Demonstrations: inspiring and necessary, but not sufficient

Sit-in at BGSU
Photo Credit: Deborah Schocket

Over the past couple of days, we’ve already seen a lot of protests and demonstrations.

The ones that are getting the most attention are those in Los Angeles and Portland, big coastal cities where the violence has been most intense. There have been many, many other, more peaceful protests, more fearful and contemplative, like the one at my university yesterday. These demonstrations should continue. They are a necessary, but, we must emphasize, not a sufficient condition for resistance to the impending regime, because, in and of themselves, such actions do not bring the required leverage.

These protests are necessary for our way forward in the face of the upcoming challenges that president-elect Trump poses to our democratic institutions and humanistic values. They get people together in physical proximity, creating affective community in ways that social media cannot; they make visible to friends and potential sympathizers people’s commitment; they show strength to opponents. They allow for people to be fearful, to be hopeful, and, yes, sometimes, let off a little steam.

But of course, these demonstrations have their limits.

For one, they’re not sustainable. For reasons of exhaustion, folks needing to do their jobs, and yes, even weather, eventually they will be few and far between. And those in power know this. Here’s a typical example: way back in the late 1980s, when I worked for New Jersey Bell, the higher-ups dearly desired to move labor contract negotiations to the winter, rather than summer. Why? Because they assumed that fewer workers would want to walk the picket line in, say, in frigid January rather than balmy August.

Secondly, without focus in terms of a cause and a location, demonstrations can be easily dismissed by those in power. Already, Trump has labelled demonstrators as “professional protesters,” although he seemed to soften his statement later. More ominously, or perhaps, absurdly, depending upon your point of view, Fox News took that characterization as part of its headline, which its readers might take to mean that demonstrators called themselves “professional.” (Questions: so, Mr. Trump, are there actually careers in this line of work? Who pays? Does someone need credentials? What are the possibilities for advancement? Might this be a jobs program in the coming years? Do they offer health insurance, in case you repeal Obamacare and gut Medicaid, as you and your political allies want to do?  But I digress). Furthermore, demonstrations in cities that voted overwhelmingly against Trump, and on college campuses where the anti-Trump vote margin was equally high, have little potential to effect any sort of specific change, especially if they merely express displeasure with the electoral results.

Of course, these demonstrations are still inspiring, and offer reasons for hope. Trump, in his tweet, claimed that these demonstrations have been “incited by the media,” may indeed be a little correct, in that these demonstrations will probably get much more traction in the popular press than, say, protests against the Iraq war, which were grossly under-reported, as were, to a certain extent, those of the Occupy movement outside New York and Seattle. Just as importantly, these demonstrations show that there are tens of thousands of people, and more, who will resist the coming regime. We will need that passion and those numbers in what may be the dark days ahead.

What we will need to do, even more than this, is to think about what specific cause(s) to embrace, that is, to find a focus for demonstration, a realistic end-goal, and to consider what strategies are most effective to pursue that cause or causes in ways that will bring the most leverage against the upcoming regime. I’ll have more thoughts about those in the days and weeks to come.

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