A Protest Without a Program: marching back to the future on a sunny afternoon

March 4th was a national student protest day. I joined the protest march at my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley.


To cut to the chase, a protest without a program is better than no protest at all, but I am wondering why the current crop of youthful progressive activists seem to have learned nothing from the previous crops.


It’s not enough to march and then cheer to the justifiably angry speeches and poetry. Sometimes art and oratory function as elitist propaganda, even if the poetry, replete with profanity, is from the barrio and the speech is from a card-carrying Trotskyite. They’re both propagandists for the powerful wasting time and energy on invective.


At the end of the day, people either went home, or joined a small group that attempted to shut down auto traffic on Interstate 880. The people who went home presumably had dinner; the people occupying the Interstate were delayed slightly while being booked into jail. Neither action will lead to social change. Going home to dinner was the wiser choice of the two in that at least those who went home did not carry any delusions of associating the act of halting commute traffic with halting the state abuse of students through tuition increases.


What depresses me is that the Left in America, such as it is, is as self-congratulatory as it is ineffective and brain dead–failing to carry forward institutional knowledge. The American Left re-invents the wheel every fifty years because there are no institutions of progressive change–only angry, young students today who don’t talk to the angry, no-longer-so-young former-students of yesteryear.


In 1970, I was chased by the cops on the campus of Cal State University, Northridge (known then as San Fernando Valley State College) while protesting the War in Vietnam. I was significantly more fleet of foot in those days and easily out-ran them. In 1970, we had no idea what we were doing because the students of my generation had no connection to the past. No cultural or institutional memory banks existed. In 2010, I wasn’t compelled to run because the cops didn’t bother chasing us. They know that a protest without a program is no threat to the entrenched corporate-state power. Let them march. Who cares? That’s democracy, isn’t it? The people march, carry signs, thrust angry fists at the invisible power structure–and then go home to watch reruns of “Law and Order” or “What Not to Wear!” The cops have learned,  but the American Left has not learned a single thing in fifty years. The powerful take pride in student protests, seeming to say, "Hey, look, isn’t this wonderful? in our American democracy, people can protest."


In 2010, the current crop of students have no more cultural consciousness than we did in 1970. Last year some UC students took over a building on campus. Their primary condition for agreeing to leave the building was a promise from the university not to prosecute them for taking over the building! This is progress? Social change is implemented through long-term organizing and carefully-planned collective action, not through random acts of marches on a sunny spring afternoon, or by annoyances to commuter traffic. Neither wearing a black shirt and shutting down traffic, nor wearing a Trotskyite beret and spewing angry rhetoric organizes for social change–the operative word being “organizes.”


It’s not enough to be angry spewing expletives and then go home to a 72-inch flat-panel TV. It’s even worse, as a self-defeating delusion, to associate random acts of civil disobedience with social change.


The March student march in Berkeley was little more than a pleasant walk down Telegraph Avenue on a sunny spring afternoon–although I admit I twisted my ankle. This, my dear comrades, is modern democracy in action: A Protest Without a Program.


What the US does not have is a national progressive umbrella, and until we have one, we will continue to have pleasant strolls down wishful-thinking lanes. When gay rights meets, students’ rights, meets women’s rights, meets environmental restoration, meets people-of-color rights, meets anti-war, etc. etc…, then the cops will start chasing us again, then we will be a movement compelling social change through true democratic action.


The US has thousands of nonprofit organizations fighting for thousands of narrow progressive interests. Divide-and-conquer is as old as civilization itself. The great mystery of human behavior is the mystery of what historical, social, and personal conditions trigger mass social movements.


The great mystery is when will the social conditions in the US coalesce to again bring unity among division, and solidarity in action.

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