Why This Street Protest?

by Conor Friedersdorf

This is the sort of event that confuses me:

An invitation-only political retreat for rich conservatives, run out of the spotlight for years by a pair of Kansas billionaires, became a public rallying point for liberal outrage on Sunday, as 11 busloads of protesters converged on a resort in the Southern California desert.

An estimated 800 to 1,000 protesters from a spectrum of liberal groups vented their anger chiefly at Charles and David Koch, brothers who have used many millions of dollars from the energy conglomerate they run in Wichita to finance conservative causes. More than two dozen protesters, camera crews swarming around them, were arrested on trespassing charges when they went onto the resort grounds.

Does standing across the street shouting at the luxury resort where the Kochs are staying help change the laws that govern campaign finance and political donations? Does it accomplish anything?

And there is this from Firedoglake:

Riverside Sheriff’s deputy Melissa Nieburger said that the sheriff’s department did have contacts with protest organizers, which included the California Courage Campaign, CREDO, MoveOn.org, 350.org, the California Nurses Association, United Domestic Workers of America and the main sponsor, the good-government group Common Cause, prior to the event, and that they were aware that some protesters would seek to be arrested for trespassing.

Why get arrested? Does that confer more media attention? Or is it some fuzzy thinking about civil disobedience? There are times when protest rallies make strategic sense. Participating can even be a morally righteous act. But I can't see how this is one of them. And I hope we aren't entering an era where angry progressives rabble rouse at private events for conservatives and Tea Party types respond in kind by protesting at George Soros sponsored events. Aside from bullhorn manufacturers I'm not sure who benefits, unless the idea is to intimidate the people who decide to attend such meetings, which is just dastardly. "Conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart, resplendent in shorts and roller skates, mulled around the crowd with a couple lackeys and a small video camera, talking to (and arguing with) attendees," the story notes. When he's filming your event, it's a pretty good bet that it isn't helping your image!

I'm not against street protests. The progressive anti-war marches were an appropriate type of dissent. Sure, there were excesses, as their critics reasonably point out. But the average protestors were innocent of them, their instinct that the War in Iraq would have disastrous consequences turned out to be right, and it's easy nowadays to forget that our troops are still occupying that faraway country. Guantanamo Bay, prison rape, undeclared drone attacks in numerous countries, imperial overreach at the Drug Enforcement Agency, surveillance policy: all kinds of progressive causes are suited to efforts at raising awareness. But assembling a large crowd to shout at people attending a private event because they're rich and give to political causes with which you disagree? Seems like bullying.

Yes, I am sympathetic to some of the organizations that the Kochs fund – places like Cato and Reason, mostly because they're great on all the civil liberties and foreign policy issues that I care about, including the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph. But look. There are big money donors to all sorts of ideological groups, and I'd never think of shouting my head off at any of them. To me, the villains in American politics aren't the folks donating to ideological causes with which they genuinely agree, even if you're someone who thinks the rules governing these sorts of donations should be changed. And besides, it seems like if you're protesting the role of money in politics, your target ought to be content neutral – that is to say, you should object to methods since they're used by everyone, rather than singling out for opprobrium the people whose particular message you find wrongheaded.