Etymology for activists

Sent: March 26, 2003 1:45 PM

Notes from my journal: I went to the local "peace vigil" Now I am back.
What a waste of time.
Tomorrow seems like it may be time to go to Seattle and get arrested.
What a waste of effort.
So, the next afternoon, I went to Seattle to be part of the bodycount at the bushwar protest downtown. I decided to go at almost the last minute and got dropped off at the Park and Ride with my little guitar (to play on the Ferry ride)and my thermos of hot tea (cuz it was a miserably cold wet day)and took the first ride that I was offered.

I am glad I went: I needed to see what I saw, and I needed to be there to be counted, cuz there were not very many people there, and I needed to satisfy myself that this path was not going to get us where we were trying to go, so I could start thinking about something that might work, or at least might work better.

Since then, I have been thinking a lot. And talking to people about what I saw happen there and what I see happening in our country. And I don't really have any answers yet.

Yesterday I had a little ah-hah about the difference between "demonstrating" and "protesting". Not really thinking based on the etymology - not yet - just thinking based on common practice. Because what I had seen at the local "peace vigil" and at the "protest" were both "demonstrations" of something that was almost indistinguishable in method or execution from what was ostensibly being protested - because the basic paradigm of our patriachal aristocracy was reflected by the protesters as much it was as by the cops, or the military in Iraq, or the aristocracy creating policy in Washington D.C. I first collided with this idea in 1992 at the beginning of Growth Management Planning in our community - when I discovered the two very different meanings of "public hearing."

The public imagines that a hearing is where they get their issues heard. The government, certainly the military, imagines that a hearing is where the public gets a chance to hear what is going to happen. A longer version of a briefing - which is where the audience gets the cut-to-the-chase (aka brief) version of the story.

But we already knew that what is at issue is the public's "consent" and in this democracy, all that matters is that the public's "consent" is "advised" - and at the hearing the public is advised.   What is interesting here (and has been interesting for many years) is that the advice on which the public's consent has been based is bad: the US government has been lying to the people to get their advised consent.

But what does that really mean? Isn't it still consent? Is there recourse? Expose the lies and the policy is once again open to discussion and the bombs fly back into the bomb-bays and return to the factories that made them? I don't think so ...

We walked from the ferry terminal up to the Federal building and then up Second Avenue. The Federal Building was impressively protected - every parking space around the building was filled with a cop car or a police truck. There were trucks full of portable barricades, and vans set up as portable detention centers were positioned at intersections all along the route. Cops in full WTO battle armor were guarding the Federal Reserve Bank and the bank across the street.

We had banners and posters that clearly identified us as antiwar protesters, though we did not look like green-haired students: we were a real collection of people - moms with little kids, gray-haired adults, defeated congressional candidates, etc. People we ran into on the street were not predictably pro or con, but no one joined us.

When we got to Westlake Mall we found the several hundred people who had gotten there ahead of us standing in pouring rain. In front of them was a large portable stage and small PA system hanging from a winch-up gantry - almost enough PA for a stage a Folklife or Bumbershoot. On the stage was a nice plastic street-fair canopy, so the speakers were under-cover and protected from the elements. They took turns yelling stuff into the microphones. And it did not appear to matter whether the speaker was male or female - the line was drawn by the microphone, just as it had been at the absurd candle-light vigil the night before.

It was not at all clear who they were yelling at or to: could have been us, but we already knew as much as they did. Could have been the cops that had us totally surrounded. But they knew it too, or knew whatever they had chosen to believe. Could have been the millions of people in office buildings around town, but the message was neither clear nor attractive. It was angry and muddled and ugly and disappeared into the background of the city within a few blocks.

So what did this mean? We had come together - a community of people with common interests and concerns. We had enough in common that we were all standing outdoors in the rain in below 50 degree weather, surrounded by cops with clubs and deadly weapons, but we were not discussing what we shared or where we differed. We were not demonstrating anything really different from what they were demonstrating - we were having a contest. And it was clearly a contest that we were not winning, at least not at the moment.

Why were we not engaged in dialogue about what to do, about how to deal with the fact that there were less people assembled today than there were yesterday, or that there were only about twice as many of us as there were cops? Why were we listening to these clueless egomaniacs practicing oration? How could we demonstrate something worth walking out of an office to join?

I wandered closer to the columns that supported the loudspeakers, and walked behind them to get out of the blare of the sound system. And found that quite a few people were gathered behind the stage trying to talk, but it was still really too noisy to talk. I ran into a friend there and the two of us left, to wander down Second to First Avenue, looking for the Seattle offices of the WTO. We were wondering how we might involve the WTO in this dialogue. As we walked I told him that he had to read George Soros' book on Globalization in which Soros argues quite compellingly that the protesters in Seattle missed the point - the point that the WTO, even more than the UN Security Council - was an organization that potentially offered the people of the world the leverage to temper the behavior of multi-national corporations that control the nations, including both the super-powers and minor-league rogue states. Which got me back to thinking about the difference between protests and demonstrations.

My initial thought ran to the simple impact of the words: protests tend to be "against something" but the word's actual meaning is contracted from its roots: pro and test ... test as in testimony, test as in testis - which means balls, as are found in pairs on some of us, as well as meaning witness, the individual who testifies. Seems reasonable - in common parlance it takes balls to get up in front of a community and stand as a witness. But it is clear from this that a protest is NOT the same thing as a contest.

But I was still not clear what was going on.

My almost foot-thick edition of Websters New World Dictionary was useful, as was the Encyclopedia Britannica. I have a wonderful old Britannica from the beginning of the 18th century, and it is one of my favorite books for getting historical perspective. Collected knowledge from the days when the entirety of what literate upper-class white guys in Scotland thought was important could be fit into 3 leather-bound volumes in 12 point type. A great way to decipher the writing of William Shakespeare. Useful for understanding what our own language means.

Protest seems to have come to mean a solemn declaration of disapproval or a lack of full consent - as in paying taxes under protest.

Demonstration and Democracy were very close together in the Britannica - same column and just 3 words separated them. The learned Scots' comment on democracy was interesting: they pointed out that the so-called democracies were in fact (and had always been) aristocracies. The roots of the word bear this out damh - tribe or family plus kratos - authority or kratien - to rule.

This morning I dug into Demonstration a little deeper. The first meaning in Websters is the common one: to give tangible evidence of something, a portrayal, a public display, a manifestation.

The third ( c. ) level of this meaning was public display of feelings, especially antagonism, toward or against a person cause or action of public interest. That was clearly part of what was going on.

But the later meanings were the ones I was looking for and the fourth meaning was the very one I was interested in: The illustration of practical application of a theory. The fifth meaning was also right in the pocket: from math or logic - the illustration of the consequences of a series of premises.

As was the seventh, which was the one the cops were holding to as they condensed the entire protest into one intersection and then used their metal barricades to squeeze us into the shooting gallery-like brick corral in front of the Federal Building, fenced in by brick walls too high to jump over, surrounded by cops four-men-deep, rows of men armed with sticks and men with guns, with police helicopters flying overhead:

The Seventh and final meaning of demonstration is: The exhibition of force or movement, indicating a readiness to attack if necessary.
Taking us right back to the problem of contest ... again and again and again.

©(mostly) Joe Breskin 2003
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