Monday, March 5, 2012

Question: What Is the Strategic Purpose of a Mass March and Rally?

I've just come back from a mass march and rally of (primarily) students from all over California who came to the Capitol to protest continuing educational budget cuts. The rally was called "Occupy the Capitol," though the organizers were almost desperate to ensure that there was no "Occupy" presence visible at all. By my estimate, there were 10,000 to 15,000 marching and in the crowd at the Capitol -- a good sized turn out, but about what was expected. Ordinarily, I can estimate crowd sizes fairly accurately at the Capitol, but this time it was more difficult than usual because the ralliers were dispersed in relatively large clots over the lawns rather than concentrated in front of the West Steps (seen above) where a good count in fairly easy. I kept finding more clots of students! There was also a huge line for the porta-potties.

Whatever the actual crowd size, it was a very good turn out, and the speechifying was stem winding, though none of them was even remotely memorable.

After all the speeches were done, the students foregathered at the North Security Entrance where they were told that they would be allowed into the building, one by one, after passing through Security. They could not take signs with sticks or unsliced apples or oranges into the building. They were to be courteous. They were to be patient. They were to be polite. Once inside the building they were to lobby their legislators. Politely. Courteously. Patiently. They would be directed to the correct offices. If they left the building, they would not be allowed to return. Yes, they could take a later bus if, as it happened, their assigned bus back to their destination was scheduled to leave before they had a chance to meet with their legislators and/or their staff. The last bus would leave at 7:00pm. The building closed at 6:00pm.

It was all very sweet, and it was not how we did it in my day.

For one thing, there was no "Security Entrance." Under most circumstances, the building and its inhabitants were freely accessible through any of the massive mahogany doors. If there was a rowdy crowd gathered at the Capitol, as happened from time to time, the doors might be locked and CHP officers might be assigned to tell people that the Capitol was closed. This was generally not a big deal, in part because in those days, gaining access to the inside of the building and to legislators was not the point of rallying at the Capitol. There was a very different purpose in those days.

But today's march and rally was specifically called to lobby legislators and the Governor so they would not further cut public higher educations funding and so they would not further increase student tuition and fees. Realistically, however, they will cut higher education funding and they will raise costs to students.

They really do not care what the marchers and ralliers have to say about it, though some of them will listen more or less politely and then say there is nothing they can do, costs are what they are and revenues have been in steep decline the last few years due to the Recession. Sorry. That's the way it is -- good to meet you, thanks for coming, don't forget to vote for me in November!

What is the strategic purpose of a mass march and rally -- today? In 1963, mass marches and rallies still meant something, as they would continue to mean something through the rest of the 60's and into the 70's. But after about 1983-84, if not earlier, they stopped having more than symbolic meaning, and lately they haven't even had that. Note well the Glenn Beck and joint Stewart-Colbert rallies in DC in 2010. They attracted enormous crowds. They were meaningless. Note well, the vast crowds who marched and rallied against the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003. They were completely ineffective.

What was effective against the Iraq war was the armed rebellion of the Iraqis against their occupiers and the shaming of Bush-Cheney by Cindy Sheehan who went with a few activists to Crawford and sat there by the side of the road witnessing to them.

The mass march and rally is no longer effective in begetting positive change on behalf of the People and the public interest.

So what is the strategic purpose of doing it?

The practical purpose is showing solidarity. Solidarity may not be the ostensible goal, but the fact that so many people gather together to advocate a common cause -- whatever it may be -- is a demonstration to those involved that they are not alone. The rally and march may have no effect at all on the PTB -- in fact, they usually don't any more, though there can be exceptions -- but the effect on the participants can be profound.

As a strategic action, however, the mass march and rally has very little utility these days. Smaller, carefully targeted actions and boycotts have a much more powerful effect -- depending, of course, on what it is one wants to accomplish.

Which gets me to some issues regarding what was effective and what was not at the parts of today's march and rally I witnessed. Overall, the Solidarity aspect was great, even though the students tended to assemble into "caucuses" from the same institutions and did not really mix with students from other institutions. The speeches were well enough delivered and well enough received, but many of those in attendance ignored them. The message: "Don't cut higher education funding further, don't raise tuition and fees, tax the rich" was somewhat muddled. People understood it well enough, but they also understand it is highly unlikely that any of these objectives will be accomplished any time soon or even in their lifetimes.

Only the half-dozen people from Oakland understood why the State education budgets keep getting slashed, and why tuition and fees keep going up, and only they were willing to take the risk of saying so:

California slashes its higher education budgets and keeps raising tuition and fees on students (which has been going on for years, see the graphic below) so that the State can continue to fund the most bloated, gargantuan, torturous, muderous and costly prison and incarceration system in the country. That's it, in a nutshell. Higher education budgets are slashed so that prison budgets can stay stable or increase. It's been going on for years.

And of course for most of these students who don't receive financial aid, higher education costs will turn into life-long debt which many of them will neither be able to repay nor discharge. "Education will set you free!" indeed.

The only ones who were brave enough to point out that the students and the higher education system are being defunded and abused in order to fund the bloated prison-industrial complex in California were the folks from Oakland who loudly, repeatedly and sometimes rudely confronted the ralliers and the police with the facts of the matter.

These confrontations caused their chief spokesperson to be harrassed, kettled, removed from the Capitol grounds, threatened, detained and also proselytized by a man who interrupts practically every demonstration with his shofar.

Some pictures:

And you can bet the police did not appreciate hearing that they -- or rather the state prison system -- is responsible for billions upon billions in reduced funding for higher education in California, nor, interestingly, did the organizers of the march and rally want to hear it, as they repeatedly requested that the police remove these annoying people from Oakland.

In addition, a young man dressed in black and carrying a garbage can shield was pulled from the march by a state trooper and questioned intensively while horse police tried to surround the scene and prevent me and others from documenting what was going on. The horse police officer who was yelling at members of the crowd and trying to prevent documentation was confronted by another young man (not dressed in black) who told him to back off, the public had a right to document what was going on, and he had no right to try to force us to leave the scene.

The young man being detained turned out to be one of the gentlest people at the rally, and I saw him later with a medic's red cross on his bag, but because he was wearing black and a black bandana and was carrying one of those iconic Oakland garbage can shields, he was singled out, harassed, detained, questioned, asked to leave, escorted away, and others who were attempting to document the incident were intimidated and briefly prevented from documenting the incident.

Those who wore red bandanas, though, faced no such problems.

But the question remains, what is the strategic purpose of mass marches and rallies?

[Note: there is a GA going on in the Capitol rotunda right now involving several hundred students. Riot police are said to be assembling outside. I'm on my way back in a little while...]

(formerly) Live inside the California State Capitol:

Live stream videos at Ustream

There are archives at the site. Others who were streaming from the Capitol included PunkBoyinSF and OakFoSho. There were others as well, but I don't have their links. Sorry.

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