Get Mad. Act Out. Re-Elect George Bush.

Protesters risk playing into GOP hands

Protesters afforded cops a perfect scenario for revenge: the insurgents' most calculatedly defiant moment, scheduled for Wednesday night, when militants planned to march from a rally near the downtown hotels to the Amphitheater where the delegates assembled. "See you on the streets tonight," pronounced Jerry Rubin. On NBC's broadcast, a reporter conveyed the warning: "If police try to stop them, they'll sit down in the Chicago streets."

Compare the plans of this year's A31 coalition, which promises, on Tuesday, August 31, to "converge on Madison Square Garden"—to "risk the streets," which is where "real democracy begins. . . . If we are asked to move, we will sit down and refuse." In 1968, provoked by defiance on the weekend, afforded an excuse on a weekday, cops moved out in phalanxes and started clubbing at random. Demonstrators chanted, "The whole world is watching." The reason they chanted it: They thought they had won a public relations victory.

Just like now? By Sunday, New York authorities will have felt provoked by the open defiance of their will by protests in Central Park. "A31" will arrive—and cops will have read the affirmation, on A31.org, of "the right to disobey." It will saturate them with dread about what that vague promise could possibly mean—and afford them an excuse to release all the paranoid energy that is produced, then and now, in an apocalyptic era.

And then?


History never truly repeats itself. Prognostication is inherently unreliable. But what history can provide is a set of guidelines to wisdom—guidelines many protesters refuse even to consider. Not all protesters. But enough protesters. All it takes is a few people to begin a chain reaction that could lead to disaster.

Like many, Lew Koch suspects the spark might come from someone working for the Republicans.

"One lie after another. I wouldn't applaud for that," someone unidentified said at the famous August 3 meeting at St. Marks church after an agonizingly effective argument that "unauthorized" demonstrations, no matter how morally compelling in theory, could ward off the one protest constituency whose presence is required for protests to actually be morally compelling: immigrants vulnerable to deportation. "Here," reflects Koch, reading a report of that meeting, "is what looks like a perfect agent provocateur type."

So what are militants doing to prevent that possibility? If you e-mail the contact address for the Don't Just Vote Take Action (dontjustvote.com) protest contingent, you might get a call back, as I did, from Rae Valentine, who says she's been involved in activism for "several years," though she's only 19, and who dismisses the concern: "When you become overly paranoid you allow them to win, even without agent provocateurs."

The site displays the kind of language whose vagueness might get hapless souls like Valentine put on 24-hour surveillance. It sounds innocent to write, "We must defend ourselves against possible attack like family and keep our spirits high." To Valentine, that means "just looking out for each other and taking care for each other." I point out that it might be interpreted differently by police intelligence—and that the importance of protesters' intentions not being misconstrued by paranoid cops is one of the reasons, as morally compromising as it might seem, to consult with authorities before a demonstration. She responds with self-satisfied cleverness: "We should not have to ask permission from the very people we're trying to protest."

There is a certain logic to the formulation. Here is a deeper logic: Politics is about communication. If you leave questions of what you are communicating—to the cops, to the watching public—entirely up in the air, you are not really doing politics at all.

The willful denial of this fact does not infect only 19-year-olds. Ed Hedemann has been working for peace ever since he refused induction into the military in 1969. His group, the War Resisters League, has planned its action with exquisite care, and with a strategic dignity: Figures dressed in white to represent mourning will gather at the World Trade Center site; marching across the city as close to Madison Square Garden as practicable, they will hold a " 'die-in,' a way to graphically represent all those who have been killed by the government's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." But even an old hand like Hedemann simply turns off his brain when asked about a fundamental problem in political communications: that even the most passive protesters, when arrested, are often perceived by the public—as they were in Chicago in 1968—as bringers of anarchy, and end up hurting the causes they profess to help.

To ask this is not to reject protest; it is just an invitation to strategize—to think about politics. Hedemann deflects it. "We need to do what we think is right to do, and not so much worry about, ah, 'Well, what if this? What if that?' I think we need to do what our conscience tells us is important to do, as long as it doesn't harm other people."

The War Resisters League, like A31.org, cites a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that includes these words, offered as if a taunt: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

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