By Kelly Jean Cogswell
So you build a wooden platform, rent some loudspeakers, line up a few orators, maybe even gather a couple hundred people in the park and denounce all the gazillion crappy things Bush has done, what then? Pat yourselves on the back and do it again next week? Sit and wait for change to spring up like an oil well and pour forth a multitude of blessings upon the people?
I went to a "World Can't Wait" demo the other day, and that seemed to be the general idea, hold enough of those things and we'll have a movement on our hands. Ha.
A couple of the speakers were okay, but the whole congratulatory thing had the stench of failure to it from the brass band that was supposed to liven up the lunchtime crowd with a pseudo-salsa ditty of "Sí, se puede," to the Irish guy singing about poor dead Johnny in a tenor he was obviously proud of.
Maybe I'd have had lower expectations if the organizers hadn't taken out an enormous ad in the New York Times whose extravagance seemed to promise thousands of participants, instead of a couple hundred artists types, an equal number of cops to monitor them, and a whole lot of insidious retirees with grey hair and not a few lethal canes and walkers.
To be fair, it got bigger later. Some high schoolers and college students came, a lot of the boys parading around with handkerchiefs over their faces like anarchists in Seattle, or Zapatistas, or cowboys. Like they were playing dress up.
The real problem was the speakers. There were some with family members in the armed services, some still serving, some dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, talking about the unjust war. They were okay. But there were far too many of the usual New York hetero lefty firebrands.
Instead of gearing their speeches towards the International Day Against Torture, the old gasbags dragged in their pet issues until there was a whole zoo arranged on the podium. I heard denunciations of low-income housing, national economic policy, hurricane Katrina, the stolen election, relations with Venezuela, American reliance on oil, the Iraqi dead, the American dead, and yes, a little something about torture. About the anti-gay marriage amendment, nothing.
One old time lefty speaker even held up Cuba as a model for resistance to American tyranny as if getting slapped in jail and tortured for your political beliefs were somehow more tolerable under a left-wing dictator than Bush and Co.
I left as depressed as before. Worse, really. A bad demo is more demoralizing than staying at home. One size doesn't fit all and half of the activists out there only have one model, and that's good old Martin Luther King, Jr., up there on a podium in front of a mobbed Washington mall declaring, "I have a dream."
Which is a powerful image, sure. Hell, it's good to be the King. The problem is activists get the form right: podium, loudspeaker, crowd, but ignore the rest. Like all those small churches the King preached in first, all the cups of bad coffee he drank strategizing, the many smaller actions. In other words, they forget there was groundwork done that both mobilized people, and boiled the issues down to the bone.
Imagine if King had stood up there going down an amorphous laundry list of racist atrocities in America, instead of offering the simple urgent proactive message of Equality, a call to stand for something, and not just against.
Effective demos -- and movements -- need simple messages. The anti-Bush crew could learn plenty from queer history. "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." "Silence Equals Death." The Lesbian Avengers stuck to lesbian visibility and survival.
Simplicity isn't enough, though. Activists could seize on one issue like torture, or the War in Iraq, and still fail. Because they don't see beyond Bush. His face is on every sign, his name in every speaker's mouth. What about when he's gone?
There's no proactive dream to rouse us, and what we're faced with at bottom is not Bush, but an America that elected him -- kinda -- twice. And now those idiots just sit at home waiting for him to go away and expecting the problems to follow him offstage. They won't. Call it a strategic failure on our part.
Coming home from the demo, I noticed the slogan on the back of my metro card, "SI VES ALGO, DI ALGO" "If you see something, say something," which is supposed to prevent terrorism, but mostly causes alarm over old tuna fish sandwiches and social studies homework.
The phrase works better as a political imperative. If you see something, say something. Though maybe think a little first, plan even. Then say it quick and to the point.