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Jun 29 2011

‘American Spring’ in the fall?

Although it seems to have stalled somewhat, the ‘Arab Spring’ of mass movements that resulted in the ouster of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the despotic regimes of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen is undoubtedly inspiring. It shows that sheer people power, the willingness of large numbers of unarmed people to mount a sustained challenge to the rulers, can result in significant change. (In the case of Libya, the uprising was armed and the intervention of the US and NATO into the conflict means that we can no longer consider this as part of the Arab Spring but more along the lines of a civil war with outside involvement.)

It might be wondered why these kinds of mass demonstrations worked in those countries when similar mobilizations fail in the US. After all, we saw repeated massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of people marching on Washington, and the Bush-Cheney regime went ahead with that war anyway.

The difference is that in the US these demonstrations are for a single day, usually a Sunday, and after it people go back to their normal lives. The government knows this and can just ride out the event. In the Arab countries, it was the willingness of people to make the demonstrations permanent, to stay day after day, risking arrest, injury, and even death, that caused a crisis for the authorities. It showed a commitment and determination that inspired more and more people to join them.

This fall there will be another attempt in the US to mobilize people in the streets but it will not be the usual one-day demonstration. On Thursday, October 6, which is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, a broad coalition of people and groups representing a wide spectrum will attempt to organize a demonstration at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC which is located between the White House and the Capitol building. This movement is basing itself explicitly on the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and similar to that, the groups pledge not to leave until their demands are met. They are seeking commitments from at least 50,000 people willing to occupy the square permanently.

Will it happen? And will this work to bring about real change? It is in the nature of mass mobilizations that they take on a life of their own and it is hard to predict how things will turn out. Syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall, who has long been critical of the high level of political apathy in the US, is hopeful:

I used to work for Democratic candidates. I was a campus activist. I marched in protests.
But, in the 1980s, I quit politics. I was fed up. The Left was impotent and inept. They didn’t want to change things. They were content with theater. Bad theater at that: dorks on stilts, boring speakers, stupid slogans, the same old chants. “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

Except—we were defeated. We didn’t even fight.

Our protests were poorly attended. The media ignored us. And we always lost. Even the Democrats didn’t care about us or our opinions. By the time Bill Clinton won in 1992, the progressive wing of the party was good for one thing: voting Democratic.

Along with millions of others, I drifted away.

Now, finally, for the first time in decades, I am excited.

We can change everything. Here. In America. Now.

The idea behind October 6th is simple: to recreate Tahrir Square two blocks away from the White House.

“We are not packing up and leaving this time,” says Tarak Kauff, one of the October 6th organizers. “We are preparing to stay as long as we possibly can or until some basic demands are met. If we are driven out, we will return.”

In other words, clear your calendar for the 6th, the 7th, the 8th…however long it takes for the Obama Administration to yield to key demands, including immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the other wars. Participants are being asked to sign a pledge to attend at http://october2011.org.

I am not sure how the government will react if there is a huge permanent presence in Washington right under its nose. Will it arrest large numbers of people in an effort to disperse them? Will it send in riot squads and tear gas and beat up the protestors? The government now has coercive powers far exceeding those it had when it unleashed violence on the demonstrators in Chicago in 1968. And if it does use those repressive powers, how will the general public react? Will they side with the government or will they support the protestors? Or will they change channels and watch American Idol?

We should be realistic. Political consciousness in the general public seems to be mired between apathy and obsession with the trivial. But there is a chance that this might catch on because the underlying economic conditions are so brittle. Even if this event does fizzle out, that is no reason to despair because what we are seeing is a qualitative and positive shift in strategy. By focusing on the successful climaxes of earlier mass movements (equal rights for women, civil rights in the US, Indian independence), we mistakenly think that simply being in the right was sufficient for victory. We forget that those successes were built on the foundation of many earlier failures. We have to remember that for future generations to succeed, we have to be willing to fail and not be discouraged. As I. F. Stone put it so well:

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing — for the sheer fun and joy of it — to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

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