Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, far be it from me to be its exorcist.

Unsurprising to the nice round number of zero, Adam made it known this week he is wary of protests. His post indicating as much is one-half cheek and the other half teeth. As it happens, his (& a good many of your) reservations squeakily hinged on the fact that protests too rarely work. We Leftist-intellectuals are a busy lot, after all, and good time management requires that we cut out the ineffectual fat from our schedules, to make way for retweeting memes and attending committee meetings. I popped up in the comments of Adam’s post, a resident, tolerated troll, objecting in my own opaque way. I thought I might elaborate with a short post.

First of all, let me be perfectly clear: I do not place a moral or political imperative on your participation in protests. Truth be told, I don’t even participate that much. Off the top of my head, my somewhat notable credentials include: marching through downtown Glasgow in 2003, in tandem with much of the world, in a truly toothless display of policed & politically ignored repudiation of the inevitable assault of Iraq; running quite aimlessly from the police in Edinburgh during a 2005 G8 protest gone wrong (or right, I can’t recall); various Occupy Oakland activities, many of them stinking of tear gas, in which I put to use my baritone, to the point of becoming hoarse, to bellow seemingly rhetorical questions like “Who’s port?” and relishing the unnecessary cry from those shutting it down for the night, “Our port!”

Second of all, let me add: none of these things achieved any of the stated hopes or aspirations of those appointed or self-selected as a spokesperson. For my part, I experienced a lot of bored glances at my watch, confused queries to strangers (“What’s happening now?”), fear for my sacrosanct-pure criminal record, and a curious joy when the heavily scripted nature of each action would momentarily break down.

This is to say: for all my romanticism and appeal to affect, I’m really not much of an idealist.

You who don’t know me may want proof, so here goes: I’m pretty firmly of the mind that our goose is, and has been for quite some time, cooked. Singed even beyond our cannibalistic consumption. I believe that power will not concede an inch, ever, until it finally is forced by a power greater than itself. For some, I realize, this takes away the need to do anything at all. Such a response, however, is ludicrous, and is sickly with a privilege quietly hopeful that the comfort of “now” will hold out at least for a bit longer. Make no mistake, I realize I think about these things from a position of real privilege, albeit too with a lived sense of how precarious this privilege is. For me, true fatalism does not despair action — it just takes away the need to quantify what success means. With that out of the way you’re freed, and arguably assigned the task, to try just about anything. (Operative question: are things now somehow any different now than, say, two hundred years ago? Two millennia? Would it matter if there was?)

It’s taken me this many words and a bottle of wine to get to my point: I insist on the difference (albeit one born of the kinship between) the protest and a crowd. Protests are those things we attend or avoid, with political ends usually left unachieved. Protests are planned, their signage stapled or taped across town before and after. People of vaguely like-minded intent meet at protests; sometimes they fall in love, other times they just fuck. Mostly, though, they just forget. “I was there, too!” they’ll say seven years later. “Those were good times,” they’ll agree. “We tried, but alas,” they’ll say with their shoulders. There is a class of “professional” protesters — people who somehow make it to every action, johnny on the spot and on time, pamphlet-informed, equipped with goggles and a milk of magnesia concentrate for tear-gassed eyes. Protests are peopled by those on every stage of an activist life-cycle — naive hope, enthusiastic promise, success so close, success so far, promise broken, hope bludgeoned — with a few jaundiced zombies here and there, usually near the curbs.

Hypothesis: every protest has within it an embryonic crowd that its slogans, signs, intentions and goals cannot contain. What’s more, the protest is inherently conflicted, for it is of at least two minds: it anticipates and sublimates the crowd. I’m being vague, I realize. This is perhaps where Adam and I are either not eye to eye or simply don’t speak the same language. His hope, it seems, is that the intention of a successful protest should lead to a demand met. I.e., A cop being arrested, in the recent example of Ferguson — some modicum of or token gesture toward justice. Where we deviate is not in the hope for justice, but in the measure of a successful protest. He wants to see effects, where I’m content to see a crowd.

For if a protest is to have any influence, however we wish to measure that, I daresay it is not because it is a threat in itself . . . but rather in the crowd it either suppresses or unleashes. The crowd is unwieldy. Neither the signs nor the chants are the messages. The protest has become a complex body, with appendages spread and splayed . . . and it is learning to walk. Clumsily at first, it moves through the streets, breaking things, thoughtless and apparently inept. Embarrassing. There is no spokesperson. The classic journalistic W’s  — the What’s and Why’s — are answered unhelpfully with an anonymous “We” buoyed by contradictions — vengeance and forgiveness, rights asserted and wrongs forgotten — and peopled by an assortment of bodies whose purpose is never so much forgotten as held momentarily at bay. Crowds are subject to symbols — fire and broken glass, to be sure; but also laughter, at things later unfunny; fear, for oneself and others. Anger and joy are never so far apart in the crowd as they are in the protest. The crowd whose story is not the plot — beginning, middle, and end — but the telling itself.

I agree with Elias Canetti, at least as I read him, that there is a certain history of the world — from its very beginning(s) to its end(s) — in the phenomenon of the crowd. It is, I think, for this this reason that I’m reluctant to denigrate the protest. Celebrations and mourning sometimes invite the crowd, this is true. But even then I suspect a kindling of protest is necessary — some wrong, perceived or real, lit into an inferno engulfing right. Which is to say, not all crowds are equal. Some, as history as shown, are born of the desire actively to deny a subsequent or particular crowd from occurring, and they blaze into controlled flames called arson and extermination.

Arguably, the crowd has become rare, or perhaps momentary to little effect — not least with our modern aesthetic and technological yearning to self-narrate. Is it, though, one of those forces potentially (if uncertainly) a check to existing power? I believe its fundamental unruliness suggests it could be. For that’s all the crowd can offer, in contrast to a protest that seeks promises. Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, far be it from me to be its exorcist.

5 Responses to “Should the spirit of protest occasion a crowd, far be it from me to be its exorcist.”

  1. Stephen Keating Says:

    Great post Brad. Let the record show that this is the day when the People Republic of AUFS began crumbling under dissension.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Perhaps the fact that it prompted this post can partly redeem mine.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    This is a really beautiful post. Adam, you should find ways to provoke Brad into this sort of writing more often!

  4. Brad Says:

    Adam … no redemption needed. I disagreed with you post, but suspect (& saw) that a good many did not.

    Robert … thank you. A fine compliment coming from you.


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