Martin Luther King Day, 2020

January 20, Martin Luther King Day, falls five days after what would have been King’s 90th birthday, a reminder of how young he was during his ministry. Here I repost a slightly edited version of last year’s post on the holiday.

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday, the president of the United States announces, emphatically, that you can’t find anyone less racist than he is. If you’re suspicious of such proclamations, perhaps it’s just that you’ve learned to distrust people who laud their own honesty, their color-blindness, their respect for women, or concern for the poor. Like the salesman who claims the nickname, “Honest,” Donald Trump has never succeeded in fooling most people, just enough to sell the next condo or secure the next loan. Then some large number of elected officials and voters who knew better chose to look the other way, and Trump won the 2016 election.

The office of the presidency, however, starts with obligations to all Americans, and it doesn’t end there. Trump is hardly the first US president to harbor racist thoughts or sentiments, but he’s displayed less worry about revealing them to large audiences, often through words, and consistently through deeds.

One of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement was the establishment of King holiday. This means that Americans expect any president to pay respects to the man, and even more, to the movement. Tradition really is powerful, and activists are wise to attend to establishing new ones.

If Trump displayed less appreciation or enthusiasm for the King holiday than, say, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, that’s no mystery or surprise.

Each holiday event is a moment, unlikely to capture much attention in the White House during the rest of the year.

For the rest of us, however, the King Day reminder is an alert. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many others, put work behind their words on social justice, often facing great risks and paying serious penalties. Their heirs continue today.

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day.  In that year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry.  In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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#NoHateNoFear march: Who gets to oppose anti-Semitism?

Tens of thousands of people marched across the East River today to protest anti-Semitism. When the river didn’t part the demonstrators hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge, the lines extending far beyond both sides of the bridge. The Imagemarch and rally was a response to recent violent attacks against Jewish people, including a machete attack of a rabbi’s home in a New York suburb.

Happy Chanukah.

Even when visible instances of anti-Semitism recede, there are plenty of corners and closets in America and abroad where hatred of Jewish people is nurtured and it’s comfortable to deploy all-too-familiar tropes about Jews. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was an invitation for bigots of all sorts to come out of those closets.

Just after Trump took office, in January 2017, Jewish Community Centers across the country responded to a burst of bomb scares. Months later, at the Unite the Right Rally, we all watched angry young White men carrying tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The following year, an avowed anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 mostly elderly congregants celebrating Sabbath at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (The Jewish community turned out in large numbers to protest Trump’s tone-deaf 18 minute visit to the synagogue shortly after.)

The incidents are dramatic, disturbing, and emblematic of a climate of hate. I think most Jewish people know that people who campaign against any racial or religious group are liable to turn on them. The figure at left, from the Anti-Defamation League, shows a sharp increase in Anti-Semitic events, particularly physical attacks on Jewish people.

The march was a way for Jewish people to stand up to Anti-Semitism, and to give allies of other faiths and backgrounds the opportunity to stand with them. So many did. Black, Latino, and Muslim leaders joined the march, and politicians–some Jewish–were abundant. Governor Andrew Cuomo, US Senators Chuck Schumer and KiImagersten Gillibrand, and scores of members of Congress, the state legislature, and city offices, marched along.  The cynic will note that New York is one of the few places in the United States where the Jewish vote matters, but maybe New Yorkers, even those in political office, understand that protecting your neighbors is protecting your neighborhood.

A freshman Congresswoman from the outer boroughs was among the visible allies. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents an extremely diverse district and has been quick to condemn racist and divisive rhetoric and policy from the White House–including anti-Semitism.

Not everyone was glad to see her there. A report in The Jewish Press chastized Jewish organizations that were critical of Israel and its occupation of the West Bank, favorably quoting Dmitry Shiglik, Chairman of the American Forum For Israel, who announced that “[t]hese organizations should be persona non grata and should be shunned by all mainstream Jewish and Zionist organizations, not welcomed on a march against Antisemitism.”

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, who has quickly become a target for virtually everyone on the American right, was singled out for special scorn because she has opposed efforts to treat criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism on college campuses, because of her criticism of the very recent assassination of an Iranian military leader, and because she (accurately)

Imagedescribed the internment of children at the border as evoking images of concentration camps.

It’s almost too easy to oppose hate generally without taking responsibility for policies that embody it.

The Holocaust understandably looms large in Jewish memory, but individuals learn different lessons. Some learn to trust no one and support a vicious and intolerant nationalism (see the despicable Stephen Miller, who somehow still works in the White House!). But I think most Jewish Americans learned that religious and racial hatreds are easily redefined and redeployed. I hope we can remember that appropriate vigilance against anti-Semitism means being alert to all sorts of racial and religious hatred.

You might not be able to see, from the photos I grabbed off Twitter, that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s sign calls for opposition to anti-Semitism and xenophobia. I think she got the right message.

 

 

 

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A global explosion of people power?

Last year, 2019, the editors of The Big Q, a very cool blog sponsored by the University of Auckland, asked me to write about the seeming explosion of protest movements globally. This is what I thought, reposted below (non-American spelling of English words intact). Obviously, I got only part of the story–at most–and am very curious about what others think.

By the time you read this, massive street protests will have broken out somewhere that we didn’t expect. This year seems to be one of extraordinary mass political disruption everywhere. In 2019, national leaders have stepped down from power in Algeria, Lebanon, and Bolivia. Presidents and Prime Ministers have been more resistant in facing similar protest challenges elsewhere, including Chile, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Spain, and Venezuela. In addition to the growing list of system-threatening campaigns, protests about climate change, guns, or austerity in North America, Europe, and Oceania have become almost routine. The causes and constituencies vary tremendously, but the feeling we get when we scan the news and see yet another massive protest is that the world is exploding.

Is the moment really different? What’s going on? Why? Will it matter?

To start to answer these questions, we need to think through why people go out into the streets to protest in the first place. Saints and psychopaths will protest as witness regardless of their prospects for success, but most of us pay attention to the world outside when we make decisions and take risks. Larger numbers of people will take to the streets only when they believe that protest is necessary to get what they want and that it might actually work. I doubt that many make precise calculations on a spreadsheet; rather, we all respond to signals from our allies and opponents, and adjust our judgments on the fly. When we think that regular politics, voting or writing to an official, will get what we want, we tend not to carry signs outdoors. When we think that we have no prospect for success and could face severe punishment, we’re also likely to stay home instead of going to the demonstration.

Obviously, governments can deploy severe repression to make protest seem impossible, as in North Korea, or largely unnecessary by incorporating dissent into democratic politics. This is why it is not the greatest injustice or the least responsive regimes that face challenging movements: there needs to be some sense of possibility—as well as urgency—for a sustained movement to emerge.

People also take cues from others like them, creating a kind of accentuating effect.  It’s easier to walk past a group of three or four people protesting nuclear weapons, for example, even if we agree with the cause. Small groups, particularly when they’re peaceful, are easier for anyone to ignore. In contrast, large numbers seem like they’ll be harder to repress and more likely to matter. There is not only safety in numbers, but also the prospect of significance. Importantly, the apparent success of protest encourages others—who may see themselves in a similar position. Relatively safe and successful protests encourage other protests, a kind of demonstration effect—for demonstrations.

Is there more protest now?

Protest movements always seem to come in clusters or waves. Remember, Marx and Engels first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, claiming inspiration for the wave of workers movements sweeping across Europe that seemed to promise a new era in politics. Workers campaigns emerged globally in the 1930s, responding to a worldwide depression, and playing out differently in distinct political environments. The year 1968 seemed to be another moment of global mobilisation, this time tabbed as a youth movement.  Movements against nuclear weapons proliferated in countries involved in nuclear alliances in the early 1980s, reprising a similar explosion in the early 1950s. People power campaigns appeared globally in the late 1980s, including those resulting in the successful revolution in the Philippines, the fall of six Communist governments in Eastern Europe, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in the fall of 2010, spread across the Middle East and North Africa quickly, and then inspired trade unions in Madison, Wisconsin, and the 15-M anti-austerity protesters in Spain. Occupy Wall Street protesters, citing Tahrir Square as a model, started in New York City, and spread across the United States in the fall of 2011, and then back around the globe. Importantly, activists and analysts were able to find—or claim—kindred spirits in very different situations.

Maybe this moment isn’t unique.

Protests come in clusters partly as a response to common problems or opportunities: economic crises like global depressions; political crises like the collapse of an empire; or environmental crises like a nuclear plant accident. But they also cluster because aggrieved people take hope and instruction from others elsewhere.  And protest seems to come in clusters because when we look for it, we can usually find what we’re looking for, creating cognitive clusters and common causes that activists on the ground might miss. Climate change striker Greta Thunberg gets steady encouragement from scientists and the United Nation, and the coverage she gets encourages journalists and others to look for young activists elsewhere. Those young activists are encouraged by coverage of Greta. In liberal democracies, protests are ubiquitous—and increasingly commonplace in less democratic settings as well. When alarmists or activists look to find protests, they can generally find something somewhere else and promote it. The coverage itself promotes more unrest, suggesting the volatility of the moment and the importance of the movement, and bringing others into the streets.

But it’s not only what we see outside our windows or walking to work. Long ago, organisers would canvass door to door to recruit participants, hang signs, and circulate letters. Later, mass media transmitted information about both grievances and organized challenges. Coverage in the newspaper or on television could underscore the claims that activists made and highlight their efforts, making the cause seem more urgent and even more likely effective. The growth and extension of social media over the past twenty years or so have augmented, rather than superseded, the old media. This means that a would-be citizen activist has many potential sources of information, and a greater chance to be asked to join in. Mainstream media gave little coverage to Occupy when a relatively small group moved into Zuccotti Park. Carrying laptops, the Occupy media team set up live feeds of meetings and other sorts of actions, and before long sympathisers could simultaneously monitor Occupies across the country. It’s easier to get the word out.

Generating large numbers quickly is easier than before. Door-to-door canvassing, wheat pasting posters, and telephone trees are simply less efficient than online communications. And getting word out is easier across the political spectrum. Populist democracy mobilizations are visible, but so are populist nationalist and racist movements, and they feed each other with a sense of urgency. The near simultaneous opposing movements in liberal democracies make it harder than ever for liberal democratic governments to make peace with their constituents, further undermining the legitimacy of governments and effectively encouraging more mobilisation. How will it all matter?

Inspired by the extraordinary bravery and commitment of democratic activists, it’s hard—but very important—to remember that much of their fate, particularly over the short haul, is beyond their control. Success, which is always partial, depends upon social movements finding ways to be abiding, inclusive, and opportunistic. Movements must abide because social change that seems to happen suddenly is the result of years, often decades, of investment. South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, to cite a notable and inspiring example, was active in a long struggle for half a century before taking office in 1994.  Movements must become inclusive, brokering compromises to maintain broad engaged support, because it’s almost always easier for dissatisfied people to try to find an accommodation with power. Finally, movements must be opportunistic, prepared to seize the opportunity offered by the crisis of the moment. The savvy Florida teens who dug into politics in the wake of an horrific school shooting filled and expanded a moment of national attention, but built on the efforts of gun control groups that had been working for years before.  Likewise, the brave young people in the streets of Hong Kong built on the achievements—and frustrations—of the umbrella movement five years ago. The protests capture our attention for the moment, but the efforts for social change play out, often including far less dramatic actions, over a much longer period of time.

I would like to believe, as Martin Luther King famously promised, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s heartening that democratic activists around the globe are trying to bend that arc.

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The Senate isn’t sequestered. Note on the impeachment and protest

One hundred US senators, the sort-of jurors in the impending sort-of trial of Donald Trump, live in the world. Unlike impaneled jurors in other high profile trials, they are free to read newspapers, appear on television, consider evidence and factors not presented in Signs read, “Miss Ogyny” over a cartoon of Trump and “Trump/Pence out now!”trial, and talk to people–even the president.

This means that whether or not senators consider the Ukraine shake-down and resulting obstruction of justice impeachable offenses, they are completely free to vote to remove Trump from office because he’s incompetent and/or racist and/or dishonest. (N.B. This capacious, impressionistic, and expressly political approach is exactly how the impeachment process was designed: Senators who voted to remove Bill Clinton from office were worked up about things other than his affair with an intern, and the senators who voted to remove Andrew Johnson were angrier about many other issues than his firing the Secretary of War.)

So, protests that remind senators that their constituents are watching and care–matter. So, newly available documents showing that Trump’s top immigration adviser is enthusiastic about white nationalism could matter. New information from Roger Stone’s Cat McKay of Alexandria, Va., holds a sign during a protest last week at Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)trial that shows officials lied to the Mueller investigation about, uh, collusion, can matter too. No one can tell senators not to consider the separation of refugees from their children at the Southern border. Perhaps most significantly, the fallout from the Turkish invasion of Northern Syria can remind Republican senators that they don’t really want this guy as Commander-in-Chief.

The senators who decide whether Trump stays in office aren’t locked in a hotel without access to television or the internet. They walk in the world and can see what the rest of us are doing. So what we do can matter.

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The anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the complications of movement influence

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate as they celebrate the opening of the East German border, November 10, 1989. REUTERS/FileWhen East and West Germans danced atop the Berlin Wall 30 years ago this week, I was Front Coverin my living room in Boston, making final corrections on what would be my first book. I’d written about the nuclear freeze movement, which briefly captured national attention in the early part of the 1980s.

The bellicose and extremely expensive military posture of the first stages of the Reagan presidency allowed an antinuclear weapons movement to grow beyond the traditional peace movement’s fundamentalist core to include a broad swath of American life. One million people marched in the streets of New York City in 1982 to protest nuclear weapons in general–and Ronald Reagan in particular. Their efforts were amplified by allied movements across Western Europe, as well as a smaller group determined to challenge the Soviet Union at the same time.

Disarmament demonstration in Amsterdam, 1981

European Nuclear Disarmament (END) was a vital component of this transnational movement. Founded by a group of activists and intellectuals, including the great historian E.P. Thompson, END was based on the premise that the peace protesters in the West shared a common cause with the human rights dissidents in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. END stalwarts organized ongoing contacts between these groups, wrote and spoke, organized international conferences, and enlivened much of the other activism sweeping the West.

Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common

Anyway, I had learned that the nuclear freeze movement succeeded in changing the way the Reagan administration talked about nuclear weapons. Instead of casually describing potential ways to win a nuclear war that might cost 50 million American casualties, Reagan announced that nuclear war was unwinnable and must not be fought. The US scaled back the massive increases in military spending of the first Reagan years, and the administration revived the arms control process it had initially disparaged.

Mostly, the administration was working to take the steam out of the movement, and Reagan floated arms control proposals that his advisers were certain would be unacceptable to the Soviet Union. But in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and–for his own reasons–accepted everything Reagan proposed. The advisers unsuccessfully urged Reagan to back away from his own proposals once they became possible. The superpowers agreed to ban all nuclear weapons from Europe (at that time, the Soviets had some, and the United States none), and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement–in force from 1987 until the Trump administration formally withdrew earlier this year.

The resurrection of a sort of superpower detente afforded reformers some space to organize in Eastern Europe, and in 1989 popular movements toppled state Communist governments in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany (see above). Many of these activist leaders were exactly the people END leaders had been coordinating with for years before. The sequence of revolutionary events was closest to the blueprint END’s founders had imagined.

So, I had to decide whether to emphasize the successes of the freeze–injecting restraint into the administration’s policies and resurrecting arms control–or its failures–American foreign policy returned to normal, including large standing military forces and nuclear deterrence. The Germans destroying the wall with small hammers reminded me that movements can set into motion a stream of effects they may not be able to predict and certainly can’t control. I went with the success.

The anniversary reminds us that the faith the democratic activists have to maintain in the face of repeated setbacks is ultimately essential and wise. When movements win, activists get less than what they wanted, and never on the timeline they demand, but that doesn’t mean their efforts don’t matter.

Protestors march in Dresden

Olof Palme march for peace, Dresden 1987

How we remember history DOES matter. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall also marks the installation of a statue honoring Ronald Reagan, who once asked for the wall to be torn down. That’s not the way I’d call it. At his best, Reagan responded to Western popular movements. Organizers in East and West worked for what became the 1989 transition for decades prior. These persistent protests might be harder to commemorate than a famous speech, but they’re far more important to remember.

 

 

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Again, on the influence of movements

A teacher waves a poster that reads “My Mama don’t like you and she likes everyone” during a day of action at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 13, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky.Protest campaigns usually get much less than what they ask for, but they can still matter.  Take a look at Alexia Fernández Campbell’s great piece at Vox on the Kentucky teachers and yesterday’s gubernatorial election.

Last year teachers in Kentucky called in sick and marched on the state capital to protest low salaries, poor conditions, and cuts in their pensions. They were part of a larger campaign of teachers protests in red states, which took off first in West Virginia, and then erupted in Oklahoma and Arizona, quickly including activism and strikes in other locales with stronger teachers unions. Kentucky’s Attorney General, a Democrat, Andy Beshear endorsed their demands and spoke at some of their rallies.

Last night Beshear claimed a narrow victory over incumbent governor, Matt Bevin. These days, it’s big news when a Democrat wins a governor’s post in a very conservative state. Teachers rally in the Kentucky capitol in Frankfurt.Campbell shows how the teachers’ efforts last year were part of last night’s story. Teachers led the opposition to Bevin’s austere budget last year, focusing on proposed changes to their staying out of school and filling the Capitol instead.

Kentucky instituted a pension reform, providing for much stingier payments to new teachers, and cut education spending overall. More than that, Governor Bevin attacked the teachers, even suggesting their strike would mean that more children would be sexually abused. Really. The teachers successfully pressured the overwhelmingly Republican legislature to override

The teachers pulled public focus to their concerns, and underfunded education more broadly, and their efforts forced Bevin and his allies to address their issues–over and over again. Bevin responses, in particular, were incendiary, and helped tank the incumbent’s popularity.

Teachers took offense, and thousands poured efforts into Beshear’s campaign, contributing money–and lots of time, making phone calls, knocking on doors, driving voters, and holding signs. Beshear encouraged them by putting education at the center of his campaign, promising raises and dedicated funding streams for education.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who care about education in Kentucky, and Bevin made enemies on other issues–and lost on style points as well; he was very unpopular. Trying to save a Republican ally, Donald Trump appeared at a large rally in Rupp Arena in Lexington, asking voters to support Bevin to support his own presidency.

Beshear, a moderate Democrat whose father had been a popular two-term governor, squeaked to a victory by about 5,000 votes. The teachers should claim some of the credit, but they didn’t do it by themselves. And Republicans easily won every other state-wide office, and they maintain large margins in both houses of the legislature. It’s not a revolution, a sea change, or a wave election.

The new governor will have a tough time delivering on a large education agenda, but he will make Republicans fight him on education funding and face whatever consequences Kentucky voters are willing to deliver. He’ll also be able to weigh in on budgets, voting rights, and drawing new districts. It’s not nothing.

Grassroots and activists and Democratic pols rejoiced in Beshear’s win. They know it will be easier to get allies to sign onto the education agenda and electoral campaigns. It’s hope.

They also hope that Mitch McConnell, nearly as unpopular as Bevin and up for reelection next year, realizes the Democrats can organize in Kentucky, and might show up at the polls.

Social movements affect change, but not all they want, not when they want, and not by themselves.

It’s not nothing.

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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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