You have to give credit where credit is due -- the most reactionary forces in America have appropriated the mass protest tactics pioneered by the labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements, and over the past two summers, used these tactics to disrupt town meetings of progressive politicians on health care reform and now to turn out tens of thousands of supporters on the Washington Mall to "take back their country" from the movement which elected Obama.
Meanwhile, the protest movement muscles of progressives seem to have atrophied. They no longer seem able -- and perhaps are no longer even interested -- in turning their supporters out on the streets in large numbers. Modern progressive online movements are all well and good. But there's still nothing like good old boots on the ground to demonstrate mass political power and inspire supporters.
Progressives should be able to fill the Washington Mall with hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding "Jobs and Freedom", the slogan of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech. There was a time when pro-Vietnam War politicians including Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Dick Nixon couldn't leave the White House and speak in public for fear of being embarrassed by raucous anti-war protesters. Right-wing politicians who vote to deny people unemployment benefits and to continue tax-cuts for the wealthiest Americans should be met by similar protests whenever they show up in public.
The Tea Party protesters who showed up in Washington this past weekend may have been brought there in part by calls aired on media billionaire Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and by organizations funded by reactionary billionaires like oil industry barons such as the Koch Brothers, as reported by investigative reporter Jane Meyer's expose in last week's The New Yorker entitled "Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama". But it would be naïve to dismiss all of the Tea Party movement as an "astroturf" movement which is just an illusion manufactured by corporate lobbyists. The protesters still had to get into their cars or onto buses and get their butts to Washington D.C. this past weekend. They wouldn't have done that if they didn't passionately care about something--Even if corporate billionaires successfully convinced them that the solution to their problems is deregulating energy companies and banks and cutting taxes for the wealthy.
As a leader of Freedomworks -- one of the Koch Brother-funded organizations led by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey which helped launch the Tea Party Movement -- told Jane Meyer,
"We read the same literature...about non-violent revolutions--Saul Alinsky, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. We studied the idea of the Boston Tea Party as an example of non-violent social change. We learned we needed boots on the ground to sell ideas."
And as The Washington Independent reported last August, the organizers of last summers's disruptions of health care town hall meetings were directly inspired by the writings of noted liberal community organizer Saul Alinsky, particularly his 1971 book "Rules for Radicals", which as a handbook for the community organization Barack Obama worked for as a young man when he was a Chicago community organizer. According to this reporting, Alinsky's "Rules" is the first book Freedomworks hands out to its employees.
"'That first rule, 'power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have' -- that argument is happening right now," said [Freedomworks] Steinhauser, 'with both sides arguing about which side represents the majority on health care.' The mockery and laughter at town halls struck Steinhauser as an adoption of the fifth rule, which posits that 'Ridicule is a man's most potent weapon.' The old deference to congressmen, out of respect for the office, has 'broken down.'
Other 'Tea Party' activists have gotten on board; a memo written by Bob MacGuffie of the conservative group Right Principles told conservatives to adopt some of the 'Rules' at town hall meetings and hold their representatives to account. 'Use the Alinsky playbook of which the left is so fond,' wrote MacGuffie, quoting from the twelfth of Alinsky's original rules. 'Freeze it, attack it, personalize it, and polarize it.'"
But the rights' adoption of Alinsky-like tactics separates means from ends. At the beginning of "Rules for Radicals" Alinsky wrote:
"'The Prince' was written by Machiavelli for Haves on how to hold power. 'Rules for Radicals' is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."
When the Koch brothers -- billionaire owners of one of the environmentally destructive energy companies -- pay functionaries to organize Tea Party activists to use Alinksy-like tactics to fight to block environmental regulation and to cut taxes for billionaires like themselves -- they pervert its essence. It's like a Doctor pledged to use his skills to heal people using them instead to create lethal cocktails of drugs to execute people. But then Mussolini's Black Shirts and Hitler's Brown Shirts weren't just conventional political movements but activist street movements.
As for Obama, he may have used some of Alinsky's playbook in initially organizing his outsider insurgent Presidential campaign. But once he became President, he entirely abandoned it for a strategy of insider deal-making, only to see the table turned on him by the right. About the only aspect of Alinsky that seems to have a residual influence on Obama is the desire to create consensus -- But creating building consensus among poor residents of a public housing project on how to fight City Hall is quite different from trying to create consensus with Republican lawmakers whose single-minded goal is to bring you down.
And most of what passes for a progressive movement has abandoned these tactics too. Many progressive organizations are Washington-based coalitions which seek to find legislative compromises to pass watered down initiatives like health care reform and financial reform. And while discovery of internet organizing may have initially been a communications boon for the left with cyber movements like Move On and websites like Daily Kos and this very Huffington Post, valuable as they are, an over-reliance on internet organizing -- instead of boots on the ground organizing -- has now become a crutch, instead. Like many readers, I've signed dozens of online petitions, none of which have had much impact. It's nothing compared to the effect of tens of thousands of people in the streets.
It's time for progressives to rediscover their history of mass protests. Republicans who vote down unemployment insurance and try to pass more tax cuts for the rich should be scared to show up in public for fear of being met by raucous protesters. We need to reinvigorate something like the Poor People's Campaign which Martin Luther King initiated shortly before his assassination, focused on jobs, income and housing; only this time it should include not just the historic poor, but the new poor of formerly middle class Americans who have lost -- or are threatened with losing -- their jobs and their homes because of the economic meltdown created by the recklessness of the big banks aided by 30 years of government neglect and deregulation. And the next time hundreds of thousands of protesters show up on the Washington Mall, they should be organized by progressives to reclaim Martin Luther King's dream of "Jobs and Freedom".