Political Protests: Moments of Self-Definition

Political Protests: Moments of Self-Definition

Concepcion Picciotto died this week. Her place in history is trivial . . . probably.

Ms. Picciotto probably holds the record for “the longest running act of political protest in the nation’s history.” For more than 30 years, Ms. Picciotto held a peace vigil in Lafayette Park, opposite the White House. Often homeless, of uncertainty sanity, she simply was “a protester,” and happened to do it longer than anyone else.

Thoughts of Ms. Picciotto stayed with me this week because it has been a week of protests.

In Oregon, it appears that the occupation of a section of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge may be coming to an end.  Most of the group of armed occupiers is in custody. (Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders, has insisted that theirs was not an armed occupation. They simply carried weapons for self-protection.) One was killed by law enforcement officers when, reportedly, he repeatedly reached for what turned out to be a loaded handgun during the traffic stop that brought most of the others into custody. Perhaps four or five remain on the property. It would appear that both sides are seeking a peaceful resolution.

When the last occupier leaves the national stage, what will have changed? Probably not much. People did not rally to their cause. Many people rallied against them and their assertion that they were reclaiming the land for the people. These people, hundreds of conservationists, environmentalists, sportspersons and nature enthusiasts, as well as representatives of the Paiute people, considered the occupiers to be usurpers, not defenders of people’s rights.

It is likely the occupiers will be remembered unfavorably by most people in Oregon, if they remember them at all.

Another protest occurred last night, this one evidenced by refusing to appear, rather than refusing to leave. Donald Trump, in the latest round of his feud with . . . well, just about everybody, but in this case Fox News . . . apparently decided he wasn’t going to take it anymore, and left the debate stage to his rivals.

They seemed to be able to carry on just fine. The audience, according to early reports from Nielsen, actually was larger than the previous Trump-infused presidential debate of 2016, though that comparison isn’t entirely fair (Fox Business Network has substantially lower household penetration than Fox News). Compared to Mr. Trump’s own media event, the debate ate the candidate’s dinner. Of course, there are lots of ways to spin those numbers, too.

Did Mr. Trump’s absence markedly change the contours of the Republican presidential nomination landscape? Maybe . . . but probably not.

On the national level, where debates are likely to have their effect (if they have any effect), the field seems to have sorted itself out.  Mr. Trump is on top, by a sizable margin, as he has been almost continuously since August. Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio round out the top three slots, with Dr. Carson dropping steadily but still holding fourth. Then comes the cluster of current “also running” candidates, none of whom have polled consistently better than 10% at any point since early November.

I’m not thinking the debate last night would have changed that at all, Donald or no Donald.

As for what happens in Iowa or New Hampshire . . . that will have a lot more to do with what the candidates and their campaigns have been doing in Iowa and New Hampshire than with where Mr. Trump was last night.

There’s a common theme here.

Larger forces – social, political, economic – often overshadow and even overwhelm the voice of protesters, even in a country that prides itself on the role protests and protesters have played in making us great. For a protest to effect change in the thing it protests, much more is required than a moment before the camera, a momentary confrontation with the authorities or even a massive flock of tweets.

Effective protests are campaigns, much like any other campaign. One must find the catalytic moment for the public launch of the struggle. One must be willing and able to sustain the long siege. And, if one would be truly successful, one must have an “exit strategy,” a sense of how to end the fight while consolidating the gains.

And one must accept, above all, that one campaign of protest, in one season, won’t be enough to change the world.

But it can change individual lives, for better or for worse.

And it can define a life . . . and sometimes, that’s actually what the protest is fundamentally about.

One person. Defining himself or herself. For better or for worse.

Ms. Picciotto taught us that.