We Shall Overcome, the same old song: Trying to keep protests fresh and relevant
Travis Murphy protests the war in Iraq every Friday--by making-out with his girlfriend.
Since September, the 25-year-old Iraq War veteran and his girlfriend have organized a weekly anti-enlistment “kiss-in” outside of the Marine Recruitment Center in Berkeley, Calif.
Murphy, a University of California mathematics student, had never heard of a kiss-in before.
“As far as I know, we were the first to do it,” he said.
Though a kiss-in as form of protest is nothing new--it’s actually a classic in the gay community--the couple came up with a unique slogan: “Stay and kiss, don’t enlist--that way, everybody makes out.” According to Murphy, the event attracts about 40 to 50 participants per week, and most reactions from passersby are positive. “This is Berkeley, after all,” he said.
But as the war and the anti-war movement near their fifth anniversaries on March 19, Murphy and other protest leaders say they struggle to find new ways to catch the public's attention.
“I think people are fatigued,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, referring to people who oppose the war but no longer protest.
Wright is a member of Code Pink, a national peace organization famous for disturbing the peace. Code Pink strives for creative non-violence, and members often infiltrate political news conferences by standing behind speakers while holding bright pink anti-war signs. Members also like to ceremoniously hand “pink slips” in the form of pink women’s lingerie to politicians who the organization believes aren’t doing enough to stop the war.
Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz was arrested and removed from a Congressional hearing room when she painted her palms “blood” red and shoved them in the face of a not-very-amused Condoleezza Rice last fall.
“Code Pink is one of the most creative, fun groups,” Wright said. “They’re flashy, and people always get a chuckle.”
News coverage of events like Fairooz’s confrontation often takes a comically dismissive tone, Wright said, although without the stunts Code Pink finds it difficult to get any coverage at all.
“We could have 3,000 to 5,000 people" protesting the war, “and no coverage,” said Wright. “It’s appalling.”
Occasionally, a protest group for a particular issue will break through with an original idea. Recently in New York, as three city police officers stood trial for fatally shooting a Queens man outside a nightclub, 50 demonstrators protested police by dressing in black and carrying a number, each representing one of the 50 bullets police fired at the man, Sean Bell. A photo of the protest ran on the front page of The New York Times.
The press couldn’t get enough of the celebrities who picketed in support of the writers’ strike in New York and Los Angeles. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University last September was the classic media circus, with protest groups of all types popping up like retail outlets, wielding professionally printed picket signs, posters, buttons, and T-shirts--all for one day.
“There are big political machines behind some of those groups,” said Wright.
Matt Harrison, a political writer, law student at the University of Southern California, and founder of the libertarian think tank the Prometheus Institute, said modern-day protesting, no matter how fresh and fancy, is useless.
“It doesn’t work politically anymore,” he said. “The energy that’s put into a protest should be transferred to other forms of communication.”
To Harrison, the original point of protesting was to engage debate, not repel someone with an opposing view by screaming at them. In a recent article, entitled “One, Two, Three, Four, Please Don’t Protest Anymore,” Harrison wrote that demonstrations may have been legitimate for the Civil Rights movement, when groups of people had few legal rights, or when the military draft for Vietnam War hreatened personal liberty. But now, with groups gathering for spur-of-the-moment protests for something like Ahmadinejad’s speech, he said it’s all just so much noise.
“Pure expression of opinion is what I’m critical of,” he said. “People don’t know the issues and are ineffective.”
But Elliott Adams, the president of Veterans for Peace and a former paratrooper, said that doing something is always better than nothing, and that the art of the protest in whatever form is still alive and well.
“There is a difference between truth and inventiveness,” he said. “There’s nothing glitzy about us, but there is so much we can do just telling people the terrible prices of war, just watching the vets get up on a stage and talk--that’s powerful.”
Members of Veterans for Peace also create temporary “beach cemeteries” on both coasts, planting thousands of simple wooden crosses to remind people of the death toll in Iraq. Members of another group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, stage random re-enactments of battles in train stations and parks across the country to demonstrate what life in Iraq is really like.
“That scares the bejesus out of people,” said Wright.
Code Pink isn’t planning a march in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad. It’s the week before Easter and Congress won’t be in session, but chapters of Code Pink plan to follow members of Congress and protest in smaller towns across the country.
Murphy has a special plan of protest as well. And it involves staying and kissing in Berkeley.
“What can else can you do?” he asked. “The resistance to this war is a lot different" than the Vietnam War. “This war isn’t real to many Americans.”