What I Didn't Learn in New York City

I didn’t go to the protests at the Republican National Convention for many reasons. I was totally broke, and had no idea what to do when I got there. But none of this had tended to stop me in the past. What was different this time was my reservations about mass protests at major party conventions. In the year 2000, the series of mass protests that had shaken the WTO and the World Bank/IMF seemed to hit a wall at the R2K in Philadelphia and D2K in Los Angeles.

One reason was that our protests expose things, and the presidential horse race is already designed to flaunt itself in a year long super-distraction. We don’t come to these things just trying to prevent some ghastly new development in the global terror super state; we try to get in the way of business as usual which has a bit more momentum.

So I was sitting in a house, a very comfortable sublet by I Steve standards, watching the play by play on NYC Indymedia. I had been at actions like this before, so I feel the day after day of exhausting non-stop demonstrations, camaraderie, commotion, arrests, solidarity. . . But now, even though I could almost smell the pepper spray I could blink my eyes and I was back in a quiet room in sunny California. Where I could without adrenaline look at MSNBC, The New York Times, Newsweek, and try to figure out how all this protest measured up to the evil Republican media spectacle.

I knew that if I was there, I wouldn’t care so much about how much the protests were suppressed in the corporate media, which reported that only 100,000 people marched on Sunday, and mostly ignored everything else. The New York Times reported a bit more, because for them it was local news, and they’ve been surprisingly aware that Bush and his oil gangsters are destroying corporate civilization. Anywhere else one would really have to dig for convention protest stories; there was more regular coverage earlier about how the authorities were preparing for the upcoming protests.

So I started to really wonder about protest culture again. This worldwide network of people engaged in figuring out things we don’t like, such as George Bush, prioritizing them, and responding to the most important things by protesting against them. For a while, we had this idea of “direct action,” and the slogan, “from protest to resistance,” indicating that rather than just protesting, we were going to actually obstruct the things we don’t like. But more often than not, the result of this strategy was that we used this obstruction to protest more dramatically, rather than use protests to obstruct. In retrospect, what we were really doing was protesting against the fact that all we do is protest.

In New York, a half million people decided in various ways to deal with their feelings about the Bush administration by protesting against it. As far as I can tell, while most people in this horde had no ties to the anarchist movement or the Kerry campaign, like these two groups they weren’t oriented toward winning anything.

Bush is bad and protesting him is fine of course. But I think there would be less existential frustration if we realize a couple things. First, that this idea of vigorous protest, around which our protest culture revolves, is based on our vision of grassroots, direct democracy. In this democracy, the collective decisions of society are the synthesis of the deep self-expression and actions of the people.

Second, that we do better protesting things that are simply undemocratic than protesting the mainstream system of democracy, which is based on majoritarianism. For them it’s democratic if when 2/3 of the people want to put left-handed people in labor camps, we turn in ourselves or the left-handed people we know, even if we’d rather not. In countries that don’t have even representative democracy, like Indonesia under Suharto for example, people seem to have better luck bringing down the government with mass protests.

Radicals usually address this problem by attacking and discrediting majoritarian democracy. We usually attempt this discrediting in years that are divisible by 4. What I’d like to see happen is that we, from 2005-2007, figure out how to get the basic idea of direct democracy, and how it differs from majoritarian, representative democracy, into the heads of all Americans. Then in 2008, when we go out and protest, both we and everyone else will know what we’re doing.