The following was written for a different publication previous to Monday’s events at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Stay tuned for discussions about what happened Monday, what I saw and what it all means.
When discussing the upcoming RNC protests many ask why I am involved when protest will be ineffective. This essay will answer their question without either disputing their measure of effectiveness or of disputing the conditions on the street that may or may not result in a larger anti-capitalist constituency. This essay will elaborate two reasons why the very ‘efficacy question’ is a question of the conservative establishment.
The first argument is about our engagement with the world. Instead of futility as a reason for acquiescence I think futility is precisely why one should act. This ethic is seen elsewhere: the inability to stop murder does not mean a murderer should go unpunished; the inability to stop hunger does not mean bread should be hoarded by the rich; the inability to solve AIDS does not mean the cocktail should not be prescribed. There are successes to be achieved in the face of futility, one just needs to change the benchmark of success. To acquiesce is to slide into an atomistic world of darkness that I do not want to inhabit. My engagement is simple, I want to en-courage others to act against what they see as injustice.
The second reason why the ‘efficacy question’ is the wrong question is because it is shortsighted about the complexities of the world. The question is akin to the debates about who was most valuable to the civil rights gains: Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. While there are nuanced counterfactual claims to be made this debate overlooks the necessity of one to the other. MLK needed Malcolm X to make his calls seem reasonable to those at risk of losing power. Malcolm X needed MLK to recruit constituents to the cause, allowing a debate over method to then occur.
The current social justice movements are involved in a similar plight. Radical action at the RNC may be the very public action needed to give Obama support not only for his election but also for a more progressive administration. Radical visibility can recruit people to Obama’s reformist camp by making his position seem more reasonable to those otherwise frightened of liberal causes. While Obama may not be the preferred option of the radicals planning to take to the streets, he represents to most a superior option to McCain. Radicals find Obama’s critical stance towards the current war and military engagement preferable to McCain’s rose-colored optimism about US military and moral superiority. A more progressive approach to health care also makes Obama a more preferable option for most of those considering protesting the RNC. Where MLK may have been a less scary option for white onlookers it was the radical appearance of Malcolm X that made MLK’s demands more palatable. Radicals taking to the street in St. Paul may also make an Obama administration more palatable to those that are scared by his politics and skin color.
RNC radical action may help build Obama’s base, but there is another function, similar to how unions train bosses of a shop, of how our action may help train future leaders. When a shop becomes unionized bosses are more likely to be reflexive about their actions. The presence of a structure to act may deter some actions and make the boss think twice before making some acts. This deterrence need not be limited to policy issues either. A recent issue faced by a shop in the Twin Cities is a boss that responds to employee comments with sarcasm and dismissal. If this shop is successful in unionizing one of the demands will be for the boss to not be flippant when a worker has an issue. Politics works the same way: our action may keep Obama from moving in a more rightward direction once he is inaugurated. Obama will face new challenges in his new job and the presence of a radicalized organized population will help shape his decisions and keep him more honest to a progressive agenda.
Questioning the ability of protests to create immediate measurable change is actually a move to keep people from protesting. This question places the goal so far away that the task seems daunting and too tiring, after all people have lives to live. The approach radicals need to take is to abandon that very landscape and recognize that there are other goals to be gained, goals that may actually be more important than the ones we are told (by those we oppose) to aim for.