Two, Three, Many Protests...But All On the Same Night?
George W. and his new friends in the leadership of the New York State Republican Party gathered at a fund raising dinner in mid-town Manhattan October 5th. They were all there: George W. Bush, George Pataki, Rudolf Giuliani, Al D'Amato and the rest of the bunch of thugs. About 2,000 people attended the event and raised over $2 million for the candidate who already has obscene amounts of money in his campaign chest. It was, in fact, a rather disgusting display of some of this country's most dangerous men.
Outside, placed across the street by the New York City Police Department, people active in a number of movements gathered to raise their voices in protest. There must have been at least three hundred people, which is certainly not bad these days. Energy was high, lots of chanting, good banners and posters...all the markers of a good demonstration. And as I moved through the crowd everyone seemed to be pleased to be there and glad to be part of the protest.
But there was a problem, and as I see it, a major problem. This was not a unified effort articulating our opposition to the policies and practices of the Republican Party in this state and nationally. Instead, five groups each put together their own separate protest. In the space of one city block there were five distinct groups: ACT-UP addressing AIDS polices of both Pataki and Bush; NYC NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) pointing out Bush's strong anti-abortion positions; the Campaign to End the Death Penalty protesting both the Texas and New York governor; a NYC based group calling for an end to the State's draconian Rockefeller drug laws; and two unions of state employees demanding better contracts from Pataki.
No doubt about it...it was good to see that each of these groups could mobilize folks and put together a public protest on short notice. And yet even with a "common enemy" our forces were not able to present a unified voice. I can't swear on this, but I'll bet that there was not even an effort to discuss a more coherent approach to the evening's protest. Each group did it's separate outreach and made their own plans. I know I got email announcements about three of the planned protests...and none of them made any reference to other folks coming out at the same time.
What I found particularly upsetting was that it seemed as if most of the people at the demonstrations were feeling fine, happy for the opportunity to raise their voice on the issue they felt most strongly about, and not concerned about the separation between the various groups. The difference in the issues being addressed was highlighted by the Police Department's creation of separate pens for each group. To move from one issue to another...and I know I was not the only person there who actually cares about all of these issues! ...people had to go in and out of a series of police barricades.
There is plenty to be upset about when it comes to the ways the police in this city now handle any public protest. Yet I couldn't help but feel as if we had given the police the go-ahead to keep us separated. Indeed, the separations we create amongst ourselves not only dilutes our message but to some degree make it possible for the police to take their steps to keep us even further apart.
I know each group wants to make sure their issue is heard, that their concerns are not lost in a protest effort that defines the broad issues without focusing on the particulars. Well, that's more than reasonable. But do we always have to chose one or the other?
This may sound hopelessly optimistic, but I cling to the notion that there must be a way for us to work together, to explain what ties us to one another, to articulate what we have in common AND call attention to specific struggles.
In fact, I see this as one of the greatest challenges facing leftists today. (To put this very simply, by leftist I mean someone who understands the need for systemic change in virtually all of the institutions and structures of our lives, someone who knows the struggles against different oppressions are linked to one another.) The challenge is this: can we build a unified movement that focuses on specific problems/struggles/constituencies when that's needed and at the same time offers a comprehensive analysis that, among other things, allows for and encourages a much greater degree of cooperation.
If you've read some of my previous commentaries you might have noticed a theme emerging. Yes, I am deeply troubled by the state of the left in this country. When do we move beyond what keeps us apart? What steps do we need to take to support each other and, on an even larger scale, to base our decisions about tactics and issue-focus on a comprehensive analysis?
I will keep going to and help organize as many of these protest activities as I can get to. There is certainly plenty to protest. But if our protests are always focused on the most narrow definition of our struggles we will never be strong enough to be heard...let alone to make a difference. And when all is said and done, isn't changing things what we really want?
Leslie Cagan: Decades long organizer in a board range of peace and social justice movements, Leslie is presently involved in struggles to defend Open Admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is a co-chair of the National Committees of Correspondence and is on the board of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation. Leslie is also part of the growing effort to re-invigorate a left/progressive presence in the lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender movement.