The Coming Days of Rage

Or Something Approximating Rage

By Jim Knipfel

Between the early Sixties and early Seventies, the intersection of the anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, Black Power and ecological movements coalesced into a legitimate social revolution. There was just something fiery in the air. It took a good deal of rioting and bloodshed, a smattering of bombings, and a few well-chosen assassinations, but it resulted in a tidal shift in thinking not only across much of America, but throughout Western Europe as well. The repercussions of this revolution, for good or ill, were felt in both the short term (the end of the war in Vietnam) and the long term (almost no one today blinks when an African American or woman mounts a serious presidential bid). Even after the hippies traded out peace symbols and acid for money, cocaine and Reagan, they’d proven widespread grassroots street protests could bring about radical fundamental changes in the fabric of American society.

After that, however, something changed. Although revolutionary protest had been written into the U.S. Constitution as not only a right but an expected civic duty when it came to redressing grievances the people had with the standing leadership, after the mayhem of the Sixties the very idea of protest seemed to lose its appeal, and protest itself became at best an impotent gesture, at worst an act of perceived treason.

When the scope and implications of the Iran-Contra Scandal came to light toward the end of the Reagan administration, the people did not take to the streets demanding the heads of Reagan, Alexander Haig and Oliver North. A Senate investigation committee was reluctantly pulled together, but few seemed to care. Oliver North was given some jail time, but little else happened and it was all quickly forgotten.

When the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner of the 2000 presidential election amid a great deal of controversy, a few protesters lined the parade route on the day of his inauguration, but most Americans seemed content to merely grumble about it. When the massive and overweening Patriot Act was passed it seemed hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, a few meek voices were raised in opposition, but it was mostly met with a blink and a shrug.

When the Bush administration later declared war on Iraq, citing justifications that had been revealed as fraudulent weeks before the first missiles were launched, a number of protests did indeed crop up in major cities across the country, some attracting as many as ten thousand participants. In New York a massive anti-war protest worked its way down Broadway on a sunny Saturday afternoon, as marchers chanted many of the same chants a number of participants had chanted in 1967. Then they all went home. To most Americans, the protests were seen as either a quaint if ineffectual throwback or a simple nuisance. With precious little media attention directed their way, the protests quickly dwindled, and the war dragged on for the next decade.   

While there were likewise large protests resulting in hundreds of arrests when the 2004 Republican National Convention was held in Madison Square Garden, the fervent sincerity of the mostly college-aged activists came under some suspicion when so many complained about rough treatment at the hands of the police and the unsanitary conditions of the makeshift holding cells in which they were detained. The convention went on as scheduled, and Bush was elected to a second term.

In September of 2011, a handful of NYU students set up camp in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s financial district. Their initial goal was to call attention to the vast economic disparity that existed in America, a disparity embodied by the unfathomable wealth concentrated in the hands of Wall Street investment firms. The numbers in the park soon swelled with activists representing a wide spectrum of gripes, from wage inequality for women to illegal immigration to the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy. Over the next few months Occupy Wall Street evolved into the international Occupy Movement with branches in Greece, Italy, Germany, France, England, Columbus, Milwaukee and, it seems, everywhere else. For a moment there it felt as if it might actually be the beginning of something big. Meanwhile, the original group — now numbering close to ten thousand — held several impromptu marches, sponsored a number of speakers, offered any number of contradictory statements to the press, and played a lot of drums. But as temperatures began to drop and conditions became less hospitable with the approaching winter, everyone decided to return to their dorms and classes. The major corporations and investment firms who’d been targeted by the protesters continued operating as usual. After all the noise and the chanting and the marches and the endless proclamations, as for what the Occupy movement actually accomplished in light of their stated goals, well, it’s probably safe to say a number of participants got laid.

The general perception seemed to be that the true and honest voice of the people, no matter how upraised and earnest, simply no longer mattered in a world so controlled by wealthy politicians, wealthier corporations, and indomitable special interest groups. But all that seems to be changing.

Over the past forty years, it could be argued the only American grassroots protest with a far-reaching agenda to make any kind of major impact on business as usual in this country has been the Tea Party Movement. Founded in early 2009 as a reaction against several of President Obama’s proposed policies (most significantly the Affordable Healthcare Act), the movement quickly morphed into a kind of ultraconservative political action committee opposed to abortion, gay rights, Social Security, and healthcare for the poor. Backing a number of candidates who shared what they called a Constitutionalist vision, the Tea Party won a number of significant seats in the House and Senate, and though few people talk about the movement as a movement these days, their impact is still being felt.

Now a group calling itself Democracy Spring, using language and tactics borrowed from the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring movement of 2010, and reportedly with funding from George Soros’ MoveOn.org, is calling for the largest grassroots protest march yet to be seen in the 21st century. Without using his name specifically, their implied goal is to derail the possibility of a Trump nomination.

Earlier this month, a core group of Democracy Spring protesters took responsibility for prompting the cancellation of a Trump rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago. On April 2 the group plans to gather at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia before setting out on a ten-day march to Washington, hoping to pick up throngs of new supporters along the way. Once in Washington, they plan to participate in a massive sit-in at the Capitol building (though whether they mean inside or outside is unclear). It will be, they hope, the largest act of civil disobedience so far this century. Despite the raucous nature of the confrontation in Chicago (and later anti-Trump protests in New York and Arizona), Democracy Spring’s organizers promise this forthcoming action will be completely peaceful and non-violent. In fact they have mandated twice-a-day training sessions for anyone who cares to participate.

According to their official website, http://www.democracyspring.org, the stated rules for the march are as follows.

We will use no violence, verbal or physical, toward any person.

We will maintain an attitude of openness and respect toward all we encounter in our actions.

We will not destroy or damage any property.

We will carry no weapons or any means of physical defense, including shields.

We will not wear masks or otherwise conceal our faces or identities.

We will exercise personal and collective responsibility to ensure that all participants adhere to this agreement.

The organizers have also stated their hope is that during the action, at least several hundred participants will be arrested. They are asking for volunteers toward this end beforehand, promising they have secured the services of a team of pro bono civil rights lawyers who will defend any Democracy Spring protester taken into custody.

A number of problems immediately present themselves.

First, as with so many small and large scale left-leaning protests of the last several decades, their true focus seems to be on the self-defeating notion that while it is unlikely they will achieve any of their stated goals, they hope that if enough of them are arrested in front of the TV cameras it will call attention to their cause. They further seem to hope that if enough people witness their non-violent martyrdom at the hands of the police state, it will inspire others to join the fight. 

With the possible exception of Mahatma Gandhi and the Buddhist monks in Tibet, in historical terms this tactic has never, ever worked, particularly in America, where much of the population has come to see such things as little more than self-righteous street theater undertaken by comfortable college students who don’t really believe a damn thing. More often than not, outsiders perceive the protests more as carefully orchestrated and choreographed media events than honest expressions of citizen outrage.

Part of the problem may well be attributed not only to the strict rules placed on protesters by local law enforcement agencies (often demanding protests be limited to carefully-delineated areas blocks away from what is being protested), but also the protesters’ willingness to abide by these rules. All those abovementioned radical changes in thinking brought about by the Sixties multifaceted counterculture never would have happened without the riots and bloodshed, the bombings and assassinations. If a would-be movement can offer no perceived threat to the American comfort level and no bona fide martyrs to the cause, it’s doomed to be ignored from the start.

Furthermore, Trump's supporters have proven time and again they have very little problem with using violence to silence the candidate’s detractors. Square off a group that revels in violence against a group that avows non-violence under any circumstances and, well, place your bets. But since Donald Trump seems to have a knack for eliciting violence on both sides of the equation, who knows what might happen?

Perhaps the most damning thing of all about Democracy Spring’s planned march and sit in can be found within their stated goals themselves. As they’ve posted on their website, their ultimate intention is this:
 

The stage is set for a bold intervention to turn the tinder of passive public frustration into a fire that transforms the political climate in America, that sparks a popular movement that can’t be stopped... We will demand that Congress listen to the People and take immediate action to save our democracy. And we won’t leave until they do — or until they send thousands of us to jail, along with the unmistakable message that our country needs a new Congress, one that will end the legalized corruption of our democracy and ensure that every American has an equal voice in government.

The problem, of course, is that what they’re demanding has already happened. The Voice of the People has been heard, the people have already snatched the political process out of the hands of the corrupt Party bosses, which is exactly why Donald Trump at this point seems to be the imminent candidate and quite likely the next President of the United States, much to the dismay of the political establishment. In a funny way, it’s a situation that has made strange bedfellows of Democracy Spring and the GOP. Both seem to know very clearly what the American people need, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be what the American people want. For a would-be mass grassroots movement, this is a serious problem. It seems the true Democracy Spring is here, as ugly and terrifying as it may seem to many, and it has precious little to do with Democracy Spring.

Published March 30th, 2016


Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.