Why I'm Suspicious Of Most Street Protests

by Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier in the week, I questioned the utility of that protest against the Koch brothers. Now the inevitable opposition video has come out – the one where someone "on the other side" goes around with a video camera to record event attendees saying outrageous stuff. Probably you saw the Tea Party iteration of this tactic, and big surprise, the crowds at progressive rallies are as easy to portray as racists or intemperate blowhards:

This doesn't surprise any reporter who has ever attended a street protest. I've covered a lot of them: the lefty sort at my alma mater, Pomona College, left and right wing immigration protests, anti-war protests, municipal protests calling for the recall of city council members, etc. In my experience, being out in a big crowd makes a lot of people behave like idiots – the closest analogy I can come to is that it approximates the percentage of sanity and insanity that one finds in a blog comments section. The observer is left wondering, "What is it about this setting that makes people behave in ways they'd never act if you encountered them anywhere else?"

There are street protests that I support. How else do you topple a dictator or dramatize the massive opposition to a war or demonstrate the moral wrong of a regime like Jim Crow? For the most part, though, I'm turned off by them, and although I don't think the people in the video above actually want to do the violence that they so casually invoke, I do think they're behaving shamefully, and I'm always a bit surprised that it's so easy to get people to say those things on camera. It signals that they're so unaware of the problem with they're behavior that the notion of it being preserved forever on the Internet is insufficient to make them think twice. To close with a tentative hypothesis I alluded to before, "If you're on the left and Andrew Breitbart shows up with a video camera at your event, odds are it's going to do you more harm than good."