Photo via Wikipedia

Do We Really Have to Go to Another March?

A real resistance needs a strategy that can win


Hundreds of thousands of Americans marked Pres. Donald Trump’s 100th day in office on April 29, 2017 by joining People’s Climate Marches across the country.

Just a week earlier, Earth Day 2017 was the occasion for the first ever “March for Science,” and in many instances the marches were attended by the same people and held at the same locations — only the signs and chants changed.

These both follow the now legendary Women’s March with its millions mobilized the day after Trump’s Inauguration — which also brought out its own marchers on Jan. 20, 2017.

Less than a month later multiple cities held A Day Without an Immigrant demonstrations, and in a handful of cities revolutionaries and socialists also marked May Day this year with smaller, if often more intense demonstrations.

Why are we marching all the time? This isn’t to ask what problems each march was called to address — climate change, suppression of science, official misogyny, capitalism — but rather why did we choose marching as the means of doing something about them?

In many cases it might just be that protesters are marching because they can’t think of anything else to do. In many others, however, the awkward fact is that marching appeals to folks because it allows liberal beneficiaries of the status quo an opportunity to demonstrate their morality without actually threatening the evil that makes their lives so comfortable.

If we want a real resistance to the real threat to human civilization in our midst we have to do more than marching, and we have to get more uncomfortable than just having blistered feet.

Marching in protest is an easy default tactic because it’s been done as long as human society has existed. It’s probably impossible to tell exactly where it started. In Ancient Judea Pontius Pilate’s installation as imperial governor prompted mass demonstrations when he brought idolatrous artifacts into Jerusalem. Protesters marched from Jerusalem to the seat of his government in Cesarea to confront him.

The demonstration famously ended when he surrounded the demonstrators with Roman soldiers and threatened to kill them all, prompting the Judeans to lay down and say that they would rather die than see their holy city defiled. Impressed, Pilate capitulated and removed the idols.

A peasants’ revolt in England in 1381 was less neat in its conclusion. It culminated in a march of 60,000 peasants and poor on London that forced King Richard to accede to radical demands abolishing serfdom altogether before his government could regroup, regain control of the city, revoke the agreements and kill the revolt’s leaders.

These marches and many others appear through the mists of history to have been means to an end and not a self-contained tactic in and of themselves. Judeans wanted to confront Pilate en masse so they all traveled together to his palace; peasants wanted to fuck up London so they went together on foot, hence a march. The march was just the way to get to the place where the demonstrators could confront and threaten the powers that be.

In modern times, however, marches became a tactic in their own right. The labor movement, suffragettes, civil rights activists and opponents to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, among other causes — their marches were intended as symbols of discontent that didn’t deliver their demonstrators to anything in particular.

To this day there are marches of each type, the ones that take protesters to a point of confrontation with the forces that they are resisting, and the ones that simply serve to express opposition. Both types of marches are tactics, and an effective campaign will deploy these tactics in the service of a strategy. Ineffective efforts, on the other hand, frequently do the reverse — letting tactics lead their strategy.

Guess which way the marchers this year are headed?

In the absence of any coherent strategy movements and organizations will revert to the tactical mean, doing the things most familiar to their constituents. For American progressives this means protest marches along with other liberal tactics.

A real strategy would instead begin by determining the movement’s objectives. The so-called “resistance” marching this year has never asked the questions it needs to answer to figure those goals out and build a strategy around them.

The Women’s March in Portland. Photo via Wikipedia

Do they want Trump removed from office immediately? Do they want to defeat him in the 2020 elections? Do they want to force him to moderate his policies? Do they reject his legitimacy altogether? Do they want to help put things “back to normal,” or do they want to undo root causes of Trump’s rise?

If they want him removed and reject his legitimacy do they want to do this through legal, constitutional means or through extralegal political pressures? Do they want to force the GOP to impeach him or do they hope to make major gains in the 2018 midterm elections? Do they want to win over Trump voters or overwhelm them with disenfranchised and marginalized elements?

Do they want reform or revolution, and in either case what precisely does that mean?

There is no consensus whatsoever about these questions among recent march participants or organizers. In this absence of answers the only thing that can be agreed upon is that none of us really like Trump and the only thing we can do together is express that displeasure without translating that into anything concrete that we might disagree about.

This is not good, as there is a finite amount of time and energy out there and each of these events uses some of it up, hastening burnout without having actually accomplished anything substantial.

Perhaps even worse is that using familiar tactics brings out familiar faces, which typically means white, liberal, urban and suburban, middle class and up, educated people. The problem is that if only white, urban and suburban, middle class and wealthy people voted Trump would not have eked out a victory, he would have won in a landslide.

To beat him — one way or another — we need to engage people of color, working class and low income people, and we need to approach reachable rural and undereducated elements that have either dropped out of the process or voted for him in desperation and without any alternatives actually appealing to them.

All these folks are obviously unimpressed by protest marches at this point, and all the effort we are putting into the marches is using up valuable energy that could be invested in cultivating ties to these communities. In this we see that compulsive marching is not merely ineffective, it’s actively harmful to solving the problems at hand.

This is, again, the precise appeal for these marches to many of their participants. Going back to the questions asked above, we can basically group the possible answers into four basic categories — folks who want to overthrow the regime constitutionally or through popular force and folks who think we should win elections by adopting a new, more radical politics or by doing the same thing we’ve been doing, only better.

It isn’t hard to determine who will benefit from each of these positions. The most oppressed and marginalized parts of our society are the ones willing to break it all, the more progressive elements of the mainstream and middle class want big change but kept within the confines of the present order, and the well-off want things kept as stable as possible with only the surface-level outcomes changed.

Without clear objectives and without a strategy political inertia takes over and the power of the ruling class becomes the dominant force in decision-making. Tactics that merely express discontent without threatening anything more significant will rise to the top.

It’s even better if these tactics are unappealing to the underclass, and fold all the other resisters into a project that subsumes their revolutionary energy into mere reform. Hence our current obsession with marching. It recreates the current class structure while allowing it to blow off steam.

The People’s Climate Match in New York City. Photo via Wikipedia

So what should we be doing instead? Well anybody who thinks that the solution to our current crisis lies in a radical or revolutionary change in our society should voice real challenges to march organizers.

Directly and publicly ask them why they have adopted this tactic, what it will accomplish, what strategy it fits into and for what ends. Such challenges often bring out confused and inadequate responses and agitate your fellow real resisters to begin thinking about other tactical opportunities.

Another simple and effective step to shift the balance of power away from the status quo is to challenge the location of marches. Very often every march in a town is held in the same location and more often than not this is somewhere inaccessible or uncomfortable for poor and working class people and easy for the police to control. State capitol grounds, city halls, major urban parks, university campuses — they get chosen because of that same inertia that led organizers to put together a march in the first place.

Insisting that the march move instead into a working class community or community of color can have a big impact. First, it brings out people who would otherwise never show up to the demo. Here in Austin, for example, our Black Lives Matter demos were dominated by white “allies” until one was held not downtown but in a park in the heart of the traditional black community, still a major gathering point for black folks on the weekends. That demonstration had a different character than the ones before.

Secondly, moving locations will often expose liberal opportunists for who they really are. Houston’s People’s Climate March organizers decided to move the event into the city’s east side, right in the middle of some of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country. Numerous well-known environmental activists loudly objected, saying that the neighborhood was hard to get to, not visible enough and that they weren’t comfortable there.

In one fell swoop the fundamental racism and the ruling class character of their activism was exposed, and their ultimate absence from the event reduced their power while building up that of black and brown activists and their allies.

Associated with this demand for a change of venue is a more fundamental change of character for the march. Instead of marching for marching’s sake, march to a strategic location where your presence will disrupt or at least confront some concrete operation of the ruling class. Standing Rock solidarity protests that marched on major banks funding the pipeline are a great example.

Oh, and note that if you are going places marches don’t normally go and disrupting the status quo in some way chances are you can’t get a police permit. That’s good, and authentic demonstrations should never seek such permits.

A good march has two permits already — the First Amendment and strength in numbers. If you can’t get enough people together to make the police lay off then you probably should consider a tactic that better fits your power and resources.

And this is the final point — there are so many other things that we can do together to protest and resist besides marching. May Day Austin featured protesters occupying the central rotunda of the state capitol building and doing a teach in on the major issues facing working people and oppressed communities in Texas.

A big cookout or street party might help to deepen ties to those communities that haven’t wanted to come out to marches. Flash mobs, occupations, creative direct actions using humor and spectacle can all gain almost as much attention as a march with many fewer people.

Canvassing or going shop-to-shop to educate and identify new supporters or to phone bank and talk to existing contacts won’t make the news but it will build power. There are many many other tactics, and new ideas that could change things entirely just waiting to be tried.

But as long as we keep marching because that’s just what we do we’ll never get around to these other things. We are fortunate to be living in a time of heightened consciousness as to the threats posed by our habitual way of life, and cursed to see our responses limited to the sorts of things rich liberals and the cops are willing to tolerate.

Let’s break the curse by doing something weird and dangerous. This is what we mean when we say stay defiant.

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