political protests then and now

Then there were the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. If you look past the pundits you can see, among other things, tear gass and beatings.

Or the recent student riots in London with police charging on horseback:

These pictures make the police reactions to the Wall Street protestors seem certainly more moderate, if in some instances incredibly painful.  But those very painful incidents do not seem to provide enough contrast to  justify the Nation’s recent explanation of the low turn out for the protests:

The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police … And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.

It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.

Now, imagine you have a job you can’t get time off from, or kids. Are you going to risk that precious job security, or the safety of your children, to go protest in an event that may—if you’re really lucky—get some dismissive coverage in the New York Times?

There was a time when individuals cast aside those fears because they had union-protected jobs, and unions organized events with tens of thousands of confidence-inspiring fellow members in attendance. While those events do still occur, they’re a rarity these days as union membership dwindles, the privatization of the country continues and the establishment media still don’t grant them fair coverage when they do occur. Not one of the young people I spoke to at the Occupy Wall Street protest said they were union members. 

I don’t know what the difference between the 1960”s and protectors today in the US is, but police brutality does not seem to be it.  Nor, for those who remember the initial reporting of student protects, is it the sort of  belittling journalism that the NY Times indulged in, and the Nation is criticizing; there was plenty of that then.

Perhaps one difference is that the  protects before were coming from universities, and students were well versed in getting into groups and planning things.  Here’s an interesting clip about the planning before the Chicago riots:

23 thoughts on “political protests then and now

  1. Three points.

    60’s student radicals faced an economy in expansion. They had no fear for their future since they “knew” that, even with an arrest record in demonstrations or a negative FBI file, they were going to get a middle class job. Today’s students face an uncertain economic future, in which even good students from good universities may not find a job and so no one wants a “black mark” on their record.

    The draft: the fear of being sent to Viet Nam radicalized students in the 60’s. Today’s students will not be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan or the newest front in the war on terror against their will.

    Revolutions: 60’s student radicals saw revolutions occurring throughout the world, in Cuba, in Viet Nam, the Chinese cultural revolution, etc.: little does it matter that many of those revolutions were not what students imagined them to be.

  2. S.W, I agree with some of your points, but not others. I don’t think it was so easy to get a job if one had a criminal record, and the arrests did threaten to give one that. Also, we have now the so-called Arab Spring, which provides models for protests.

    I think you are absolutely right, however, about the draft.

    I say “so-called” because ever one I know from the Middle East thinks it’s got “CIA” written all over it.

  3. One point about records is that there were no computers then, except in universities.

    Yes, if you had been arrested for something serious back then, it would be easy for an employer to find out, but if you had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” in 1965 in state X, how would an employer in state Y in 1970 discover that without a costly and time-consuming background check which very few employers would do in the case of a nice middle-class university graduate with a degree from a good university?

  4. I don’t think the Arab Spring can serve as a model for protests in Western countries:
    People in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran are destitute. They have been living under a dictatorship for decades. They have nothing to lose.
    We in the West however can vote and change policies this way.

    Also, another reason for dwindling participation in protests is the internet. Too many people believe they actually achieve something by signing an e-petition and they think they have done their share.

  5. Some other ideas that could be investigated for their impact on protest behaviour, in no particular order:

    -The average person has a significantly more comfortable standard of living now.
    -Protesting cuts into valuable HDTV, Xbox and Internet time.
    -The 25 pounds the average American has packed on since the 1960s makes marching harder.
    -“Protest fatigue”: the grievance industry may have become a victim of its own success. Also it may be falling farther out of touch with public sentiment.

  6. i think that putting media coverage of the recent protests (in the us, at least) side-by-side with the so called “tea party” protests of 2009 and 2010 is perhaps even more instructive. i’m not sure what is meant by “grievance industry,” but if its bankrolled by multi-millionaires, as opposed to donated pizzas, i think you might be on to something, nemo.

  7. SK, by “grievance industry” I was referring very loosely to people and institutions who have a vested interest (either in terms of deriving money, employment, power, influence, self-reinforcement, or a rationale for their continued activity) in alleging grievances and elevating perceived slights into fodder for demonstrations, lawsuits and the like. This “industry” isn’t a monolithic bloc, of course, but can range all over the ideological spectrum and, at different times and with respect to different subject matter, might include NGOs, political parties, government agencies, the plaintiffs’ bar, opportunistic litigants, etc.

    The grievance industry is obviously much larger than it used to be – should be a good thing for protest turnout, right? But that’s where what I referred to as “protest fatigue” might kick in. The public are incessantly being called to action with regard to a panoply of conflicts, causes and grievances ranging from the serious to the trivial to the frankly manufactured. Perhaps this phenomenon, over time, wastes their resources and attention on the trivial and makes it harder for them to spot and act upon the serious.

  8. Also, another reason for dwindling participation in protests is the internet. Too many people believe they actually achieve something by signing an e-petition and they think they have done their share.

    This seems like an essential part of any good explanation to me. But anyways, isn’t all of this just hypothesis-spinning? We need data to understand this better.

  9. i think that 9.1 percent unemployment, 18 percent unemployment amongst 17-24 year olds, 40.5 applicants per job nationwide, exploding student debt, 40 years of wage stagnation, orchestrated attacks on the remaining unions, and a political apparatus that is uninterested in doing anything to protect working people, are hardly trivial matters.

  10. SK, who said they were? (Although people can reasonably disagree about the causes and solutions, and where protests about them should be directed.). But in this day and age you have people being bombarded with solicitations to join campaigns to protest the cancellation of their third-favorite sitcom, or the firing of a university athletic director, etc. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that, as Thom Yorke sang, it wears them out.

  11. i’m just following out the logic here. if the protest fatigue generated by the “grievance industry” has been a victim of its own success or is falling out of touch with public sentiment, because it blows trivial matters out of proportion; and if this is an explanation of the low turnout for current protests; then it seems to me that either the current protest is itself a part of the “grievance industry,” blowing trivial matters out of proportion, or said grievance industry has caused us to be unable to discern between trivial matters and serious ones. i think that both of these explanations are insufficient to explain low turnout, and at least one of them is kind of insulting. either the current “grievance” of the day is in truth a triviality, or we can’t tell the difference between the cancellation of firefly (or whatever identity-politics issue we deem trivial) and massive economic pain (or serious, legitimate, political issues). we can do better than that.

  12. SK, if by the current protest you mean the Wall Street protests, then let me clarify that I am not casting aspersions on the merits of that particular protest.  I realize that the Wall Street protest was a particular focus of the opening post, but I was addressing the more general speculations contained in it about protests and protestors today (versus 40 or 50 years ago).  In particular, I did not intend to suggest that the Wall Street protests were a product of the grievance industry (I’ll stop using quotes around it now; you know what I mean).  That said, it is hard to imagine a major protest of any stripe (pro- or anti- just about any issue) in which some part of that industry wouldn’t at least manage to latch onto and milk, in some form.
    So I do not imply that the Wall Street protest in particular is blowing trivial matters out of proportion.  As for whether our ability to discern between trivial matters and serious ones has been at all compromised, well, the TV show cancellation was obviously a rhetorically extreme contrast to “serious, legitimate, political issues”.  Obviously, we can expect that *nearly* everyone will successfully make that particular distinction.  But there is a trend in the direction of viewing all questions and disputes as political questions and disputes, which can be beneficial in some instances but does have the drawback that (as someone or other once observed) politics tends to have no quality control.  And I hope I won’t give offense by venturing to say that separating the important from the trivial has never been humanity’s strongest suit to begin with.  So yes, I think it’s entirely plausible that the matters I described could have a generally degrading effect on discernment.  I completely agree with you that these things seem insufficient to explain lower protest turnout.  I’m inclined to suspect that no single reason, nor likely any dozen reasons, is sufficient to fully account for it.  I’m just speculating that these things could plausibly exert some degree of downward pressure on protest attendance figures (at least on a per-protest basis).

  13. Have I failed to read this closely enough? I find that the simplest explanation seems to be neglected: Many have concluded that protests no longer work as well as they used to, at least in the U.S.A. Many communities were unprepared for some of the greatest protests and demonstrations of the 1950s, 1960s (my poor foolish Chicago), 1970s… and here many public relations firms and political organizations start getting wise; spin became an industry as the post-TV generation became more adept. My experience through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s has been that our leaders now know how to ignore us and change the conversation.

    This isn’t grievance burnout on the part of us citizens with the grievances. This is the despair of the many who find that we have no effect. And we do still try sometimes. The ocean of protesters that turned out during the Iraq War was beautiful, and I loved the sight of my fellow citizens filling the streets of DC. But our leaders knew what to do with our protest. We were ignored and the White House Press Corps was treated to statements about, I don’t know, light bulbs or something.

  14. Profbigk, your comment reminds me that tea-party protests have had a very different trajectory, including press coverage. And they’ve been successful.

    I am beginning to think that we instead think that the WS protests could be a beginning, and what they need now are some charismatic leaders and much better organization.

  15. profbigk, i think that you are exactly right. during the build up to the iraq war, it seemed that the message was, on the one hand, kids these days! they are so lazy. back in my day we’d get out on the streets! and on the other hand, pssh, everyone knows that protests don’t matter anymore. what’s the point? we did get on the streets, by the millions (across the world), and we were criminalized, we were told that we were anti-american, that we were supporting the terrorists, by many people on the left, no less. i think that the effectiveness of the criminalization of street protests – both in terms of generating fear of arrest and of police brutality, and in terms of undermining the political goals by undermining the methods of agitating for them – goes a long way towards explaining why the costs of getting in the street are so high. which is exactly why the occupy wall street thing is so remarkable. we thought we were so over that. but, for some of these folks, what else is there to lose?

    the big exception to all of this is the “tea-party” movement, which, according to the media narrative, we all had to take very seriously, because it was changing the face of american politics. i think that if it had a chance to really do that, the story would have been roughly what it is now with the current protests.

  16. One more difference from the 60’s.

    Since the 60’s, we’re been subjected to years and years of pop social sciences which “prove” that we are inherently or naturally selfish or capitalist.

    In the 60’s, the march of science had not advanced so far and thus, most of us were all a bit more innocent and trusting.

  17. I just found where I had heard that line about there being no quality control in politics.  For the sake of proper attribution, I was remembering it from this article in The Atlantic magazine by P.J. O’Rourke:

    The article, as it happens, had to do with protest attendance, which is no doubt why our discussion here dislodged that line from my subconscious.
    @PBK, there you go sensibly looking for horses while the rest of us are busy looking for zebras, as the saying goes.  Increased pessimism over the efficacy of protest tactics has got to be on the short list of likely suspects here.  Though it occurs to me that, all other things being equal, the *simplest* (though not necessarily the correct, or the only correct) explanation for lower protest turnout – at least in the aggregate, if that’s the case – would have to be lower numbers of people sufficiently discontent to take to the streets.
    On the subject of grievances, grievance fatigue, and the Wall Street protests, I see that there is now a manifesto: “The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” (
    http://nycga.cc/2011/09/30/declaration-of-the-occupation-of-new-york-city/).  There are 20 complaints recited, which is impressive albeit running a distant third behind the U.S. Declaration of Independence (27) and the Ninety-Five Theses (95, naturally). Check out the footnote though: “*These grievances are not all-inclusive.”  I bet Jefferson and Luther wish they’d thought of that.

  18. Nemo, “sensibly looking for horses while the rest of us are busy looking for zebras” is the best phrase ever! I hadn’t heard this one before. I love such sayings, and my thanks to you is boundless. May you live a thousand years.

    Given what we know of the economics distresses of so many, though, might not despair be a simpler explanation than low-grievance?

    Love your last sentence!

  19. I think we have to take seriously the fact that there were very large student protests in England recently – i’m referring to the one about tuition, not the very recent ones. Perhaps part of the story coming from that is that one has to have a more vivid sense of direct injury to oneself. After all, the Viet Nam protests were fueled to some extent by the draft.

    I think the pre-Viet Nam war protests against HUAC WERE MUCH like the WS one.

  20. Kate, I don’t know if the saying originated in the medical profession, but it was first told to me by a physician who said that they drill it into medical students as a basic guideline for diagnosis:  “If you hear hoofbeats, don’t go looking first for zebras” – or something like that.  Kind of a neat Occamist aphorism.

  21. Kate, also, it’s true that some indicia of discontent in the US, such as the Consumer Confidence Index or polls about confidence in Congress, would suggest that the country’s morale is at something of a low ebb right now. So in this case it would seem surprising if low numbers of people discontent enough to protest actually accounted for low protest turnout. I just meant it was the simplest explanation in the sense of most mundane, with the fewest moving parts – the “horsiest”, if you like – not a posteriori the most likely.

    On the other hand, I believe it’s the case that the standard of living has risen significantly for households in all strata since the 1960s, even if the gap between rich and poor has widened and people are working somewhat longer and harder. Maybe that does have at least a modest effect here, despite what people tell pollsters about how unhappy they are.

    Anyhow, as Dan Hicks said in an earlier comment, this whole thread is just hypothesis-spinning. But maybe some enterprising social scientists will read the thread and get some ideas for hypotheses to test, so we can get some data!

  22. The horsiest! This makes me even happier.

    I’ve wondered more than once about, as you say, the effect of standard of living. We’ve got so much in the way of circuses; my students stare into cell phones all day. But of course, yes yes, we’re not exactly gathered around outstanding social science here.

  23. at the risk of sounding a bit ridiculous, this is an honest question: is there something important for philosophers to do between hypothesis spinning and having data/good social science? and if so, what is it? i do understand the value of social science research, honestly i do, and i do get annoyed when philosophers make blithe pronouncements about things that other people actually study for a living, but i also don’t understand the impulse to wait for the data to read the world. then again, i often see zebras when others see horses, and vice versa!

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