To Protest or Not to Protest?

Human Rights
Amy Goodman: Well, to discuss the issue of to protest or not to protest, we're joined by two veterans of protest. Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology, Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and Naomi Klein, award winning journalist and author of "Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate," as well as "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies." We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Todd Gitlin, let's begin with you. Your thoughts about this next week?

Todd Gitlin: There's an urgent need, given the fact that we're in a national and, as well, global emergency, to defeat George Bush in the practical way that presidents can be defeated in the United States. And that is by doing everything possible to see that he's defeated on November 2. People who feel called upon to protest or to remember that their protest is taking place not on the streets of Manhattan, but it's taking place everywhere television and the internet reach. Nobody is running for president of Manhattan. To be contemptuous about the people's reactions elsewhere is to live in a cocoon of self-congratulation and not to be doing politics but to be doing performance pieces. If people protest, they should do so exactly as Mailer said, in a dignified way, in a way that does not recruit voters for George w. Bush.

Juan Gonzalez: Naomi Klein, your response and your perspective?

Naomi Klein: Well, I certainly agree with Todd that this is an emergency and the headlines that Amy read from Iraq make that very, very clear. Personally, I don't think we have the luxury of waiting until November to oppose the war. We also heard that the protests have nothing to do with the democrats. I would also disagree with that. I think they have a lot to do with the democrats. Precisely because the democrats have really sealed off the possibility of just expressing our opposition to the war by voting. This is not Spain. They are running on a hugely militaristic campaign. They're promising to continue the occupation, even expand the occupation of Iraq. So we need to be in the streets. The other thing I want to take issue with, with Todd, I actually think he's making an unstrategic, unpolitical argument, and that's because there is going to be some disorder in the streets. If it isn't going to be protesters, it's going to be police posing as protesters. We have seen this, we've talked about it on this show, it's happened in Miami and it will happen again. The only way that we can protect ourselves from that is numbers. It's masses of people in the street. I don't believe, with all respect to Professor Gitlin, that the black bloc is his natural constituency. I don't think that they're listening to his advice. I think the people that are listening are actually the liberals who are planning to go out and oppose the use of their city as the backdrop. I'd also like to disagree with Mr. Mailer that the republicans chose New York as a trap. I think they chose New York because they thought they were going to be on a roll. They chose New York because they thought they were going to be able to use the city's grief as a backdrop for their triumph in the war on terror. There's no moment for triumph. The problem is that Kerry is not willing to point that out because his advisers are telling him that he has to look equally tough. Which means we are the only people who can oppose this war on the streets. And that's why we're going to be there. These warnings actually aren't working. There's going to be massive numbers of people on the streets.

Juan Gonzalez: Tom, you have an article in the newest issue of The Nation, "No Bush, No Chicago '68," where you attempt to draw parallels between what happened in Chicago in 1968 and what could possibly happen next week here in New York. Now, I was a member of SDS in 1968, as you were a member of SDS, and I was in Chicago that year and know precisely what happened in terms of how the media turned that against the demonstrators and mobilized the public sentiment for the Republicans. But how do you answer these young people who are fed up and furious with what's going on in Iraq, when they see that a John Kerry doesn't have a much more different position on the situation in Iraq than President Bush? Where they see that both political parties are arguing more about a war that ended 30 years ago than they are talking about the current war that is eating away at the social fabric of our country.

Todd Gitlin: Well, first of all, Juan, let's clarify. The article in The Nation, I'm a co-author of it. The other co-author is John Passacantando, who is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. I say that not only to be accurate but also to underscore that the position that we're taking is not that protest is a bad idea. It is that there is an overwhelming imperative, and that imperative is to defeat the administration that stands in the way of any progress. Now, I don't – whether it's on Iraq or on the environment or on any other issue. My position is not that John Kerry is either Jesus Christ or the prophet Mohammad. My position is that John Kerry is the possibility of restarting politics. Right now, we have no possibility of politics because we have a one-party state. That state can be defeated, and to say that we don't have the luxury of waiting to November 2 is to say we don't have the luxury of the U.S. Constitution. I beg to differ. We have the luxury of the U.S. Constitution. We have the possibility of defeating this reactionary cabal, that I think it is not difficult to see, is an absolute refutation of the possibility of any constructive change for the foreseeable future. And that is an absolute imperative. This is – when I say this is an emergency, it is not to say that we must – and now I'm going to your direct question – to say this is an emergency is not to say that all we have are our passionate rages. I believe we understand the passionate rage to defeat George Bush, but we're living in a world of grownups here. There is a way to defeat George Bush. Standing on a street corner and either inaugurating or conspiring with the police to do some mayhem, to put on a performance piece that dramatizes the theatrics of rage, is the most self-indulgent thing I can imagine. And I think we ought to be very, very careful before we listen to the advice of those who four years ago assured us that we didn't have the luxury of waiting to defeat American corporations. We had to do it right now, by voting for Ralph Nader.

Naomi Klein: When I say we don't have the luxury, I mean there is a war going on right now. If we are an anti-war movement, we don't get to choose our strategic moments to oppose a war and ask ourselves how it's going to play in swing states. We oppose wars when they are being waged. And there is an emergency in Najaf right now. People in Iraq are flocking to Najaf, acting as human shields. Sistani just yesterday called for massive peaceful demonstrations. I think, the least we can do is not – I actually resent this idea that protest is infantile. I think it is very politically mature and I think responsible. I think the onus is on Americans because it is their bombs dropping on Najaf, to be in the streets making concrete demands to end the occupation, to end the siege on Najaf, for massive reparations for Iraq. I really believe the arguments that Todd Gitlin is making is really part of a three-pronged strategy to scare people out of the streets of New York. I think part of it, people are afraid of terrorism. They're now afraid of anarchists because it's being whipped up by the tabloids, and I think into this debate is being inserted this false analogy with Chicago 1968 that says to liberals in New York who were really feeling defiant and were planning to show some real courage on the streets that actually you can do more by staying home than being in the streets. I don't think what we're going to see on the streets is a temper tantrum. I think there's serious, mature opposition to this war and that the onus, all of us who have marched against the war before it started, is to bring those voices from Najaf. You know, I was there. I wasn't in Chicago in 1968, I hadn't been born yet, but I really feel a tremendous responsibility to the people I met in Iraq, to bring those voices here, because they're being crushed there, and we owe it to them.

Amy Goodman: Juan, I'm looking at your newspaper, The Daily News. you have a piece inside about the decision by the judge not to allow the protesters in Central Park, a traditional place of protest. But the front page screaming headline is, "Police Intelligence Warning: Anarchy Inc. Hardcore Troublemakers a Threat to the Republican Convention."

Juan Gonzalez: Yes, actually, my column, which I tell people – the further back it's buried in the paper the more important it is – is very far away from those stories, but I think that the reality is that the police department and law enforcement have been regularly leaking information on supposed anarchist groups that are coming or violent anarchist groups, and those of us who have covered these protests and – over the years from Seattle to Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the last conventions, and also in Miami – know that the number of people engaged in these kinds of vandalism, which is more what it would be called than violence, is minuscule, but the attention always focuses not on the hundreds of thousands that come to protest in a pacific way, but on the few who might be bent – as I call them, knuckleheads who might be bent on some trouble.

Amy Goodman: Todd Gitlin, your response to the issue that the opposition party, the Democratic Party, is not offering an alternative to what we're seeing in Iraq right now?

Todd Gitlin: What the Democratic Party has had to say about Iraq has been disappointing. The absolute condition of their doing something which isn't disappointing is putting them in power. The absolute impossibility of doing anything decent, whatever the symbolic display of protest, is in the hands of the George Bush administration. This seems to me a matter of absolute logic. And to slander my arguments by saying that I'm part of a strategy to stop the protest is just – it sounds like the Swiftboat Veterans for (so-called) Truth. This is just slander. It's a refusal of the argument. Again, we are not voting on November 2nd to usher in the millennium. There are many things in the world that will continue to be awful. We are ushering in the possibility of politics. It is – it strikes me as peculiar that somebody who understands the – or purports to understand – the force and wickedness of the Bush administration thinks that symbolic protests will stop them. Symbolic protests stopped nothing in February of 2003, because that's not the way the world works. Symbolic protests next week, however good it makes anybody feel, however righteous, will not stop George Bush. There's only one thing that will stop George Bush, and it's what takes place on November 2nd.

Naomi Klein: As I said before, I'm really much less interested in stopping George Bush than in stopping a war. And I don't think that these have to be symbolic protests. I wish that we were in a situation where people could vote against the war in massive numbers for John Kerry, for the Democrats, who are in fact the only people who have a chance of defeating Bush. They closed off that door. This isn't Spain. This means that the only -

Amy Goodman: Explain what you mean when you keep saying, "This isn't Spain."

Naomi Klein: In Spain, they had the possibility of voting for a politician who promised to pull his troops out and in fact did. That renewed a real faith in democracy in that country and around the world. I was in Iraq when that happened, and there was a real hope that maybe that could happen in the United States. The Democrats have systematically sealed off that possibility and I believe pushed people into the streets. And to dismiss that as a symbolic temper tantrum, I think, is quite absurd. I also want to be very clear, Todd, I'm not saying that you are deliberately playing into Karl Rove's hands, but practically I believe that you are. Because what the Republicans want is to dismiss our protests as marginal, to make us look crazy. That's what they want.

Todd Gitlin: Wrong. Exactly wrong.

Naomi Klein: No, Todd, let me speak. What they want is they want to reduce the numbers. What you are doing, who is actually listening to you and I have talked to many New Yorkers, that – they're not the people that you are afraid of making trouble. They are the people who are liberals in the city, and – you know, who were planning to be part of the United for Peace and Justice March on Sunday, who are getting frightened because there isn't a permit. All the other fear strategies are working. Now they actually have a nice progressive sounding get out of protest free card that says: you know what, go out of town, go on holiday; you're actually helping because you're not playing into the Republicans' hands.

Amy Goodman: Just to be clear, there is a permit, though, there is a permit to march past Madison Square Garden, and they're going to go back to Union Square, but not to march in Central Park, though many are saying that they will go there afterwards. Todd Gitlin, final response?

Todd Gitlin: Final? Look, the – my position is not that people should not protest. It is that people should take steps that ensure that the disrupters, the Rove fans, are marginalized. United for Peace and Justice could have done us all a big favor by training monitors that would contain those people who seek only mayhem in order to further their performance piece. Since UPJ decided not to do that, I think those who march peacefully ought to feel that they have a responsibility to contain and limit the damage that's being done by the wackos. And recognizing that the media will lead with the most raucous, most destructive people they can find, and that Rove's people will also be fanning the flames of the raucousness. That's also a responsibility of people who demonstrate, and I think it's one to be taken quite seriously.

Juan Gonzalez: Isn't it also, Todd, a responsibility of the media, and as you would want to have the protesters be responsible, the issue of journalists also being responsible about the way they cover these events?

Todd Gitlin: Absolutely. We wrote that in our piece in The Nation. Unfortunately, I have low expectations for journalists. I mean, you – you – at the first sound of breaking glass, they drop what they were doing and they will rush there. And unfortunately, that's a given. But journalism has – is in this way an implement of the forces of repression.

Amy Goodman: Todd Gitlin, we gave you the first word. Naomi, we give you the last.

Naomi Klein: I absolutely agree. We know what we're up against in terms of media coverage. We know they are going to play up whatever violence there is. We know we're up against in terms of police violence, in terms of provocation, in terms of Republican spin. Our only weapon is numbers, is being in the streets. This is a moment for massive courage. To stand up against all this fear mongering, to say we're going anyway, because we know that there are a lot of problems with this country, Amy, but too much dissent is not one of them, okay? And anyone telling people to stay out of the streets, frankly, Todd, has a lot to answer for.

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