They Doth Protest Too Much

Ana Marie Cox

An incredibly successful protest took place September 22. Activists around the country attracted attention to the unjust actions of their government and its leader — a man whose rule many consider illegitimate and whose policies they likened to fascism.

I am speaking, of course, of the largest rally in British history, when 400,000 people converged on London to protest a proposed ban on fox hunting. The event’s organizers — the Countryside Alliance — called it the Liberty and Livelihood” march, and it’s tough to predict which group would be more offended by the comparison to the anti-World Bank protests that took place in Washington the next weekend. Both protests were in fact about much more. The World Bank protests were for many an opportunity to rail against Bush policies on the environment and Iraq. Likewise, the pro-fox-hunting pilgrims used the march to agitate in favor of target pistol shooting and the Equine Grass Sickness Fund.

The anarchists and peace activists who came to Washington might be upset by the Countryside Alliance’s causal appropriation of fascist” to describe Tony Blair’s support for a ban on fox hunting, though not necessarily because they disagree on the label. But there is a difference between calling someone a fascist because he favors a pre-emptive” war on Iraq, and calling someone a fascist because he thinks grown adults should find something better to do with their time than putting on funny hats and chasing small animals through the woods.

But it is also tough to ignore the corduroy and hacking jacket contingent’s massive turnout: They got about 15 times more protesters than the World Bank folks did. (The most generous reports put the final number in Washington at about 5,000.) That the Countryside Alliance spent a million pounds promoting their event largely explains the discrepancy, but it’s still difficult to avoid the cynical conclusion that it is easier to protest in favor of a lifestyle than it is to protest against the heavy-handed economic tactics of an unaccountable oligarchy.

The easy rejoinder to that, however, is that protesting the oligarchy has itself become a lifestyle, a pastime most people find as anachronistic and irrelevant as fox hunting, if not more so. At least fox hunting, as the Countryside Alliance might remind us, provides employment.

In pursuing their street theater/​giant puppet/​bicycle rally tactics of direct confrontation, liberal activists are more than just stuck in the past,” lost in some Vietnam flashback or civil rights dream. They are, in fact, moving backward, enamored of methods that alienate large chunks of a potentially sympathetic populace.

D.C.’s local alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, addressed the protests with a Best Of” cover story, the same format usually reserved for citywide popularity contests. This is a rubric ideally suited to superficiality, and the activists profiled inside did little to disappoint. Caught lofting a black flag while playing hacky sack, the winner of the Best Slacker Pose (Male)” explained its significance thusly: Just to show how damned good I am at hacky sack!” Even more disappointing: When a planned quarantine” of the World Bank was frustrated by a low turnout, Loren Finkelstein, the spokeswoman for Mobilization for Global Justice, simply spun in a fashion that would make Ari Fleischer green with envy. The quarantine was just one of our protests,” she claimed, alleging success with the imagery goal — sending the message, projecting the image.” (She earned runner-up honors for Best Corporate Flack in Radical Drag.”)

The activists also scored in their stated goal of shutting the city down. And as a commuter who sat in traffic all morning listening to sirens wail in an almost deserted downtown, I can attest to a partial victory. They forced police to close Connecticut Avenue — a main thoroughfare — by placing a suspicious package in the middle of the road. A small group also blocked traffic on the 14th Street Bridge for about 20 minutes — admittedly a blink of an eye as measured in Beltway commute terms. Perhaps most audaciously, the mere presence of the protesters spurred the city to remove 63 of the 200 garish Party Animal” public art-cum-propaganda elephants and donkeys from open areas — the only act for which I think anyone actually living in D.C. was grateful.

For the most part, however, the protests were ineffectual and ignored. All this is especially disappointing because the issues raised by the World Bank and by the administration’s increasingly imperious approach to policy-making (whether waging unilateral war with Iraq or creating a Justice Department whose concern with civil rights begins and ends with the Second Amendment) are more relevant and intelligible to most Americans than ever before.

Approached in almost any other way, these protests could have capitalized on still-untapped anger about corporate malfeasance: What is the World Bank, anyway, but a kind of global board of directors — as independent from popular oversight as WorldCom and even more deserving of it?

Polls show Americans to still be deeply divided about regime change” in Iraq. In London, there is less division, with between 150,000 and 400,000 protesters — police say the former, organizers the latter — turning out the weekend after the World Bank gathering for an ant-war march. There might be a way to attract even more supporters in the United States: The latest numbers indicate a majority of Americans believe a country should invade another only if attacked first, and 70 percent think that Bush should wait for a congressional approval before acting. Framed not as a universal war is bad” truism, but as a call for reason and caution, an anti-unilateralism event might draw people more PTA than PETA. It would look more like the Liberty and Livelihood” march and less like Seattle.

That’s what the movement needs. Insular and self-congratulatory, the radicals who are now the public face of leftism in this country present its worst side. But the only way to take back activism is to become active, to stop mocking the Black Bloc and start making them seem less representative — if for no other reason than it would disarm critics who prefer to debate caricatures rather than ideas. 

But what I hated the most about last month’s events in D.C. was how they embarrassed me about my own politics. I would like to believe there are others out there who felt the same way, but I won’t know unless I meet them on the street — preferably, marching in the same direction. 

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Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
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