Tuesday, July 02, 2013

A brief occupation: Direct action as an effective tactical maneuver

Off topic, but Grits wanted to address a subject that's been on my mind since state Sen. Wendy Davis'  nationally hailed filibuster which, in case you've been living in a cave, helped run out time on Republicans' big abortion bill on the final day of Texas' first special session, spurring the governor to call another one. To be clear, this post seeks neither to promote a pro-choice nor an anti-abortion point of view, but instead to discuss issues of grass-roots political tactics, including the "direct action" by the crowd which prevented the bill from passing at the end-game.

Image via Diluting Tears in Ice Cream
As we'll discuss below, Grits has only rarely seen direct action contribute to a tangible political victory, and this one may prove to be short-lived. But it does occasionally happen, just as it did the other night. The question I'd like to pose, then: Under what circumstances is direct action an effective political tactic in 21st century American politics and under what circumstances is it a distraction or even a colossal waste of time and political capital?

Grits was especially interested to see Lt. Governor David Dewhurst accuse the opposition of "Occupy Wall Street tactics" for shouting down senators during the final moments of the special session so they couldn't finish voting on the bill before the clock struck midnight. He's referring to the last-minute intervention by the crowd, or the "mob," if you will, that undoubtedly disrupted the business of the senate, if only for a moment. As it turned out, though, for that day, a moment was all that was required.

Grits is no great fan of the Occupy movement and considers that an inapt analogy. To me, what happened at the end of the first special session was as far removed from "Occupy Wall Street tactics" as Vulcan chess is from checkers.

Let me explain, beginning with some context: For at least three decades before Occupy Wall Street (OWS), but certainly culminating in that unhappy and fruitless effort, the American left had adopted an increasingly jaded view of the US political system. Many self-avowed leftists in 21st century America seem to assume, without having ever tested the hypothesis, that the political system is so corrupt that it's impossible to effect change by participating in it. At that point, all that's left are symbolic "protests" over whatever it is one dislikes. It's a tactic totally fitting with our narcissistic, Facebook-infatuated 21st century culture, which explains its popularity among disenchanted youth.

The American left's romanticized fascination with civil disobedience - where getting arrested has for some became a political badge of honor - harks back to the civil-rights movement and the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. But in truth, the tactic has rarely been effective since then. Government at all levels, of necessity, has learned to minimize the effects of civil disobedience and sideline its adherents. (E.g., national political conventions now set up free-speech zones for protesters away from the actual event.) Today, those arrested at protests are processed in a routine fashion that does little but generate legal defense costs for the individuals or, worse, the movement.

Except in extremely narrow circumstances, Grits considers disruptive direct-action tactics an example of irresponsible movement leadership, whatever the political stripe of the movement in question. However, the end of the Wendy Davis filibuster was one of those rare instances where, setting aside whatever one may think of the legal or philosophical implications, it was strategically justified. Indeed, state Sen. Craig Estes opined that the episode was especially "awful particularly because it worked. The 'gallery filibuster' tactic is now in the playbook of both political parties, as well as every special interest group with enough emotional supporters to pull it off."

He's right about that. The good news for those harboring such concerns: The circumstances allowing the senate to devolve into such a fiasco stemmed from the bill's late addition to the call and a grassroots wave that probably surprised even the organizers. That situation is unlikely to be replicated frequently. Indeed, without an active 2/3 rule in the senate (similar to cloture in the US Senate, for you non-Texans), the same bill will almost certainly pass in this new special session. With the 2/3 rule, of course, the bill goes nowhere.

The "gallery filibuster" only worked because pro-choice pols effectively delayed the bill until its passage came down quite literally to the eleventh hour. (The bill's late addition by the governor to the special session "call" also helped push back its timeline.) OWS tended to treat disruption - for example, the occupation of Zuccotti Park - as an end unto itself, ostensibly making some too-often ill-defined point they could never clarify or agree upon. The disruption in the Texas Senate was an adjunct to a broader, more results-oriented political strategy - a means to an end.  Disruption was not the goal, it was a tactic, and a spontaneous, crowd-sourced one at that. To me, that's a significant difference.

As you can tell, Grits is not a great fan of protests as a primary political tactic. IMO they are overused across the political spectrum. But there are moments - and Texas' recent pro-choice demonstrations were among them - where a showing of mass support can play an effective role in shaping the perception of opinion leaders and the public. Demonstrations can also be an effective way to garner earned media when introducing a relatively new topic. Repeat the tactic too often, though, and your political clout declines along with the numbers in the crowds.

Like a carpenter, political tacticians must understand which tools to apply in which circumstances. From the perspective of a political operative, direct action and protests are just two of many tools in the tool box. In general, though, IMHO they should be used sparingly. Grits has been around Texas politics in some shape or form for a quarter century and the end of the Wendy Davis filibuster was only the second time I've ever personally witnessed direct action achieve a tangible political goal.

The other example from my own experience dates to the late 1980s when Austin environmentalists were engaged in a protracted legal and political fight over construction of a proposed "Outer Loop" west of Austin, a massive subsidy for development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone that enviros sought to thwart. Though a hearings was scheduled in court, one of the developers moved heavy equipment onto the site ahead of schedule, hoping to mow down the habitat under dispute in order make its development a fait accompli. In response, members of Earth First! chained themselves to the equipment, halting construction long enough for environmental lawyer Bill Bunch (who later became legal director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, where he's still employed) to go to court and get an injunction. As in the Wendy Davis episode, the goal wasn't merely to "protest" but to buy time for a procedural strategy to kick in. And it worked.

Those are the types of circumstances where direct action - by which I mean civil disobedience or other disruptive actions that risk arrest - can be effective, at least if we define "effective" as achieving a tangible political goal. In my experience, such situations are incredibly few and far between. By contrast, over the years I've met dozens if not hundreds of people of all political stripes who intentionally got arrested at protests - from demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood clinics to protesting the latest war. Almost all of them were exercises in futility and, though it seems harsh to say so, narcissism. If those folks had pooled the money that inevitably must cover their bail, attorneys fees, lost wages, etc., and spent it to hire lobbyists and organizers, everyone would have been better off and some of the laws they were protesting might have changed.

Which brings us back to the question of what Lt. Gov. Dewhurst called "Occupy Wall Street tactics." In 99.99% of instances, disrupting the Texas Senate would be a loser's strategy. To get to the point where a few minutes of bedlam could effectively scuttle a bill required the sophisticated application of more traditional legislative tactics beginning long before those final, critical moments - most prominently by Wendy Davis but also by countless others working the process step-by-step. The effort had little in common with Occupy Wall Street tactics and here's how you can tell: They won.


Phelps said...

Under what circumstances is direct action an effective political tactic in 21st century American politics and under what circumstances is it a distraction or even a colossal waste of time and political capital?

I think it is a Pyrrhic victory that costs them more than it wins them. If you recall, the Wisconsin Budget "Protests" has a similar "victory." What did it accomplish?

Well, it accomplished having the Republican Supreme Court candidate re-elected, $40MM wasted in unsuccessful recall campaigns, and a failure to take control of the lege in the next election.

They need to face some hard realities. The bill is supported by 60% of the state. Americans support the term restrictions by over 80%. This is by no means a popular position.

That means that they need to be taken seriously, and frankly, shouting down the lege is not a serious move. It's an adolescent, short sighted move, just like "taking over" the Capitol in Wisconsin.

It's just group therapy, and it's the sort of group therapy that politically they can't afford.

Texas Maverick said...

read the REST of the bill, that's what is objectional. The stats you quote are correct on the term restrictions, but when the bill gets hijacked to meet the ultra right goal of NO planned parenthood, then I question the support. Break the bill down and yes, most would support it if and only if the additional protection covering rape and incest were included. Bad legislation should not be passed when a good bill gets loaded up.

Anonymous said...

It doesnt' matter what the issue is or what side of it you are on, what happened in the Senate is disgusting. It reminded me of those videos from the legislature in Korea where they have fist fights. We don't have a "mob-ocracy" in this country. And it's not a democracy either, it's a republic. We elect people to make these decisions. If you don't like the decision, then work to elect somebody else. I don't like mob rule, no matter whose mob it is.

Denny Crane said...

Anonymous--I for one am happy to see a "Mob"!!! It shows that people CARE about what is being shoved down our throats by a bunch of rich republican men! It is time Americans get off facebook/twitter/internet before we lose all of our damn rights!!!

Virginia Raymond said...

Thank you for your excellent commentary. We need to engage in much more of this thoughtful analysis of what strategies to use when, and where.

I would only add that disability rights organizations, especially ADAPT, have effectively and strategically used direct action (blocking streets, blocking buses crawling up the U.S. Capitol steps, filling the U.S. Capitol) as means to specifically defined goals, often forcing meetings with people had previously refused to acknowledge their existence.

Virginia Raymond said...

Another effective use of direct action took place last April, when the eighteen members of the UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition occupied the President's office in the UT Tower as part of a much longer campaign to get the university to join the Workers Rights Consortium, http://www.workersrights.org/, an independent labor rights organization. With the April 18, 2012 action, the students accomplished the specific goal of getting UT President Bill Powers to meet with them. When he granted the meeting, the student brought information and personal testimonies and invited him to look into the Worker Rights Consortium himself. To Powers' credit, he listened and conducted his own research, with the result that UT Austin did join the Worker Rights Consortium.

This example provides supports your main point: direct action can be effective when strategically used to accomplish a specific goal.

Phillip Baker said...

I have mixed feelings about this. As a veteran of many marches, etc, I agree that they have largely lost their punch. So it's smarter to use that money and energy in other ways.

I do disagree with your dismissal of such protests as narcissistic. We as a people have far, far less input into policies and laws than we used to. "Free speech zones"- just a way to allow pols to avoid facing opposition and giving them inconvenient media coverage. "Free speech" relegated to distant zones is not free speech.

As to corruption in the system, the people have it right. Parties in power- both sides- have gerrymandered electoral districts to such an extent that most of the people have no real say in elections, especially for the presidency. I have not had true representation in Congress or the Lege in decades, thanks to GOP manipulation of districts in Austin (And Democratic lack of spine). One man, one vote is gone. Presidents are elected from a handful of "battleground states". So I fully understand the deep cynicism of most voters, not just youth. Why bother?

But big, noisy displays of opinion, opposition, and/or support do serve one important purpose. They often energize the participants. I went to the 1989 March on Washington planning to hide in the crowd. Being part of 750,000 other people led to me holding the large Austin banner, proud and open. I returned home far more "active" than before. In a free society, that is a good thing. It keeps pols and big money from just ignoring us completely. This country has slid far, far into control by oligarchs and the professional political class, and far, far from being truly free. When offices are essentially for sale as they are now, we get a little jaded.

Anonymous said...

Nothing shows you care better than chanting "Hail Satan!" or maybe a Hallmark Card.

Susan Hays said...

Thanks for the analysis, Grits. An important point to add: the outbursts were immediately proceeded by and prompted by the actions of the chair -- first Dewhurst then Duncan -- in refusing to follow the Senate Rules and parliamentary procedure. I was heartened that night to see the crowd -- both live and virtual -- not only follow the arcane procedures but immediately understand how wrong it was for the chair to flaunt the rules. The anarchy began on the dais. When Sen. Van de Putte called them out on the more obnoxious and sexist acts -- repeatedly refusing to recognize her recently returned from her father's funeral no less -- that spark lit the fire in the dry timber.
I could have not scripted it better, nor could have Aaron Sorkin. Turns out we didn't need to. The Republicans did it for us.
In sum, the tactics were appropriate that night for the additional reason that they were justified and prompted by the lawless, bullying tactics of the leadership. Watching those with all the power and the votes cheat on top of it all was too much for anyone who cares about democracy and the Rule of Law to bear.

Anonymous said...

Not a single democrat elected official for a state wide position--has ZERO to do with gerrymandering.

More than 50% of Texans support proposed abortion restrictions--hard to say "anti-democratic" if you support majority position.

Chris H said...

By defining "direct action" the way that you are, you're limiting the examples in which they're used effectively. Direct action is more than civil disobedience.

However, civil disobedience has two primary goals.
1) Create empathy for a cause by demonstrating that the issue is of such importance to you that you're willing to undergo the pains of the consequences to bring attention to it.
2) Create opportunity to fight the issue in the courts instead of a legislative body.

The planned parenthood protests in the 90s in Texas were going primarily after the second. They ended up losing the court case because of a lazy pseudo incorporation doctrine our state appellate courts have taken when our state constitution has sections that are of the same subject matter as the US constitution (They screwed up blood warrants with that doctrine too). Article 1 Section 8 of the Texas constitution is clearly more protective of speech than is the first amendment to the US constitution.

My civil disobedience arrest outside a polling place in 2010 led to the city council in Watauga repealing their ordinance and, in part, the passing of HB 259 this session.

There are tons of examples of even your limited civil disobedience definition.

Beyond that, a broader definition of "direct action" has an additional goal of building community that can then be used as a critical mass in a coalition for a more tempered change.

It's narcissistic to believe that legislative and societal change is occurring in a vacuum of elitist thought within the halls of that pink dome.

Legislative change that isn't tied to cronyism generally is the result of the direct action events boiling over into public policy.

There's an Ann Landers quote: "Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don't recognize them."

Direct action is usually the hard work that creates the opportunity for positive legislative change.

doran said...

Occupy this: A one million dollar settlement for Occupy-ers in California who were subject to police beatings. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/03/occupy-oakland-protesters-1m-police

doran said...

The following quote is from a post today at http://www.moonofalabama.org/, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria:

"The Muslim Brotherhood view: Because they won the majority (of the minority that voted) they are allowed to rule and implement the state and society as they see fit. "

Isn't that pretty much the same as the attitude of the Texas GOP on almost everything subject to legislation and the Governor's office, but particularly with regard to abortion law?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Legislative change that isn't tied to cronyism generally is the result of the direct action events boiling over into public policy."

Chris, can you please provide any Texas-specific examples where "direct action" by leftists resulted in proactive legislative reforms? Offhand I can't think of a single one.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Virginia, thanks for the kind words. But I must say, I wouldn't consider simply getting a meeting with somebody some huge accomplishment. If that's all that "direct action" is good for, it's not good for much.

Susan, I agree that's an important distinction. The direct action here, as I said in the post, was "crowd-sourced." That's very different from, say, celebrities lining up to get ritually arrested in anti-nuke protests, etc.. What happened at the Texas capitol was organic, not a tactic employed by the movement leadership. That's one of the reasons Dewhurst's OWS analogy is inapt.

Chris H said...


I'm not sure why it needs to have been by "leftists". You've always been one to try and ignore those types of labels.

Proactive reforms? I can't think of any attempts of direct action that would have been proactive in nature. People commit to direct action because of abuse, not the possibility of some abuse presenting itself in the future.

gravyrug said...

Something that I haven't seen covered anywhere is whether or not there's an investigation into who tampered with the timestamps on the bill. The original timestamp clearly showed the vote was after midnight, and therefore invalid, yet another version showed up a few minutes later, altered to show the vote taken in time. I believe that tampering with official records is a potential felony, yet nobody seems to be investigating it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So Chris, you grant that "direct action" is reactive and incapable of achieving pro-active reforms. So why should we endorse it? You say "People commit direct action because of abuse," but spite and revenge are not a viable political platform in and of themselves.

I mentioned lefties because for the most part that's who touts "direct action" as an ostensibly effective tactic. On the right, for example, the pro-life folks use those tactics but also use a WIDE array of more mainstream ones. It's on the left that the misguided notion has been embraced that direct action can achieve political ends by itself and has value of its own accord. Except in very narrow circumstances, it almost always does not.

pjstx said...

"To get to the point where a few minutes of bedlam could effectively scuttle a bill required the sophisticated application of more traditional legislative tactics beginning long before those final, critical moments - most prominently by Wendy Davis but also by countless others working the process step-by-step."

Like the "grassroots" folks answering the ad on Craigslist?

and shown on other sites. LifeNews, CNS some blog sites. The ad is real. Posted three days after Perry called the session, two days before the astroturf demonstration.

If they'd won in a legitimate election, or had the majority support of the people without having to HIRE the grassroots folks, then it could be considered a win. Only extreme "spin" could call it such. If fans could pay folks to run out onto playing fields, their teams would "win" more games too.

But it does show the character of all involved. And those reporting it.

Chris H said...

Very little reform of any kind is "proactive". The email bill was reactive to the testimony to Congress that millions of emails were being subpoenaed, etc.

Where are you seeing proactive anything taking place?

Some examples of places where we have seen some direct ation impact the public affairs, while not necessarily legislative is in jury nullification (FIJA), video taping police interactions with the public (Peaceful Streets Project), and Neighborhood Watch to name a few.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Chris H, the email bill reacted to the Congressional hearings, sort of (much more, actually, to offensive Obama Administration briefs in federal court cases), but it reacted by positively improving the law, not just complaining about it with a sign in one's hand.

You say the Peaceful Streets Project is an example of successful direct action, but I'd respectfully ask, "Successful by what metric?" I don't judge success by the number of press clippings or YouTube hits. I'm looking for tangible, real-world wins that one can point to and see the results.

Protests have their place, "direct action" too, though much, much less frequently. But IMO folks who have disengaged from the actual political process to SOLELY focus on those tactics are too often wasting their time and everybody else's.