Raising the flag right

John O'Reilly goes over his thoughts on how rallies and protests could be made more effective.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 14, 2012

As a big fan of public demonstrations of group strength, mostly because I think they are a really good time for people, I cannot help but think about them as important somehow. The Left is famous for ritualizing things that don't really matter and then telling everything that they do matter so that's what we must do them, but I do think there is a valid purpose to putting on and participating in big public actions, symbolic or otherwise. It creates a sense of shared identity, it allows people to take small actions in violation of the normal order, which in turn allows people to imagine taking those actions to over parts of their lives. It can demonstrate to witnesses who we are and what we stand for, and sometimes even splashes on the media a bit.

I like to call public demonstrations episodes in a "flag raising," a catchall kind of activity that takes place when we rep ourselves. Flag raising can happen in lots of different situations, but is basically a time when we say "we're here, we believe in ourselves, watch out." Flag raising isn't necessarily antagonistic, though it might be in the context of a union campaign for example, but could for example be a dinner where we celebrate our experiences. The goal of flag raising is then both internal, as a strengthening of our bonds to each other and our ideas, and can be external, as a drawing of a line in the sand to separate us from the enemy.

How do we build flag-raising public demonstrations of power that appeal to people? If we establish that demonstrations are important to moving forward our message and provide a good space for people to encounter our ideas and discuss them in a supportive environment, we need to figure out how to make them successful.

One thing that I'm really tired of is the rally. I know this seems obvious but to so many people on the Left, the rally is the stock tactic used to raise the flag and it's not that effective. I've seen this particularly in the Occupy movement recently, but I would guess that instinct comes from the participation of folks already well schooled on left behavior as well as any organic movement towards throwing rallies. I think the rally falls short as a useful tactic for a bunch of reasons. Primarily, it becomes just another lecture to nod off to. I know this sounds like I'm way more into the insurrectionist stuff than I normally am, but the depersonalization of the rally is what makes me think it isn't that useful. Someone speaking about their issues, even if they deliver a rousing speech, goes on way too long way too quickly.

If we could do one thing to make rallies better, it would be to keep them tight. This hardly ever works in coalition work though, because if every group isn't represented in the rally than the various organizations see each other as trying to edge the other out (which, while cynical, is probably what's happening!) Therefore rallies almost always devolve into a string of lowest-common denominator speeches designed every constituency to feel involved but no one in charge. Coalition rallies don't frequently change people, usually they are an unwanted addition to another action that may have been exciting, just thrown in to sop the various parties participating in the planning or execution of the action that their voices are heard.

The rally is exclusive, boring and turns people away. How do we build public demonstrations that excite people and make people feel valued and more attached to our ideas? I'm open to new ideas. I've been struck over the past few weeks by the new vision statement of FW EF's new blog, Cultural Front, that the goal is to remake "common sense" of working people. We need to do this on the Left as well. We need to create a culture of the Left that's based on good ideas, not just ideas that have been used before, regardless of their effectiveness. We need to do flag raising in a way that works for us. Here's a few ideas:

1. Everything should have motion
The lamest march beats the best rally because it gets people moving. Moving our bodies around gives us the experience of living, of doing something, which connects the ideas we are discussing with some kind of action. I'm no psychologist, but I can't help but feel if there's not a connection here. Marches and pickets give people an opportunity to do something beyond just passively standing around and that gives us an opportunity to get people excited and have fun. I propose that if you are planning a public demonstration, people should be moving for 75% or more of the time they are at the action. Otherwise people just want to go home.

2. Voices are important but they are not the most important thing
Sometimes organizers deal with the problem created when rally speakers are already organizational leaders by doing the "speak out," where anyone can come forward to speak. This deals with the problem of the lowest common denominator by allowing militants to speak for more radical visions and it allows more voices to enter the discussion and do agitation. But what we gain by including more voices we lose by giving up our certainty of having good speakers perform. We've all been to speak outs that drag on and become a confusing mess as every wingnut gets up to the mic to move their weirdness. I think the lesson here is that voices are important because they spell our what our flag means and what we propose to do with it, but they are not the most important thing. No matter how they get deployed, voices cannot be the whole thing or even most of the thing, because they always fall back to the weaknesses of the speakers. We can't allow our flag raising to be effective or not based on how well we speak.

3. Militancy can always be upped
The power of crowds is amazing. At a recent home defense demo in Minneapolis, over 80 people stood outside a foreclosed house as the cops locked it and tried to board it. Only about 20 people had made plans to prepare for arrest and these plans involved passive civil disobedience. When the moment came though, about 70 people spontaneously locked arms and surrounded the house, forcing the police and firefighters to work around us and ultimately discouraging them (about 8 people) from going forward. We ultimately got back into the house and held it for the night. If you asked most of the 70 arm-locked protesters if they were willing to get arrested, most (including this author) would have said no. But it was clear that they were actively defying police orders and were risking arrest. So how do we square this? People make decisions in the moment based on their feelings and their confidence. We need to make people feel better about militancy, not present it as Advanced Activism, some kind of special sphere that one needs to strike out on one's own to participate in.

Often organizers frame the question of militancy in terms of "willing to get arrested vs not willing." This is a false dichotomy that only hurts our ability to act in unity. A better question might be "who cannot for reasons of parole, immigration status, or dependents cannot be arrested?" We then build actions in such a way as those "unarrestables" (notably different from "don't-wanna-get-arresteds") are as protected by the rest of the group as possible. We build militancy into our actions as a positive thing that we all believe in, not an individual choice that must me made in a vacuum. Given that choice, most individuals will weigh the benefits and drawbacks and conclude that getting arrested isn't worth it for them. As an individual, they are correct, and this promotes the thinking that militancy is just for those willing to engage in symbolic actions that might get some press attention but aren't going to actually do direct action. Militancy at flag raising events cannot be pushed as an either-or, it needs to be presented as value.

More thoughts?

Originally posted: December 4, 2011 at Thoughts on the Struggle