Mark’s post about the Republican National Convention site being 2.68 miles from his house reminds me—in a non-self-congratulatory way—of the various political protests I’ve attended over the past decade, many of them with poets, some with non-poets, and a few alone. I say “non-self-congratulatory” because what I’ve mostly come away from them with is a head-scratching reconsideration of the role of political protest—and of the connection between poetry and politics (an ongoing theme of this summer’s run of Harriet). In this sense, the protests that most perplexed me were the ones leading up to the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. How could the largest series of protests in world history not fail to stop the war?

The previous installment of the Republican National Convention was held here in New York City. I don’t remember hanging out with poets much during those protests, which, quite frankly, were the most menacing ones I’ve attended, not because of any threat of violence by protesters, but because of the utterly arbitrary way in which the police exerted their authority. The policing techniques around the RNC that August were the culmination of a decade-long process in which the NYPD honed its strategies for containing—and even unconstitutionally limiting—the rights of people to protest.
In my previous post I mentioned the complicated relationship Walter Benjamin has with violence in his essay “Critique of Violence,” but one of the things that most strikes me about his text is his horror of the police, and of so-called legal authority itself. Nearly two thousand protesters were rounded up and jailed during the 2004 RNC, actions that have resulted in New York City paying out millions of dollars in settlements in the years since. (I don’t usually cite Wikipedia, but it has a good entry on the protests.)
Of the various protests I’ve attended (and not only in NYC), the one I found the most exhilarating was a march condemning the unjustified police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo in 1999. It was remarkable for both its diversity and focus (progressives tend to complain about recent political protest being too much of one or the other), and also for its transitional moment in police strategies to control and harass protesters. In fact, the police for that one were relatively laissez-faire (and I wondered at the time and since whether or not that had to do with the noticeable percentage of minority police officers on duty that day).
By 2004 (and especially during the protests preceding the second Gulf War), there were barricades everywhere. Protesters were “allowed” to move from metal pen to metal pen. If you stood anywhere outside these enclosures, you were threatened with arrest . . . even if you weren’t protesting (as many of those nearly two thousand learned). In the face of these heavy-handed police tactics, what’s been the most consistent form of “organized” political protest in NYC during the past few years? Critical Mass bike rides.
I don’t want a slow poetry (although I may want Dale Smith’s “slow poetry”); I want a fast poetry. Sure, the Critical Mass people are mostly white twenty-something-year-olds, but, then, poetry’s playing field is generally a young person’s domain. I believe in the inexorable pressure—however slow and at times imperceptible—poets, poetry communities, and poetry institutions can exert on society. But I’m interested in poetry that’s quick, flexible, and eludes the authorities more than it shouts at them. It took me a long time to realize that eluding the authorities is harder than it looks, probably impossible, which may be why so much poetry doesn’t even bother.
If there’s not much of a directly instrumental connection between dominance and resistance (as protests against the ongoing Iraq War have shown), then maybe it’s necessary to reconsider cause-and-effect models. Those who live daily with the knowledge and experience of how little direct political effect poetry in the United States actually has (again, as distinct from poets, poetry communities, and poetry institutions) are in a resourceful position to rethink the relationship between protest and power. Which of course isn’t to say they would be the first to do so.

Originally Published: August 30th, 2008

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry collections The Treatment of Monuments (2012) and Late in the Antenna Fields (2011). He has earned praise for his ability to move between personal, national, and global scales and experiences in his wide-ranging, politically and ethically astute poetry. He is the author...

  1. August 30, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    >>How could the largest series of protests in world history not fail to stop the war?
    I think part of the answer lies in the nature of the protests & of the protesters. Today's "protests" in the U.S. are preplanned, government-sanctioned, cordoned affairs, conducted between flanks of thousands of armed & visored riot police. They're not protests, they're parades. And the protesters are people whose support the government doesn't need. In the sixties, the protesters were often men who were openly defying their government's orders, "brave young men," as Chomsky's dedication in At War with Asia eloquently had it, "who refuse to fight in a criminal war." And the protests often created real instability, actually threatening social functioning. Without real risk to the social, to the ISAs, protests are easily tolerated -- they're even welcomed as evidence of a smoothly functioning democracy. Witness Bush's smirking dismissals whenever he's asked about some uncouth noises emanating from a distant "free speech zone": "They have the right to disagree, that's what democracy's all about."
    To be effective, protesters should refuse to recognize specific "zones" of free speech, should refuse to obtain marching permits, should refuse to coordinate with police representatives, & should strive to actually shut down cities & businesses. Commuters should be actively prevented from using highways, shoppers from entering businesses, &c. This sort of chaos is what led to the sorts of Gramscian ethico-political compromises that ironically render today's protests toothless: revocation of conscription; reduction of domestic casualties; softening of repression of political speech.
    The most efficient way to end the war would be to reinstate the draft. It should be reinstated anyway, simply as a matter of economic justice, but the middle classes would be less likely to underwrite endless military Keynesianism if their sons & daughters' blood were mixing with that of the underclasses in the streets of Sadr City.

  2. August 31, 2008

    but what about the March on Washington? or Malcom X's gathered protests? those were organized. those were planned. those had massive turn-outs. i understand it was a matter of history and social upheaval all around, in an unplanned (Rosa Parks, for example, or the Detroit riots or the Washington, DC riots, too) or planned manner, but there was still organization involved in some major protests.
    i do agree that a lot of protests are squashed by "designated areas" as if free speech weren't allowed in one place or the other, and that protests nowadays are not as effective, but maybe it's cause the police've gotten smarter? the Man's learned? or have political organizers become uninvented?
    on the poetic side, wouldn't slow poetry be that sock in the gut that would upset the status quo or however, since it's a little more unexpected? i have mixed feelings bout it myself...i'm not so post-modern to suggest that all poetry should be meta or whatever whatever, but on the other hand, just one poetry event a month -- even if it's thoughtful -- is too little to grab an audience's attention, no?

  3. August 31, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    He'll proably yell at me for bringing up his name, but my son, Brooks, a poet and musician, was one of the main organizers of a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Chicago '68 demonstrations. This just happened on Thursday, in downtown Chicago, and it was a really successful event, with hundreds of people there, including quite a few members of the press. There was lots of music (including a marching band that traveled all the way from Vermont!), poetry (including an Allen Ginsberg impersonator), street puppetry, and speech making... A very festive anti-imperialist occasion. There is that famous photo of all the young radicals climbing on the horse and rider statue, waving Viet Cong flags--the cops had the statue cordoned off to prevent a reenactment of that.
    Anyway, much preparation went into this, and the people involved in conceptualizing the whole thing and carrying it off were, almost all of them, young writers and artists of some kind, and it looks as if an ongoing, loose federation might emerge from it to carry out future events. Hooray for young Chicago poets seeking to move the space of poetry beyond the page, I say.
    So I report this just to offer one example of what some younger poets are doing, since it seems very relevant to your post.

  4. August 31, 2008
     Angela G.

    Michael is right: Here's how the Vietnam War really ended. It wasn't mass protests, it was the soldiers who fought against an injustice war: went AWOL, and refused to fight.
    And the protests in the U.S. here ARE "are preplanned, government-sanctioned, cordoned affairs, conducted between flanks of thousands of armed & visored riot police."
    Look at what happened yesterday in Minneapolis:

  5. August 31, 2008
     Angela G.

    Pardon the illiterate-sounding typing mistakes: I'm on a computer keyboard that's 4 feet away from my monitor -- and I wear reading glasses.

  6. September 1, 2008
     Boyd Nielson

    Michael and Angela are insightful. Michael’s post (specifically his point about the draft) needs to be read, especially at a time when the media is reporting what (few) protests there are at, say, the RNC as though we were seeing a new proliferation of Timothy McVeighs. National policy is about as threatened by these episodes of smashed windows and slashed tires as it is by Critical Mass. Fixies rise up! etc.

  7. September 1, 2008
     Boyd Nielson

    And by "Fixies rise up! etc." I hope it is clear (and, doubtless, how absurd I clarify this) that I mean, by God, you better at least be riding a Bianchi.

  8. September 1, 2008

    I like Michael's, Angela's, and Boyd's comments, but if they ever bring back the draft, I'll be in Canada, thank you.

  9. September 1, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Well, that's the point, Matt. You (& Boyd & I) can stay home while less fortunate folks go do our killing for us. & dying.

  10. September 2, 2008

    Uh, yeah, I know what the point is. I just think sending more people to war just for the sake of equality is stupid. We shouldn't be sending anyone. We shouldn't be starting wars in the fucking first place.

  11. September 2, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    That's great, Matt. You should write a manifesto. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the question was how to end the wars that are started in rude disregard of yr sensibilities. Conscription would arouse public opposition to the war that the government could not ignore, & would make wars more difficult to fight. And, of course, you & I are as responsible for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths our disadvantaged proxies have caused as they are -- more so, probably, since we have a greater degree of freedom to oppose the war. Since you don't actually seem to see what the point is, here's Chomsky making the case better than I can:
    "I was very much involved in the resistance, but I was never against the draft. I disagreed with a lot of my friends and associates on that, for a very good reason, I think at least as nobody seems to agree. In my view, if there's going to be an army, I think it ought to be a citizen's army. Now, here I do agree with some people, the top brass, they don't want a citizen's army. They want a mercenary army, what we call a volunteer army. A mercenary army of the disadvantaged. And in fact, in the Vietnam war, the U.S. military realized, they had made a very bad mistake. I mean, for the first time I think ever in the history of European imperialism, including us, they had used a citizen's army to fight a vicious, brutal, colonial war, and civilians just cannot do that kind of a thing. For that, you need the French foreign legion, the Gurkhas or something like that. Every predecessor has used mercenaries, often drawn from the country that they're attacking like England ran India with Indian mercenaries. You take them from one place and send them to kill people in the other place. That's the standard way to run imperial wars. They're just too brutal and violent and murderous. Civilians are not going to be able to do it for very long. What happened was, the army started falling apart. One of the reasons that the army was withdrawn was because the top military wanted it out of there. They were afraid they were not going to have an army anymore. Soldiers were fragging officers. The whole thing was falling apart. They were on drugs. And that’s why I think that they're not going to have a draft. That's why I’m in favor of it. If there's going to be an army that will fight brutal, colonial wars, and that's the only likely kind of war, I’m not talking about the militarization of space and that kind of thing, I mean ground wars, it ought to be a citizen's army so that the attitudes of the society are reflected in the military."

  12. September 2, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Also, reveals the RNC protesters making my case for me:
    "Two cops approach the group. A medic pulls out his radio. 'To Snipe, to Snipe, this is Whiskey Tango, do you hear us? We've got two coming.' The police, both women, ask the group to clear the ramp. Some do, some don't. 'These people have nothing against you,' one of the officers explains, indicating the drivers. 'Just give us a few minutes,' pleads a protester. One officer pulls out a can that looks like WD-40. 'If you do not move, I will mace this group,' she says. They move."
    "These people have nothing against you." It's a dialogue, all part of the wonders of the free marketplace of ideas. Hey, we just disagree.

  13. September 2, 2008

    Ooooohhhh, well then if his holiness Noam Chomsky says so, I guess I have to agree. Ok, fine Michael, since you're so eager to be put in harm's way, why don't you drop what you're doing right now and go enlist? What's stopping you?

  14. September 2, 2008
     michael robbins

    No need to refute Chomsky's logic, eh? Just call him "his holiness," thereby suggesting that I believe every honeyed word that falls from his lips.
    Also a good tactic: pretend the argument's about something other than it is, if you can't refute it. For instance, if someone points out the injustice of a situation, pretend he said he was "eager to be put in harm's way," then ask him why he isn't doing something that would have exactly zero effect on the situation.
    The question of our complicity precisely does not lead to the conclusion that we should enlist -- but then, no sane person thinks it does, so you're pushing an open door. If you & I enlisted, do you think that futile gesture would make the situation better in even the slightest way? How? Did you imagine that I was pointing out our complicity because it makes me feel bad? So the problem is about my individual psychology? Because all my enlisting would do (again, nobody else has to be told this) is make me feel less guilty. Wouldn't make the situation or the war any better.
    Since you insist on juvenile sniping, I'll decline to respond to you again. Questions of ethical responsibility for political & economic horrors are actually too important to me for me to be bothered with people who can't have a discussion without dragging it onto some inane level of personal insult.

  15. September 3, 2008

    Sorry if you thought I was insulting you. But thanks for insulting me in your response. Classy.

  16. September 6, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Dream Song 61
    Full moon. Our Narragansett gales subside
    and the land is celebrating men of war
    more or less, less or more.
    In valleys, thin on headlands, narrow & wide
    our targets rest. In us we trust. Far, near,
    the bivouacs of fear
    are solemn in the moon somewhere tonight,
    in turning time. It's late for gratitude,
    an annual, rude
    roar of a moment's turkey's 'Thanks'. Bright & white
    their ordered markers undulate away
    awaiting no day.
    Away from us, from Henry's feel or fail,
    campaigners lie with mouldered toes, disarmed,
    out of order,
    with whom we will one. The war is real,
    and a sullen glory pauses over them harmed,
    incident to murder.