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Beyond Protest

I attended my first protest when I was fourteen years old. It was a mild-mannered affair in the suburban Maryland town I lived in. The date was October 15, 1969—the first Vietnam Moratorium—and it involved about twenty-five of us standing on a street corner with signs calling for an end to the US war in Vietnam. We read the names of the US war dead. I was one of perhaps a half dozen high school students at the protest. The rest of the attendees were college students from nearby College Park, nuns from the local Catholic high school and a couple World War veterans. Most people driving by had no idea what was going on and ignored us. A few people flashed us peace signs in support and many more yelled what they considered to be epithets at us. As the years went by, I attended many, many more protests. Some were peaceful, some involved pushing and shoving with the police and right-wing protesters and some involved fairly pitched battles that included rock throwing, barricades, tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets.

However, the question of the effectiveness of these protests is still something I wonder about. I genuinely believe that there is no one way to protest and that the question of total nonviolence is primarily a tactical, not moral, question. At the same time, nothing is as simple as it seems when it comes to effective resistance to the ruling powers. Numerous factors are always in play when groups consider how they will express their opposition to some facet of the ruling class program or to the ruling class itself. The challenge, as any organizer will tell you, is to come up with the most effective means at any particular moment. The process involved in coming up with that means involves an understanding of the situation, the opposition and the desired outcome. Sometimes, the process fails and other time it succeeds. In other words, sometimes the disparate individuals and groups hoping to work together as an opposition manage to come up with strategies that allow a united and effective campaign. Other times, no genuine hope of unity exists.

This is the general topic of a new book by Canadian activist and writer Aric McBay. Titled Full Spectrum Resistance (vol. 1): Building Movements and Fighting to Win, the text is a twenty-first century take on what it will take to halt the madness of the capitalist class as it steps up its destruction of the planet and those who inhabit it. Part organizing manual and part philosophical discussion, McBay’s text intersperses those discussions with historical anecdotes from street protests and radical history that illustrate the long-term nature of the struggle and the debates about how to wage it. Simultaneously a call to move away from liberal activism towards direct action and an invitation to liberal activists to go beyond their comfort zone in order to have a real chance at stopping the approaching cataclysm, Full Spectrum Resistance uses historical examples as varied as the US Black freedom fighters Deacons of Defense and 1980s HIV activists ACT UP to make his point.

That point, to put it succinctly, is that liberal activism has not only proven to be ineffective, it actually strengthens the very system it pretends to oppose. While this point of view is not new to leftist radicals and revolutionaries, it bears being repeated and its truth proven once again. In this historical moment, a strategic manual for the Left that is based on radical anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist principles seems quite useful. McBay’s clearly written book is one tract that serves that exact purpose. As noted above, the discussions range from purely practical ones regarding organizational structure and security to grander conversations regarding tactics and moral philosophies. It is clear from the text that McBay has not just been involved in various activist organizations and protests, he has experienced many of the situations he comments on. From interpersonal relations within groups to relationships between groups with different politics and approaches, this book does a decent job of covering them all.

The title of the first chapter of Full Spectrum Resistance is “Fighting to Win.” That is the reason for and the purpose of this text: to build a multidimensional movement dedicated to creating revolutionary social change in the world. Most people who care about such things understand that the time to do this seems to be growing ever shorter, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. If we are going to win this battle against those who seem intent on destroying the world for profit, not only must we fight, but we must fight to win. To do so, we need the appropriate tools and the desire. Aric McBay’s book provides us with at least one of those.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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