Austin’s reaction to Israel’s ongoing massacre in the Gaza Strip has been impressive and shows a great deal of promise. Looked at through a participatory, strategic lens, we can see several positive elements worth highlighting, along with some areas for improvement and goals to aim for as we move forward.
So far at least six protests have been organized, of which I’ve attended four. In addition, MonkeyWrench Books has hosted two Friday night Gaza film screenings, with two remaining. Under the auspices of the Austin Permanent Peace Protest, there will be ongoing vigils/protests on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Capitol and the intersection of 6th and Lamar, respectively. And on Saturday, January 10th, a coalition of Austin activists put on a Day of Action for Gaza, with talks, poetry, and several ways to get involved.
There’s a lot that’s been positive about the protests. To start, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of people that have come out to each demonstration. During the third event (my second time out) I counted over fifty people who showed up at Congress and Cesar Chavez on New Year’s Eve and then marched to the capitol and back. The first protest at the capitol must have drawn more than double that, and the last two were probably somewhere in between – although tending toward the higher mark.
Each event had a good energy that was refreshing to be around. People enthusiastically got into the chants and often we clapped in rhythm. Many individuals sported kaffiyas and there were several Palestinian flags – large and small – being waved. Cars would honk in support and some people even painted Palestinian flags or peace signs on their faces. Some of our chants included:
Free! Free! Palestine!
Free Free Palestine! / Viva Viva Palestina! / Harer Harer Palestin!
Free Free Palestine! / Long live Palestine! / Long live the intifada! / Intifada! Intifada!
Occupation is a crime / From Iraq to Palestine!
Hey Obama! / We want change in Gaza!
Not another nickel / not another dime / no more money / for Israel’s crimes!
1, 2, 3, 4 / We don’t want your racist war / 5, 6, 7, 8 / Israel is a terrorist state!
And of course, the ‘ol standby:
What do we want? / Justice! / When do we want it? / Now!
I thought it was good that although the crowd was already large when I got to the first protest, it was awhile before I recognized anyone that I knew. So even though that was a little uncomfortable, it meant it wasn’t just the usual suspects (or that I’m less connected than I thought—perhaps both). There was a significant Arab presence and traditional dress, including everyone I saw speaking to the media. And it wasn’t long before I met good people, especially after seeing similar faces two or three times. This last time I even got a hug and handshake from two new activist friends, which was great.
Why protest? In this case there was no direct target selected, such as a media outlet, Israeli embassy, or the federal building. This was more about voicing opposition in order to a) express our outrage; b) garner media coverage to affect public opinion by showing dissent with Israel/US policy and provide a break in the pro-Israel media coverage; and to c) boost our morale and (hopefully) solidify disperse activist energies toward a more specific undertaking, such as a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign.
For me, the main benefits have been a) and c). Even though this issue is what drew me into campus activism almost nine years ago, over time it simply became too painful to keep up with. I couldn’t keep reading about the daily realities of life under Israeli occupation when it seemed there was nothing that could be done to change it. So I let my attention to the issue – and my Palestinian bumper stickers – fade. But the protests have rejuvenated me. It felt great to just yell, with others, our opposition to murderous policies. And it made me more appreciative of those who have been sticking it out in the meantime, without a highly visible crisis to rally around.
The other main benefit comes in the form of potential. If there is a silver lining to the U.S.-Israel assault it is the opportunity it affords the many people who are apart of or who know of the opposition to these policies to link together in a way that is lasting and effective in changing policy. I was hoping the Day of Action on Saturday would discuss some of these possibilities. One of my fears is that after a ceasefire is reached and the conflict has disappeared from the headlines, so too will our momentum and the ability to translate our energy into a powerful campaign.
It is never smart to predict the future, but if we do our job right there’s no reason this can’t become a Pyrrhic victory for Israel marking the beginning of its end as a colonial, apartheid state. I have some of my own thoughts about the values and structures that an organization and movement with the ability to change U.S. foreign policy should have – a proposed alliance of diverse solidarity organizations, tentatively called New Solidarity – and I’m hoping to develop these with the Austin Project for a Participatory Society and with others I’ve met during the recent protests.
An Area for Improvement
Before I make a friendly criticism, let me clarify that I write this as someone who identifies as a member of the Left, is an ally of this cause, and who knows what it’s like to organize events only to have others take pot shots from the sidelines. So my intentions are good! Also I understand that these events were put together by a developing coalition of activists in a very short amount of time – which makes them all the more impressive – and that there will be things that are overlooked.
That said, I am a process freak, and I found myself slightly frustrated a few times at what essentially were communication issues surrounding who was organizing the protest, coordinating events, and making decisions. For example, I received two flyers at the first protest, but neither had contact information for any of the local groups working on the issue, and aside from ISO members selling their newspapers, there was no easy way to identify who was or wasn’t part of one of the local groups working on the issue, such as UT’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee or the Interfaith Council for Palestinian Rights, nor who might have been a point person for the event: no peacekeepers with armbands, for instance.
This led to some confusion at the first protest when the crowd was hushed in order to hear speakers, or so it seemed, only instead to have a segment of the demonstrators move from the street in front of the capitol to the nearby lawn to pray. Those of us remaining did not chant during this time, of course, but as time went on it was not clear if we could start up again and whom we could ask about it. After waiting and asking around I decided to start up "Free Free Palestine!" and judging by the response there was fortunately no problem doing so. Later on, after one gentleman spoke via bullhorn, I wanted to make a suggestion about a tangible way for people to act on this issue, since all I had heard up to that point was very general (sign a petition, stop U.S. support for Israel, free free Palestine, etc.). But I couldn’t find anyone who knew what the program was or whom to ask, and so I just found another man holding the bullhorn and suggested he suggest that people contact local news organizations when their coverage wasn’t representative of the situation–which he briefly did later on.
Another example: on New Year’s Eve, as I walked up the Congress Avenue bridge to meet the group, I passed the offices of the Austin American Statesman. It occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to send a delegation to voice our disappointment in the media coverage and give a few salient facts that have been omitted in nearly all the corporate news coverage. But again, after asking around it wasn’t clear whom to talk to about it or if simply announcing it was going to happen would be stepping on anyone’s toes.
This was frustrating not just because it felt like decisions were being made without being able to identify the process or people behind them, but also because I felt like I had something to contribute – and still do – but don’t have avenues for doing so. For instance, one organization I emailed about getting involved has yet to respond, and I couldn’t find the Facebook group that I heard was helping publicize the events. Fortunately this seems to be slowly improving: at the most recent demonstration and the Day of Action for Gaza an email list was finally available for people to sign up on, and at the latter the website www.solidaritywithgaza.org was advertised, which looks like it will help coordinate efforts of the Austin Coalition for Gaza.
Even with these issues, my feelings about the activism we’ve seen so far are very much positive. My hope is that people think in an increasingly strategic way when engaging in activism, both to help address potential obstacles and to augment movement strengths. The recent protests illustrate well how this can occur.
For example, one aid for thinking strategically is to ask two questions of any event: "What are we doing this for?" and "What am I doing this for?" The first question forces us to specify how an event brings an organization, campaign, or movement closer to achieving its collective goals. The second pushes each of us decide whether our involvement is meeting our own needs, both personally and within the movement.
In the case of the Gaza protests, asking our first question highlights the lack of a clearly definable "we", which, while understandable at this early stage, presents us with the task of clarifying how this effort is being organized and how individuals and organizations within it will relate to one another.
The first question also directs us to think in a goal-oriented fashion. Over the past two weeks we have voiced our dissent and, as described above, this has not been for nothing. But we should be clear about our shared understanding of what these actions can accomplish and not place expectations on them that will inevitably leave us demoralized and weakened. If by making a show of support for Palestine we hope to generate some positive news coverage, show that support for Israel isn’t unanimous, feel better for having done something, and build momentum for collective action, we will leave feeling empowered, as I did. If we believe we are going to change U.S. foreign policy because our chants reached a certain decibel level, or because we marched up and down Congress Avenue on a holiday, or because we had a 10:1 thumbs up to middle finger ratio from passersby, we will eventually become disillusioned about the possibility of winning.
"What are we doing this for?" (or if you prefer, "What are we getting out of this?") is shorthand for numerous components of an effective movement, and can be used to gauge the efficacy of movement tactics and strategies. More specific questions include:
How does this strengthen us as an organization?
Are we attracting new members?
Are we bringing out people who already agree?
Are we reaching people who don’t already agree?
Are we providing diverse opportunities for people to be involved where they are comfortable?
Are we increasing our members’ commitment?
Are we developing member consciousness?
Are we building something sustainable?
Are we targeting the right people and institutions?
Are we making it more difficult for them to continue without changing?
Is our campaign bringing us closer to our long-term vision?
Can members see how their efforts are contributing to this trajectory?
When we apply these to Austin’s recent surge of activism, we can see that our good start still leaves much work to be done. Absent any lasting organizational structure or connection to a larger campaign, our efforts – as a reaction to current events – are ultimately limited by those events. In this case that means the window for channeling our outrage into a purposeful, proactive movement could begin closing within a few short weeks—if even that. Alternately phrased, as time goes on the value of protesting instead of planning is decreasing; I’d argue that at this point our time at the Capitol would be better spent sitting on the lawn discussing our next steps than holding signs and chanting.
The second question, "What am I doing this for?" ("What am I getting out of this?") is, broadly speaking, a way of compelling movement accountability to its members both personally and as activists. With regard to the Gaza protests, I have described how, even in a somber context, it has been good to be back involved with this issue and to meet new people, while at times also feeling slightly discouraged about being able to contribute to the organizing efforts. If our work on this issue continues, we would do well to keep these more specific questions in mind:
Do I feel like I’m part of a community?
Am I finding support for my activist work?
Am I finding support personally?
Are there clear avenues for providing input to the group?
How are group decisions being reached?
Is there a fair process for resolving disputes and mediating conflicts?
Am I developing my skills and understanding?
Is the group culture positive and healthy?
Can I give and receive friendly criticism?
Do I feel like I’m making a difference?
At such an early stage in the Coalition for Gaza’s work, it is unclear how members feel about these questions, or if they even see them as applicable yet. Yet for all social change efforts, the sooner we come to a shared understanding of what we want, the sooner we can begin building participatory movements that are consistent with our short- and long-term goals. Collectively powerful and individually empowering, these movements can also prefigure the values and institutions that we envision: in Austin, Gaza, and beyond.
Marcus Denton is a member of the Austin Project for a Participatory Society: www.austinpps.org.