The moment…globally. Contagion is a demonstration effect.

Citizens are taking to the streets around the world, animated by many different grievances, but mostly concerned with some vision of democracy.

More that one million people have turned out to protest corruption in Beirut, with allied protests across Lebanon.

 

 

The government in Chile has declared martial law in response to disruptive, and often violent protests, mostly focused on large hikes in the costs for public transit.

Protests in Hong Kong have continued over the last six months, and both the government and the demonstrators are escalating.

 

 

The origins, organization, grievances, and likely outcomes of all these efforts are different, but the public struggle for some kind of justice is underneath all of it. We can know more faster about each effort than ever before, as activists post their triumphs and challenges on social media.

The drama and the sheer volume of protest encourages people elsewhere with grievances to take to the streets. Courage and commitment is inspiring, even if it’s scary. And the prospect that street politics might be a route to influence anywhere makes change seem possible.

One message of each demonstration is: you can do it too!

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The mask

Demonstrators in the Central district of Hong Kong. Some protesters also wear masks to protect their identities.Tens of thousands of masked demonstrators turned up in Hong Kong in response to a new ban on wearing a mask in a protest. The show of masked solidarity was completely predictable. Outlawing the mask was all about intimidation, and democracy activists wanted to show they would not be intimidated.

Zorro (Guy Williams)

Image result for the lone ranger

The Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore)

Unmasked, in a world where cameras are everywhere, demonstrators will be easier to identify and prosecute, even long after the protest is over. If demonstrators know that they might be punished  much later, maybe, authorities reasoned, they would be less likely to protest. And just being caught in a mask becomes another criminal violation for the government to haul out to repress what has been an irrepressible movement.

Pussy Riot

Masked protesters are, of course, nothing new, and certainly not confined to Hong Kong. There are long histories populated by both the noble and the nefarious. In the comic book universe–and even in real life–both the bad guys and the good guys wear masks. The mask disguises the other life identity of the hero, and frees him from recognition, retribution, or inhibition. He becomes the cause.

In a place without democratic protections, demonstrators don disguises for protection, like Pussy Riot and their balaclavas, but their anonymity disappeared. Some of the members ended up in jail, some in exile.

Boston Tea Partiers dressed as Indians (1773)

Protesters also have many reasons for wearing masks, including–but certainly not limited to–temporarily confusing the police and avoiding arrest and criminal prosecution.

The costume or disguise–like the fake headdresses worn by Independence activists at the Boston Tea Party or the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klansmen–are an expression of an identity, building solidarity and inhibiting inhibition.

They can also be an expression of intimidation: the costumed  crowd may  be  capable  of  doing  things  your  neighbors–at  least  when  identifiable–would never  consider. It’s scary. In the event of chaos and confusion, the costume helps identify friends–and foes–and maybe a path to safety.

KKK rally

KKK rally

 

It’s important to remember that it’s not just government that can punish. Having your boss, your aunt, or your friends see you involved in some kind of collective political action can have harsh consequences as well.

 

Anonymous (Guy Fawkes mask)

Undisguised racist protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 paid for expressing their political views. At least one protester lost a job at hot dog stand when his employers saw him pictured at the event. Another who gave a long interview explaining his views was banned from a dating site.

They had no reasonable fear of the local police or of the federal government, but conspicuous racism is still bad for at least some businesses. I can see why people of all sorts might hesitate before buying a hot dog from someone who marched with Nazis and Klansmen. It also doesn’t take much imagination to see why a dating site would want to make sure not to match an apparently volatile racist with anyone.

Protesters can wear masks and costumes in an effort to avoid outing their offensive political beliefs. What’s offensive changes over time and across communities. And cameras are everywhere!

A black-and-white bandanna printed with a blocky, digital pattern reminiscent of the common Arabic keffiyeh is one item in the Backslash kit, a package of devices that help protesters stay safe and connected during demonstrations. The bandanna's pattern can store messages that can be revealed with the Backslash app.

Backslash demonstration kit

There’s also physical protection. Increasingly, we see people hustling at airports or jogging outdoors wearing surgical masks to filter out some of the stuff in bad air, or to protect themselves from other people’s bacteria. This isn’t a political claim, just an effort to stop coughing.

Tear gas and pepper spray present more visible threats, and a scarf or even a gas mask, offers a bit of protection. Demonstrators bearing scarves can’t compete with well-armed and armored police forces, but a filter may buy enough time to get out without being badly hurt.

 

The pictures of the newest demonstrations from Hong Kong don’t look like anyone is trying to avoid identification. Instead, it looks like young people are donning masks to demonstrate their commitment to fight for democracy. I guess it says something about a government when we see who feels like they need to wear a mask.

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It’s not about Greta (about Greta!)

Heroic Swedish teen Greta Thunberg delivered a blistering address at the UN’s Climate Action Summit. It’s worth watching all the way through. In less than five minutes, Greta projects a sense of urgency and righteous anger. She’s right, of course, that attention to the fate of the earth shouldn’t depend upon the commitment of a 16 year old girl, who should properly be anxious about calculus or homecoming, rather than carbon.

A little over a year ago, Greta, then fifteen, read enough science to think that the climate crisis was severe enough to demand dramatic action. She started skipping school to protest outside the Swedish parliament. In fairly short order, other young people joined her, outside the Swedish parliament, and outside other parliaments, turning millions out into the streets to demand government action.

Greta sailed across the Atlantic to testify at the Climate Summit, to avoid putting more carbon into the atmosphere. A corollary benefit of the long trip was an extended opportunity to keep Greta and, more importantly, the cause in the news throughout the two week trip and eventful arrival in New York City. (Read Emily Witt!)

Since hitting New York City, Greta has been involved in an eclectic range of activist events, including the largest global climate strike ever last Friday, including an estimated 4 million participants–not all young. She is a visible part of a much larger and increasingly diverse movement.

The teen activists are a powerful force: they are mature and independent enough to be articulate and informed, but young enough to avoid excessive cynicism and entangling commitments, political and otherwise. (Think of the Parkland kids and the Sunrise Movement.) It’s coarse and creepy to question Greta’s integrity and sincerity–although Donald Trump, Dinesh D’Souza, and Fox News have done so. (Fox apologized.)

But we would not know about Greta’s concerns were it not for the much larger social movement she’s a part of. Her intense commitment, barely contained in a slight young woman with pigtails and excellent English, makes an attractive hook for coverage. But there are lots of other young committed climate strikers and activists. (Alexandria Villaseñor, of example, demonstrated outside the UN on Friday, for the 41st time!)

The massive strikes, and Greta’s speech for that matter, are exclamation points in a much longer and more complicated story. The young strikers return to their high school and college campuses and tell stories. Some will listen to scientific testimony, or even read articles. Some will get involved with political campaigns–or lodge questions at campaign rallies. Some will learn the issues and decide to dedicate themselves to  master engineering better battery storage or commit to more sustainable diets. Dramatic action is important, but the day to day is what will change the world.

 

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The debate protesters care about DACA

Protesters briefly interrupted the Democratic candidates presidential debate last night, knocking former Vice President Joe Biden a little further off his rhythm, and sending weary viewers to the Internet with one question: what were they yelling?

It was hard to make out their words, and broadcasters generally won’t refocus their cameras on unexpected protests.

What I saw on tv was men and women in suits staring at their podiums.

What I first saw on Twitter was criticism of the activists, who weren’t numerous and coordinated enough to get the message out.

Later, I learned the answer, reported by Nicole Narea at Vox. The demonstrators yelled, “We are DACA recipients! Our lives are at risk!”

(Narea also provides a good, brief, description of the issues at stake.)

Smart activists sometimes seize the platforms others create. Town hall meetings, campaign rallies, debates, and conventions are all chances to reach a larger audience than you could generate on your own, and maybe even sneak into a camera’s field of view.

When this works well, you draw attention to yourself AND your cause that extends beyond the event. (Sometimes , it doesn’t work so well.) Tea Party and Black Lives Matter activists were particularly adept at using crowds others had put together.

Explanations about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children) came the next day in multiple mainstream news outlets, and on Twitter from@nakasec.

President Obama started the program when Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration failed. DACA recipients could work legally and were temporarily protected from deportation. President Trump canceled the program two years ago, promising a quick fix, which is nowhere on the horizon. DACA status is now even more precarious, hanging on  a few court decisions.

It makes sense for DACA recipients to protest. What’s more, normalizing the status of childhood immigrants, once called DREAMers, is by far the most popular element of any proposed immigration reform. Coming to America wasn’t their choice, but they grew up here, and can produce plenty of very articulate and accomplished poster children.

But the issue has gotten precious little attention in the debates; all the Democratic candidates basically agree on recognition and some path to citizenship, and promise more comprehensive immigration reform. When immigration comes up, truly egregious treatment of refugees, particularly the separation of children from their families at the border, grabs most of the attention.

Protest is a tactic to bring attention to issues and people who get squeezed out of mainstream politics, and the DREAMers have been on the edge for a long time. I wrote this description of a protest at the Democratic National Convention in 2012! Even earlier, young immigrants at risk of deportation risked arrest to protest at Congressional offices. [The picture at left is from a protest outside (and inside) Senator John McCain’s office in 2010.]

It was the courageous efforts of young people staging protests at Congressional offices and elsewhere that pushed Obama to institute DACA in the first place.

A clever candidate seeking attention could reach out to these activists and grab the issue. We wait.

I don’t know if this blip of a debate protest will refocus national attention–there are so many provocations and distractions in the Trump era, but the issue and the activists won’t go away, and will keep trying.

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Repression/Concession Digression and Hong Kong

Social protest movements are messy collections of people and groups with different ideas about what they want and how to get it. They tend to do best when they can maintain some kind of unified presence in relation to authorities without smoothing out or resolving all of their own internal conflicts. It’s when the people who are mostly okay with institutional routes to change find common cause with people who are ready to go out in the streets that movements become powerful.

Successful movements are kind of like umbrellas…particularly in Hong Kong.

It’s not easy to maintain those connections. (Indeed, John Mok says that conflicts within the Umbrella Movement five years ago led to its decline.) Fights about strategy and ultimate goals with the people who are supposed to be allies can approach a vicious hostility usually only seen in feuding families.

Remembering that a diverse set of claims, political strategies, and people helps change the world helps a little.

Meanwhile, opponents work to undermine that movement unity. To break apart a social movement coalition, clever authorities deploy a mix of responses. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is following the bust the coalition playbook right now. Joshua Wong, left, and Alex Chow, center, speaking to journalists outside the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong in 2018.On the eve of a large unpermitted demonstratation planned for last weekend, Hong Kong police arrested well-known activists like and visible pro-democracy legislators.

The strategy was to decapitate the movement and intimidate others from turning out to protest. In addition to criminal charges, demonstrators could–and did–face beatings and tear gas from police. Over 1,100 people have been arrested.

But Hong Kong could not silence the activists. Within days, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow (above) published a piece in the New York Times announcing that they would not be deterred, and if detained, tens of thousands of others would turn out anyway.

After yet another demonstration, Carrie Lam announced that she was formally withdrawing the extradition bill that was the trigger for the most recent weeks of protest. This was the first and most prominent of the activists’ formal five demands. They’ve also called for recognition that the people protesting are not rioting, and should not be subject to harsh penalties. They’ve called for the release of everyone arrested in the protests, and the dropping of all criminal charges. They’ve also demanded a formal inquiry into police tactics, and–the biggest one–the creation of meaningful universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

The government is not approaching concessions on any of these matters, and the activists have proclaimed that they will hold out for all five demands.

The political scissor move that Carrie Lam is trying to execute is intended to raise the risk and costs of continuing protests with increasingly harsh punishments, and Protesters throw back tear gas fired by the police in Wong Tai Sin during a general strike in Hong Kong on August 5, 2019. simultaneously undermine the apparent necessity of protest by giving in…a little. When the repression/concession balance works, fewer people are willing to take to the streets, with some working in institutional politics and others just leaving political action altogether. At the same time, fewer less connected protesters are easier to control. Movements fall apart, even when many organizers remain active.

In Hong Kong, it doesn’t seem to be working–at least not yet. The activists have been firm in resolve and courageous in the streets, in the airport, and elsewhere. Expect China, using Lam and whoever follows her, to continue to refine its mix of concession and repression until something gets those people to go home.

The activists know this.

 

 

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Labor Day 2019, reposted from the past, with an afterword on the day

Successful politicians exploit, buy off, and sell out the movements that sometimes buoy their campaigns.  This American story is an old one, and it’s one that leaves activists disappointed, wary, and cynical, even especially about the politicians who do the most for them.

[Recall that candidate Abraham Lincoln promised to put the preservation of the union higher on his list of priorities than ending slavery, and that abolitionists criticized President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (issued after two years of war), which ended slavery only in the territories that had seceded.]  And many do far less.
May DaySo, why is the American day to commemorate Labor held at the end of the summer, months after May Day, the workers’ celebration day virtually everywhere else in the world?  How do you turn a movement by creating an occasion for a cook-out?

President Grover Cleveland, a hard-money Democrat, and generally no friend to organized labor, signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday at the end of June in 1894, at the height of the Populist movement, and just after the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, had launched a boycott and strike, starting in Pullman, Illinois.  Protesting the Pullman Palace Car Company’s treatment of its workers, including harsh wage cuts, railway workers across the country refused to handle any train hauling a Pullman car.

The Federal government used an injunction, then troops, to battle the union and get the trains moving.  In July, just after announcing a national day to celebrate the contributions of American workers, President Cleveland ordered federal marshals–along with 12,000 Army troops, into Chicago to break up the strike.  Workers fought back, and 13 workers were killed, and at least several dozen injured.  Debs was tried for violating an injunction, and went to prison, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx.  Clarence Darrow provided a vigorous, but unsuccessful, defense.

Debs would go to prison again, most notably for his opposition to US entry into World War I, and would run for president five times as a Socialist.

But I digress.  President Cleveland created a distinctly American Labor Day, explicitly not on May 1, which had already been the occasion for vigorous and disruptive workers’ activism.  (Read about the Haymarket affair.)  May Day remains the day for international workers mobilization.  Instead, our Labor Day is a time to mark the end of summer by cooking outdoors and shopping for school supplies.

The  US Department of Labor’s website gives credit for Labor Day to the American worker, but makes no mention of the Pullman Strike or the Haymarket demonstrations.

So, commemoration can actually be a way to neuter the historical memory.  See our discussions of commemorative days for Martin Luther KingCesar Chavez, and Fred Korematsu, all significantly more difficult characters than what they’ve come to represent.

P.S. Organized labor’s cumulative difficulties and declines have begun to lead to new strategies. One involves organizing workers that unions in the past had largely overlooked. Established unions have tried to expand their reach by organizing in retail stores and in fast food outlets, working to unite less skilled workers. Most recently, as example, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate teaching assistants at private colleges could organize unions and bargain collectively. But I’m not quite convinced that graduate students are the new vanguard for the working class.

Likely more promising are efforts to use politics to improve the fortunes of American workers. Collective bargaining is one way to raise wages. Another is to mandate higher minimum wages for everyone. The Fight for $15 has had claimed some important successes in new ordinances in generally liberal cities, and has shifted the debate elsewhere. Bernie Sanders campaigned for the Democratic nomination by endorsing the proposal for a new minimum wage, and Hillary Clinton, competing for his voters, essentially endorsed the effort. One future for labor is through Democratic party politics.

 

2019: Reading over something I initially posted in 2011, I fear that the big story is basically the same: 1. Economic and political equality has generally increased, with the fate of less educated workers substantially worse; 2. government has done more to slant the slope of the political battlefield against workers generally and organized labor in particular…esp. see Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; 3. the current political battle pits conservative politicians against government workers.

But,

When well-honed routines of organizing are no longer working, organizers have to innovate. The Fight for $15 has made substantial inroads, particularly in the Democratic Party, and organizers now see immigrants as allies rather than competition, mostly. Family Leave campaigns provide a route to build bridges between different classes of workers which, ultimately, could have large payoff. Most generally, the campaign for workers welfare is transforming to a larger concern with political and economic inequality: it’s what’s left as viable strategy.

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When People Power works

Governor’s refusal to resign drives massive strike, protests in Puerto RicoThe extraordinary impact of massive and sustained peaceful assemblies in Puerto Rico stirs the heart and the imagination. It also forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. If it continues–because most grievances remain–it may do much more.

When nearly 900 pages of chats among Rosselló’s administration leaked to public view earlier this month, they provided a focus and a sharp provocation to people with a broad range of political grievances including public services, finance, and democracy more generally. (The insightful Fernando Tormos-Aponte has been writing about the process as it unfolded. Find his analysis on the fly in the Washington Post and in Jacobin.) The protests drew attention to the chats, and invited media attention and extensive and visible support for the protesters from elsewhere in the United States; Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example, is always news.

The protests directly challenged Puerto Ricans inside and outside government to take sides, and Rosselló did an extraordinarily poor job of managing his responses. A tepid apology didn’t stop people from taking to the streets, and his subsequent promise not to run for reelection garnered no visible support. The governor couldn’t wait out the people in the streets: they weren’t going away. In short order, Rosselló was alone against the Commonwealth, unable to command support or repression. His announced resignation is rightly viewed as a democratic victory for people power.

But the work to redress real grievances must continue, and maintaining organization and focus will be difficult. Expect, however, anyone who comes next to pay closer attention to how democracy works.

But it’s not just the tactic of mass and sustained demonstrations that mattered. Activists hope to find a recipe for social change they can reliably employ, and analysts look for simple and repeatable explanations for political reforms and revolutions. The world is more complicated.

Democratic reformers in Russia were working from the same playbook Police officers detain a protester during an unauthorised rally demanding independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run for office in local election in September, in downtown Moscow on July 27, 2019.earlier this week, staging an unpermitted demonstration in Moscow. Quickly and brutally, police arrested more than 1,300 people. Although the reformers are calling for more protests, it will be harder to get people to turn out when the risks are so great and so evident. Everyone involved knows that Vladimir Putin does not operate under the same constraints as the governor of Puerto Rico.

The hope is that mass moral witness will draw outside attention to a repressive and undemocratic government, inspiring others to find waysPolice officers detain protesters during an unsanctioned rally in the center of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, July 27, 2019. to support challenges. But there are no visible defections of those important to Putin’s survival….yet.

Same tactics, same basic concerns, but a very different context and set of opponents and potential allies makes for a different outcome.

The Sogo deparment store, left, can be seen amid the huge crowd as the road parts in a V shape behind themStill less clear at this point is what will eventually come of the massive and ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Millions of people have turned out to display grievances with the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, focused initially on a proposed policy that would strengthen the influence of the Chinese government on life in Hong Kong. (N.B. I’ve found Suzanne Sataline’s reporting in the Christian Science Monitor helpful in keeping up with events and making sense of what’s happening.)

The protests, of course, followed on the dramatic umbrella protests Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong(Occupy Central) that overwhelmed Hong Kong and engaged the world five years ago. Stretching over months, demonstrators appeared in the streets presenting the same concerns about democracy and autonomy that today’s protesters express. After Occupy Central, some activists kept organizing, and some ran for office, sometimes winning legislative seats in a parliament that exercised no real power.

Aggressive policing cleared public spaces of artists and activists in 2014, but hasn’t yet stilled the efforts of today’s demonstrators. Without visible centralized leadership, factions within the broad movement have employed different tactics. Some activists broke away from a larger demonstration on July 1 to storm the Legislative Council, breaking glass and ransacking some offices. They were met with tear gas.

Each new protest raises questions about likely responses from both Hong Kong and from China. Lam first postponed and then withdrew the extradition law that was the immediate provocation for the protests. But democracy activists want much more–and so does the Chinese government.

Protesters have been able to draw massive international attention, and have exercised some influence. But the larger issues of autonomy and democracy remain. China’s leadership has a clear interest in Hong Kong’s economic success; it also has the capacity to deploy massive force to put down the new wave of protests.

The recipe for effective people power depends upon local materials and conditions: your results may vary.

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