Kim Phelps: !AUX BARRICADES!
I’m here in the northeast corner of the state; I’ve seen the Portland events only as news items; and my perspective on demonstrations is that of the Vietnam War era. Could that perspective be useful?
Mostly retired cattle rancher in Wallowa County, Oregon.
There is something to be said for approaching hot button issues in an offhand way—in the hope that passions will cool, so that opposing sides, when they are no longer black out at daggers drawn, can look at what they have been doing and saying, and see whether any good has come of it.
So, in this spirit of detached speculation, what about these protests, these demonstrations? By presidential proclamation, we now have our very own Anarchist Jurisdiction; and Portland has been weirder this year than usual.
I am detached enough, both in space and time. I’m here in the far northeast corner of the state; I’ve seen the Portland events only as news items; and my perspective on demonstrations is that of the Vietnam War era. Could that perspective be useful? I offer it up, in any case.
At the height of the antiwar movement, I was a student at U.C. Santa Barbara. Of the University of California campuses, Berkeley was in the news most often, but Santa Barbara was not behindhand in antiwar activities. These degenerated into serious violence on one occasion: a bank was burned, and there was a fatality among the demonstrators. I was not there that day, but I was part of what may have been the largest demonstration: a march through downtown Santa Barbara, ending at the courthouse.
We seemed purposeful enough as we marched down State Street—we were going somewhere, after all. But when we massed beside the courthouse, chanting and shouting, with the courthouse employees looking down at us from the second story windows, I felt like a fool, or at least not like a grownup. I remember being glad my dad couldn’t see me.
He was every bit as opposed to the war as I was, and he was the least critical of fathers. If he had seen me there, he wouldn’t have said anything about it; but his voice was in my head, anyway. The voice said, “Hello there, Kim, what are you doing this morning? Are you trying to persuade someone? If so, when was anyone ever persuaded by being shouted at? Or are you threatening someone? Who, those courthouse employees? And with what?” (He had a quiet contempt for empty threats.)
He and I had talked about other revolutions or resistance movements, in those days when I was reading about them for the first time—the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War. The most successful, to his mind, was Gandhi’s program of nonviolent civil disobedience. The disruptions caused by that program were intended to show the British the impracticality of trying to hold on to Queen Victoria’s Empire; just as importantly, the nonviolent character of the movement was an appeal to the British conscience. Gandhi was aware that such a conscience existed; his tactics would have been pointless otherwise.
Dad would have approved of the Santa Barbara march: a peaceful (though noisy) march for peace. But he would have smiled indulgently at my part in it. His voice in my head said, “I didn’t raise you to be an integer.” If I were serious about a cause, he would expect me to do more than merely be a body in a crowd: Go find a candidate who has your views, and work for his campaign; or learn how to craft legislation, and run for office yourself; or educate yourself on the issues, and write about them in a way that can persuade people.
A couple of years later, I was involved in a demonstration of another kind—not as a participant, or even as a willing bystander. In fact, I was doing my best to get clear of the smell of tear gas and the sound of gunfire. These were some relatively minor disturbances that took place in the misnamed city of La Paz, in Bolivia, preceding the coup that brought General J.J. (“Jota Jotita”) Torres, of gentle memory, to power. Demonstrations or protests have an entirely different character—a different feel about them—in countries that traditionally have had governments without the consent of the governed; where regime change occurs by means of military coups or other forms of violence. These people do not play at revolution. Every new one brings up grim memories of the older ones.
By comparison, we are somewhat spoiled in this country. We can have not only peaceful demonstrations, but fairly destructive ones, too, without troops opening up with live ammunition and leaving the plaza littered with bodies.
The essential fact about any demonstration (let’s leave South America behind, and just talk about our own country) is that the participants have lost patience with the ordinary workings of government. Our elected representatives, who ought to be aware of our concerns, apparently are not; so rather than wait until the next election and try to incrementally change the government by electing different representatives, we take to the streets. This can happen in a multiplicity of ways. The best of the Vietnam antiwar marches were conceived and carried out as peaceful appeals to the national conscience—knowing that such a conscience existed, and knowing, at the same time, that a violent march for Peace would be rather a contradiction. The war ended for several reasons—it began to be obvious that little short of exterminating the Vietnamese could make military victory possible—but members of my generation like to think that the antiwar movement played a part, too.
What about the demonstrations or protests that seem to be purely outbursts of rage—collective tantrums, if you will? Unfortunately, these have been shown to be effective, too. After the Watts riots, the State of California woke up to things it should have been noticing all along, and attempts were made to change the conditions that create ghettos. They were mostly attempts to improve education. This was the period of the Affirmative Action program in colleges and universities, of the bussing experiment to get more of a mixture of white and black students in schools, and of more funding in general for inner city schools. How well these programs worked is difficult to assess. What’s unfortunate is that it took broken glass and burning cars to get the ball rolling. It is somewhat like those families in which children get their way by having tantrums, the parents giving in just to get some peace. Not an edifying spectacle.
The weakness of peaceful demonstrations is the feeling that they can safely be ignored. This is frustrating to demonstrators, and tempts them to escalate.
Violent demonstrations—the outbursts of rage—cannot be ignored, but they can advance a cause only for as long as the public feels that the rage is justified. That kind of public sympathy is a form of capital that has limits—ugly behavior can cause it to be used up more quickly than the demonstrators expect, and they can find themselves abandoned once more by a public that votes for Law and Order candidates.
In the light (or fog) of these observations, what about the Portland demonstrations? Besides earning us the distinction of being proclaimed an Anarchist Jurisdiction, has more good or more harm been done? Among the contributors and readers of The Oregon Way, surely there are some who have been close to the scene, and have paid attention to what has happened, and how the authorities and the people of Portland have reacted to it. Can one of you come forward with a thoughtful assessment? What have the demonstrations been like, and what has resulted from them?
Keep the conversation going:
Facebook (facebook.com/oregonway), Twitter (@the_oregon_way)