Street-theatre protest can grab attention, but it’s not so good at keeping it

The front page of the Bloor-Annex Town Crier had me laughing out loud one day in late March. Above a photograph of a grotesque puppet and a man dressed like a sheik outside the American consulate was the straight-faced headline, “Peace rallies haven’t stopped war on Iraq.”

It seemed a dare to readers to ask, “if a dancing puppet of Bush wearing a red bikini and devil horns can’t convince the White House that regime change in Iraq is unnecessary, what will?” I wonder, did they try shouting, “No blood for oil?” Did they kick in a Starbucks window?

Perhaps it’s time, now that the war’s mostly over and as we enter a month traditionally given over to reflections on protest, that protesters took another look at their tactics. Since the dawn of the travelling circus at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999, protest organizers in North America have been good at getting pictures of street theatre onto the front pages of newspapers and at the top of evening newscasts. They’ve been less successful in focusing discussion on the complex, important issues at stake.

Sid Lacombe, a campaign coordinator with the Canadian Peace Alliance, says, “It’s general knowledge within the movement that the anti-war protests were successful.”

Successful? Was anything prevented? Any lives or cuneiform tablets saved that wouldn’t have been had protesters remained absolutely silent?

Lacombe thinks the Canadian government would have joined the “coalition of the willing” if not for the thousands of Canadians who marched at rallies, and believes the Shock and Awe campaign was toned down because of worldwide protests.

Since the American war on Vietnam, these shadows of victories are the most any rational dissenter might expect. The sentimentalized anti-war movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s were not practically successful (the protests picked up steam in 1967 and the war ended in 1975; it’s hard to imagine all the turning on, tuning in and dropping out saved a single life or shortened America’s longest war by a single day), but it has become the model for subsequent protests: as large and inclusive as possible with a focus on grabbing attention through theatrical stunts (lessons learned from Greenpeace zaps), even at the expense of coherence.

Why has this singularly ineffective method of activism become the model for North American protest? There are other ways of doing things.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s marchers on Washington were instructed how to dress (suits and ties for the men, tasteful skirts and dresses for the women) and all signs bore one of a few pre-approved slogans. And there were only three speakers at the day’s event, who eloquently summed up the two easily understood demands of the assembly: better jobs for black Americans and the formalization of civil rights protections. Clear, controlled and effective, the protest spoke and stayed on message. And it worked.

In Poland in the 1980s, Solidarity toppled the Communist government, largely through strikes; leader Lech Walesa provided a focus and genuine political aptitude. Similar results were achieved by the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in six weeks of protest, perhaps the most dramatic regime change in modern history.

Most successful movements in the past have had a few things in common that today’s mass dissenters lack: an articulated injustice by one group against another; clear demands for immediate, concrete action; some element of central, reasonable control for authorities to negotiate with, and the absence of puppetry as a primary method of communication.

Lacombe and other activists say that the required sophistication exists in the current movement, but the weight of its concerns is being ignored by reporters.

“Throughout the entire [anti-globalization] process it was quite consistent that the mainstream press rarely even asked us why we were out demonstrating,” Lacombe says. “The entire coverage focused on ‘are you worried about violence from the demonstrators?’ and that was it, there was no room for us to say, ‘we’re here for a serious reason.'”

There are some historical examples of street theatre being successful, but most — gay pride springs immediately to mind — are cases in which attracting attention is the primary goal. When “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” is not only your slogan but an accurate reflection of your political program, exposure is all that’s needed. Global trade seems to require something a little more intricate.

The movement needs to shed its dependence on theatrics, shrug off its reluctance to work inside conventional political systems. The No-Logo crowd’s disenfranchisement has been much discussed and admired, yet it’s also partly self-imposed; a badge of honour, an indication of street cred, for the protesters. Disenfranchisement’s easy; enfranchisement’s hard.

Lacombe says that the recent anti-war movement has begun to work with conventional political groups, especially the NDP in Canada, but that the globalization issue is more complicated. “We had a whole debate around ‘reform versus reject,’ that went around for a long time … and there’s still debate around whether these institutions are even reformable,” he says.

Yet it’s only by working with the system — as party organizers and candidates (like Solidarity and Czech leader/writer Vaclav Havel) and voters (like Medgar Evers and the ’60s voter registration movement in the American South) — that the movement can see its issues on the table. There’s a point in every political struggle at which outsiders must move inside, trading in the righteousness of the pure of heart and entering the compromising fray of genuine political discourse. It takes a certian kind of imagination to come up with an evil-looking George W. Bush in papier maché; it takes quite another to imagine ways to work the existing system to achieve your ends. So far, the current generation of protesters has earned several gold stars for arts and crafts; a lot depends on whether it can graduate into political science.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on May 8, 2003.