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Streets Swell With Climate Marchers—Because 'Our Existence Depends on It'

Serious question here:

Would someone please tell me how marching leads–directly or indirectly–to fundamental change, on a national or international scale?

Thank you.

Marching did not end the Vietnam War.

The US participation ended because the Pentagon Papers were published and it became clear to the people in power that Nixon’s “Silent Majority” were no longer going to accept the reasons they had been given for the war. They were already primed by the increasing numbers of American soldiers who were returning in body bags (which was being shown nightly on the evening news. Notice how in succeeding wars the cameras were not allowed to show this.) and by the vets who came back and started telling about what was really going on over there. Once the common folk (i.e. those who vote) got wind of the truth, it was only a matter of time.

The protesters were a merely an annoyance. They did nothing to change government policy. (Just ask Kissinger, for one.) Protests started in 1965. The US finally left in 1975. The majority of the protesting was done between 1968 and 1971, when the number of troops actually increased. How exactly did marching end the war?

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As for segregation and civil rights, marching did not change those either.

Televised coverage of the sit-ins in Greensboro and other places did that, along with the buses that were blown up during the Freedom Rides and the violence that was perpetrated again those trying to register African-Americans in the South during Freedom Summer, as well as those marches in which the marchers were attacted by police goons–with their water canons and dogs. The peaceful March on Washington in 1963 would not have been nearly as effective as it was, because three weeks later the Birmingham church was blown up, killing four young girls.

All of this did not make the US look very egalitarian, especially to those watching overseas (remember, this took place during the Cold War) and especially when the actions were responded to by massive riots (Watts, Newark, Detroit, Memphis, and others). Johnson had to do something, quick, and thus civil rights legistation came to pass.

So I guess you could say that marching is effective, as long as the marchers are viciously attacked and the attacks are shown on mainstream media. (How many marches have met this criteria lately? And how many marchers would still march if they were reasonably sure that violence against them was going to occur?)

Public demonstrations are, if done correctly, a single part of a larger campaign. The point of a march, generally, is to show power. To a target, to the participants, and to the general public. You’re missing the strategic aspect of a march, and you’re also missing - both in the case of Vietnam and Civil Rights - the effect that increasingly large marches had on overall public opinion and publicity around the issue in question.

“you could say that marching is effective, as long as the marchers are viciously attacked and the attacks are shown on mainstream media.”

The Selma-Montgomery march was a strategic choice that anticipated that the publicized brutality of Jim Clark would force a decision. Overall, your analysis dismisses any sort of agency or forethought on the part of the people involved.

I don’t think that I am missing the point.

The fact is, despite the numbers, we really do have very little real power to affect change, as history (especially recent history) has shown. We can march all we want, but they own the media of discussion, the educational system, the policians, the courts, the media of enforcement (especially the militarized police and the military). Public opinion didn’t mean squat during Vietnam (as I have already explained) and only meant something during the time of civil rights protests because those who were protesting knew in advance that there might be violence done to them and were willing to put up with it, for the larger cause.

The lives of most people today are too comfortable for them to participate in change. (How many would still show up if they knew that they there was a reasonable chance that they could get their heads bashed in?) Even if they are working three jobs just to get by, if they are not protesting, they are comfortable enough and feel they have more to lose by protesting. That was the difference between the civil right’s protesters and those today. Back then,they either felt they had a moral obligation to participate or that their lives could not possibly get any worse. Today, those who feel a moral obligation not only are either greatly outnumbered by those who did not participate, are too brainwashed to know that there is a real problem, or feel that (historically or otherwise) mass protesting in this country has had no practical effect. (Or have you not noticed the three hundred or so million people who did not march)

The people who own the system have much too much to lose by paying anything but lip service to the relatively few people who choose to march and protest. And, practically speaking, why should they when they hold all of the cards? They have everything to lose by doing so, and not much to gain.

Yes, I see that you believe that.

“Public opinion didn’t mean squat during Vietnam (as I have already explained)”

Public opinion, alone, doesn’t end American wars, but it is a factor in decision-making in same ways you described in your analysis of why the civil rights campaign was successful. Soldiers are affected by public opinion, as are voters, as are international observers. And public demonstrations can influence public opinion.

“The lives of most people today are too comfortable for them to participate in change.”

Another belief of yours that I don’t share.

You are missing the point if you continue to see public demonstrations as ends to themselves and not part of a larger campaign. A protest or march may never have changed policy. That isn’t an issue worth arguing. There is a reason for public demonstrations, and that reason is not to effect a direct change in policy.

You missed more than the point, you must have missed the actual experience and are making your assessments based on hindsight and the entertainment news pap we are spoon fed by corporate media.

You are also missing context which you would remember if you were there in person at the time or you have to accept some other person’s projected context in a documentary or a non fiction account etc which is never the same as being there yourself as it happening.

I could tell you what it was like for America to find out the Gulf of Tonkin Affair was bogus but you would never know the incremental stages of reluctant acceptance of the truth for an older population that still trusted the ideal of government that had brought them through WW II. The silent majority did not know how to disbelieve or to mistrust their government but then they heard Walter Cronkite and that was a different America then and a different Media and Press than we have now!

You would need to have seen the courage of the civil rights marchers and the sit ins and demonstrations to understand how they changed the way people saw the struggle for civil rights. You would need to have heard the discussions at the dinner table among families acknowledging that many families had WWII vets who ‘knew things’ about the way people are the same not different. Take that in context that an older generation had learned a proto desegregation during the war although the military seemed not to have. They often agreed with that struggle for equality which for them was equality if not so much fraternity as yet.

When a complacent America saw the sit ins and marches and the water cannons and police dogs, they said those people have a right to be equal after the war! It was how people thought even if they didn’t want to socialize. Context! They understood the why of the riots believe it or not. Some said that they would do the same if they were treated that way etc. Context was civil rights marches and the spirit of decency of MLK and the images of an armed soldier holding the hand of a little girl as he escorted her into a desegregated school. Heavy duty context that is not conveyed by seeing those pictures now. Context is remembering it as it was happening and recalling that no one knew what was going to happen next each time.

When the antiwar marches began that was another shocker for the WWII generation but then the lies became visible and Vietnam was not WWII. B-52’s vs bamboo huts or so it seemed. The context of the antiwar marches was that over time it went from peaceniks and students to include vast numbers of families of the grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters and the wives and girlfriends of drafted soldiers. The grandparents and parents were vocal and persuasive. Here were the silent majority contradicting Nixon’s propaganda in person. The ‘silent majority’ phrase became a joke among the population because it was obviously no longer silent and those that were were not the majority. The majority of Americans wanted to end the war and said so in marches of extraordinary size. Sure one march didn’t end the war on this or that date etc but it was the mood of the country that was being seen in the marches and that was an inescapable fact over the long term. From students to grandparents and families… that was context.

Context is history.

History books are someone else’s impressions but conveying context often gets lost in the telling.

We’re going to agree to disagree on this one, because, as hard as I look, I don’t see that protests and demonstrations have affected even an indirect change in public policy.

For one thing, are we any more democratic a society as we were ten years or forty years ago? Again, when has life actually gotten better for those of us who are not part of the elite, and why was it that it happened then? The New Deal didn’t happen because of protests, and, despite what you believe, neither did civil rights. (Read a biography of Lyndon Johnson.) Protests did not even indirectly end the Vietnam War (just ask Henry Kissinger and others in high government positions at the time. What else did we protest? Nuclear power? Done in by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Gulf War? The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars? Global warming? Israel’s treatment of Palestine? Wall Street? Republican national conventions? Democratic national conventions? Globalization of the economy? Protests have had zero effect on any of them.

Hey, I’m not telling you how to spend your time. I think protesting is a noble endeavor. (I’ve done my share) Noble, yes, but, in my opinion, a waste of time.

Even if I were to agree that protests in context have made discernable positive differences in people’s lives, what successes can you point to that happended more recently than fifty years ago?

Since then, those in power have learned how to deal with them much more effectly: control of information (the media and the schools), harsh discipline (both prior to, during, and after protests) as further deterrents to strong and effective protests–by a militarized police force, consolidation of societal control in what is, in essence, a one-party, one-branch political system.

How exactly are mere protests supposed to surmount that?

I’m sure Kissinger and most high government officials like him find protesters (and most other human beings) contemptible and wouldn’t acknowledge that they ever had any influence on anything. I suppose I could also ask corporate CEOs if they think picket lines are effective, but I wouldn’t accept their answers as entirely objective. Yes - today there are free speech zones, corporate media is more sophisticated today than it was 50 years ago, etc. I’m not arguing any of that. But you mistake tactic for strategy.

If you’re actually open to questioning your belief system, I would suggest you speak to an organizer. I personally know several. There are people across the political spectrum - or at least the left half of it - that make their living understanding how and when to use a tool you believe is ineffective and irrelevant.

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Actually, I have been an organizer. In fact, it was at the organizing convention for United for Peace and Justice (Remember them? No one else does…), where I was a delegate, that I first came to the realization that protests–as they are constructed in the Unites States–are exercises in futility. The tactics are generally futile because the strategy is generally flawed. And that is because activists generally believe they are protesting a system that does not actually exist. (If if ever did, it was gone by the end of Reagan’s presidency.)

I’ll give you that some headway was made on smaller, usually social justice issues like gay marriage. To a gay person who wanted to get married, that was a very big deal, and I am tickled that they can do so.
(A former high-school girlfriend of mine was part of the second gay couple to be married in the state of New Jersey. I saw firsthand quite a while ago how emotionally relieved she was when she was.) The thing is, politicians use the smaller, personal issues to obfucate the larger, more societally-consequential ones, because they (like advertisers and other propagandists) exploit the average person’s tendency to fixate on emotional issues at the expense of more complex ones needing one to be more rational and informed.

So, in the larger scheme, gay marriage was pretty much a non-issue, except in socially conservative states like those in the South, where people’s votes turned on it. The Big Issues–corporate regulation, regulations of the banks and the banking system, wars for oil, fracking, anything that would improve our prospects in light of global warming, the increasing militarization of the police forces and their intrusion into our daily lives (especially those of people of color), the Survailance State, the proliferation of the military-industrial, prison-industrial, and educational-industrial complexes, the proliferation of GMOs and glyphosphate in the food supply, the proliferation of money in politics, single-payer disease care, the truth about what the situation in Fukushima is really like (and these are just the first few issues that came to mind)–affect virtually all of us, in Big ways, and yet, despite protests, are not remotely likely to be resolved.

Thank you for the articles. I will read them with an open mind, but, frankly, I don’t think my position is going to change much.

You’re quite welcome.

Antiwar and anti-imperialist activism is extremely difficult in the US, because it is so distant from most of the public’s immediate experience and concern. Once a war is begun, elite opinion narrows such that even to the extent that it is possible to sway public opinion, there aren’t antiwar voting options. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, once U.S. troops were largely out of harm’s way after the late 2000’s, what stake most of the public felt in the continuation of the war evaporated. So, I agree with you there that coming up with an effective overall strategy is the main obstacle.

Still, that movement made meaningful connections between peace/justice activists and veterans’ groups that were not there before, and still exist today. And I think it is still possible to challenge militarism generally - particularly in the context of other activism, like in the climate justice movement - as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts in this thread (one not addressed to you).

Americans are generally demoralized about politics and we’re trained from childhood in subtle ways to believe we are powerless to make social change. With most issues (some, like war, more than others) the first obstacle to overcome is people’s general sense that whatever they do is pointless. Being part of a crowd of a hundred, a thousand, or a hundred thousand energetic people who feel the same way that you do and are committed enough to say so in public is a start to overcoming that sense of powerlessness. But - as you recognize - that is only a beginning, and it has to be part of a winnable overall strategy,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.

I think your positing a direct cause and effect for protests ( you switched from discussion of large scale marches to small local protests btw ) is mundane sophistry and not credible. I reiterate my point that large scale protest marches are a means of communication between the citizenry and their representative government but also between citizenry to citizenry ( context as history )!

To suggest that one should ask Kissinger if protests really mattered is ridiculous, however if memory serves me right, Kissinger and Nixon were very much concerned with protests and made considerable effort to placate the public as the repeated ‘peace talks’ scenario was conducted and promoted in the public press if not in good faith at the actual peace table itself. Nixon in particular was very worried at the image his presidency was developing as the war years went on. His attempts to present himself as a peace president show this in particular. Nixon of course talked peace to the public but pursued the war vigorously just the same. His attempts to present himself as seeking peace reflected the antiwar mood that developed in the country. Congress and other officials and personalities in the public eye came out against the war because they saw the mood of the public towards the Vietnam War which only came about through mass protest and the antiwar marches. The marches communicated citizen to citizen and changed the course of history thereby. The country knew how other people felt about the war and who was protesting it too ( families, parents and grandparents not just students and peaceniks)!