I want to reflect a little bit on my experiences of the March 19 peace march in Los Angeles, one of a great many such events that occurred around the world to commemorate the second anniversary of the invasion and recolonization of Iraq. For pictures and text, including some interesting critiques, go to LA Indymedia and scroll down a bit in their central "features" column.
In general, I can think of three general classes of reasons for engaging in a particular political action.
- To build something useful and positive and liberatory. This would include Gandhi's "constructive program"; holding a women's dance to raise money for a local women's shelter; the breakfast programs of the Black Panthers; forming a worker cooperative.
- To directly confront or interfere with or otherwise disrupt an oppressive event or institution. This would include dock workers refusing to load ships with armaments that were going to be used in putting down an uprising by workers or peasants in some other part of the world; the material interference in the smooth functioning of the World Trade Organization summit by activists in Seattle in November 1999; the historic boycott of Nestle because of its behaviour in the developing world.
- To change the consciousness of someone, somewhere. This would apply to practically everything that is ever done in the name of social change, including on some level all of the examples cited above, but it would be more of a foreground concern in terms of speechifying, putting out leaflets and books and newspapers, and of course many kinds of demonstrations.
There is nothing inherently wrong with action that falls mostly or exclusively into category (3). In fact, most activities even by people who place a lot of emphasis on direct action are, in fact, largely in that category. One difficulty in thinking and making decisions about this kind of action is that human consciousness is a notoriously slippery beast and it can be a pretty tricky thing to predict what kind of effect you will have or try and evaluate what kind of effect you have had. I think a useful tool in trying to figure this out, at least for those of us inclined to look to the progressive sections of the Western academy for insight, is various research and writing on pedagogy, including the academic areas encompassed by the term "critical pedagogy." I'm far from an expert about these things, but I think it's an interesting place to start. The purpose of most of the pedagogy of political actions should be, I think, to facilitate people in their journeys of political consciousness and action in ways that lead towards justice and liberation and empowerment of individuals and communities. Ideally, such pedagogy is reciprocal, mutually supportive, and egalitarian rather than unidirectional, hierarhcical, and authoritarian.
A mass action can be one of the types of direct action described in (1) and (2) above -- the mass presence of people could be engaged in protecting or disrupting a particular institution, for example. But most mass actions I have been a part of, including last Saturday's peace march and rally in Los Angeles, are purely symbollic and therefore seek to influence the course of human events solely through mechanism (3).
As I've expressed before on this site, I often have mixed feelings about symbollic mass actions. I have sometimes experienced them as affirming and empowering and energizing. At other times I have found them empty and ritualistic and unoriginal and pointless. Some of that is idiosyncratic to me, and has to do with my mood on any given day, but certainly not all. By thinking of such actions in terms of pedagogy, it has been possible for me to articulate a little bit more clearly, at least for myself, my attitudes towards them.
The M19 march in LA was much like many other marches I have been to. There was a preamble that consisted of people milling about until the time came to go into the street, a rally, then a march, then another rally. The milling about involved much exchanging and selling of radical (and, in one rare case, progressive Islamic) propaganda. Both rallies involved lengthy lists of speakers and a little bit of music.
Quirky notes: The sound system at the pre-march rally was woefully inadequate. It rained. The hotdog vendors had no veggie dogs so I had to settle for a pre-packaged pastry. I liked that it was in Hollywood because that is the area where we first lived in LA and I miss it; except for going to a movie up there a few weeks after we moved I haven't been back since last August. There is something mesmerizing about Hollywood because it is the cultural focus of such huge amounts of money but the whole place is just so trashy. But at least there are street-level business and people (a few) actually walk places.
But back to pedagogy -- it seems to me that in this event, as in the many others like it which I have been to, there were two main ways in which the opportunity for teaching/learning were explicitly seized.
One was the distribution of literature during the preamble to the march. In some ways, I think this is harmless or even useful. Where else do most people who are not themselves active in radical politics have an opportunity to acquire material produced from radical left perspectives, and even engage in conversation with people who advocate those positions? Of course the quality of the newspapers varies a lot. Some I find interesting and useful, though some are so laden with jargon and so dogmatic that I would imagine they alienate far more people than they educate even before the readers actually reach the content. And while conversational engagement with party members can be interesting -- I have certainly found it so in the past -- from my observation what happens at such events isn't real person-to-person engagement. Last Saturday I saw more than one exchange between a youthful party member who appeared to be pretty privileged and a fellow demonstrator who appeared to be coming from more oppressed spaces, in which the party member was doing far more telling and a lot less listening than I would think would be useful if one was trying to build a meaningfully revolutionary organization. And I realize this is my own baggage, but I do find something mildly embarassing about the desperation of the Marxist sectlets in hawking their papers, because it gives the impression that they are it, as in the only conceivable alternative to the liberal Democrats or the Greens, and that is a depressing thought. At the same time, I don't want to support the tendency that most people would have to dismiss these groups out of hand, because many participate in useful organizing and have valid and interesting analyses on the questions of the day.
The other site for explicit attempts at teaching/learning was the speeches at the rallies. It seems to me that the best use for such speeches would be to reaffirm the central points of unity for the rally, stir up some energy and enthusiasm, and perhaps briefly present some information or a perspective or two that the participants in the march might find challenging or novel. The mode of teaching/learning is still very authoritarian, in that there is one source of wisdom (the podium) and many passive recipients, but using that model in the way I described above would both make the event enjoyable and perhaps provide fodder for discussions amongst marchers, where the real teaching/learning would actually take place. Instead, M19 in LA followed a protocol that seems quite widespread, with all of the sponsoring organizations getting a few minutes at the mike, resulting in most people at the pre-march rally getting bored, frustrated, and wet, and learning little, while most people dispersed at the end of the route long before the last speaker spoke. Which isn't to say there were not individual speakers that were informative and inspiring -- there definitely were -- but whatever boost they provide tends to be smothered in the monotony of the rest.
(An encouraging side note to this dynamic during the pre-march rally last Saturday came from some folk beside me who resisted the authoritarian and boring and soggy method of pedagogy that was being imposed. It was folks from the LA chapter of U.S. Labor Against the War, who seemed to be mostly SEIU members judging by their jackets and buttons, who kept chanting "Start the march now! Start the march now!" in the face of too many speakers, too much rain, and not enough volume.)
All of this probably comes across as being more negative than I really intend. After all, I went to the march knowing that it would probably be like this, and I'm sure I'll go to many more such marches. I'll enjoy some more than others, and I'll probably rant over beer after more than a few of them. But I'll still go. And I'll probably feel after most of them that it was well worth going. There are a couple of reasons for this.
The single most important learning from mass actions like this has nothing to do with the explicit attempts to convey information. It is, rather, the empowerment and affirmation and support and all-around psychological boost that comes from being in the midst of thousands of other people from a great variety of geographical, social, and political corners of the community who are all engaged in struggling towards the same (or at least functionally similar in the short term) goals. As I note regularly here, LA is a very separated and separating city, and being a stay-at-home parent is also relatively socially and politically isolating, so being in a crowd of union activists, Latino punks, liberal Christians, women wearing hijab, Bus Riders Union organizers, Anti-Racist Action militants, Progressive Democrats of America members, Palestinian nationalists, high school peaceniks, octogenarian Quakers, radical cheerleaders, women and men who had engaged in revolutionary struggle in their countries of origin before moving to LA, and all sorts of other people of conscience, was like being immersed in an ocean that washed away at least a few of the encrusted layers of alienation that form a protective but unhealthy callus on the outside of one's psyche in the course of daily life. And this kind of affirmation and empowerment is very much pedagogical -- there is no question that it helps important realities seep into consciousness in a way that just reading about them as dry facts cannot.
And the other factor that will keep me going back to marches like this is keeping in mind exactly what their purpose and function is. Sometimes, an embodied statement of dissent matters a lot. It can become an empty ritual, but sometimes it matters. Given the nature of the occasion and the number of other people in so many other sites across the globe doing the same thing, last Saturday was important. But it is also important to remember that the real work of social change occurs not at marches but between them. And that means that even if there are common features of such marches that make me roll my eyes, that doesn't need to be a cause for negativity overall because marches are just marches, and the rest of the diverse and inspiring ways of changing the world and combatting imperialism keep on going regardless.