What’s the Point of Demonstrating?

Thousands of Americans have just staged a demonstration in Washington, D.C., to express their displeasure with the growth of government in general and the Obama administration’s health-insurance proposals in particular. Such demonstrations are a tradition in this country. The First Amendment, which people usually associate with freedom of speech, religion, and the press, also stipulates that Congress shall make no law abridging “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Founders knew that people would sometimes desire to complain publicly against government policies that affected them adversely. After all, their own revolution had begun amid many such protests against the British government.

So, in this country, people have a constitutionally guaranteed right to demonstrate and petition for redress of grievances, and they often exercise this right. Although the government sometimes tries to control when and how people demonstrate, especially when such protests might prove too visibly embarrassing to the emperor or to one of the two gangs that purport to be competing political parties in what is actually a one-party state, most of the time the rulers seem to appreciate that such demonstrations pose no genuine threat to their control of the state and that the wise course is to allow the peasants to blow off steam. Later, they can be told how fortunate they are to live in a country where the government permits freedom of speech, as if such speech in itself would feed the baby.

I have considerable experience as a demonstrator. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I marched and otherwise participated in many protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam. Although I managed to get through all these experiences without getting my head scarred by a police night stick—an achievement of which many of my fellow demonstrators cannot boast—I did learn a fair number of lessons in what we might call “applied political science.”

Lesson number one is that the cops do not believe in your First Amendment rights, or any other rights of yours, for that matter. If they find it convenient for their own purposes, which often seem to include nothing more than throwing their weight around, they will yell at you, shove you, threaten you with night sticks, dogs, and horses, whack you with their clubs, and lob tear gas into your ranks. It’s all in a day’s work for those who have sworn “to serve and protect.” Best you remember, however, that the phrase is short for “serve and protect the state,” not for “serve you and protect your rights to life, liberty, and property.” Protecting your right to demonstrate peacefully against state policies is not part of the cops’ job description.

Lesson number two is that the people in the demonstrations are there for all sorts of reasons, despite what one might suppose from their announced issue(s) as signified by signs, banners, and group statements. I often bemoaned the lack of seriousness in many of the antiwar demonstrators with whom I marched. A great many of the younger ones seemed to be there mainly because demonstrating against the war was, literally, a sexy thing for a college student to do: at the demonstration, one might meet someone suitable for a not-very-subsequent sexual liaison—in plain language, participating in a demonstration served as a reasonably promising avenue to getting laid. Beyond this quite understandable motivation, however, people had all sorts of other reasons for participating. Some fancied themselves radicals out to overthrow the government. Others were worried that children, grandchildren, or other relatives and friends might be drafted, shipped to Vietnam, and killed. Some of us actually cared about the countless hundreds of thousands of Asians being slaughtered by U.S. forces for no good reason. Although we were all against the war in some way, our ways varied widely. The participants in most demonstrations, including the recent one in Washington, no doubt have this same heterogeneous quality. In a protest, however, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Lesson number three is that the mainstream media are in league with the government when they report on demonstrations. For example, they will minimize any violence the police use against the demonstrators and exaggerate any violence the demonstrators perpetrate. I recall one protest in particular, where our group included tens of thousands of marchers passing through the streets of downtown Seattle. The police, as usual, were out in force, lining the streets and salivating for a chance to crack some heads. Present also were the undercover agents with their cameras; for some reason, the authorities always wanted lots of photos of us dangerous protesters—college students, hippies, grandmothers, little kids in their mother’s arms, and so forth, all obviously dangerous subversives. At this particular protest, the organizers took great pains to instruct everybody about scrupulously avoiding any kind of violence, because we all knew that the media would use it to discredit everything about the event. So we maintained absolute order, or so I thought as I made my way through the streets somewhere in the middle of the long parade. No violence whatsoever did I see. Hooray! The next morning, however, the banner headline in the Seattle Times read, “Violence Mars Antiwar Demonstration.” Someone, it seems, had broken ranks and smashed a shop window, an occurrence so inconsequential that even I, positioned right in the middle of the affair, had not noticed it. This incident illustrates well what passes for journalistic impartiality and balance in this country. Rest assured that if you are bucking the system, the system’s guardians in the news media will smack you down by stigmatizing you as some sort of dangerous hooligan or totally out-of-touch wing-nut. They’ll also minimize your group’s numbers, again seeking to marginalize and trivialize your efforts.

Lesson number four is that the powers that be don’t give a damn about your demonstrations or the reasons that have impelled you to participate in them, except to the extent that your actions create bad press for them and their policies. The minute they conclude that your demonstrations actually imperil their personal grip on power, they will cease to be so accommodating of your First Amendment rights. They might even cook up something called COINTELPRO, whereby they employ every political dirty trick in the book against you, up to and including murder. (If you suppose I’m exaggerating, I suggest you do some research on COINTELPRO and other such government schemes to violate the people’s civil rights systematically.) Nowadays, the USA PATRIOT Act lends itself splendidly to broad-gauge surveillance and disruption of peaceniks and other troublemakers.

 After the Vietnam War ended, I stopped participating in public demonstrations, not because I thought the government no longer deserved protest and petition for redress of grievances, but because I lost all faith in the efficacy of the demonstrations. I was gaining a sounder appreciation of how the state operates, and as my understanding deepened, I found myself unable to suppose that the people who constitute the state have any interest in doing what might loosely be called “the right thing.” As for those of us outside the precincts of the state and its supporting coalition of special-interest groups, the state wants us to buckle under to its dictates, shell out the taxes, fees, and fines it demands from us, and shut up. As long as we faithfully comply with the first two requirements, it is willing to cut us some slack on the third, but only up  to the point at which our expressions of grievance might actually weaken its iron grip on power. So, when I see demonstrations like the one that just took  place in Washington, I sympathize with the people who’ve gone to the trouble of protesting against the government’s abuses, but I find myself wondering, Do these poor souls really think they’ll accomplish something by this protest?

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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