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Two, Three, Many Protests…But All On the Same Night?


Leslie Cagan

George

W. and his new friends in the leadership of the New York State Republican Party

gathered at a fund raising dinner in mid-town Manhattan October 5th. They were

all there: George W. Bush, George Pataki, Rudolf Giuliani, Al D’Amato and the

rest of the bunch of thugs. About 2,000 people attended the event and raised

over $2 million for the candidate who already has obscene amounts of money in

his campaign chest. It was, in fact, a rather disgusting display of some of this

country’s most dangerous men.

Outside,

placed across the street by the New York City Police Department, people active

in a number of movements gathered to raise their voices in protest. There must

have been at least three hundred people, which is certainly not bad these days.

Energy was high, lots of chanting, good banners and posters…all the markers of

a good demonstration. And as I moved through the crowd everyone seemed to be

pleased to be there and glad to be part of the protest.

 

But

there was a problem, and as I see it, a major problem. This was not a unified

effort articulating our opposition to the policies and practices of the

Republican Party in this state and nationally. Instead, five groups each put

together their own separate protest. In the space of one city block there were

five distinct groups: ACT-UP addressing AIDS polices of both Pataki and Bush;

NYC NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) pointing out Bush’s strong

anti-abortion positions; the Campaign to End the Death Penalty protesting both

the Texas and New York governor; a NYC based group calling for an end to the

State’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws; and two unions of state employees

demanding better contracts from Pataki.

No

doubt about it…it was good to see that each of these groups could mobilize

folks and put together a public protest on short notice. And yet even with a

"common enemy" our forces were not able to present a unified voice. I

can’t swear on this, but I’ll bet that there was not even an effort to discuss a

more coherent approach to the evening’s protest. Each group did it’s separate

outreach and made their own plans. I know I got email announcements about three

of the planned protests…and none of them made any reference to other folks

coming out at the same time.

What

I found particularly upsetting was that it seemed as if most of the people at

the demonstrations were feeling fine, happy for the opportunity to raise their

voice on the issue they felt most strongly about, and not concerned about the

separation between the various groups. The difference in the issues being

addressed was highlighted by the Police Department’s creation of separate pens

for each group. To move from one issue to another…and I know I was not the

only person there who actually cares about all of these issues! …people had to

go in and out of a series of police barricades.

There

is plenty to be upset about when it comes to the ways the police in this city

now handle any public protest. Yet I couldn’t help but feel as if we had given

the police the go-ahead to keep us separated. Indeed, the separations we create

amongst ourselves not only dilutes our message but to some degree make it

possible for the police to take their steps to keep us even further apart.

I

know each group wants to make sure their issue is heard, that their concerns are

not lost in a protest effort that defines the broad issues without focusing on

the particulars. Well, that’s more than reasonable. But do we always have to

chose one or the other?

This

may sound hopelessly optimistic, but I cling to the notion that there must be a

way for us to work together, to explain what ties us to one another, to

articulate what we have in common AND call attention to specific struggles.

In

fact, I see this as one of the greatest challenges facing leftists today. (To

put this very simply, by leftist I mean someone who understands the need for

systemic change in virtually all of the institutions and structures of our

lives, someone who knows the struggles against different oppressions are linked

to one another.) The challenge is this: can we build a unified movement that

focuses on specific problems/struggles/constituencies when that’s needed and at

the same time offers a comprehensive analysis that, among other things, allows

for and encourages a much greater degree of cooperation.

If

you’ve read some of my previous commentaries you might have noticed a theme

emerging. Yes, I am deeply troubled by the state of the left in this country.

When do we move beyond what keeps us apart? What steps do we need to take to

support each other and, on an even larger scale, to base our decisions about

tactics and issue-focus on a comprehensive analysis?

I

will keep going to and help organize as many of these protest activities as I

can get to. There is certainly plenty to protest. But if our protests are always

focused on the most narrow definition of our struggles we will never be strong

enough to be heard…let alone to make a difference. And when all is said and

done, isn’t changing things what we really want?

Leslie

Cagan: Decades long organizer in a board range of peace and social justice

movements, Leslie is presently involved in struggles to defend Open Admissions

at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is a co-chair of the National

Committees of Correspondence and is on the board of the Astraea National

Lesbian Action Foundation. Leslie is also part of the growing effort to

re-invigorate a left/progressive presence in the

lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender movement.

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