[sixties-l] The Inauguration And Its Discontents

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Jan 22 2001 - 15:40:34 EST

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    The Inauguration And Its Discontents


    A Protest Against the Odds

    by Mark Engler

    After losing the popular vote and preventing a full count of Florida
    ballots, George W. Bush hardly has the right to expect a tranquil
    coronation this weekend. And even with an inaugural ceremony carefully
    choreographed to elicit media adulation, as well as battalions of
    Washington, D.C., police attempting to quash any unscripted surprises, he
    may not get one. As upwards of a half million Republican loyalists pack the
    parade route this weekend, smaller crowds will rally to protest the stolen
    election and question Bush's mandate to pursue conservative policies.
    One would expect the activists taking to the streets to be the Democrats'
    party stalwarts, core Gore supporters disgusted by the electoral upset. In
    reality, the dissenters now preparing for action did not, by and large,
    support the Vice President's campaign at all. Those who have plastered D.C.
    with signs reading "Hail to the Thief!" represent a collection of Black
    radicals and critics of corporate globalization, Nader supporters and death
    penalty abolitionists. Their outrage has raised some interesting questions:
    How did this multi-issue assortment of seasoned protesters become the de
    facto standard bearer of Democratic discontent? And what success might
    these demonstrators have at the inauguration?
    The Democratic Party itself opted early on against a mounting a mass
    challenge to Bush's legitimacy. After Election Day, when attention first
    shifted to the Florida tabulations, Gore discouraged public demonstrations.
    He choose instead to front a cool, executive image. In those important
    days, his campaign condemned any protests as misplaced "electioneering." By
    the time he recognized that the terrain in Florida was too hopelessly
    politicized for such detached observation, he had ceded crucial ground to
    the Republicans.
    In at least one case, rowdy conservatives actually affected the tallying:
    election officials in Miami-Dade county admitted that intimidating hecklers
    contributed to their decision to abort an early recount.
    Gore's behavior during this period was predictable. As a "New Democrat" he
    has consistently distanced himself from his party's core constituencies,
    and his tenure as a barnstorming populist (the persona he adopted during
    the Democratic Convention) was short-lived. It is unclear that the Vice
    President could muster the charisma to inspire throngs of faithful
    supporters to mobilize for protest, even if he wanted to.
    Those actually able to produce such mobilization have also avoided mass
    protest. Major labor, environmental, and civil rights groups will be
    noticeably absent from counter-inauguration ceremonies in D.C. With the
    exception of the National Organization for Women (which is sponsoring its
    own protest in the capital), they have shown little inclination to mount an
    indelicate frontal assault on the incoming White House staff by turning out
    members for the demonstrations. Some of those who initially called for
    massive anti-Bush protests, led by Jesse Jackson, have redirected their
    energy into a march in Tallahassee. With this, along with smaller protests
    at federal buildings elsewhere, they can decry voter rights violations
    without risking more politically compromising entanglements.
    These large progressive organizations have adopted an inside approach to
    challenging the new Administration. They have focused on defeating Bush's
    conservative cabinet nominations, like John Ashcroft for Attorney General,
    by calling in political favors and working Senate connections. No doubt,
    this is vital work. It recognizes the hard reality that their relationship
    with the executive branch of government will affect their ability to pass
    and enforce legislation - laws that will make real differences in the lives
    of working people. The groups are banking on proven methods of "getting
    things done" in Washington, next to which the protest's goals of affecting
    "public confidence" and challenging the president's "mandate" admittedly
    seem amorphous.
    But this pragmatic approach sacrifices something important: the uniqueness
    of this particular presidential contest. Strategies of nonviolent
    resistance always take on the system from the outside. They eschew accepted
    institutions and practices in order to call into question the legitimacy of
    the system itself. Given Bush's dubious rise to power, such an approach
    could produce unexpected results: it could sink Bush in public opinion
    polls, give Senators a public incentive to break with the traditions of
    deference to the White House, and force the new president into a truly
    conciliatory posture.
    As others have abandoned direct action for reasons ranging from the
    ideological to the pragmatic, the tactic has been left to a loose coalition
    of leftists. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the socialist
    International Action Center, the Black Radical Congress, and the Justice
    Action Movement have released various calls to action. Among the
    experienced protesters organizing for this weekend are activists who have
    specialized in staging the creative, highly visible confrontations at major
    conventions over the past year, including at the IMF meeting in D.C. last
    April. They will be joined by a modest array of first-time protesters who
    come motivated strictly by indignation over the Bush coup, individuals
    gathered ad hoc by local groups and internet "dot.orgs."
    What can they hope to accomplish with a counter-inaugural ceremony?
    Ideally, protesters would like push the discussion beyond a limited
    Bush-Gore debate, raising problems that both major parties refuse to
    combat: corporate welfare, warped campaign finance laws, and the massive
    expansion of the prison-industrial complex.
    However, absent organizing by large groups, these connections will be hard
    to make. As it stands, protesters will be vastly outnumbered by the mostly
    conservative parade-watchers, and limited in their ability to publicize
    multiple issues.
    Yet civil disobedience still offers a crucial possibility for success. With
    guerilla theater and inspired protest, activists can highlight the
    discontent that still surrounds the electoral abuses in Florida. They can
    achieve gains akin to those of Abbie Hoffman's "Flower Brigade." During the
    Vietnam era, Hoffman attracted press and public sympathy by marching a
    colorful troop into a "Support Our Boys" Parade. Reporters watched an
    unsavory display of intolerance as the "patriots" tore American flags from
    the hippies' hands and stomped the "tainted" totems into the ground.
    In this case, by capturing even modest media attention protesters can help
    frame the inauguration as what it is, a controversial confirmation of a
    weak president, and not a pro-Bush love-fest. By virtue of the
    pre-inaugural publicity that they have already generated, organizers have
    already made significant strides toward this end.
    The question now is whether, against the odds, and against the Democratic
    Party's better judgement, activists will be able pull off something
    more. Creatively managing the conflict generated by non-violent
    mobilization, they can still enact some of the "outside" strategy that the
    Democratic mainstream has disregarded. The small assembly of protesters can
    yet embody for the nation a much larger group: the majority of the divided
    public that has already voted against the new president and rejected his
    conservative agenda.

    Mark Engler is an independent writer and activist from Des Moines, Iowa. He 
    has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human 
    Progress in San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals 
    Program at Florida Atlantic University.

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