The False Promise of Protest

As a process analyst, I don’t just draw pictures. That’s a small part of all I do. Pictures are good to communicate motion – start here, end there, these things go together, green means go, red means stop, and so forth. Mostly, though, I write stuff down.

I’m pretty sure no one but me actually reads all the words I write and that’s OK.

I write for different audiences and for different purposes. A key part of my writing is the remembering. People forget what it is that they do. This isn’t because they are stupid. It is because they are present in what they do and, once done, they go to the next thing. When you start a job, it’s all new, you feel like a dolt, there’s equal parts “WTF?” and “Oh, cool!”, and then, at some point, you forget what you’re doing and you just do it. You are the fish that does not think about the water surrounding it. When I document the “as-is” process, I make people remember what they are doing because they have to explain it to me. Often, they will pull up short and confess that they don’t know why they do X instead of Z, it’s just how it’s done.

Developers love the flowcharts and process diagrams I create. They don’t want to read the words. Words are bore-ing, an impediment to the rush of creating something new. Then it gets to QA, I start clicking on the buttons and stuff doesn’t work. Again. “Mike, what happened to the form validation on X?” “What validation?” “The validation documented on page 6.” “Oh, I didn’t read that.” My forehead meets my desk, I send aggrieved emails off to our manager raging about Mike’s refusal to read specifications, I curse loudly, then take deep breaths and IM Mike to come see me. Again.

That’s just SOP in any organization where you have complex shit going on. People fall into routines. People fail to read. People get wrapped up in the moment of what they are doing and don’t think about other people, like the new hire, the next person in the process, the end-user of the new product. Sometimes you are cursed to work with SAP and it all hits you at once. Hence, the need for the person who remembers, reminds, documents, structures, architects — in a word, institutionalizes those processes.

This is all a very long way around to talking about the lure and false promise of political protest as a route to change. Protests, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, and other public performances of that ilk, are the preferred mode of political participation for a number of people on the left. It feels like it should accomplish something. There’s energy in the streets and power with the people! But, an hour afterwards, it is gone, relegated to YouTube snippets and Twitter debates. To be effective (vs. being impressive), it needs to be routinized.

Doing this is a buzzkill. Someone has to write it all down, analyze it, pull out the purpose, the participants, the objectives (conceptual and practical, idealistic and concrete), define the rules (What are the bounds? What is a valid action? What are the steps, with hand-offs to which actors, to achieve the objectives?), set down the process paths, create the flow charts (Yay, pictures!), document the data points (We need signs, we need sign-up sheets, we need name tags, we need talking points), and identify next steps after objectives are achieved.

Protests, in and of themselves, achieve bupkis. They may give you a high and make you feel empowered, but until they are repeatable and achieve a measurable outcome, they won’t make much difference. They are a vital, irreplaceable part of political change; they are the picture that can convey meaning in a way that words cannot, make the abstract visceral, and produce proof that you are not alone in your dissatisfaction.

The reason Indivisible is having an effect in a way that OWS never did is because they are institutionalizing what they are doing. There’s plenty of protesting being done (just ask Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter, currently getting targeted down here in San Diego), but even more there is steady routinization of getting organized, what are the main objectives this week, how do you handle situation X, what are acceptable rules of engagement, and so forth.

It warms the cockles of my process analyst heart.

What it is also doing is changing the focus of left protest away from grand gestures and ideological tail chasing. It explicitly eschews the more-progressive-than-thou posturing of the alt-left, and cares nothing for the political theater of “How are the Democrats wrong? Let us count the ways,” that marks the “revolution”. It is focused on the malfeasance and criminality of the party that actually holds power, and addresses very specific pieces of legislation or appointments that are in the public eye. It presents the picture of why the actions the people in control of the government (that would be the Republicans) are wrong and to be opposed. It also builds up local political networks that are durable and reliable over time, and are not dependent on any particular politician or political clique.

The end result, if we’re lucky, is that people will forget the process and simply get on with the performance of political participation. It will be a regular balance to the more daunting edifice of government bureaucracy — something we need to prevent ruthless depredation from autocratic kleptocrats like 45* — as well as the much too insular rules and practices of deliberative bodies, from city councils to the Congress.

This may sound like a sellout of the “movement”. It is a taming of it, but it is also how you preserve the presence and application of popular power over time and across administrations. Otherwise you are left with the adrenaline rush of the march followed by the let down as life goes back to usual when a new cat video goes viral and people stop looking at the masses in the street.

If you want to stop being disappointed at having no long term effect, no matter how loudly you yell, how much you threaten, then consider that your process could stand some improvement. Weber counsels, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”





4 thoughts on “The False Promise of Protest”

  1. I had never heard of Indivisible until now.

    I’d been wondering what else to do after joining my local Million Woman March that would actually have an effect, so this was serendipitous timing.

  2. I was hoping to be able to make a positive report on a local issue that has had a lot of local & long-term organizing, but it’s disappointment & disgust instead. 😦 There’s been a local fight for years that keeps preventing a local prison expansion, so there was organization already in place. The local machine wants to privatize the county nursing home because it’s too much money (and union employees), they’d rather spend it on prison expansion. “Our Seniors Are Not for Sale!” — but it involved a small RE tax increase, so it was defeated about 60/40. I’m so disgusted. The people who want to sell off public property for private gain just hammered it was lazy union people trying to keep their jobs to deflect from maybe you or one of your family will need this, grump.

  3. Hi Jon,

    I’m glad I posted this, then. I almost didn’t as I don’t want to get pulled down into the bottomless pit that is political blogging. Did that for years and all it got me was yelled at.

    I like Indivisible because it is very easy to join, has some national coordination, is not beholden to any particular political candidate, and focuses on acting in your congressional district. If you don’t have a Twitter account, it’s worth creating one just to get their thread – full of advice, photos, and cheerfully stubborn and determined activists. Very little ideology, too. It is predominantly middle-aged women, and everyone is welcome. In San Diego, there are weekly public events and protests and day-to-day activities that people can do as they have time. They have good connections to other, similar organizations that tend to be tightly focused on achieving specific goals, like flipping a congressional, state or even local seat in a particular district. If nothing else, it will keep you informed of where the next protest will be held in your area.

    Overall, liberals (I’m pretty much done with “progressive” as it’s hopelessly tainted by the alt-left now) need to do more local electoral activism that directly confronts and publicizes the mendacity of the Republican party. We’re good at protesting for the planet, for environmentalism, for *causes*, but have this gaping blind spot in ordinary politics. We don’t like the politics of threat, which is their bread and butter, because it is authoritarian and anti-democratic, but we’ve also lost a talent for the politics of resistance to political abuse. While we’ve been righteous, the forces of evil have been consolidating power.

    Protests of the left have become the realm of the young, college-attending, and simple-minded, for the most part. I used to do that, too. I remember the pointless chanting and sign waving, having to put up with the “Mao more than ever” assholes who tried to hijack every event to promote the glories of totalitarianism, the endless whining by upper-middle class white kids (who were all going on to salaried jobs after graduation) about the unfairness of the system, and the let down of the day after, when our petulant demands got a picture on the inside of section 2 of the daily fish wrap and three anodyne sentences of copy. When the kids graduate, they tend to be disillusioned but profoundly ignorant of why they failed.

    In a mass party system, you need strategic coordination and agenda setting at the top, strong state & local level operations for identifying, recruiting and promoting candidates (enlist), and a large, irregular, local communication network of people who will attend public meetings and (politely, firmly) object to the ruling party’s current legislative agendas (insist), appear publically in organized civil protests to provide visual proof of resistance (resist), and then the bodies to do the thankless, Sisyphean job of rounding up votes and educating local citizens (persist).

    So ends my political lecture of the day,

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