Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent
Activity does not necessarily mean life.
—Phillip K Dick
I helped start a consulting firm to put on other people’s protests. Organizations in North America would hire our team to organize “civil disobedience” involving anywhere from 10 to 10,000 people. They all have a standard set of goals, a never-changing list of menu items. A certain number of people will risk arrest. A specific group will be arrested. Something visually symbolic needs to happen with the appropriate backdrop. A US senator’s home perhaps, or the post card zone in front of the White House.1
We rent the stages and sound systems, walkie talkies and bullhorns. We contract out the production of hand painted banners and placards. We coordinate the building of massive props and facilitate “nonviolent direct action” trainings for our client’s action participants. We can produce for our clients anything from dozens of people in koala bear suits to banners affixed to helium balloons to be released in designated convention center lobbies. We can fill an intersection with stuffed animals, if it will provide a moving visual for our client’s narrative needs.
We are our client’s police liaisons. We can navigate the ins and outs of the municipal and federal police forces of major cities. We pull permits. We plan actions without permits. We negotiate arrests ahead of time. We negotiate them during the protests. Sometimes we convince the police to arrest our clients, who are tired students who have been sitting in PVC lock boxes2 on the sidewalk in front of an elected official’s house too long for the press cycle or are on track to miss their chartered bus reservations.
We are hired to choreograph events intended to appear as manifestations of dynamic, broad based social movements, but any sense of spontaneity in our events is manufactured. Many of the protests that make headlines are less a coalescing of organized dissent than manufactured feel-good content for an activist’s social media feed.
While our outfit is a small piece of a larger orchestration, through it we have been privy to a theatrical apparatus in American politics. Much of this could be shrugged off if our situation weren’t so dire. At this moment Trump and his henchmen are taking over the White House. While his world view is unclear and his actions may be unpredictable, we would do well to heed the advice of Masha Gessen. She advises to never rationalize away the utterances of an autocrat and never allow their normalization.3 Hence, it is a heartening sight that hundreds of thousands are taking to the street in opposition to Trumpism, and the demonstrators’ rage and unpredictability are a welcome reaction. What will they do with their anger? I don’t know, but I encourage us to be vigilant against the slide into what I’ll call “Social Movement Inc..”
There are a few especially troubling elements to a theater of dissent that have taken root in protest politics and found their home in Social Movement Inc.: public relations strategy and cooperation with the police.
The organizations that hire us have news coverage on the top of their list of goals. The story arc of the planned and paid for event is crafted ahead of time in a familiar “story-based strategy” model4. While we carry out the action, the organizational staff are sending out press releases, making press calls, and providing pre-selected spokespersons to media for comment in line with the client’s narrative. When media show up at events, they are directed to press tables where they are fed approved talking points and participants are handed pre-printed chant sheets.
The most preferable time to do an action is either first thing in the morning when participants can stand in the street long enough to block rush hour traffic, which ups the chances of arrest and news coverage, or at 11am after the press have concluded their morning staff meetings and are ready to head out of the office. Weekend actions make it possible to draw more participants, but make it more difficult to draw the media. These are generally the key concerns around which we plan a demonstration.
The politics that inform these actions, where not entirely opaque, are based on a semi-spiritual belief that the right recipe of symbolism, passion, and powerful visuals will inspire significant political action that will alter the course of this or that unjust policy or state of affairs. Organizers want to inspire the people who view their protest images on their phones. To this end, they reach for clichéd tropes of earlier social movements to galvanize the imagination of onlookers. They sing the familiar songs, sometimes with their own lyrics added in, and steel themselves in the unimpeachable credentials of social justice saints of yore. In one characteristic overreach, an organizer told a crowd that they were the “Harriet Tubmans” of the environmental movement, freeing people from the slavery of fossil fuels. Historical inspiration belongs in these fights, but an equation with Tubman exposes the delusion of demonstrators who believe they are in the midst of a powerful social movement instead of a tired ritual.
Alongside this myth of the spark that will set the prairie on fire, there is generally the belief that the person targeted, be it a governor, CEO, or even the President, will “do the right thing” if confronted with demonstrations that make a powerful appeal to his or her moral compass. Both “theories of change”5 rely almost entirely on a media strategy, and thus the steady drift of Social Movement Inc. into PR land.
Without demands, how do you know if you’ve won? Yet there are a surprising number of demonstrations that forgo answerable demands or even definable targets. We have had clients demanding, without specification, “climate action,” an “end to gun violence,” and “democracy.” I listened to interviews on BBC with participants in the “Woman’s March on Washington,” who overwhelming described their goal as to “be heard.” The website for the event6 claims to want to “Send a Message,”7 and devotes an inordinate amount of space to descriptions of their commitment to nonviolent tactics. In a workshop for one client an audience member objected to the use of the term “target,” and denounced any other such classification along the lines of “us versus them.” She may have been one person who complained, but in a room of 200 people, no one seemed to disagree. Politics seem to have been all but washed out of these actions, leaving behind nothing but a brief blip on the news somewhere between the refreshes, swipes, and scrolls of an activist’s daily media diet.
As action consultants, we are most often in touch with our client’s communications staff or additionally contracted public relations consultants. Sometimes it is the PR firm that hires us to carry out the event on behalf of the Social Movement Inc. client under whose name the protest is being organized. In their attempt to project authenticity, staff gather “directly affected”8 spokespeople, like a rancher in the path of a pipeline or an indigenous tribe member opposing a mine, at which point we produce the suggestion of conflict around which the press will be directed to swarm.
This PR fetishization of “directly affected” spokespeople feeds into dead-end identity politics and racialized standards of authenticity. While I think many of our clients understood the contradictions between the people they actually mobilized and the affected people they had in mind by the issue being protested, they seemed unable or unwilling to address the discord. Too often, rather than framing their event as a solidarity event, or collaborating with other groups organizing around the same issue, they became obsessed with authenticity. Does one need to be indigenous to protest a pipeline? Must one be black to protest a militarized police state that murders with impunity? This commitment to superficial diversity and the shallow relationship of big nonprofits to affected people results in the opposite of what organizers desire, which is awkward tokenization at events. Clients would direct photographers to take pictures of anyone who wasn’t white, and activist networks in some cities develop a roster of available nonwhite people skilled at speaking or emceeing at rallies. Politics are reduced to a diversity index.
News cycle activism also influences the criteria for which leaders are presented to the press. In a union organizing campaign, an organizer historically looks for leaders who fit a number of descriptions. A leader should be connected to many of the workers in the shop. She should be able to develop new leaders and have a mind for strategy. A leader must be able to calm the fears of other workers and inspire them to take risks. Today, when unions hire us to coordinate one-day strikes, I see them identifying leaders more by their camera readiness, image, and ability to speak in soundbites. Perhaps this speaks more to the collapse of any critique of media from the Left and a need for leftists to abandon the mainstream media and organize unhindered by it.
In order to pull off a headline-grabbing one-day strike, which has all but replaced actual strikes,9 a union doesn’t need the slow-build of an organizing campaign of workers who trust and depend on each other. Maintaining a strike takes commitment and risk. For a one-day affair, all you need is a few dozen workers willing to risk a single day away from the job and hundreds of activists in identical t-shirts. There are demonstrations when I’ve looked around and realized that most of the people in the street are being paid to be there, just like me. The right wing has caught on to and exaggerated the paid protestor phenomenon, but why give them so much to work with? When in history has a movement made up almost entirely of paid participants ever accomplished anything?
Demonstrations like these can get expensive. When you add up the cost of charter buses for thousands of people, professional sound and stage, art, t-shirts, porta-johns, food, meeting space, and staff time, you can easily run up a several hundred-thousand-dollar price tag. The budget for one demonstration could cover the annual budget for a team of on-the-ground organizers. Imagine the possibilities.
State of Compliance
The police involve themselves with the details of any permitted protest in any city. In Washington DC, a popular destination for big and small protests, the National Park Service, Capital Police, and the Metropolitan Police Department have departments specifically tasked with managing the flow of what they term “free speech events” in each of their respective districts.10 By and large, organizations opt to permit their event and follow directives from state authorities. Police pre-negotiate arrests and even haggle over fines with us before arrests take place.
Almost all our clients permit their demonstration through one or all relevant police agencies in a given city. A small minority of immigrant justice clients sought permits for the protection of their undocumented membership. Most clients sought permits for reasons of predictability, tight schedules, the desire to follow the law, or fear of unanticipated arrests.
The applications all require similar disclosures. The number of people anticipated in attendance. March routes. Number of placards and banners. Description of props and art. Size of stage. Exact description of sound systems. Number of bullhorns. Anticipated counter protestors. Websites. And finally, if any “civil disobedience” is being planned.11 In one city, the police asked for a list of every individual who would take part in the street blockade action so that they could print out the citations ahead of time. Our clients wished to comply, and we provided the list. Organizers were put in the awkward position of asking anyone who showed up spontaneously to stay on the sidelines, as their citation was not pre-printed by the police.
In Washington, DC or on federal land in other parts of the country, we schedule demonstrations on dates that are convenient to the National Park Service. They maintain a detailed wall sized paper calendar in the back of their office trailer. For events in Washington, an NPS officer and I check out the calendar for any other large events, like a women’s half marathon sponsored by Tiffany & Co, or Bruce Springsteen’s next concert, and pick out an open time slot and spot on the National Mall to avoid any scheduling conflicts. This is the date, time and place that I give my clients, and around which they and we plan their mobilization.
Many actions we get hired for at US federal buildings trigger a call from Homeland Security. At first I thought I had caught them in the act of monitoring our emails or phone calls, but then I realized that while they may certainly be keeping tabs on my email, they only had to track any local activist calendar or join any number of listservs to be fully informed of upcoming mobilizations. Homeland security reps have my cell phone number, and I expect their call before actions.
My clients want to know exactly what will happen on the day of their action or event. Street demonstrations, while functioning as PR stunts as outlined above, are in fact very different from press conferences. They do not stick to a minute by minute timeline, there are unknowns, and an arrest, if desired, is not guaranteed. Because of this, our clients are eager to be in touch with the police in order be on cordial terms, prove that they are hiding nothing, and to request information as to how the police will respond to the planned demonstration. Will they bother with an arrest? If arrested, will they catch and release (lead arrestees around a corner and give them what amounts to a jaywalking ticket), or take them to the nearest station for processing?
There are a range of other ramifications from the practice of collaborating with police. Marches in some cities get automatic police escorts. Police may allow for one but not both lanes of traffic to be blocked, and marchers usually comply.
Sometimes participants are frustrated with the pre-negotiated “confrontations” with police. They have often traveled a great distance and feel passionately about the cause they have come to defend. When the police set up a perimeter around a building, some participants want to breach the boundary and head straight for the front door, police or no police. Instead, they are asked to sit, sometimes for hours in the hot sun, in a parking lot or on a sidewalk with a view of city hall or the governor’s mansion, chanting the old chants and singing the old songs. They pose with their pre-printed signs for a photograph that will be used to boast of action where hundreds “risked arrest.”
Other participants, it should be said, are perfectly happy with the arrangement. Students get to change their facebook profile photo to one of themselves getting arrested in front of an elected official’s residence,12 and still make it home for class or work the next day.
This all continues in an increasingly shrill and superficial environment of self-righteousness. Outreach efforts implore that coming out to the demonstration is “simply” the right thing to do. While marching across the country or fasting for weeks on end at an agency’s doorsteps does little in the real world to influence decision makers, it is able to give comfort and sense of superiority to the participants.
Others have shared this frustration. In a climate where wins are few and far between, victory has been redefined as the action itself. Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti call it an “Activismist” ideology:
The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists. That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.13
We can see where this road leads and we need to turn around. Some have called this moment an opportunity to organize, with social justice groups experiencing a dramatic spike in attendance at meetings and thousands outraged and marching in the streets as I write this, the day of Trump’s inauguration. Now is a new opportunity to put away the tiresome rituals of symbolic protest and close the old song book.
In a time when social media comments stand in for action, and activist celebrities are gracing the glossy covers of fashion mags14 Social Movement Inc is a booming industry. It seems to fill a void. Taking stock of the present moment, how might we fill that void instead? All around us the Left is strangled by identity politics while the white nationalist “alt right” is making moves in the mainstream. The working class faces a qualitatively new stage of permanent job loss, with long haul truckers perhaps the next in line to be categorically automated into unemployment. What kind of Left do we need to build in response?
I don’t have any insightful solutions. If Social Movement Inc. is a symptom of a Left spinning its wheels, by at least acknowledging defeat we might free up our hard drives for an overdue update. What that update will entail, honest investigators of this unique and changing political economy will have to invent.