Interview: How To Understand Mass Protests, From MLK to the Women’s March

More Americans are protesting than at any time in U.S. history. Longtime organizer and journalist L.A. Kauffman has a new book out that explores what large protests accomplish and how.

John Tarleton Oct 30, 2018

Donald Trump’s administration has been an ongoing disaster. But the tweeter-in-chief may have one positive achievement he can point to: He’s made protest great again. Starting with Trump’s inauguration, somewhere between 13 and 20 million people have participated in protests for women’s rights, immigrant rights, gun control, the environment and more, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium, with 90 percent of protesters being anti-Trump. This represents a larger cumulative number of protesters in the streets than at any time in U.S. history, surpassing the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests from 1969 to 1970.

But will all this tumult make a difference? If so, how? L.A. Kauffman has been a grassroots organizer and journalist for 35 years. She is the author of Direct Action: Protest And The Reinvention of American Radicalism, a fascinating romp through the evolution of the radical left from the 1970s onward. Kauffman also played a leading role from 2003 to 2004 in organizing anti-war demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans into the streets to protest the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. She draws on that experience in How To Read A Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance, her latest offering. At a little over a hundred pages, it’s a quick read but Kauffman’s familiarity with the mechanics of mass protest and the history of the U.S. left over the past half-century are evident throughout.

John Tarleton: You have written extensively about direct action movements over the years. Why did you decide in your new book to examine the methods and impacts of larger mass protests?

LA Kauffman: I was the mobilizing coordinator for what still stands as some of the biggest protests ever in U.S. history and I had long had questions about exactly what those kinds of protests do and what effects they have over the longer run. The protests against the Iraq War were massive but their impact as pressure tactic was negligible or non-existent. So, in the wake of the 2017 women’s marches, which jumped out at me as being really different in character from the mass marches I’d experienced in the past, I decided to take a look back at the history of those mobilizations and think about how they changed and what they contribute.

You devote a substantial part of the book to looking back on one particular march, the 1963 March on Washington, which is most famous for Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Why is that?

The 1963 March on Washington is often held up as the model of what a big protest can and should be in a way that’s both inspiring but, also at times is a bit chastising. Over and over again, more recent mobilizations have been compared to the ’63 March on Washington and found in some way to fall short, to not be as powerful or stirring or have the same kind of impact that people think the ’63 march had. I realized that I hadn’t deeply studied how that march came together and what near-term organizing impact it had. As part of the process of thinking about mass mobilizing in our time, I went back to the published accounts of the ’63 march but also then into the archives and discovered a lot of things that I hadn’t known about how it was put together and the ways in which it was and was not effective.

What are your main takeaways from revisiting the ’63 march?

I realized that it really was the first mass march in American history. Like a lot of people, I had an idea in my mind that it was carrying forward a tradition rather than really creating one. And the other aspect of it that I learned about from the work of numerous scholars as well as from the archival records was the extent to which it was organized in a very male-dominated, top-down way despite the efforts of many women who were carrying a lot of the organizing work for the event to have a greater say in how the event was organized.

‘Thousands of small, decentralized, women-led groups all around the country are now very busy at work to affect the outcome of the midterms.’

I also learned by looking very closely at the records of the organizations that co-sponsored the ’63 March in Washington that — while it was an extraordinary success in many, many respects and it continues to inspire people today — it actually didn’t work very well for movement building. It depleted rather than strengthened the organizations behind it. I took a very close look at their membership records and, in particular, what they were and were not able to do to build on and incorporate the new waves of people who came to the march who hadn’t previously belonged to civil rights organizations. None of the main groups were able to really absorb and build on that energy at all. On the contrary, they all saw their memberships dwindle after the ’63 March on Washington. So, that was another aspect that really surprised me and contrasted with what I saw happening at the 2017 women’s marches.

What has been the impact of the Women’s March?

We’re already seeing a huge effect in that the nature of grassroots mobilization around the midterm elections is very different from past election cycles. There’s a level of grassroots ground game that’s happening that’s women-led and happening outside of the structures of the Democratic Party. It’s happening at a scale we haven’t seen before. We also saw the Women’s March organization be one of the really leading forces in the protest against Brett Kavanaugh.

One of the most striking things in your book is the way you juxtapose the 1963 March on Washington and the 2017 Women’s March. These two historic protests could not have been organized more differently. At the same time, they reflect a larger transition that’s been underway on the left for decades in terms of moving from a top-down, male-oriented leadership to more decentralized, female-led movements.

Absolutely. The way in which the 2017 women’s marches came together was very decentralized, very viral, very bottom up. There were quite a few seasoned organizers who stepped up and took on a lot of the nuts-and-bolts work of putting those mobilizations together. However, the process of mobilizing, of getting the people there, so much of that was work that women and some men, not waiting for permission, not waiting for direction, but just making it happen themselves. And that impulse really carried over into the way the larger resistance to Trump came together in the period after his inauguration in thousands of small, decentralized women-led groups all around the country who are now very busy at work to affect the outcome of the midterm elections.

So what do protests accomplish if they don’t achieve their immediate objectives?

The work of protests unfolds over many years and a lot of times you have to lose repeatedly before you can win. The way that you create change over the long term involves expanding the political possibilities of the moment by empowering others to take action with building and sustaining movements and movement organizations that can do organizing work.

Often people will look at a protest and consider it just as a short-term pressure tactic, which some kinds of protests are meant to be. However, mass mobilizations, be they the ’63 March on Washington or the women’s marches, don’t really work that way. They do much more to help people feel part of something bigger than themselves than they do to concretely achieve change in the short run. The work of change usually happens through multiple tactics and multiple means, not just through marching. But marching matters because it’s part of how we get a sense of collective power. For many people, large protests are the on-ramp to other forms of activism.

In your book, you write that protest “is always an act of faith.” In the case of the  Feb. 15, 2003 anti-war mobilization and the protests outside the 2004 Republican National Convention here in New York City, the outcomes in both cases were disappointing. What kept you going?

Partly, I think it’s just temperament. I’m someone who looks for hope even in very hard times and who is always looking for what we can do to make things better than they are.

There’s no question that it was very dispiriting to organize in the hope of stopping the Iraq War and to fail. It was a little like the Kavanaugh fight. We went into it kind of knowing we weren’t going to win. When you do that kind of work, you have to plow ahead even though you know you’re demanding the impossible. We knew back then that we were very unlikely to stop George Bush from going to war against Iraq, just as the writing was on the wall very early that the Republicans had the votes in the Senate. They were very likely to confirm Kavanaugh, and yet it matters to fight even when the odds are long.

Sometimes it matters for the political dynamics of the moment. Sometimes it matters for the state of your sense of self, just to be able to not feel complicit with evil that’s being done in your name. This happened in the Iraq War and it’s happening with Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Sometimes you fight against long odds just so you can look at yourself in the mirror and feel okay about what you’re doing.

That said, nobody wants to be making futile gestures of opposition. It’s important to think about what we could do that could be effective and that could win. It changed the dynamic around the Iraq War that record numbers of people marched against it all around the world. And it is changing the dynamic of Kavanaugh’s tenure on the Supreme Court that he was so bitterly opposed to the point of people pounding on the doors as he was being sworn in. We may not be able to stop the terrible things that Trump is doing right now, but it matters deeply that we do our very best and fight our very hardest.

How To Read A Protest is being released Oct. 30. On Thursday, Nov. 1, Greenlight Books will host a book launch at its Fort Greene store featuring L.A. Kauffman and political organizers Leslie Cagan and Murad Awawdeh.

Photo: The 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Credit: Roya Ann Miller.

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