Activism is a joke in Asheville, NC — and pretty much the rest of America

I get alot of ideas to write about from Facebook.  Today I said something that started a flurry of feedback over my comment about protests.

The feedback and comments were mainly supportive and agreed with my stance.  Some didn’t, but that’s OK, it’s America and they do have the right to say what they want.

And so do I.  And I say that the state of American activism is in shambles.

Protests in America have become a joke.  They’ve become a caricature of what civil disobedience means and what civil disobedience can do when it’s used as a tool in the hands of an organized, thinking group of people that are frustrated with the way things are.

In my adopted hometown of Asheville, NC, there’s a protest just about every week.  Someone wants to save the owls, someone else wants to stop coal mining, someone else wants to have the right for women to go topless — a right which women in North Carolina used to have until the state legislature woke up and changed the law.

Protests in Asheville — and elsewhere in America — have devolved into little more than people waving cardboard signs, chanting a few slogans that usually start with something like, “What do we want?”

Yes.  Originality has gone out of the window in American protests.  So too has the motivations for politicians to change.

I’ve watched many protests take place on Pennsylvania Avenue outside of The White House.  I’ve always wondered if Obama was really cowering inside muttering to his aids, “Oh my God…they’ve got — SIGNS!  We need to DO SOMETHING.”

Visit any protest in America and ask one question:  “Why are you protesting?”  The answer will invarably be something like, “We’re trying to raise awareness of (insert the cause dujour here)”.

What a waste of time.  Regardless of the cause, the population is already aware of the problem.  Homelessness?  Yep, people know about it.  Nuclear energy? Yes, people know about it.  The environment?  Same thing, people are already aware.  Matter of fact, people are already aware of all of the issues facing America today.  So why are protesters still trying to “raise awareness”?

Because there’s no commitment involved in ‘raising awareness’.  All you have to do is be willing to sacrifice another tree — where do you think all of those cardboard signs come from — march around for an hour and go home.  There’s no commitment in that.

As a photojournalist that has covered many protests in many cities, I can tell you one thing for certain.  There seems to be a group of “professional protesters” that show up at any rally or cause.

I think it just feeds the ego of the organizers and more than a few of the protesters.  In Asheville, there are activists that are ready to march in the streets regardless of the issue.  Social justice?  Yep, they’ll be there.  Environment?  Yes, they’re out and loud.  Gay rights?  Yes, that’s them in the middle of the march.

I think there are some protesters that have a myriad of signs in the trunk of their car filed alphabetically just in case they stumble across a march in the streets.

So what’s the solution?  How can American activists effect real change?

Look at history

In November 2010, the Guardian had an article “The 10 best protests”.

“Best” was defined as a protest that brought about actual change in a situation and did more than just “raise awareness”.

I’ll let you read the whole list at your leisure  and just summarize a few that caught my eye here.

March on Washington 17 April 1965

The 60s saw many iconic protests against the Vietnam war.  There’s an iconic photograph taken from that protest that shows a demonstrator placing a flower in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s gun.  No cardboard sign.  No chanting.  Just a simple action.  The moment caught in the image was highlighted the following month at Kent State University when people learned that one of the dead, Allison Krause, had also placed a flower in a gun the previous day.

Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby 4 June 1913

It would be a challenge to say that a protest could be among the “best” if a woman died.  But because it was a turning point for votes for women, Derby day in 1913 was significant.  Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under King George V’s horse that day and the jockey, Herbert Jones, was haunted by that woman’s face the rest of his life.

So was early 20th century Britian and Davison’s sacrifice led directly to Parliament giving women the right to vote.

Again, no signs, no changing.  ACTION.

Athens Polytechnic occupation 2008-9

Because of the willingness of American protesters and “activists” to be willing to march with cardboard signs, chant a few ditties and then go home, greed, conspicuous consumerism and political corruption have found it easy to continue.

In Athens, Greece, young people and unions have staged a large refusal to be invovled in any of this.

Not only were the activists protesting the shooting of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the uprising was against the virtual culture of blogging and sending emails back and forth encouraging others to sign and forward online petitions, they were rioting for the concept of doing.  One protester told the curator of the “Ten best protest” lists, “We are an assertion of the real thing against virtuality.”

Each of the ten protests have something in common.  ACTION.

Princeton’s online dictionary defines ‘activism’ as “Taking direct and militant action to achieve a political or social goal.

Read it again S-L-O-W-L-Y.  Did you notice the phrase “…direct and militant…”?

Now I’m not the sharpest tool in the woodshed, but I don’t see how 20 or so guys standing around the Vance Monument waving signs and blowing horns for the past 10 years is either direct or militant.

But ask them what it is they are trying to do?  Yep, “raise awareness”.  C’mon.  Tell me just one person in America that doesn’t know we’ve been at war for almost 13 years.  So much for cardboard signs and horn blowing.

Action though must be constructive to be effective.

To be constructive the action must take some form of disobedience to fight an unjust law.  To protest a just law is to waste time and create fodder for comedians like the women’s right to be topless in Asheville.

What is an unjust law?  A law that violates the rights of the community at large.

Rosa Parks was tired the day she sat down on the bus in Alabama.  She refused to give up her seat to a white man and was arrested.  She said later that the only reason she refused her seat was she was tired — not because she wanted to protest.  But still, her refusal to budge was a protest — and action — against an unjust law.

Over the years, in Washington DC I’ve seen many protests and protesters in front of The White House.  The law says that as long as you are standing and/or moving you’re free to protest as much as you want.  You can sing, chant, carry signs or stand on your head naked and whistle Dixie if you want.  You just can’t sit on the sidewalk.  If you do — and refuse to move — you’ll probably get arrested.

In December 2011 I was in front of The White House one night when about 40 protesters from OccupyDC were marching in a circle on Pennsylvania Avenue.  They marched for a few hours and then got tired and went back to the encampment in McPherson Square.

Eleven protesters sat down on the sidewalk though and waited.  They didn’t have to wait long.

The Secret Service and Washington PD gave the eleven protesters three warnings and then arrested them.  One by one each protester was frisked briefly and had their hands cuffed behind them.  And for what?

Were they arrested for protesting in front of The White House?  No.  They were arrested for sitting on the sidewalk in front of the White House.

Another example are the people that insist on crossing the fence at Ft Benning during the annual SOAW demonstration.

Ft. Benning is a military installation that has a bad, disreputable history of teaching (mostly) Latin American troops how to fight insurgency using a myriad of techniques.

Every year in October, roughly 20,000 demonstrators show up to “raise awareness” of what allegedly goes on at Ft Benning.

And every year some crosses the fence line and gets six months in a federal prison.

What’s the point?  What do the fence hopping protesters prove?  What do they accomplish?

Absolutely nothing.  The fence jumpers are not arrested for demonstrating.  They’re arrested for crossing the fence — in other words, they are protesting a just law.

While writing this piece an email from Dogwood Alliance dropped into my inbox.

Perfect timing.  If you want to read the whole email, let me know and I’ll forward it to you.

The part that caught my eye was the line that said, “We need your help to stop this emerging threat and to protect our Southern forests. Please take action today!”  Click on the link and you’re taken to a webpage that has a pre-filled email to the congressman of your choice.

How appropriate that this neutered form of “activism” arrived at my inbox when it did.


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 Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist from America.  His latest book of photography, Suenitos tells the story of the only daycare inside the dangerous Hidden City.  Now based in Argentina, he continues to turn his lens on social justice issues around the globe.  Connect with Jerry on MosaicHub, Facebook or LinkedIn today.  Have a story that needs to reach national media?  Email him today.

In addition to being photo editor for the Internet’s largest collection of Travel Articles, Outbounding, he is also the lead photographer for BuenosTours, the specialists in private walking tours of Buenos Aires

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