Clunk Clunk Moo: Dilemmas of 21st Century Protest

16 Apr
Occupy Wall Street visitors check out books at the People's Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011 Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

Visitors check out books at the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011
Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

My mom took me to my first protest at age 15—a reading of Lysistrata at Chicago’s Heartland Café. This was early in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. I ate some vegan pastry, laughed at an ancient Greek sex comedy, and listened to middle-aged folks talk past each other in the post-play discussion. I walked out with a “Not in My Name” button I hoped would counteract the one I’d seen around school that read “Hug a troop, not a tree, hippie!”

A few weeks later, bombs lit up the skies over Baghdad as spring lighting flashed over my suburb.

As an adult, I’ve marched and chanted in only a handful of Chicago protests, mostly anti-gun and pro-union affairs over the last two years. Each experience has both moved and unsettled me. I’ve born witness to the stories of old union activists and young gun-massacre survivors, their words stinging me to my core. But as I looked over the mostly middle-aged and elderly crowds, I also felt I was bearing witness to a dying tradition.

It seems that there are two main categories of protest in America: organized and chaotic. Organized protests involve permits, rented PA systems, a set lineup of speakers, and awkward midday timeslots when as few people as possible are pass by Daley Plaza. Chaotic protests are epitomized by the clusterfuck convention that follows the G20 summit wherever it goes: broken windows, handcuffed anarchists, and violently rhythmic Oberlin students:

As Jon Stewart so aptly commented:

“You know what? The jackass banging the water bottle in the kind-of cow suit is right. The natural resources of indigenous people must be protected from predatory corporate contracts…clunk clunk moo.”

When a movement’s only coherent message fails to go beyond a “Fuck the system” tweet sent from an iPhone, all Americans hear is “clunk clunk moo.” Whether the goal is to change hearts and minds or simply get their ideas heard by people who have the power to enact them, this style of protest fails on all accounts.

This is not to say that protesters don’t have the right to picket the G20, or any other event; they most certainly do. And this isn’t to say that a protest fails when someone gets arrested. Protests that I might categorize as “chaotic” in my haphazard binary—e.g. Depression-era labor protests and the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march of 1965—were absolutely effective in the long term. A majority of Americans were moved to sympathize with the protesters, whether due in small or large part to the horrifying images (and videos) of the opposition’s brutality. When a sincere message translates into sympathy and direct action for change, I consider that a success. And I’ll admit that organized protests that cause little civil disturbance rarely rock the boat.

I held out cautious hope for the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. Though it had elements of chaos, it had the sympathy (or at least the shared anger) of the masses. I had the chance to wander through Zuccotti Park on two consecutive afternoons, the day after a large, quasi-violent Times Square march and a few weeks before the Occupiers were swept out of the park. Things were quiet, clean, and respectful while I was there, but not too far below the surface were self-inflated egos, nighttime rape, and animosities between one geographical side of this small encampment and the other. I brought them some food and toothpaste, thanked the police for keeping watch, and silently went on my way.

An officer pepper sprays peaceful student protesters at UC Davis Image from

An officer pepper sprays student protesters at UC Davis
Image from

And though around the country Occupy offshoots engaged in violent and non-violent protests, further stoking collective middle-class rage with images like the one above, no definitive message emerged. The marchers at Selma had tangible goals that wove into the tapestry of civil rights; the marchers in Time Square had a thousand threads’ worth of goals, and their leaderless upper echelon seemed to eschew any semblance of a stitch to piece them together.

Any sincere proponents of political change (especially those who chose to occupy homes to stop foreclosures, an often-successful technique that continues to this day) were drowned out by idiots who demanded to hear their own words shouted back to them, even over the voice of experienced activists like Congressman and MLK disciple John Lewis. Americans saw ignorance and incoherence, and they tuned out. It was Kesey and a band of swastika-clad Hell’s Angels crashing the 1965 Vietnam Day Committee rally all over again. Clunk clunk moo, indeed.

The right to protest is precious, and it needs to be exercised and protected. I respect and admire those who are willing to risk arrest (as I admit I have never done) for a sincere and definable cause, whether it’s a 79-year old grandmother protesting the Keystone pipeline in Oklahoma or soccer moms holding an “eat in” in Maryland to protest GMOs.

Though valuable tools of communication, Twitter and Facebook will not replace the in-person protest—a fact I hope my generation will catch on to soon. We’re out there in the streets, but we have a lot to learn from those who came before us. And we have a lot to add to the mix. There has to be a middle ground between by-the-book vanilla protests and violently rhythmic anarchy.

So here’s an assignment to my fellow millenials: if only just once, pick a cause, find a rally, and go. If it’s organized, fine. If it’s chaotic, know your rights. Don’t chant if you don’t want to chant. Don’t march if you don’t want to march. Just listen to a fellow human speak over a crackly PA system, and see if there’s something you can learn from them.

The oft-mocked, oft-out-of-synch drum circle of Zuccotti Park Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

The oft-mocked, oft-out-of-synch drum circle of Zuccotti Park
Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

Been to any good protests lately? Tell me about it!


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