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A New Kind of Activism

by John Troyer

Last Friday night, a good friend of mine and I were discussing the efficacy of violent property damage as a viable form of civil protest. The discussion began with the trial of Sarah Jane Olsen in Los Angeles and the work of the Symbionese Liberation Army during the 1970s and concluded with an outline for what my friend called “new activism.”

I would not be surprised to learn that in recent history the term “new activism” has been repeatedly used to describe a myriad of programs. More to the point, whenever the term new is used to describe something, I become suspicious only because an idea is rarely without progenitors, although the practice of the concept might be unprecedented. My use of the term “new activism” is the only way into an argument that I believe must be made for the American left to rethink previous, at times nostalgically remembered, protest methods. The importance of dissent, protest and political activism becomes increasingly urgent as the U.S. war on global terrorism begins to bore American audiences.

As an aside, I find few attitudes more malignant than individuals who insist on saying they are sick and tired of hearing about the war. The right to critical mediocrity is, however, a contemporary American pastime _ so to those people, I say agitate instead for new baseball stadiums. I can only imagine the issue’s urgency.

One of the major concerns I have currently is a recognizable nostalgia for previous protest movements among American leftists. I am certainly not advocating forgetting of anything learned in the past, but I firmly believe in adjusting tactics to the present.

In the winter of 1995, I heard Bobby Seale speak at the University about his work in founding the Black Panther Party. Seale was asked if he thought the use of guns was an appropriate form of protest for contemporary African-American activists. He said no. The best weapon to use, Seale suggested, was the video camera to record police brutality. What many, mostly white Americans, forget is it was not guns that made the Panthers inherently dangerous for the FBI. What made the Black Panther Party dangerous for the law enforcement officials was the color of their skin and their unfettered knowledge of the law.

The tools of protest, as Seale suggests, need to change with the times. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his Sept. 27 New York Times opinions piece, “A New kind of War,” “Even the vocabulary of this war will be different.” Consequently, protest movements in America need to use different language tactics.

The conservative right, emboldened by the Bush administration, relies on predictable methods of protests to patronize: marches, rallies, self-righteous college newspaper columnists, etc. Public displays of discontent are extremely important. I am not suggesting large rallies are ineffectual; rather, the messages need to appear in other locations.

The Bush administration continues to say the war on terrorism will take years _ at least that suggests time exists for planning. The American left needs to start infiltrating television stations, editorial boards, city councils and school boards. Radical steps such as running for political office must begin as soon as possible. If the money can be found to start a satellite TV station for the American left, then use the technology.

Concerned college students need to intern with organizations that support their politics. The same students also need to intern in Washington, D.C., for the House or the Senate, for the White House–anywhere that places a person in the middle of the decision-making system. By learning the intricacies of the system, an opportunity exists to throw a monkey wrench into politics from the inside.

I suggest the term peace activist be changed to critical thinker (everyone must agree to keep that a secret from the right). Teach-ins must become anti-propaganda learning opportunities. The use of loud vocal chants must be reconfigured into a deafening silence. The politics and power of focused, concentrated groups acting in silence will draw more attention than the loudest screams. Chanting in unison does not mean the right has failed to silence dissenting voices. Most importantly, new activists must be ready to disobey by any and all means necessary.

The argument here is not about breaking the law, but simply not following the preordained directions. Acts of disobedience need to be site specific and tailored to a given situation so the right has trouble planning a counterspin. Disobeying the rules of popular opinion does not suggest breaking the law, although the time may come for that contingency. Flowers or bullets make the choices too limited, but sometimes push comes to shove. The Bush administration has made it clear a war is being fought for good against evil. Under that formulation, acting badly seems open to interpretation, so disobey at will.

I will conclude by recounting a recent event that made me think about activism. On Friday, Nov. 2, an altercation took place between two groups in New York City at the location of the decimated World Trade Center towers. One of the groups wanted to give their respects to the dead; the other was trying to keep the area secure. A fight erupted between the groups and arrests were made.

The two groups were comprised of members from the New York City Police Department and the fire department of New York. The firefighters marched into lower Manhattan to protest a decision by Rudy Giuliani’s administration to reduce the number of fire department personnel assisting in body recovery at the site of the former twin towers. The altercation did not last long, but an event causing a fight between police and firefighters is important to note. This event signals what I believe is a change in the numbing unity surrounding Sept. 11.

In years to come, I believe the physical violence between the police and firefighters will be discussed as an early indicator, an underreported situation signaling a change in American sensibilities about the need for new kinds of activism before they became fashionable. CP

John Troyer writes a weekly column for the Daily Minnesotan, the student newspaper at the University of Minnesota. He can be emailed at:

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