Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (4)

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-61382289

Candle-lit vigils, peaceful marches, or more forceful demonstrations outside the homes of Supreme Court justices determined to end legal abortion probably won’t change many minds—certainly not the minds of the targeted justices. But reproductive rights activists have been assembling outside the homes of conspicuously anti-abortion justices since the draft Alito opinion overruling Roe v. Wade dropped.

This is an escalation made by moving the site of protest from the workplace to the homes of targets, and it’s nothing new. In response to protests of all sorts, the Supreme Court had just put up high fences to keep protesters quite a distance away.

Taking the issue to the homes of the justices is an escalation, to be sure, but in the context of a half-century of abortion politics, it’s a relatively modest one. Nearly a decade ago, in a case about “sidewalk counseling” on abortion, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that opponents of abortion had the right to try to dissuade women seeking to enter Planned Parenthood clinics.

Massachusetts had passed a law providing a 35 foot “buffer zone” around clinics so that clients could come and go without too disruption or fear. The Court ruled that 35 feet was too much space. That counseling didn’t change many minds either.

Surely, the justices, far more insulated and far better protected than the women at clinics, are far better protected, and would want to ensure that their domestic peace didn’t interfere with anyone’s free speech rights.

Abortion opponents used their free speech rights to post the names and pictures of doctors that they thought were providing abortions and publish books detailing strategies for sabotaging abortion clinics. Those Constitutionally protected actions inspired others to bomb clinics and shoot doctors. Or even the home of Harry Blackmun, the justice who wrote the opinion in Roe.

Speech matters.

Public assembly outside the home of a justice may make the people inside uncomfortable, family and friends as well as the justices. It’s hard to think that any of the hyper-conservative majority will be intimidated or persuaded to change their minds. Justice Clarence Thomas, mostly angry and defensive about the Court these days, forcefully announced that the justices would not be bullied.  Of course.

Senator Mitch McConnell explained that a critical decision from the packed Court that went against public opinion didn’t bother him. After all, he said, that’s the way the system is supposed to work—and often does—pointing to an unpopular decision protecting flag burning from the 1980s. McConnell was a little right this time.  He then went on to blame Democrats and the left for promoting disrespect for the Court by doing things like demonstrating outside the justices’ homes, trying to pull the focus off abortion.

More important than the mostly disingenuous critiques of the home protest tactic are the other protest and political actions it’s meant to inspire—including large demonstrations and directed voting. Those effects will play out over months and years.

There is, of course, always a risk of backlash to the home protests, direct and indirect. Just a few weeks ago, the US Freedom Convoy tried to escalate by protesting outside the home of Buffy Wicks, who serves in the California State Assembly. The protesters were met by counterprotesters well-equipped with eggs, no doubt compliant with California standards for humane production and food safety. 

https://sports.yahoo.com/video-shows-people-convoy-being-111848813.html
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What Wins Look Like: Dobbs and the Anti-Abortion Movement

Justice Samuel Alito’s leaked abortion opinion generated widely disparate reactions. Supporters of reproductive rights are—rightly—concerned about the burdens new restrictions on abortions will impose on women, particularly those already less advantaged. They’re seeking strategies to manage the difficulties and to undo the coming crisis.

Anti-abortion activists are celebrating, a little, and thinking about next steps to advance their agendas.

And institutional Republicans are railing against the unprecedented release of a draft Supreme Court opinion while a final decision is still in process. (Their shock and awe at a departure from normal procedure is all about distraction until they can find a way to claim credit and manage the inevitable political backlash.)

There’s yet another story here: what a social movement victory looks like. If the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision follows Alito’s draft, even with softer language, it will be a massive win for the anti-abortion movement, one that’s nearly 50 years in coming and that almost didn’t happen. It provides a reminder about how hard and long social movement activists have to work to make anything happen. This win is partial, dependent upon many factors well outside the control of anti-abortion activists, and also provisional.

The anti-abortion movement has been fighting this reproductive right since before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The decision was a defeat for abortion foes, but also a provocation that helped the movement grow.

Anti-abortion forces grew with the religious right in the 1970s. It arrived at the same time as electoral reforms that effectively encouraged candidates for office found to finance their campaigns with the passionate support of issue activists. In the 1970s, anti-abortion activists spectacularly failed to make progress on a Constitutional amendment, but succeeded in limiting federal funding for poor women (Hyde Amendment.) And, since the 1970s, they’ve faced an abortion rights movement as committed and often as active.

By the 1980s, abortion politics became increasingly partisan. Virtually any viable candidate for national office had to adopt the preferred policy of their party. Surely, it’s possible that George H.W. Bush searched his soul to discover that he really opposed abortion—but a desire for the Republican presidential nomination lit that search. Jesse Jackson’s shift to support for abortion rights similarly came shortly before his first campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For decades, Republicans talked about abortion to mobilize funds and working class voters, while delivering very little. Somehow, anti-abortion activism continued, innovating new tactics, often disruptive, confrontational, and divisive—even within the movement. Activists protested outside clinics—and sometimes bombed them. Some trailed doctors, occasionally shooting and killing them.

Activists who wanted to escalate without violence blockaded clinics through “rescues” and engaged in “sidewalk counseling,” which looks a lot like yelling at passersby and showing photos. All of this made it more difficult and more expensive to provide a standard component of medical care.

https://timeline.com/photos-of-anti-abortion-protesters-supporting-clinic-attacks-286a565fed90

And there was plenty of politics. Ending abortion was a reliable fundraising plea. Anti-abortion groups supported candidates and continued to demand action. In states with legislative conservative majorities, this meant ongoing efforts to find ways to make accessing abortions more difficult and costly, and recurrent lawsuits. Nationally, it meant more pressure for the Republican Party to actually deliver on its promises by appointing judges who would overrule Roe.

Candidate Donald Trump renounced his earlier support for abortion rights and made the promise Republican politics demanded. Religiously motivated activists made a bargain, ignoring the candidate’s copious moral failings in exchange for the promise of committed judges and justices.

In 2016, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider any Democratic nominee to the Court, hoping to invigorate evangelical passions for the coming election. Bizarrely, those passions were enough to win Trump the Electoral College—but not the popular vote. Trump entered office with a Supreme Court vacancy, one justice ready to retire under the right circumstances, and another deathly

ill. None of this had to happen; it was basically good luck for a persistent and opportunistic movement.

But it’s not over.

Anti-abortion activists have a longer agenda to work through, and reproductive rights advocates promise a newly invigorated and active movement that will protest, litigate, and do politics. A movement victory, even a major one, isn’t an end, but an invitation for more activism.

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Kent State Anniversary (repost)

(This is a repost of a report on the Kent State shootings, on occasion of the 52nd anniversary. It’s almost hard to remember a moment when students were present on college campuses, much less assembled together in groups. At the end, I’ve added a bit on Neil Young’s emblematic song, which helped keep the memory alive.

As I write in 2022, when young people have been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter and Climate Change movements–and are likely to be newly engaged in intensifying battles over reproductive rights, it is important to see the histories of contention on college campuses.)

It’s the anniversary of the killing of four college students at Kent State University. Young National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the war on May 4, 1970, discharging more than 60 rounds in roughly 13 seconds.  They killed four students: Allison Krause, 19, and Jeffrey Miller, 20, were part of a nonviolent protest that university authorities promised to ban; Sandy Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19, were walking to class.  The National Guardsmen also wounded nine other students, some severely.

The protests at Kent State were part of a wave of protests that swept across American college campuses on May 1, a Friday, the day after President Richard Nixon announced that he had already ordered American air forces to expand their bombing to Cambodia.  (Roughly a week earlier, after operations had already commenced, Secretary of State William P. Rogers testified before Congress, explicitly denying any intention of expanding the war to Cambodia.)

In Kent, protest and disruption spread into the town that night, with bonfires set in the streets and altercations with police.  The mayor declared a state of emergency, ordered the bars closed, and asked the governor for help in getting everything back under control; the National Guard arrived at the University on Saturday. Students planned a demonstration for Monday to protest the presence of the Guard on campus.  University officials tried to cancel the demonstration, but students assembled anyway. The Guardsmen ordered the students to disperse, then used tear gas before opening fire.

It was terrible, and there is still a great deal we don’t know about: why the National Guard was on campus in the first place? why the order to fire on unarmed students hundreds of feet away? Who gave the order? or, was an order even given?  There’s a lot of writing, and a lot of controversy, still.  A good start is a summary, including an annotated bibliography, by two emeritus professors at Kent State, Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley, of Sociology and Political Science, respectively.

The shooting of unarmed students on a public college campus fostered a sense that the country was coming apart.  It was followed by a police shooting of student protesters at Jackson State in Mississippi, where Philip Gibbs, 21, and James Green, 17, were killed, and 12 other students were wounded.

President Nixon established a commission, chaired by William Scranton (formerly governor of Pennsylvania), to report on campus unrest. Published in September, the Scranton Commission answered few of the pressing questions about Kent State or Jackson State, but observed that campus unrest seemed to decline when the war in Vietnam seemed like it was winding down, and escalated after the bombing in Cambodia started.

The war and the demonstrations continued for a while, tapering off when the draft ended the next year.  Authorities developed ways to control dissent, on campus and elsewhere, without using live ammunition against protesters involved in large demonstrations.  Demonstrations generally became less threatening, less disruptive, and less dangerous.

The Kent State and Jackson State killings remain tragic exceptions to more routine protest politics. It’s a good sign that they stand out in our memories.

One reason the memory remains is a powerful and idiosyncratic protest song, recorded within just a few weeks of the event. Days after the Kent State shootings, Neil Young wrote, “Ohio,” a song mourning the deaths. Apparently, he was shocked by photos published in Life magazine. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young released the song, which called out President Nixon and ended with the repeated line, “Four dead in Ohio”  (lyrics). The song reached the top 20 in the United States and Canada, and appeared on several albums by Young and by the group; they often performed the song in their occasional reunion tours over the past half-century.)

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (3)

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-stage-worldwide-climate-protests-after-ipcc-report-180979913/

People who want strong action to combat climate change have many options beyond self-immolation–which isn’t a good choice at all. Within a broad movement that includes the full spectrum of advocacy and protest actions–from talking to neighbors to ecosabotage–with all sorts of politics and protest in between–you can see individuals testing out strategies for escalating the fight.

More than 1,000 scientists staged protest actions around the world in April 2022, as part of Scientist Rebellion. There were teach-ins and demonstrations, where scientists got to wear their lab coats outdoors, and there was also much more: protesters chained themselves to a White House fence in Washington, DC; Spanish protesters threw fake blood; German protesters glued themselves to a bridge.

Their reasons: desperate times call for desperate measures. On the Rebellion website, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion lab, announces: “We are currently heading directly towards civilizational collapse.
We need to switch into climate emergency mode as a society.”

On April 6, Los Angeles police arrested Kalmus and a few others wearing lab coats who had chained themselves to the doors of JP Morgan Chase, protesting the financing of fossil fuels.

People make individual decisions about how they can be most effective and how much risk they’re willing to take, and their calculations change over time. Individual activists usually start with modest efforts–going to a meeting or demonstration, or writing a letter–and find ways to escalate over time as they decide that the urgency of the moment demands more.

More than a thousand scientists coordinating sometimes disruptive protests across two dozen countries represent a sliver of the working scientists concerned with inaction on climate change, but a bigger and more aggressive sliver than ever before. There’s a growing sense of urgency, and of futility in depending upon science and facts to carry the day.

In March of this year, The New York Times published a long piece on debates within science about appropriate professional action. Three climate scientists had published an academic journal article calling for a moratorium on climate science research. It’s not that everything is known, but the very substantial body of accepted scientific wisdom on climate had yet to exert much influence on policy. They wrote, “Given the urgency and criticality of climate change, we argue the time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, the broken science-society contract.”

Of course, scientists don’t all agree. There are important questions to answer and studies to be done, and information to be communicated. Scientists who enter the political arena fear, reasonably, being marginalized or ignored because of their political views. Finding a path to maintain a professional identity that carries with it some modicum of respect from mainstream politics and culture while simultaneously underscoring a sense of urgency appropriate to the moment is no easy task. Scientists work through it at different paces, coming to different–provisional–conclusions.

But, we need to remember that climate change isn’t a new issue for everyone, and that some very accomplished scientists have long ago embarked on a more explicitly activist path. James Hansen, who served as Director of the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for more than thirty years started long ago, and moved through a series of escalating steps at a deliberate pace: Hansen published his first article on global temperatures in 1981, first testified before Congress in 1988, and found increasingly visible outlets over the next decades to criticize government inaction and the fossil fuel industry. There were additional appearances before Congress, talks at universities, interviews on mainstream media, and a TED talk. As far as I can find, Hansen was first arrested at a protest in 2009, with actress Daryl Hannah, trying to block a coal company’s mountaintop removal in West Virginia. He’s protested and been arrested many times since.

Lots of younger scientists are beginning their own political lives far earlier in the careers, starting where Hansen ended up. It’s unlikely that they’ll all take a quarter century to move from publication to arrest.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (2)

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court toward the end of Earth Day. He was evacuated by helicopter and died in a hospital the next day.

Concerned with government inaction on climate change, and deeply immersed in Buddhist traditions, Bruce chose a dramatic and painful death to demonstrate sincere convictions.

The picture, at right, is from The Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, where Bruce was a frequent volunteer and participant in meditation retreats. The Center posted a memorial–and will post more about his life and efforts. His friends say they knew about his concerns, but not about his plans to self-immolate. Had they known, they stress, they would have tried to stop him to prevent pain and suffering.

Surely, Wynn Bruce knew that, and didn’t tell in advance. He also knew that, despite commitments to avoid suffering and violence, there had been dramatic instances of religious people self-immolating to protest mistreatment of the Vietnamese and Tibetan people.

He surely knew that Norman Morrison, a Quaker, had burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon in 1965, protesting the war in Vietnam, and that David Buckel, a civil rights attorney, had self-immolated in Prospect Park in 2018, protesting climate change. And he must have known that the Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation in 2011 had been the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

On his Facebook page, Bruce had written about irreversible climate change and threats to the earth, quoted Martin Luther King, and praised young activist, Greta Thunberg.

It’s hard to describe a suicide as strategic, but it’s very clear that Wynn Bruce’s death was purposeful. By choosing an extremely painful way to send a message, he meant to demonstrate commitment and sincerity, as well as a sense of urgency.

So, here’s the dilemma of escalation: Decades of science, political action, cultural struggle, and protest have–as yet–failed to generate anything approaching an adequate response to the reality of climate change. Whatever you’ve been doing hasn’t been enough, so there’s a search for something more. Self-immolation, thankfully, will not be a common choice, but the search for a way to demonstrate commitment more effectively doesn’t follow a predictable or obvious path. Wynn Bruce chose to take the pain on himself rather than imposing it on others.

In the aftermath, the rest of us can argue about impact. Every bit of speculation on Bruce’s frustrations or mental health suggests that his message missed the target. But, to the extent that conversation moves to threats to the Earth, Bruce has left a mark.

Many others are searching for, and trying, other ways to escalate.

Much more to come.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (1)

https://www.fox9.com/news/security-tackles-animal-rights-protester-at-timberwolves-vs-grizzlies-game

Rather than donning the jersey of her favorite team, Sasha Zemmel wore a referee’s uniform to an NBA playoff game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies. Her plan was to run on the court, stop the game, and call a technical foul on the owner, Glen Taylor, for cruelty to animals.

She didn’t get a chance to pull off her jacket or call the foul. Arena security, on heightened alert from days of animal rights protests, watched her every move, and when she bolted to the Court, they moved in to tackle and arrest her. The proximate cause, an egg farm owned by Taylor destroying millions of chickens during an avian flu epidemic, got attention mostly through social media run by activists and Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an animal rights group. The video of Zemmel being tackled and escorted from the arena went viral.

Activists know that their progress is always too slow, and that it takes extraordinary efforts to get anywhere. After you write the letter, and then attend a demonstration, and then speak to a school board and still don’t see the world you want, you think about next steps.

It might mean taking the cause somewhere else, reaching newer–and larger–audiences. It could mean doing something more dramatic, disruptive, or even destructive. It often involves more risk and more cost, and all of your allies won’t necessarily join you.

Movements, made up of lots of different people and groups doing different things in the service of roughly similar goals, don’t make these decisions–individuals and groups do. But whenever anyone escalates, it affects the rest of the campaign–and not always for the good of the cause. Mainstream groups are often quick to disavow people who take up arms, for example–killing doctors who perform abortions, storming the Capitol, or busting up storefront windows. Moves like these can make their allies look bad, discredit the cause, and invite repression.

But, sometimes, well-timed escalation–even at greater cost and risk–can bring visibility and sympathy to the cause. In the next few posts, I’m going to consider efforts at escalation in a few different movements, and ask whether they help the cause or not.

https://www.directactioneverywhere.com/

Glen Taylor, a billionaire whose assets include the Timberwolves and an egg farm, provided a great target for DxE, and the playoff game a great site, stuffed with fans and broadcast on television. Animal rights activists made repeated efforts to use the NBA audience to promote their concerns: one chained herself to the basket; another glued her hand to the court. You can find pictures on the Internet, but the protesters were managed and evacuated pretty quickly. The games went on, played to an audience more interested– at least this night–in basketball than animal rights.

The protesters paid a price to stage their performances–starting with playoff tickets and props (chains, glue), risked physical harm, arrest, and fines. Some viewers might be impressed with their ingenuity and commitment; some might think they’re crazy.

I don’t know whether their efforts advanced or undermined the larger cause. (I do know that the playoff series continues, and that the Timberwolves are trailing.)

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American anti-vaccine variant circles

Canada’s Freedom Convoy found more support in the United States than North of the border from the outset. I wrote about it here and at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage on February 24, when Canada declared a state of emergency and arrested protesters and truckers who wouldn’t leave.

The Canadian convoy disrupted life around the parliament in Ottawa, and then international trade. Mainstream conservatives in Canada withheld support as the disruption offended most Canadians, and the politics of the Convoy shifted to the very far right. Canada’s clear-out of the truckers won broad approval, even as the government began relaxing most Covid restrictions and mandates. It didn’t seem like a big victory, and I concluded:

“A truckers’ convoy may now be en route to D.C. But in the United States, if supporters with 18-wheelers can find allies in office, things may be different.”

Although some institutional conservatives thrilled at the idea of an American Freedom Convoy, American truckers faced different obstacles.

Not the least of these was the entrepreneurial and grifting traditions of American organizing, particularly

on the right. At least three different groups invested in organizing and plotted routes, assuming truckers would follow; apparently, they didn’t cooperate on routes or events. A DC demonstration planned for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address was a massively conspicuous fail, turning out no truckers and a crowd that didn’t come close to reaching the low dozens.

The Capitol insurrection just last year meant that local police were determined not to be caught unprepared. Security fences went up and security was better staffed. But that’s not all. Truckers in the US don’t face the same vaccine mandates to cross the border, and restrictions are being lifted everywhere. Even more, trucks used to commit a crime–like block traffic–can be seized when drivers are arrested in the US. There was a lot to lose, and much less to gain.

But that was last week. Today, another stream of anti-mandate protesters circled around Washington DC. There were a few trucks driving break-down lane speed, in a convoy that included cars, minivans, SUVs, and motorcycles, congesting weekend travel around the Beltway, fueled by more expensive gas–yet another thing to protest.

The participants and organizers interviewed made no commitments about assembling by the Capitol, or any place downtown.

The mobile protest strategy didn’t begin in Canada this year. During the pandemic, activists protesting Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s protested harsh restrictions on public life by clogging the streets of East Lansing in their cars–but then many got out and marched on the state capital, armed.

Before that, immigrant rights protesters drove by a detention center in formation, honking. Before that, farmers frustrated by falling commodity prices in 1979 staged a Tractorcade in Washington, DC. And before that, in 1964, civil rights activists thought that it shouldn’t be all that easy to get to a World’s Fair in a world that wasn’t fair, and staged a stall-in on the roads leading to the Fairgrounds.

It’s a partial list above, but the important thing to note is that attention translates to influence only with support from a larger movement and institutional allies. For today’s Freedom truckers, that’s still a long haul.

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Citizen action against the Russian invasion

Russia’s audacious invasion of Ukraine unleashed an unprecedented wave of citizen action against the war, taking very different forms in Ukraine, the West, and in Russia. None of it is likely to end the war

soon, but if activists are able to sustain their efforts–a big if–it could make a massive impact on the conduct of the war, and even the international politics that follow.

Ukraine has quickly fielded a citizen army of resistance, visibly inspired and led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has risen to the moment in heroic fashion. The political neophyte has insisted that neither he nor his government would flee for their safety, but would fight back with whatever resources they could muster. Zelenskyy is posting frequently: statements of purpose, pictures of himself in fatigues, and pleas for support from the West. It matters, making it harder for Western leaders to ignore the war.

And Ukrainian will is much broader than the president. Ukraine’s territorial defense forces have offered weapons to any Ukrainian ready to fight, and tens of thousands have joined the fight…so far. This resistance has made the invasion and planned decapitation of the state far more difficult–and costly–than Russia anticipated.

Russia still claims massive advantages in military power. But the invasion no longer appears quick and simple.

Even more significant, every sign now is that the resistance will continue even if the government is ousted.

It’s not that toppling a government is easy, but rather, governing a resistant population in its place can be much harder.

Russia’s leadership knows this central fact–from a decade in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. Americans know this as well–from two decades in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. (There are many others.) The point is that if occupying and governing Ukraine–a large territory with more than 40 million people–is more difficult and costly than any security or resource benefits it provides, it will be harder to sustain.

The vigorous Ukrainian opposition–and the harsh Russian war it’s exposed–has made it a little less difficult to impost an extraordinary package of economic, political, and social sanctions in record time.

Stigmatizing the Russian state while squeezing the economy, the sanctions have brought the costs of war home to both the Russian people and the oligarchs who support Vladimir Putin’s rule. Ukraine’s resistance has helped the international community build a broader coalition, including previously neutral nations, than anyone expected, and to poke Russia more aggressively. The pokes have included an influx of weapons from Europe and North America to Ukraine’s resistance.

Sanctions cost the countries imposing them as well as those they are imposed upon. The costs of energy and food have already begun climbing in the West, and broader inflation is likely to follow. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is now considering releasing oil reserves to limit the growth of energy prices–and allow the world to continue burning fossil fuels.

The flush of attention has, for the moment, overshadowed what will surely be growing costs of sanctions in the West. Here, the expressions of support for Ukraine that have bubbled up in public demonstrations can help. Blue and yellow flags everywhere, ribbons at award ceremonies, and performances of Ukrainian music on television don’t challenge the foreign policies of the United States or allied governments, but make it a little less difficult to continue and even accelerate a sanctions regime.

The early expression of resistance to the war in Russia is far riskier than the demonstrations in the West, and requires tremendous courage. Street protests broke

out in St. Petersburg and Moscow almost immediately provoking harsh policing and thousands of arrests. Since then, protests have continued, often just an individual holding a small sign not much bigger than a piece of printer paper.

It’s far more dangerous to lodge such a protest in an authoritarian state, and activists surely know the risks they’re taking. It will be hard to keep going.

And we know that anti-war protests in democracies often fail to prevent or end military aggression, even when there are mechanisms of democratic accountability. But if the protesters can help convince authorities that their prospects are better without Vladimir Putin, they could promote dramatic change. (Think of Tahrir Square, where mass demonstrations led the Egyptian military to dump President Hosni Mubarak–and maintain their rule.)

Right now, resistance in Ukraine and protests in the West and Russia all feed each other. All of the activists are likely to face more difficultly in sustaining their efforts in the coming days–and weeks–and months. But this is how history is made.

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Occupy on Wheels? The Freedom Convoy

Freedom Convoy: Canadian truckers, more protest vaccine mandate | TSLN.com
https://www.tsln.com/news/freedom-convoy-canadian-truckers-more-protest-vaccine-mandate/

With far fewer people than the Occupy movement a decade ago, a group of Canadian truckers has been far more successful in disrupting politics and life as usual in a much shorter span. Starting with a moving blockade, the truckers stalled traffic, particularly at border bridges, and eventually staging a sort of occupation of Ottawa–or at least a part of it.

The truckers have already shown at least one way that a small group of committed people can command international attention for their cause.

The point of disruptive protest–when there is a point–is to draw attention to the cause. For the truckers and their supporters, it was mandatory Covid vaccination to cross the border–at least initially. More generally, they framed their resistance as standing up for FREEDOM. The broader frame makes sense, since a vast majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and Canadians support vaccination–and get vaccinated–much more than their neighbors to the South.

But the convoy upstaged the grievance in fairly short order–a risk of all disruptive protest. A colorful and confrontational, maybe damaging event, makes message control much more difficult. When public attention focused on the truckers, all sorts of people tried to crowd into the spotlight and press their own messages. Very far right Canadian politicians like Tamara Lich, mostly out of office, jumped to support the truckers, making more institutional conservatives wary about endorsing the cause. Critics were quick to find and project the Confederate and Nazi flags that somehow turned up at trucker actions. QAnon enthusiasts penciled the convoy into their plans, all part of a larger unfolding plan. And support from the far right in the United States and even globally far outstripped support in Canada.

The message control problem is hardly peculiar to the truckers. Occupy, hamstrung by hyperdemocratic governance, consolidated around some images and phrases (The 99%) and a tactic, rather than a detailed program, and certainly inspired some unsavory figures claiming allegiance. But the broad message–protesting against growing political and economic inequality–came across–and spread globally.

The anti-vaccine mandate freedom agenda is even less clear–at least so far–at least to me. It’s not clear that the truckers want to sign onto the libertarian or neo-nationalist agendas would-be allies are foisting upon them. At least partly for this reason, the Convoy has been far more popular in the United States, where even institutional Republicans have signed onto their version of the cause. Reliably hypocritical Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) lauded the truckers, wishing that their protest might spread to American cities, and maybe even disrupt the Super Bowl. He enthusiastically coded the convoy as an expression of the time-honored practice of civil disobedience against injustice.

A decade ago, unsurprisingly, Paul was an unsparing critic of Occupy. Occupy tactics never enjoyed the support of most Americans, but for a while their causes did. And the Occupations were able to stand for just about three months because they were, after all, far less disruptive.

Canadian politicians were, up until just about now, reluctant to deploy state power against the truckers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is wrestling with his own public support problems, and wanted to avoid the convoy becoming a partisan issue. Intentional or not, Trudeau’s slow burn allowed public sentiment–at least in Canada–to turn overwhelmingly against the truckers. Notably, the very conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford followed public sentiment and turned strongly against the truckers, declaring a state of emergency, and ordering them to go home. Canadian police forces are beginning to clean out the blockades–with strong public support.

Protesters are entering their third week of blocking many streets around Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/11/world/americas/canada-trudeau-trucker-protests.html

As the cost of protest increases, the Freedom Convoy drivers and their supporters will have to weigh their well-being against their cause. The police are likely to be far more harsh elsewhere as the campaign spreads internationally. In the United States, for example, the drivers will come up against American police, who can confiscate their trucks.

I think the key issue for protesters, virtually always, is the extent of connection between the streets and institutional politics. In Canada, institutional conservatives won’t carry water for the protesters….at least not yet.

Note: Here’s some writing that helped me think about the Freedom convoy:

Lesley Wood writes about the sort of freedom the truckers convoy supports. (It’s ugly.)

Howard Ramos posted a useful Twitter thread on the connections between the convoy and other far right movements, and what it all means.

Sid Tarrow examines the links between the truckers and the American far right.

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Happy Birthday Rosa Parks, 2022 (repost)

(In thinking about this repost, I want to encourage readers to take a look at the link to To Tell the Truth, the tv game show. The celebrities questioning three older Black women didn’t know her–except for Nipsey Russell, a Black comic who’d attended the March on Washington. Russell used his question period to shout out the names of some of the key–but less famous–organizers of the early civil rights movement. These days, Rosa Parks’s face is far more familiar, but her long term efforts are even more obscured.)

Happy birthday, Rosa Parks!  Born on February 4, 1913, Parks was not a tired old lady in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of the bus.  She was an experienced and committed activist, deeply tied into the activist networks that animated the civil rights movement.  She wasn’t the only one who took a risk to challenge segregation laws in the South, but that hardly makes her less heroic.

Activism in the civil rights movement was hardly a career move for Rosa Parks. She paid a serious price over many years for stepping outside of expected norms of behavior and into history. Her role in sparking the bus boycott brought her a bit of celebrity that made it hard to find work in Montgomery, and soon afterward, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she continued her activism.

Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon) extends the story of the civil rights icon, undermining the myth of spontaneity surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The popular version of the story recounts Mrs. Parks as a tired old lady who unexpectedly decided to resist a bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus.  Theoharis describes the deep roots of Mrs. Parks’s activism: she was raised by a grandfather who supported Marcus Garvey, married to a long time civil rights crusader, and had served for more than a decade in a leadership role in the local NAACP.  In the summer of 1955, she attended a workshop on civil rights at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.  She says that she had decided to resist any directions to the back of the bus long before the opportunity presented.

Many years later, on a television game show, for example, or–more significantly–when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, she could be described as an old lady.  But that was 1996–forty years after refusing to move to the back of the bus.

The popular story makes activism seem like something that comes suddenly, out of nowhere, and unpredictably.  The fuller tale, just like the one about the Greensboro sit-in, shows that it generally takes long and focused efforts to create those seemingly spontaneous moments.

And recognizing that Rosa Parks is only one of the best known of many many civil rights heroes suggests the possibility that each of us could also, one day, step into history.

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