Part 1: New Way of Activism

Yesterday I blogged about the recent GLBT Equality March on Washington, DC. My overall thesis was: Activism that ‘actually accomplishes something’ has to look different in today’s culture. Why? Because:

Marches don’t work and make no impact

Protests don’t do anything except get more people to hate you

Yelling or holding signs gets you looked at like as nothing more than an a sad medium of entertainment, like a zoo animal to be poked and laughed at

Fighting, debating and split screened arguments on TV all have a reverse effect than getting both sides out there (or, if I’m being honest, are actually accomplishing their intended goal of perpetuating the entertaining “sound bite culture” watching two people go back and forth about nothing other than their own agenda, which no one listens to anyway)

A few hours of any activism makes no difference to anyone except the people who planned and participated in it—and that does not change national policy because it’s not sustainable

When was the last time a march on Washington changed governmental law? I can’t remember one in my lifetime (I was born Dec 16, 1980). By most historical accounts the last large group gathering in Washington, DC that directly led to a change in the law was August 28, 1963—the single defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream speech.” Has anyone noticed that was 16,848 days ago!? 46 years have passed and people still think large gatherings and marches make an impact. They don’t—and haven’t for four decades.

In fact, before MLK Jr’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, some historians note that the previous protest that actually worked was the Boston Tea Party on May 10, 1773! (This does not count the Civil War fought from 1861-1865 that claimed over 623,000 lives, eventually leading to the legal abolition of slavery). The Boston Tea Party was 86,353 days and 236 years ago. Not one single person on the Earth today was even close to being alive when that happened. Yet somehow protests are still a great idea? They’re not. And from my vantage point, people who want to protest only want to cause a ruckus and not effect actual change—therefore making them not worth while. If people wanted actual change they would work a whole lot harder behind the scenes to quietly, peacefully and productively build key relationships with governmental influencers and leaders who can tangibly implement change.

Anyone want to take a wild guess on the previous successful event before that? Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. A total of 179,682 days and 592 years ago—and that was just one man who had no idea he would start a Reformation to last the next 500 years.

At 28 years old I am considered Generation Y. Culturally then, it makes no sense to me how the Boomers and Generation X (who, due to their ages, are rightly the one’s in “power” now) are still trying to lead the curve in a new culture filled with new personalities, by still trying to do what they did decades ago. Renaming something doesn’t make it innovative. Their old tactics aren’t effective because they’re trying to do it through an outdated medium (and no, unlike many pundits, I don’t think Barack Obama’s email campaign was innovative. You’re telling me promoting thoughts through email is something new?) The problem that many leaders today face is that their Movements will never grow or impart change because they’re not willing to restructure the public medium they’re comfortable with. But even those ‘comfy’ mediums in the activism world never worked—only three times in the past 600 years. Based on historical averages alone, another large group activist gathering won’t work until the year 2163. Maybe we should start planning now to make it really impactful?

The well-known definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Enough said. Those insane traditional mediums of activism can’t work.

There is my case why the current system of activism doesn’t work, and tomorrow I will delve into a new paradigm of activism for this post-modern 21st Century culture moving forward.

Much love.

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  • Leanne Shawler

    Hey um, I think you left out the Vietnam War protests. It wasn't the sole reason that the Vietnam War was brought to a close (it was also Walter Kronkite and graphic television news reports) but it certainly promoted awareness of the issue and changed attitudes about the war.

    It's certainly not the only way, given that I've seen requests for people to call Congress representatives, host parties to explain the issue to neighbors, and so on.

  • Robert

    Hmmmmm….in a sense I agree, but in another I also think there is still a purpose to marches, etc. I'm thinking of the old adage "There's no such thing as bad press, only no press." (Although I admit I'm not sure that bad press doesn't still hurt.)

    I think that while you are completely correct in citing activism directly leading to real change as being a phenomenon that only occurs once every couple centuries at least, I don't see that as the raison d'être of this sort of activism. In my mind it's simply a tool to keep any issue in the public's consciousness so the powers that be (whoever that is) cannot claim that nobody disagrees with them (and this is just a generalization, relevant for any issue). I just think the media of communication has to be updated, and participants need to understand that while what they are doing is valuable, it is by no means the be all, end all act which will bring about change.

    I agree with you that in and of themselves these activities will not lead to change. Only by practicing, by becoming the change we want to see (thanks Gandhi) can we really change anything – and I'm guessing this might be where you are going? I can't wait to hear your ideas.

  • Steven

    Hi Andrew,

    I am not totally for marches but I don't think public activism is totally dead (at least not in South Africa) – Public Activism played a big role in the apartheid fight and groups like Avaaz seem to make a difference too. When the Xenophobic attacks happened in South Africa last year our public protests definitely helped make a statement that said to foreign nationals that not all South Africans were against them. At one stage a group of us ministers (pastors) were going to set up a communion table saying "all welcome" at a gay march to counter all the anti-gay church groups that only "spoke" rejection. Just a few examples of Public Activism that can speak volumes.

    What do u think 😉

  • Steven

    P.S. I don't think its the only way – there is lots of other work that needs to be done too.

  • Mrs T

    Another thing a 'march' does is to encourage the folks doing it, like a support group. Knowing(visibly)that you are not alone is very strengthening. You go back to your home, feeling uplifted, supported, & energized to renew your efforts. Again, I say it had value. How much, we may find out later.

  • "Unjust laws and acts or systems of oppression are often manifestations of a condition of the heart (prejudice/hatred) along with ignorance or lack of education."

    Or intellectualism, i.e., too much education. Or too much power. 🙂

  • I think that you are right that protests don’t change legislation but I don’t know if that is entirely why any does protests. They hope for it. I also think they make an impact but in a different way. I think protests are necessary for 3 reasons and one observation

    1. Leverage- The more we have the more you better listen. We are not just protestors, we are votes.

    2. Information- With the internet a protest goes viral in seconds. This only means you get a message out, not that anything changes. Like the Video: The Bible Tells Me So. It is effective in communicating a message but will it change the mind of the unconverted? When there is a glut of information it can come across as truth. If you type in gay on You Tube, you get a number of things 1) Gay jokes or satire or 2) Gay Education. I think the plan is: the more normal it is culturally, the more accepted it should be. 35 and up ,41%, and 50 and up 43% say gay marriage is wrong. Of 18-35 yr olds 58% think it’s ok (cnn pol). Well, who watches more You Tube.

    3. Message to the Base- Now the base maybe money men, PACS, whoever pulls the strings. It speaks to those in the trenches. We’re at least doing something.

    My last reason is a human observation. Some people protest because they must. It is the highest homage to your cause next to Imprisonment (which really used to work for Anti-Abortion folks in the 80’s) or Martydom (that will change some minds). People feel the need to release anger, sadness, or anxiety, whatever.

    So, I have not idea why the long answer, but I am in school, so I am used to answering in longer sentences to take up page space LOL.

  • Paul – The viral, internet stuff is a totally different ballgame. I don’t see ‘viral’ in the same category at all as large public marches. Points well taken from you and Leanne though.

  • I think the crowd motivates the crowd. They go back home and do all those other things that make movements work.

  • Tiananmen Square (1989) comes to mind as a courageous stand that I think will be shown to have made a difference one day. Of course, the underground home churches in China, which thrive and grow off of oppression, are the very best demonstration.

    Marches or protests today are largely symbolic. Certainly, one would have to go back to the Vietnam, New Left, SDS, Love-in era to see the most recent significant impact of demonstrations in this country. Could we even have a Woodstock today? Don’t think so.

    Whereas war protests in the U.S. were part of the psychological warfare waged by the North Vietnamese and their Communist supporters, today we have extremist cell groups linked with terror organizations living right among us, no doubt plotting the next attack on American soil. I guess Bill Ayers and the SDS were the closest equivalent back in the day. Or Jane Fonda.

    Jerry Rubin said in his 1970 manifesto, “Do It,” that “television creates myths bigger than reality.” TV was the thing then. This era is no longer providing the “commercial for the revolution” that Rubin coveted. Too much white noise. British Christian TV pioneer Malcolm Muggeridge said, “All the stage is a world.” Problem is today the Internet is the stage.

    But I doubt we will eradicate symbolic protests.

    Of course, some will say that the 1969 Stonewall riots were an effective protest since they launched the first gay pride parades as commemorative marches and the modern gay-rights movement.

  • Mrs T

    I don’t think there is an absolute answer to this. I’m sure there are bureaucrats there keeping count. They know how many people each peson there represents. [They say that a letter represents 50? people, so apparently one protester represents X people.]
    Different methods work differently in different eras. Even in my youth, religious tracts had some use. Today, in our wasteful society, when people don’t bat an eye throwing away a whole book or usable clothing, do I expect someone to read a small pamphlet? No. Now on occasion, someone may discuss an issue & I may know of a small publication that may help him. Then, it may be useful, but not in a broad sense.
    I think these protests have some value. The congress now knows that over a million ‘teabaggers’ came(despite the media hushing it up)and are not fooled by the politicians’ lies. There was a Muslim march with 5,000 folks 2 weeks before the GLBT march, which had many more. I hope Big O takes note that he needs to listen to the GLBT community more than the Muslim commmunity, which is no friend of theirs! (Wake up!)
    OK, I’m digressing a little. But the point is that the march did have impact. Some folks in DC recorded what was going on & surely the info is being passed on to those who need to know!
    Will there be other methods we need to try? Of course, but this wasn’t a total waste.
    The method that has worked for Christians over the years, tho not always having instant results, is prayer & fasting!! Never failed yet!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Seth

    And don't forget Jesus' Palm Sunday march into Jerusalem. The crowds thought he would rescue them from oppressive Roman occupation. Less than one week later the same crowds insisted that Pilate hang him on the cross.

    Majorly effective protest.

  • Kevin

    I think that one of the reasons that marches and protests have become largely ineffective is due to the fact that the participants are only seeking to create political change alone. Unjust laws and acts or systems of oppression are often manifestations of a condition of the heart (prejudice/hatred) along with ignorance or lack of education. A majority of the forms of protest that we see today are only seeking justice for the oppressed and a political solution while neglecting the vital work of appealing to the hearts and consciousness of the oppressors. True justice that brings about lasting change is when the marginalized are freed from their role as the oppressed along with those that are perpetuating the injustices being freed from their role as the oppressors.
    This can be seen when MLK Jr. was insisting that his brothers and sisters fighting for civil rights with him continue to love those that were oppressing them no what what injustices were committed. He was not only fighting for civil rights but for a change of heart to dismantle the racism that brought about the unjust laws in the first place. This spirit did not live on completely, so we started to accomplish things like integration in schools but the racism still persisted and has today taken more structural and institutional forms since the focus shifted from a change of heart and politics to political change alone.
    So Andrew, I agree with you in that marching and forms of protest are worthless to an extent by themselves if they are devoid of a relational connection (since I’m guessing that your focus will be on a more grassroots level with an empasis on interpersonal relationships)

  • Kevin

    The other main thing that comes to mind is the process by which we go about creating the change. Gandhi emphasized that we must first go through a personal transformation/self-purification, followed by dialogue and negotiation, leading up to political action, and then “constructive programme” (building a new society in the shell of the old). The problem so often is that we jump to the political action first without going through the difficult work of personal spiritual transformation since revolution can only start with the self. The ashrams that he started were for this purpose and that is where the real work was carried out in their struggle against the British empire.
    Thinking of Ghandi, here is an example of protest in one of its truest forms that emphasizes the humanity of the protesters while highlighting the injustice of the other.
    <a href="; title="here"

  • Kevin

    OK, so I’m not very good at using code to insert a link so here is the website URL by itself:

    Granted these actions do not translate easily into the struggle for GLBT rights and I am probably being overly theoretical, but I think that what is behind the actions still has weight today

  • Kevin

    very true

  • Seth

    I think quite a bit changed as a result of the protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, mostly because of the brutal and violent response ordered by then Mayor Richard J. Daley, much of which was captured by the media and broadcast nationwide. More recently, I think the ongoing, persistent protest by ACT-UP, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and other organizations in the 1980s resulted in changes to the medication approval process that allowed early advances treatment for all kinds of illness to be tested and moved to market much more quickly. In his book “The World Turned,” Chicago historian John D’Emilio believes that the AIDS crisis changed the entire perspective toward gays in the U.S. I guess it depends on what we mean by “effective” protest.

  • I think if we take a little piece of what many of you said, then yes, marches/protests are totally worthwhile and do influence change. Here is my combo of what an effective culturally current march/protest/etc looks like, thanks to you:

    Significantly large marches and protests are effective when they can leverage their numbers in combination with viral means before and after—all of which also depends on good media relations (thanks Robert) to get the message to masses. However, in order for this to happen the people must become the change they want to see (thanks again Robert), totally and utterly committed no matter what—as MLK Jr. said: “You can take away our jobs, you can criticize us, you can stab our families and you can bomb our houses and we’ll still keep going” (thanks Kevin). And doing all of this in person, directly in the face of violent oppression, it can, and will work (thanks Steven) because the crowd motivates the crowd to go back and keep pressing along (thanks Joe_S).

    Now that is something I can stand for!

    The problem is that combo of things hardly/rarely ever happen. In fact as I argued in my last post, only 3 times in 600 years. But as we can see, when it does happen, the world changes. I will be posting further questions about this in my next blog post.