'Takin it to the streets' ain't what it used to beby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Thousands of demonstrators will be making their voices heard during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. They'll be marching for many things -- an end to the war in Iraq, better health care and housing for the poor and legal rights for immigrants. Whether the nation will be paying attention is another question. The public perception of protesters has changed dramatically since their heyday in the 1960s.
St. Paul, Minn. — Katrina Plotz, 28, helped organize the massive anti-war march that will wind through downtown St. Paul on Labor Day.
"It's always been movements of people who mobilize and put pressure on politicians and demand the changes that they want to see, and then the politicians finally come around," she said.
Plotz says the majority of Americans are against the war in Iraq, but Republicans and Democrats continue to ignore the will of the people.
"So I think what that shows is that it is all the more necessary for people to mobilize in protest, not just to wait for the next election, not just to put all their hope in the next candidate," she said.
For Plotz, the two main issues of the presidential race are the war and the sad state of the economy.
"What I'd like to see is for people to connect those issues and think about how things would be so different if the billions that are being put into that war in Iraq, were being invested into the infrastructure and social programs that could be thriving in this country if we weren't involved in Iraq," she said.
Long before Plotz was born, Dave Bicking marched alongside throngs of demonstrators who burned their draft cards and demanded an end to the war in Vietnam.
Since then, Bicking has alligned himself with Minnesota's Green Party, even running for Minneapolis City Council under that banner.
But the 58-year-old car mechanic is an activist, not a politician. And while peace, justice and equality are what he strives for, what he's fighting against is what he calls the consolidation of wealth and power in America.
"Money is power," he said. "There's no getting around it. We can have a certain amount of campaign finance reform, but as long as we have a huge discrepancy in wealth in this country, there's gonna be a huge discrepancy in power also. And we have to do what we can, without a whole lot of money, without political power to mitigate the effects because those that have wealth want more wealth."
Bicking will be a marshal for all the marches happening over the four days of the RNC, serving as a guide and information source for the protesters.
Their immediate goal is to put issues on the table he says aren't being discussed by the country's two major political parties. They also want to show the rest of the world there's opposition within the country to the policies of those parties.
But Bicking says the longer term objectives are maybe even more important.
"The biggest thing will be a building of our movement to we go on from here, because we accomplish no concrete goals in four days," he said. "The building of unity is a very important part of that.
The image of demonstrators has changed a lot since the civil rights era.
Jane Rhodes is an American Studies professor at Macalester College, who's studied the Black Panther Movement. Rhodes says beginning with the Black Panthers, the government and politicians became adept at labeling protesters as un-American or even threats to society and relegating them to the fringes.
She understands how demonstrators today may carry romantic notions of the '60s because back then, along with all the upheavel, was an enormous sense of possibility.
"Today it's very difficult for people for individuals to feel like they can make a change, and that any protest they engage in is actually going to have an effect, " she said. "A lot of it is is anybody out there listening? Does anybody care that we're protesting?"
What has also changed, according to Rhodes, is the relationship between protesters and the media. Today, coverage tends to center on the numbers. How many turned out? How many arrests were there? And that's about it.
"I think the media, frankly, has become more conservative," she said. "They have bought the notion that protesters are marginal, and that they don't reflect the mainstream. I think it's also often seen as old news. We've seen that, we've been there, we've done that, the media's looking for something newer, more original, more unique. And quite frankly unless the media thinks that protest is gonna sell, and attract audiences there's not a strong motivation to cover it."
Because of all of these forces, Rhodes says activists have to be much more selective about staging demonstrations.
"They don't want to use up that strategy too often because we know that there's a fatigue, you know that too much protest, the media's going to become disinterested, audiences are going to become disinterested, so you have to try to pick the right moment and the right issues and the right image to project out there, " she said.
Today, says Rhodes, protests tend to be more a one time affair as opposed to over the course of many days or even months as they were in the '60s.
Of course, the Internet has been an incredible mobilizing tool for political agitators, but Rhodes doesn't think it will ever replace the old fashioned people to people mode of organizing.
"There's something about the physical, emotional connection that makes people feel committed and engaged," she said. "And I wonder the extent to which the internet makes that possible."
It's estimated that tens of thousands of protesters will express themselves in a variety of ways during the Republican convention in St. Paul. More than 3,500 police officers will be watching.
Rhodes says what we don't want to see is a repeat of the brutal crackdown on demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. She doesn't think that's likely.
"We're in a different era, in which police don't just automatically see demonstrators as the enemy," she said. "That certainly was the case. And we also don't have a local government that is so sort of angry with protesters and so deeply politicized about the protesters that they want to teach them a lesson."
Rhodes says it seems like all sides want to get through this in ways that allow people to use their free speech, without any bloodshed.
- All Things Considered, 08/29/2008, 5:43 p.m.