The Occupy protests of 2011 − 2012 fizzled and eventually faded because there was no voice. Rather it was a scattered, disjointed jumble of words and demands that were put out by a group of people who never figured out that being all inclusive was not something that could be managed, packaged and sold.
America has lost hope for change because activists — those that could drive change -- tend to see the political struggle as more entertaining than the results, re-election as more important than political stance and publicity as more important than justice.
Activism in the 60s and 70s
The passionate spirit of activism that drove the protests in the 60s and 70s is missing.
LBJ handed a war over to Nixon. Bush handed a war to Obama. While both wars had little to do with national defense, both wars were costly in terms of treasure and human lives.
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But the reactions of Americans were different.
People today no longer stand up for their convictions. There is a prevalent attitude of “go along to get along”.
The current generation of activists seems passive when comparing it with earlier generations; there’s a lack of courage in today’s protestors and the current crop of cardboard waving, slogan chanting demonstrators is more conservative than what was seen five decades ago.
The activists are not the only ones that have morphed. Americans in general today are more tolerant of American bad acts and the public does not seem concerned about a decaying US world reputation.
Technology and activism
History shows that the protests that carry a punch are those with a strong physical presence of demonstrators. Running a close second are the protests that blend a physical presence with a strong online component. A protest that is exclusively done in person with “boots on the ground” fizzles and sputters to a quiet death as soon as the last protester turns the ignition switch in the car and protests that rely strictly on technology, such as social media and online petitions, are not taken seriously.
The 2006 protests at Gallaudet University are a prime example of how protests have evolved over the years and, when combined with focused demands, a strong physical presence married to a strong online presence can result in real, lasting change.
Technology though has watered down the majority of protests.
50 years ago at the time of the March on Washington, it took passion to get enough people to stage an event of that magnitude.
Today, if your favorite sitcom gets cancelled, you can reach for your iPhone or laptop and start an online petition and notify your friends; reducing issues to a 140 character tweet and making a mockery of the cause.
Relatively recent protests such as those by Occupy and the Tea Party rallies would not have been as effective if technology had been used to organize them.
Current state of protestors
In the 60s and 70s police powers were unleashed against protesters exercising their rights. Today’s protesters don’t seem to have what it takes to be “real” protesters.
The general attitude among most demonstrators is, “Let’s hang out for awhile and see what’s happening, then go home,” and this attiude reflects no true conviction about an issue.
At the same time, there is a plethora of “professional protesters” such as Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson as well as the unnamed multitude that live in every town and show up at the drop of a protest sign as “protesters of opportunity”.
The March on Washington, and may other demonstrations of the 60s, were directed at a specific behavior that, in principle, the “other side” could change. Unified action by the protesters helped pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and brought the troops home from Vietnam. The Occupy demonstrators could not agree on any actionable terms on which to focus.
With the absence of a superstar spokesperson, the average person at home watching a demonstration can’t identify with the people they see and this leaves too many people thinking that signing an online petition is a substitute for getting out in the streets.
Current state of protests
Not only have the protesters changed, the character of protests has changed and evolved over the past 50 years starting with the scope and breadth of protests.
The March on Washington was organized by leaders in civil rights, religion and labor; three different, yet related groups.
Protests today have lost the ability to bring together divergent interests in any real meaningful way. The Occupy movement attempted to be “all inclusive” and this gave way to an unfocused response which cost the movement time, money and support.
The actions during the protests 50 years ago actually made progress towards equality and today it seems as if actions, marches and demonstrations just spark discussion with no intention on doing anything more.
While Occupy frittered away it’s best hope to bring about change, it was also harder for it as a larger demonstration to impress itself onto the national consciousness because large demonstrations have happened so many times. With such an unfocused agenda, Occupy has left it’s audience more jaded than ever.
A time for confrontation?
With protest theater, General Assemblies and “consensus”, today’s protesters have come to think that taking big risks is not rational. While any activism is a risk, pacifistic action is seen as less risky because at least “the whole world is watching” and the pacifistic protesters are not giving the audience anything “bad” to say.
Many of the key positive outcomes that have gone along with pacifist protest such as the Civil Rights Act happened as much because of the direct action movements that were behind the non-violence facade. Malcolm X is as much responsible for the success of Civil Rights as Martin Luther King.
In some cases in history, the application of non-violence hastened the forward movement of State powers such as the Red Cross’ efforts in Nazi Germany sped up the slaughter of Jewish People as documented in Henry Feingold’s “The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust”.
The fetishism of “pacifism” has even reached into the popular culture. Whether it’s the critique of Black Bloc tactics at a protest or the recent movie, “The Butler” where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was characterized as purely violent rather than revolutionary and as nearly deserving of the violent assassinations at the understanding of Richard Nixon and the direction of J. Edgar Hoover.
Simply put, it might be too late for principled movement that respects a full range of tactics and direct action. The prevalence of the non-violent movement has equated self-preservation with program failure and has left violence as a monopoly of the state.
When looking at activism in the 60s and comparing it to activism today it’s easy to say that there is nothing new under the sun.
The “new” (current) generation of activists are able to more quickly “organize” than their predessors, but the word organized has to be used with some restraint as there hasn’t been much organizing to protests lately.
Activists, demonstrators and street protesters have the “we’re mad and we’re not going to take it anymore” part down pat. They’ve streamlined the tactics, petitions, marches and sit-ins, but after that, things get a little bit shaky.
The current generation lacks high profile, trusted leaders and there is no consensus on solutions or what would be an acceptable outcome.
Since a consensus on solutions is lacking there is no consensus on demands and the American public looks on in apathy, shrugs at another protest and goes on about it’s day.