“A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.”
The strong act. The weak react. Protest is a tool of the weak. The main aim of any protest is to draw attention to an injustice. It appeals, broadcasts and seeks to impress you with its number. So many of us are feeling this way. You are few, we are many, etc. After each mass protest, there is always a disagreement over the size of the crowd, with the estimate of the organizers usually doubling that of the authority, i.e., the target of the protest.
Even without number, even when the protest is made up of a few quixotic weirdos, or just one, it can still have meaning. The sight of a lonely protester on a city street, ignored by the crowd, is basically pathetic, if not comic, but if he happens to make some sense, then his very isolation can become an indictment of this crowd. Concepcion Picciotto, born 1945, has been encamped across the White House for twenty-nine years, since 1981. She lives in a tent, surrounded by signs denouncing U.S. militarism and its support for Israel. When Picciotto began, Carter was the President who had gotten us involved in Afghanistan. In 2010, Obama is fighting the same mujahideen armed by Carter. As long as the guns sell, it’s all good. A lonely protester is not unlike Jonah ranting away in Nineveh, except Jonah got results. Folks actually heard him and changed their ways.
Recently, I ran into a young man named Turk in Philadelphia. He wore a grinning mask while displaying two signs: “END THE FED” and “Paper is poverty. It is only the ghost of money, & not money itself–T. Jefferson.” The Fed is a private banking cartel that controls interest rates and the amount of money in circulation, i.e., how much inflation we’ll have to suffer. Inflation is basically white collar thievery. Like Concepcion, Turk made too much sense, so of course most passersby only saw him as a freak. After staring without comprehension, a man challenged Turk incoherently, threw up his hands and walked away. Turk’s protest wasn’t entirely futile, however, if just a single person became interested enough to investigate further. With success so incremental, however, Philadelphia will likely burn down many times over before the Fed is ever abolished. The good news is that there are many more Turks out there. The bad news, there aren’t nearly enough. Most Americans are too busy watching Bristol Palin cha-chaing and tangoing to care about why their cash is losing value, why poverty awaits them. Like the citizens of Nineveh, Americans can’t tell their right hand from their left hand. (Most of us don’t know we have two right hands.) Those who control the cash flow control everything. Playing God, the Fed will continue to bankrupt this country, Turks be damned!
A step up from the protest is the strike. Like most protests, strikes are generally peaceful, especially in recent decades, but there is one crucial difference: a strike is always disruptive. An archaic definition of “to strike” is to lower a sail, since disgruntled sailors formerly struck sails to disable a ship. Thus, to remove from production any tool, including one’s own body, is to go on strike. To change business as usual, one must start by disrupting business as usual. Gandhi did not rely on sign waving protests but strikes and boycotts, and these disruptive actions, supported by the masses, crippled the ruling apparatus. Threatened, it often reacted with violence.
The more widespread a strike, the more business it’s willing to disrupt, the more likely it is to achieve its goals. Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat would have yielded nothing if it wasn’t followed by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year. By withholding their money, black riders brought the city to its knees. Of course, this also entailed a sacrifice on their part, but every struggle has a price, with inconvenience the very least of it. Carpools were formed, black taxi drivers drove black patrons around at a steep discount, charging only a dime, the equivalence of a bus fare at the time.
If too few people joined in a strike or a boycott, it would be punchless, so unity is essential. In Montgomery or British-ruled India, people could readily unite because the wrongs they suffered were easily identifiable, as were the agents of these wrongs. It was, literally, black and white. In today’s America, we have no consensus on what or who are responsible for our dismal state of the union. With a constant lullaby about “recovery,” many Americans are even denying that we’re up the septic creek at all. Everywhere you look, muddy thinking abounds. Tea Partiers rail against big government and corruption, yet support the Pentagon, that bottomless cesspool of corruption. On the left, there are still those who are invested in Obama and the Democratic Party. Ignoring all evidences, they refuse to see that our Democratic politicians support endless war, endless corruption and endless, Israel-style apartheid no less than their Republican colleagues. Both parties are shills for the military industrial complex. Our troubles are not political, then, but systemic.
Our common enemy is the military industrial complex. The United States has, by far, the largest military budget in the world. It is also the world’s biggest arms dealer. Year in and year out, death is what we purvey, it’s what we’re really good at, but most Americans don’t object, because they think that selling guns, jets, tanks and bombs puts bacon on the table. (Many of us also like the idea of kicking ass, frankly.) Moral qualms aside, not every American can have a job assembling Hellfire missiles, yet we must all pay for a bunch of them, as many as the Pentagon cares to order. The economics don’t add up, but let’s not fuss over numbers.
Our common enemy is the military industrial complex. Visiting India for the first time last month, Obama visited Gandhi’s home, then promptly celebrated the signing of a mega arms deal. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our prez even had the chutzpah to declare, “I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak–nothing passive–nothing naïve–in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.” What he meant was, “You stay non-violent, while I kill. You stay non-violent, or I will kill you.”
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.