Ahead Of Inauguration Protests, Looking At The Transition 'From Protest To Power'

Originally published on January 14, 2017 9:17 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Washington, D.C., is preparing for huge crowds next week. Donald Trump will be inaugurated on Friday. And that day and the weekend that follows, there will be tons of demonstrations, including the Women's March on Washington and Bikers for Trump.

Todd Gitlin is a professor at Columbia University, where he's studied and written widely about protest movements. He was also once president of students for a democratic society and organized some of the first demonstrations against the War in Vietnam and many other causes. His books include "Occupy Nation" and "Letters To A Young Activist." Todd Gitlin joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TODD GITLIN: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: In these days of hashtags and trolling, what forms of protest work best?

GITLIN: Well, working best is a trick question. I don't know if you (laughter) meant it that way. But it's very easy to get people to gather together to impress themselves with their numbers and to feel moralized or remoralized, having been demoralized. You can bring together a lot of people pretty quickly with a hashtag.

What is harder to do is to create some ongoing organization that can actually make big changes in the middle and longer runs. To my mind, the striking contrast is between the current protest movements and the Tea Party. The Tea Party had tons of money. It had tons of media support. And it also had a strategy of winning local power, electing members of Congress and local officials. That is an example of a social movement that becomes a political force because it makes the transition successfully from protest to power. The movements on the left, with some exceptions, have failed to turn that corner.

So there are some things you can do with mass demonstrations. You can, for example, I think, do a lot to raise the minimum wage in a city or state. That's been done at fast-food places. You can probably win changes in police practices in a given city. What you can't do is to create political power that can exercise the sort of clout, to use an old Chicago term, that the Tea Party and its successor movement have demonstrated they can have.

SIMON: What kind of lesson do you take from the recent Dakota Pipeline demonstrations, for example?

GITLIN: On the face of it, the Dakota Pipeline demonstration was enormously successful. It brought together people of very different kinds, people - native peoples and others coming in. Veterans and others came in from around the country. And because of who was in the White House then, they actually won a victory.

Would they be able to win the same victory in a week? (Laughter) I very much doubt it. And I think that anybody who's trying to win specific victories is now confronting the question. What do you do when all the political powers are arrayed against you?

So it's not just the localities, not just the state. It's Congress, and it'll be the Supreme Court if it isn't already. And it'll certainly be the White House. Then what? And I think that's a conundrum that all the protest movements are going to face now and have already begun to think about. But it's not clear how they'll adapt.

SIMON: So the people coming to Washington, D.C., around the time of the inauguration benefit from looking at each other and knowing something about each other.

GITLIN: Well, that'll be an encouragement to them. Then the question is, do there emerge out of that pleasure, out of that satisfaction - do there emerge networks of trust that can be built upon while people decide what to do next? Because I don't think anybody believes they're going to get any immediate results out of that congregation in Washington.

In order to win whatever it is they want to win, whether it's getting judges appointed or getting legislation passed, you have to build a network of power. And that requires ongoing work, discipline work over a long period of time at least on the part of a core of several millions of people.

SIMON: Todd Gitlin, thanks so much for being with us.

GITLIN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.