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.
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...