On the Nature of Mass Demonstrations

January 19, 2017
On our way to demonstrate for several days in Washington, reading the brilliant John Berger who passed away this month. Here is “On the Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” from 1968:
Seventy years ago (on 6 May 1898) there was a massive demonstration of workers, men and women, in the centre of Milan. The events which led up to it involve too long a history to treat with here. The demonstration was attacked and broken up by the army under the command of General Beccaris. At noon the cavalry charged the crowd: the unarmed workers tried to make barricades: martial law was declared and for three days the army fought against the unarmed.
The official casualty figures were 100 workers killed and 450 wounded. One policeman was killed accidentally by a soldier. There were no army casualties. (Two years later Umberto I was assassinated because after the massacre he publicly congratulated General Beccaris, the “butcher of Milan.”)
I have been trying to understand certain aspects of the demonstration in the Corso Venezia on 6 May because of a story I am writing. In the process I came to a few conclusions about demonstrations which may perhaps be more widely applicable.
Mass demonstrations should be distinguished from riots or revolutionary uprisings although, under certain (now rare) circumstances, they may develop into either of the latter. The aims of a riot are usually immediate (the immediacy matching the desperation they express): the seizing of food, the release of prisoners, the destruction of property. The aims of a revolutionary uprising are long-term and comprehensive: they culminate in the taking over of State power. The aims of a demonstration, however, are symbolic: it demonstrates a force that is scarcely used.
A large number of people assemble together in an obvious and already announced public place. They are more or less unarmed. (On 6 May 1898, entirely unarmed.) They present themselves as a target to the forces of repression serving the State authority against whose policies they are protesting.
Theoretically demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling: theoretically they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State. But this presupposes a conscience which is very unlikely to exist.
If the State authority is open to democratic influence, the demonstration will hardly be necessary; if it is not, it is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat. (A demonstration in support of an already established alternative State authority – as when Garibaldi entered Naples in 1860 – is a special case and may be immediately effective.)
Demonstrations took place before the principle of democracy was even nominally admitted. The massive early Chartist demonstrations were part of the struggle to obtain such an admission. The crowds who gathered to present their petition to the Tsar in St. Petersburg in 1905 were appealing – and presenting themselves as a target – to the ruthless power of an absolute monarchy. In the event – as on so many hundreds of other occasions all over Europe – they were shot down.
It would seem that the true function of demonstrations is not to convince the existing State authority to any significant degree. Such an aim is only a convenient rationalisation.
The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality – the intensity of rehearsed awareness – may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.
A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities.
A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work – even when strike action is involved – or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.
State authorities usually lie about the number of demonstrators involved. The lie, however, makes little difference. (It would only make a significant difference if demonstrations really were an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State.) The importance of the numbers involved is to be found in the direct experience of those taking part in or sympathetically witnessing the demonstration. For them the numbers cease to be numbers and become the evidence of their senses, the conclusions of their imagination. The larger the demonstration, the more powerful and immediate (visible, audible, tangible) a metaphor it becomes for their total collective strength.
I say metaphor because the strength thus grasped transcends the potential strength of those present, and certainly their actual strength as deployed in a demonstration. The more people there are there, the more forcibly they represent to each other and to themselves those who are absent. In this way a mass demonstration simultaneously extends and gives body to an abstraction. Those who take part become more positively aware of how they belong to a class. Belonging to that class ceases to imply a common fate, and implies a common opportunity. They begin to recognise that the function of their class need no longer be limited: that it, too, like the demonstrations itself, can create its own function.
Revolutionary awareness is rehearsed in another way by the choice and effect of location. Demonstrations are essentially urban in character, and they are usually planned to take place as near as possible to some symbolic centre, either civic or national. Their “targets” are seldom the strategic ones – railway stations, barracks, radio stations, airports. A mass demonstration can be interpreted as the symbolic capturing of a city or capital. Again, the symbolism or metaphor is for the benefit of the participants.
The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.
The demonstrators’ view of the city surrounding their stage also changes. By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.
This creativity may be desperate in origin, and the price to be paid for it high, but it temporarily changes their outlook. They become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it. They see it through different eyes. They see it as their product, confirming their potential instead of reducing it.
Finally, there is another way in which revolutionary awareness is rehearsed. The demonstrators present themselves as a target to the so-called forces of law and order. Yet the larger the target they present, the stronger they feel. This cannot be explained by the banal principle of “strength in numbers,” any more than by vulgar theories of crowd psychology. The contradiction between their actual vulnerability and their sense of invincibility corresponds to the dilemma which they force upon the State authority.
Either authority must abdicate and allow the crowd to do as it wishes: in which case the symbolic suddenly becomes real, and, even if the crowd’s lack of organisation and preparedness prevents it from consolidating its victory, the event demonstrates the weakness of authority. Or else authority must constrain and disperse the crowd with violence: in which case the undemocratic character of such authority is publicly displayed. The imposed dilemma is between displayed weakness and displayed authoritarianism. (The officially approved and controlled demonstration does not impose the same dilemma: its symbolism is censored: which is why I term it a mere public spectacle.) Almost invariably, authority chooses to use force. The extent of its violence depends upon many factors, but scarcely ever upon the scale of the physical threat offered by the demonstrators. This threat is essentially symbolic. But by attacking the demonstration authority ensures that the symbolic event becomes an historical one: an event to be remembered, to be learnt from, to be avenged.
It is in the nature of a demonstration to provoke violence upon itself. Its provocation may also be violent. But in the end it is bound to suffer more than it inflicts. This is a tactical truth and an historical one. The historical role of demonstrations is to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing State authority. Demonstrations are protests of innocence.
But the innocence is of two kinds, which can only be treated as though they were one at a symbolic level. For the purposes of political analysis and the planning of revolutionary action, they must be separated. There is an innocence to be defended and an innocence which must finally be lost: an innocence which derives from justice, and an innocence which is the consequence of a lack of experience.
Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created. Demonstrations predict the realisation of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realisation, but they cannot themselves achieve them.
The question which revolutionaries must decide in any given historical situation is whether or not further symbolic rehearsals are necessary. The next stage is training in tactics and strategy for the performance itself.


January 17, 2017
Still in the air, dancing in the aisles: Just in from sister Jan Susler:
We are thrilled to announce that today President Obama made the wise and just decision to grant unconditional executive clemency to Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who served 35 years in U.S. prison.
Heeding the will of the Puerto Rican people, who spoke from the Island and the diaspora in one, united voice; Pope Francis; Jimmy Carter; Nobel Peace Prize Laureates such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; René Pérez, Lin Manuel Miranda; much of Latin America; and millions of other voices, the president has granted an unconditional commutation which will result in Mr. López Rivera’s release no later than 120 days from now, or May 17. Details will follow.
Oscar is grateful for all the love and solidarity – in Puerto Rico, in the United States, and throughout the world – that made this happen.
Melissa Mark Viverito, Speaker of the New York City Council, 646 538 4303
Luis Gutiérrez, Member of U.S. Congress, 202 604 2752
Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor of San Juan, 787 943 4455
Jan Susler, Attorney for Oscar López Rivera, 773 252 4049
Alejandro Molina, Coordinator of National Boricua Human Rights Network 312 296 7210


January 17, 2017
Still in the air, dancing in the aisles: Just in from sister Jan Susler:
We are thrilled to announce that today President Obama made the wise and just decision to grant unconditional executive clemency to Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who served 35 years in U.S. prison.
Heeding the will of the Puerto Rican people, who spoke from the Island and the diaspora in one, united voice; Pope Francis; Jimmy Carter; Nobel Peace Prize Laureates such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU; the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda; René Pérez, Lin Manuel Miranda; much of Latin America; and millions of other voices, the president has granted an unconditional commutation which will result in Mr. López Rivera’s release no later than 120 days from now, or May 17. Details will follow.
Oscar is grateful for all the love and solidarity – in Puerto Rico, in the United States, and throughout the world – that made this happen.
Melissa Mark Viverito, Speaker of the New York City Council, 646 538 4303
Luis Gutiérrez, Member of U.S. Congress, 202 604 2752
Carmen Yulín Cruz, Mayor of San Juan, 787 943 4455
Jan Susler, Attorney for Oscar López Rivera, 773 252 4049
Alejandro Molina, Coordinator of National Boricua Human Rights Network 312 296 7210

Chelsea Manning is Freed!

January 17, 2017
On a plane from Havana—awesome trip.
News just reached us at 30,000 feet: President Barack Obama commuted whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence and she will be released on May 17.
Hoping Oscar Lopez Leonard Peltier, Ethel Rosenberg and others are on the list.

2017: Toward a Year of Resistance and Rising Up! DUMP the TRUMP!!!

January 8, 2017

I’ve been on book tour for months, and it’s not done yet. Going to Cuba this week, then Washington DC, Ohio, Boston, NOLA, and more. I call it the “DEMAND the IMPOSSIBLE Rainbow Queer Insurgent Road Trip Toward a Future Worth Having.” Onward!!!

It’s been heartening these last months to gather together with people in city after city across the country, folks who came out in large numbers—not so much for the book, but driven by the felt-need to assemble in an available public space, to face one another without masks, and to consider the fundamental questions once again—and with accelerating urgency: who are we? Where are we going? What time is it on the clock of the world? What is to be done? There’s a common and compelling feeling from north to south, from east and west that we must somehow muster and unite the disparate forces for peace and justice and liberation into an unstoppable mass force—a love army. Uprising!

There’s a wonderful bumper sticker I see now and then, sometimes in the form of a banner or a poster: “If you’re not pissed off,” it reads, “you’re not paying attention.”

It’s true. Opening our eyes, paying attention, staying alert—when we see the horrors and the injustices, it ignites indignation; when we notice the unnecessary suffering in all directions, it stirs a sense of outrage and urgency. That emotion is essential—but it’s also insufficient. Anger alone  cannot create the society we need and deserve; fury by itself will not take us to the place we need to be.

So there needs to be another bumper sticker, right next to that first one: “If you’re only pissed off—if you’re not guided by deep feelings of love and empathy—you’ll be lost in the wilderness.”

Anger and love. Rage and generosity. Fury and tenderness.

Humanity—and the possibility of a humane future—asks us to get it right.

It’s our duty to fight; it’s our responsibility to win.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” ~~~Charles Dickens

The US empire is in steady and irreversible decline, but it’s unlikely to exit the world stage, or to relinquish its self-designated role as the “world’s only superpower” easily or painlessly—this is where we begin to name this political moment, honestly and unsparingly, a moment unique in history. The end of every previous empire—Ottoman, British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, German—was accompanied by war and mass slaughter at escalating scales. The US is in decline, true, but it’s also the greatest military power ever assembled on earth with vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction capable of wreckage—even extermination—never before seen. This is a precarious, dangerous, and terrifying time.

The decline of empire coexists with renewed patriotic nationalism and deliberately constructed fear; the criminalization of whole communities and the identification of ill-defined enemies—“illegal” immigrants, border violators, Muslims, Arabs, foreigners, queers, Black people, independent women, terrorists—as a unifying cause; the ramping up and cohering of white supremacist forces; the mobilization of secretly financed “popular” movements in the streets based on bigotry, intolerance, and the threat of violence against vulnerable populations and sacrificial scapegoats; the suppression of dissent; military expansion and a state of permanent war; militarized police forces acting as aggressive occupying armies in targeted communities; constant surveillance and ritual searches of everyday citizens and residents; arrogant scorn and disdain for the arts, for intellectual life, and for reason and evidence; and widening disparities between the haves and the have-nots, and the fatal entangling of corporations with government as the “public square” is decimated.

These and other examples of extreme social disintegration are all visible right here in front of our eyes. They are—in brief—an outline of the Trump/Pence political campaign of 2016, and the parameters of the regime’s program for 2017.

Make no mistake: it’s a blueprint for a form of friendly-looking and familiar fascism—autocratic despotism with an American face.

The predicament we find ourselves in is no sudden reversal, no shocking disconnect from the path the country’s been pursuing for years, and, in fact, we’ve been on this road—step by treacherous step—for decades now. A deliberate bipartisan effort has brought us to the point of permanent war, mass incarceration, a hollowed out economy based on “austerity”—privatization, dismantling social safety nets, crushing unions, liquidating jobs—the relentless attack on public education, the devastation of independent media, the eclipse of the public, and more. There are variations to be sure, and they sometimes matter, but too often these amount to a distinction without a difference. The Republicans offer racist dog-whistles and overt white supremacist policies, for example; the Democrats respond with “diversity” and the optics of multiculturalism, but they do not offer what we need and deserve: a program of racial, economic, and global justice.

This is why no one should rely on the Democratic Party to lead the opposition—the Party is ill-prepared, disinclined, and too wrapped up in every policy and program that got us here.

But the real, authentic opposition is not starting from scratch—Black Lives Matter, the latest iteration of the centuries-old Black Freedom Movement, has been a leading voice and a powerful force on the ground for progress and against white supremacist power for years now, exposing the never-ending serial shootings of Black citizens and generating innovative programs for comprehensive revitalization; “undocumented and unafraid” youth have been rising and winning; Standing Rock is here, fighting for environmental justice and Indigenous rights; women are not going back to the Middle Ages; “we’re queer/we’re here” is on the move; and on and on.

Millions of people are enraged and energized right now; many have acted up and spoken out spontaneously; many more have organized and vowed to resist. And be clear: the best preparation for a determined and serious struggle in the long run is to throw ourselves into the fight to stop the Trump/Pence putsch right now. Come to Washington, take to the streets, refuse to normalize or accommodate to fascism.

And most important, remember that social movements make social change possible, and social movements always involve building fire from below.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever…it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” ~~~Herman Melville

Let’s get to sea as soon as we can—the sea of organizing and mass mobilization.

Our responsibility is to organize, to act, and to transform both ourselves and our world.

Even though there’s no ready recipe to follow, in a situation like this one, everyone can dive in and find important work to do.

Here’s a start:

GATHER! We can only build a more powerful movement from the bottom up. Call a meeting of your fellow workers, your neighbors, your faith community, the folks in your building or on your block; begin with questions: Where are we, and where should we be heading? What can we do together? Don’t get too lost in petitioning power—build your own agency, your own collective power.

LEARN TO TALK TO ONE ANOTHER AND FORGE UNITY! We have to re-frame the conversations, and we need to learn to meet one another across issues, organizations, and histories. We may differ among ourselves on strategy and tactics, but we can learn to unite on fundamental matters of principle. We need to go to the root, find the common ground, and discover and articulate the ethical and moral base of our common struggle.

BUILD A SOCIAL MOVEMENT! We must connect economic justice with racial justice and global justice. We can find joy and purpose in living a life of resistance in these troubled times. We can also find ways to live our lives together in beloved community, against materialism, war, violence, and hierarchy. We must join together solidly, and work to forge an unbreakable collaboration.

MAKE SANCTUARY A REALITY! Create spaces to protect the vulnerable, to resist, and to defend the organizers and the activists. Lay down moral markers that  illuminate the threats to our humanity and our collective survival. Live the alternatives.

EDUCATE! We need to educate ourselves and engage in authentic dialogue with friends and strangers alike—each of us committed to listening with the possibility of being heard, and speaking with the possibility of being changed. Form a reading group and share important books and articles, or a movie-going group, or a pot-luck conversation once a month.

THE TIME TO ACT UP IS NOW! Our challenge is to crack the pretense of normalcy in this political moment, to break the conspiracy of silence by which both establishment political parties, the bought media, and the political class mute public debate. Deep and radical change requires the mobilization of an engaged social movement, and the cooperation of an enlightened political leadership emerging from (or empowered by) that movement.

“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”~~~Cree Prophecy

To be shocked at the outcome of the presidential election is understandable; to be shocked and disbelieving weeks later indicates a lack of understanding about the nature of the country we live in, its terrible unresolved history and its living white supremacist base. To gain our balance, Bernardine and I have been channeling some of our favorite foremothers and forefathers. Ella Baker was an organizer and a fighter her whole life; she was the mother of SNCC and a major force in the Civil Rights Movement, and she lived long enough to see many of the gains challenged and set back with the Southern strategy and the rise of the right. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, freed himself and became a leader of the Abolitionist movement and an architect of Black Reconstruction, and he lived long enough to witness the Hayes Compromise and the unleashing of  white terrorism and the rise of the KKK. What did these great freedom fighters do in the gathering dread and darkness? They got up, dusted themselves off, and set out to organize and fight back. We can do nothing less.

Another world is surely coming—greater equality, socialism, participatory democracy, and peace are within our reach, but nuclear war, work camps and slavery, the crushing of dissent and the shredding of civil liberties are also real possibilities. There are still choices and options, and nothing is guaranteed. Where do we go from here? Chaos or community? Barbarism or socialism?

Let’s get busy!

“History is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that… one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror, because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.” ~~~James Baldwin


Publish, Punish, and Pardon:

January 7, 2017

Nine Things Obama Could Do Before Leaving Office to Reveal the Nature of the National Security State

1. Name innocent drone victims

2. Make Public Any Reviews of Military Errors

3. Make Public the Administration’s Criteria for Its “Targeted Killings”

4. Disclose Mass Surveillance Programs

5. Make Public All Surveillance Agreements With Private Companies

6. Make Public All Secret Law Created in Recent Years

7. Punish Anyone Who Abused the Drone or Surveillance Programs

8. Punish Those Responsible for FBI Domain Management Abuses

9. Pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and the other whistleblowers

Read the full argument and precedent for the “Nine Things” at the terrific site, TomDispatch, December 4, 2016 by Pratap Chatterjee

Two weeks to do the right thing, including pardoning Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez, and undocumented workers.

Join me in Ann Arbor January 10

January 5, 2017