What Democracy Looks Like

Do protests matter?

As I arrived at Foley Square last week to watch the gradual release of activists, anarchists, and not a few innocent bystanders who'd been picked up during the week's many protests, I found National Lawyers Guild attorney Daniel Meyers propounding a theory to a small cluster of scribbling reporters: "I think the order came from the Republican Party to sterilize the city. Anybody who didn't look like a Republican delegate had no right to walk the streets. The preemptive use of arrests—mass arrests and detentions—were meant to achieve that goal."

As conspiracy theories go, this was not, on its face, a particularly implausible one. As Meyers noted, bringing the protesters down to be detained in filthy pens at Pier 57 all but guaranteed delays, as the equipment required to process them was located at precinct stations, not the facility many activists had taken to calling "Gitmo on the Hudson." When a judge finally ordered the release of some 500 protesters detained well beyond the 24 hour legal limit, he told city officials that he could "no longer accept your statement that you are trying to comply."

Yet the very arbitrariness of which so many complained—bunches of protesters would be rounded up in orange netting seemingly at random from larger groups, or one group would be told by police to use the route another had just marched, then arrested for "disorderly conduct"—made it a poor deterrent. Not only were protesters—the vast peaceful majority, anyway—confused about what was likely to get them arrested; there was little apparent effort to target organizers, who are at any rate in short supply among anarchists. With crowds for the Sunday march estimated at somewhere between 200,000 and half a million, even the 1,700-plus arrests over the course of the week represent the kind of "sterilization" that would shame even Dr. Nick Riviera My own conversations with beat cops working the protests suggest that, in accord with Hanlon's Razor, confusion more than conspiracy dominated Manhattan's precinct houses.

Perhaps the more important question to ask, though, is whether it would have been in the GOP's interest to attempt the sort of dissent-crushing of which they were accused. The New York Times reported a week before the convention that "Republicans said they would seek to turn any disruptions to their advantage, by portraying protests by even independent activists as Democratic-sanctioned displays of disrespect for a sitting president." And that tactic certainly seems to have been in play: Republican National Committee Chariman Ed Gillespie told Knight-Ridder reporters that delegates would be "joined here by thousands of Democrats and Senator Kerry's supporters, and to please recognize their right to express themselves because they are free to do so," adding the caveat: "I didn't say they are linked to the Kerry campaign, but they are supporters of Senator Kerry."

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza noted the same phrase—"supporters of John Kerry"—popping up in a lunchtime conversation with Gillespie. Republican strategists appear to all but embrace protesters, so long as they can manage to identify them with Democrats. That's not wholly accurate, of course: Many of the most active and visible protesters are radicals who eschew more conventional politicking precisely because they view the major parties as indistinguishable. I watched one agitator for the Trotskyite Spartacist League inveigh briefly against Bush before launching into a long and venomous harangue against John Kerry and the Democratic Party, which was (she averred) sapping support for a truly revolutionary workers' party.

In light of public attitudes toward protesters, that may be a sound strategy. In March of last year, the American Enterprise Institute's Karlyn Bowman did a roundup of national surveys on Americans' attitudes toward protesters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll found 71 percent unmoved by antiwar protests—perhaps not all that surprising, since debates over war and peace turn on arguments too complex to fit on a placard. Among those who were influenced, however, three times as many said that the protests made them more likely to support the war in Iraq than oppose it.

Ohio State political scientist John Mueller is a provocative opponent of a cherished notion of Boomer radicals: That protests and street-activism ultimately helped to turn the American public against the war in Vietnam. Instead, in an epater l'avant garde piece for the History News Network, he posits that the "chief political achievement of the Vietnam antiwar movement was to help get Richard Nixon elected in 1968," and suggests that their descendants may do the same for George W. Bush. Polls suggest that, then, attitudes toward protesters remained strongly negative even as doubts about our adventures in Indochina grew.

The problem is this: In a highly polarized election year, the only part of the electorate still in play—those coveted swing voters—is the part that isn't paying attention. They will tend, more or less by definition, to be fairly moderate and to make their decision in a rough and impressionistic way. They'll pay attention less to policy differences, which are clear enough, than to who seems trustworthy, who seems like "one of us." They're apt to be equally repelled by the most extreme left- and right-wing supporters or opponents of either candidate. But the most extreme opponents of Kerry do not, as a rule, gather in groups of hundreds of thousands to march through the streets.

That doesn't characterize all the marchers, of course. Among those I spoke with during the march were a bright-seeming research assistant at a neurology lab and Jim Murphy, 50, of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who grumbled to a friend, "God, I hate parades."

And there's the trouble. Just as, in comic books, you need superheroes to fight mutant villains, in contemporary politics it seems that veterans are uniquely free to criticize other veterans. Someone like Murphy can get away with dismissing, say, John O'Neill of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as someone who has "made a living at this shit," which is to say, being an attack dog for the right. But he doesn't much enjoy this kind of activism, and at any rate, the cameras are less apt to focus on him and his band than on colorfully attired hippies and black-clad anarchists burning giant dragon floats. Those most successful at garnering press attention are those who see an arrest as an opportunity to add another credibility-enhancing story to their radical repertoire—like the activist who sent a message to the protesters' text message network reading: "200 here @ boathouse [in Central Park where RNC delegates had been spotted], lots of pigs, no arrests yet, need more people."

In light of the conditions at Pier 57, one can be forgiven for regarding New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a touch disingenuous when he said of the protesters in the days before the Republican convention: "I hope they all enjoy themselves." That may, however, be the most they can hope to achieve.

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