This is a question for political activists of any ideological stripe. When you attend a demonstration, what is your purpose? For many of you it seems like a ridiculous overly introspective question, but really, have you thought about it?

I’ve already posted and dedicated a couple of radio shows to the idea of “activistism” or action for it’s own sake. I asked the question on one show and only one caller even attempted to address the question directly. He said he attended demonstrations for his own morale, whether it did any “good” beyond that. Fair enough. Rallying the troops is more than an adequate purpose, especially at the beginning of any war where the patriotism quotient is running at 9 to 1 or worse and the airwaves are completely one-sided. I remember during the first Gulf War, FAIR kept tabs of the interviews on CNN. They found that only two of those interviewed for the first 30 days of conflict opposed the war, and on Nightline, one of them was cut off by Ted Koppel who said that the expert had not been brought in to voice opposition to the war but to comment on some obscure aspect of it. So, yeah, I don’t want to play down that value to the demonstrations.

But I’ve attended the last few demonstrations in Eureka. The first, just before the war, was empowering or at least morale boosting. But between the bizarre behavior of a few individuals, the often grating rhetoric which stretches the sentiments well beyond the average person’s opposition to the war, and the prominence of conspiracy theorists, speaking of which, reminiscent of the discrediting efforts of Cointelpro – “normal people” haven’t been brought into the visible opposition.

As a teenager and during my early college years I attended many demonstrations of all sorts, large and small. I started to get jaded with them by the mid 1980s when I was attending many in and around the Bay Area. I started to recognize the “usual suspects,” and poorly organized demos would consist of the various sectarian Marxist groups trying to sell their papers to each other and confused bystanders. I remember one gathering in particular at Union Square, where George Schulz, or maybe Al Haig, somebody from the Reagan cabinet, was attending some sort of Conference in the St. Francis Hotel. It was poorly attended, selecting for the usuals. You had the CISPES people at the center holding the placards opposite the police like and metal barriers, chanting the same old chants which sometimes rhymed. I’d come up from the BART station after work to do my civic duty, was approached by the usuals pitching Workers Vanguard, Revolutionary Worker, The Militant, and I forget which paper was put out by the DeLeon group. Oh and the one put out by the group which thought Albania was the salvation of the human race.

I made my way to the tables. Same old pamphlets. Same old faces.

I made my way to the crowd. Same old chants. Same old speeches. Same bullhorns with the same stickers I’d seen at the events for years. Same banners, getting tattered with age. A ritual, with no twists. No thought. A demonstration which would be reported between the weather and reports of car accidents. With people walking by just as accustomed to the event as they were of the guy holding up the signs on Market Street warning about impending Armageddon, and the Scientologists and Moonies pushing their leaflets with big vacuous smiles.

I concluded right there that the demonstrations weren’t merely a waste of time. They hurt the causes – whatever the causes were, which was rarely clear.

So back to my question. What makes a demonstration “successful?” Merely that it happens? Can a demonstration be counterproductive to the cause? What specifically are the goals? Are you trying to reach people? Attract media coverage? Rattle some nerves in power? Do you think about how to attain these goals, tailoring the rhetoric to the goals? Is the timing important? The demographics of the attendees?

Just questions.

Photo comes from Zombie, a right winger who photographs demos in the Bay Area.