A Protest Against the Odds.
Published on TomPaine.com.
After losing the popular vote and scandalously preventing a full count of Florida ballots, George W. Bush hardly has the right to expect a tranquil coronation this weekend. And even with an inaugural ceremony carefully choreographed to elicit media adulation, as well as battalions of Washington DC police attempting to quash any unscripted surprises, he may not get one. As upwards of a half million Republican loyalists pack the parade route this weekend, smaller crowds will rally to protest the stolen election and question Bush’s mandate to pursue conservative policies.
One would expect the activists taking to the streets to be the Democrats’ party stalwarts, core Gore supporters disgusted by the electoral upset. In reality, the dissenters now preparing for action did not, by and large, support the Vice President’s campaign at all. Those who have plastered DC with signs reading “Hail to the Thief!” represent a collection of Black radicals and critics of corporate globalization, Nader supporters and death penalty abolitionists. Their outrage has raised some interesting questions: How did this multi-issue assortment of seasoned protesters become the de facto standard bearer of Democratic discontent? And what success might these demonstrators have at the inauguration?
The Democratic Party itself opted early on against a mounting a mass challenge to Bush’s legitimacy. After Election Day, when attention first shifted to the Florida tabulations, Gore discouraged public demonstrations. He choose instead to front a cool, executive image. In those important days, his campaign condemned any protests as misplaced “electioneering.” By the time he recognized that the terrain in Florida was too hopelessly politicized for such detached observation, he had ceded crucial ground to the Republicans. In at least one case, rowdy conservatives actually affected the tallying: election officials in Miami-Dad county admitted that intimidating hecklers contributed to their decision to abort an early recount.
Gore’s behavior during this period was predictable. As a “New Democrat” he has consistently distanced himself from his party’s core constituencies, and his tenure as a barnstorming populist (the persona he adopted during the Democratic Convention) was short-lived. It is unclear that the Vice President could muster the charisma to inspire throngs of faithful supporters to mobilize for protest, even if he wanted to.
Those actually able to produce such mobilization have also avoided mass protest. Major labor, environmental, and civil rights groups will be noticeably absent from counter-inauguration ceremonies in DC. With the exception of the National Organization for Women (which is sponsoring its own protest in the capitol), they have shown little inclination to mount an indelicate frontal assault on the incoming White House staff by turning out members for the demonstrations. Some of those who initially called for massive anti-Bush protests, led by Jesse Jackson, have redirected their energy into a march in Tallahassee. With this, along with smaller protests at Federal Buildings elsewhere, they can decry voter rights violations without risking more politically compromising entanglements.
As large progressive lobbies, these organizations have adopted an inside approach to challenging the new Administration. They have focused on defeating Bush’s conservative cabinet nominations, like John Ashcroft for Attorney General, by calling in political favors and working Senate connections. No doubt, this is vital work. It recognizes the hard reality that their relationship the executive branch of government will affect their ability to pass and enforce legislation – laws that will make real differences in the lives of working people. The groups are banking on proven methods of “getting things done” in Washington, next to which the protest’s goals of affecting “public confidence” and challenging the President’s “mandate” admittedly seem amorphous.
But this pragmatic approach sacrifices something important: the uniqueness of this particular Presidential contest. Strategies of nonviolent resistance always take on the system from the outside. They eschew accepted institutions and practices in order to call into question the legitimacy of the system itself. Given Bush’s dubious rise to power, such an approach could produce unexpected results: it could sink Bush in public opinion polls, give Senators a public incentive to break with the traditions of deference to the White House, and force the new President into a truly conciliatory posture.
As others have abandoned direct action for reasons ranging from the ideological to the pragmatic, the tactic has been left to a loose coalition of leftists. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the socialist International Action Center, the Black Radical Congress, and the Justice Action Movement have released various calls to action. Among the experienced protesters organizing for this weekend are activists who have specialized in staging the creative, highly visible confrontations at major conventions over the past year—including at the IMF meeting in DC last April. They will be joined by a modest array of first-time protesters who come motivated strictly by indignation over the Bush coup, individuals gathered ad hoc by local groups and internet “dot.orgs”.
What can they hope to accomplish with a counter-inaugural ceremony?
Ideally, protesters would like push the discussion beyond a limited Bush-Gore debate—raising problems that both major parties refuse to combat: corporate welfare, warped campaign finance laws, and the massive expansion of the prison-industrial complex.
However, absent organizing by large groups, these connections will be hard to make. As it stands, protesters will be vastly outnumbered by the mostly conservative parade-watchers, and limited in their ability to publicize multiple issues.
Yet civil disobedience still offers a crucial possibility for success. With guerilla theater and inspired protest, activists can highlight the discontent that still surrounds the electoral abuses in Florida. They can achieve gains akin to those of Abbie Hoffman’s “Flower Brigade.” During the Vietnam era, Hoffman attracted press and public sympathy by marching a colorful troop into a “Support Our Boys” Parade. Reporters watched an unsavory display of intolerance as the “patriots” tore American flags from the hippies’ hands and stomped the “tainted” totems into the ground.
By capturing even modest media attention this weekend, protesters can help frame the inauguration as what it is—a controversial confirmation of a weak President—and not a pro-Bush love-fest. By virtue of the pre-inaugural publicity that they have generated, organizers have already made significant strides toward this end.
The question now is whether, against the odds—and against the Democratic Party’s better judgement—activists will be able pull off something more. Creatively managing the conflict generated by non-violent mobilization, they can still enact some of the “outside” strategy that the Democratic mainstream has disregarded. The small assembly of protesters can yet embody for the nation a much larger group: the majority of the divided public that has already voted against the new President and rejected his conservative agenda.