of the desire for social change.  It also remains viable in the context that working towards systemic change will require mass mobilization.  Tactics should ultimately seek to inspire others towards a cause and serve as a stepping stone to larger more system challenging actions.  Ultimately, what choice is there?  While there may be some tactical choices, there is little room to choose defeat or complacency.  This is not Pascal’s Wager, where faith is a tepid attempt to avoid the possibility of hell.  Hell is here in the creeping barbarism of everyday life in Late Capitalism.  The choice now is between accepting its inevitability or working to end it.  Accepting it is a betrayal of all who suffer and of present life on the planet. Therefore, we must fight relentless and together by all means available, but especially those which offer the most promise of dismantling systems of oppression once and for all.

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Image from 350.org

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?


This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.


  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.


Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.


One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.


There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


 

2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:

 

Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.


Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!


  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


Conclusion:  

I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

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