April 25, 2004

How Many Miles Should We March?

by PG

In a brief post regarding today's protests over women's health, Kriston remarks,

Much as I support the cause, I am unmoved by protests. I'd say that I'm not inclined toward activistism, but by virtue of the dedication some people put into protesting, I'm convinced this is a sort of career track on which I'm not set. So, no, I'm not in the business.

Certain activists notwithstanding, attending protests is not a career track. In my life, I've attended two or three, with different results for each.

I went to the Code Pink antiwar rally last year because it was on a nice spring day and I've never learned how to say "no" to my old residence advisor from college. Obviously, my participation had little to no effect; the United States invaded Iraq on the now-groundless basis of eliminating its weapons of mass destruction, and on the "you break it, you buy it" principle, the U.S. must remain until the country is stabilized.

In summer 2000, I attended a vigil in front of the White House to protest the U.S. government's inaction in getting an alleged killer extradited from India. This guy was accused of killing his female cousin and then fleeing to India, where he was being protected by his influential family.

I do think that vigil made a difference; it heartened the victim's sister to know that she had our support, and it showed that people cared and would put in the time and effort to lobby on the issue. Ultimately, the government successfully extradited the accused murderer and put him on trial.

Based on my limited experience, protesting the Bush Administration's policies via massive street marching and rallies is not effective. I considered attending the March for Women's Lives mainly because my younger sister would be there, but decided against it after waking up tired and seeing an overcast sky.

Despite being, like Kriston, a supporter of the cause, I do not see any reason for me to put my political energies into marching. Indeed, this may be a general rule for large street protests; I suspect that the effect of being loud and disruptive annoys more undecided people than it converts. It becomes an exercise in self-affirmation and preaching to the choir.

While not criticizing anyone who does decide to march, I personally do not need the feeling of knowing that I am one of many who hold a particular opinion, nor do I need to hear the speeches. I already know that millions of Americans disagree with the Bush Administration's policies toward women. Joining a cast of thousands on the Mall is unnecessary evidence of that.

I already know that the Bush Administration is wrong about women's health, most undeniably in its yanking $34 million in Congressionally approved funds for UNFPA, thus removing access to contraception (which prevents abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies) and pre-natal and post-natal care for thousands of poor women in developing nations. He did so to pacify conservative groups who continue to affirm -- despite a State Department fact-finding group's report to the contrary -- that UNFPA takes part in government-coerced abortions in China.

Nor is a march, even of a million people, going to change Bush's mind, particularly when the march is being over-simplified as a "Rally for Abortion Rights" by the front page of the New York Times online. Although there is variability in the particulars (permissibility of abortion for viable fetuses, use of dilation and extraction, exceptions for maternal health or for rape and incest, etc.), most people's broad opinions about abortion are already set. The sight of many people chanting slogans in favor of its legality won't alter those opinions.

Of course, this is even more true of the deluded Mick Greineder of Lancaster, PA, who, according to the Washington Post,

yelled at the abortion rights marchers, "Choice kills. Choice kills." Although his voice was hoarse Greineder said he would continue to scream until he couldn't scream any longer.
"I think some of them can hear me," the 55-year-old engineer said. "If I scream at 700,000 and I get one or two people to change their mind, it's worth losing my voice."

My opinions on many controversial matters, including abortion, have changed over time, but a middle-aged guy screaming two words over and over has never played a part in those changes, except perhaps to make me think, "If the opposition is that dumb, I probably am right."

Admittedly, I didn't spend today in small group meetings lobbying the administration to change its UNFPA policy, or to change people's minds about abortion or reproductive rights or the 2004 election. But there's always tomorrow.

(Post title: Hat-tip to Ben Harper)

April 25, 2004 06:46 PM | TrackBack

Based on my limited experience, protesting the Bush Administration's policies via massive street marching and rallies is not effective.

Hey, it didn't phase LBJ in Vietnam, either.

I do agree with you, though, little is gained through shouting matches and marches, etc. Maybe all of those marchers could have pledged $20 bucks and joined an AIDS walk or something.

Posted by: Brian at April 25, 2004 07:15 PM

Brian, I don't know if you're joking or not about LBJ, but, from my understanding, it did have an effect on LBJ. In an interview a few years before his death, he said the protesters chanting "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?" haunted him for the rest of his life.

I'm not claiming that this administration listens to protests, and I largely agree with PG about preaching to the choir. However, one thing it does do is energize those who protest to take the fight back home. It builds the base, and many people are saying that GOTV from the wings will have a bigger impact this year than convincing moderates.

Posted by: EricInTX at April 25, 2004 08:07 PM

I think protests are fine. I've participated in several. I don't think, however, that protest marches and such are for or about the "undecideds." I think they've got two purposes.

First, they "fire up" supporters. I know after coming to the 1993 March on Washington for gay & lesbian equality I was "re-energized" after years of local activism on my college campus. When I went back to school, as co-director of the campus gay & lesbian association, I channeled that energy into getting a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation passed at my university. It stemmed from a friend getting rejected from a university writing program because of his homosexuality. We were succesful, despite the university president's opposition, and the policy was passed by the University council.

If even half of those who marched today take that energy back to their communities and put it to good use, then a lot will have resulted from the event.

Second, I think they are somewhat aimed at changing the minds or influencing the decisions of the powers that be. With the exception of a few, however, I think they're probably less successful at this.

Posted by: Terrance at April 25, 2004 09:26 PM

Hold on to you hats, but I agree with PG on this. Most marches are pretty ridiculous when it comes to changing any sort of policy. And while they're good at 'firing up the troops,' I suppose, they also do a lot of charging up of the opposition. Since the abortion issue is pretty well settled in most people's minds, this one seems a particularly annoyance. (Then again, nobody ever counts the 'rights' of folks who are late for work, don't get to see their kids, or whatever because traffic is disrupted.)

While not true of this march, the anti-IMF/WTO/globalization etc. marches can be absolutely counterproductive when it comes to 'undecideds.' Because they're often associated with violence or property damage, it's pretty easy to associate some of their substantive opinions (not wholly without merit) with the accompanying sophomoric thuggery.

Posted by: A. Rickey at April 26, 2004 12:40 AM

I'm not much of an activist. My ex-girlfriend came down here to DC today to march with her friends from NYU and asked me if I wanted to come. I said no, but I'll send NARAL 5 bucks instead.

Posted by: Scott at April 26, 2004 02:55 AM

.Brian, I don't know if you're joking or not about LBJ, but, from my understanding, it did have an effect on LBJ. In an interview a few years before his death, he said the protesters chanting "Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?" haunted him for the rest of his life.

It still didn't change his policy.

Protest is nice, but when we're dealing with the President we are talking about a man who is (usually) surrounded by people he has trusted and known for quite a long time. Unless some of them start to crack, protests have little practical effect.

Posted by: Brian at April 26, 2004 05:39 AM

There is also the practical politics/expectations game.

Don't show up for the march and get hit with the "disappointing turnout" and "support fading" stories.

Posted by: snoey at April 26, 2004 03:23 PM

I am saddened by everyone's comments regarding the potential success of the March for Women's Lives. To reduce the goal of the March to its power to influence President Bush is to minimize the efforts of the hundreds of thousands of people, of all ages, backgrounds, religions, and classes who came from all over the nation so that their voices could be heard. Maybe President Bush isn't listening, but I am certain that all the members of Congress who are up for re-election, at both the national and local levels, are paying attention. Another goal of the March was to wake up my generation of women (18-30 year olds) who have never experienced life without the right to choose. For example, most of my friends know someone who has had a legal abortion and yet we all seem to take the right to choose for granted. I think that the greatest accomplishment of yesterday's March was to alert both women and men, especially in this generation, that the rights we enjoy are being chipped away slowly but surely by the Bush administration and many of our state governments. It is important that we stand up and take notice and at the very least get to the polls in November so that we can take back our right to choose without the undue burdens this administration has established.

Posted by: Andrea at April 26, 2004 07:45 PM

Even if abortion weren't considered part of due process, how bad what it be? While many states would ban it, I'd wager California, New York, Illinois, the entire Northeast, and maybe Florida would all still allow it.

I know it's the principle of the thing but it wouldn't be as bad as many activists claim it would be.

Maybe President Bush isn't listening, but I am certain that all the members of Congress who are up for re-election, at both the national and local levels, are paying attention.

Probably not. I'd say over 95% of all congressional and senatorial candidates (or candidates for almost any office) have a position on abortion that isn't going to change. Of course, they might disagree on various ways of regulation.

Posted by: Brian at April 27, 2004 05:43 PM

Response to Brian:
Your ignorance is the reason I marched on Sunday. While it may not seem like a big deal to you if Roe was overturned allowing states to choose to ban it, what would happen to all the young women living in rural states like Mississippi who would have to travel hundreds of miles to get a legal abortion in other states. How would you like it if you had to cross state lines to get a medical procedure? Some of these women have abusive boyfriends/husbands who barely let them out of their sights and if these women had to travel to another state to get a legal abortion, the consequences could be dire. Maybe you don't think it would be so bad if Brown v. Board were overturned and maybe Lawrence v. Texas while we're at it...

Posted by: Andrea at April 27, 2004 07:32 PM
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