Monday, October 12, 2009

"It’s decentralized now."

Earlier this year, I blogged about the health care town halls and TEA parties, suggesting that the health care protesters were leveraging a hybrid top-down, bottom-up approach in which independent groups or individuals make lateral connections online, come together for protests in which they agree with specific claims (although perhaps not reasons or warrants), and make personal connections at those protests that allow them to scale further. I pointed to Manuel Castells' work and the netwar literature as ways of understanding this phenomenon, and I concluded:
I'll end by stating again that in examining this development, I am not taking a side - even if there were a side to take. Protesters - of the WTO, of Social Security reform, of health care reform, etc. - don't necessarily have a coherent side, any more than federations of knowledge workers do. In describing this tactical development, I'm not endorsing any of these groups, any more than I would be endorsing Nazi Germany by analyzing the Blitzkrieg.
The Blitzkrieg, of course, was a revolution in military tactics built around tight communication between air and land power. Although we have negative associations with the term Blitzkrieg, the basic tactic is neutral - and has become the foundation for modern conventional warfare, including the US' AirLand Battle conceptual framework.

So I was interested to click through an NYT article today and see an account of another protest, one very different from the health care protests and TEA parties, but one that had much in common with them tactically. The article: "Gay Rights Marchers Press Cause in Washington." Here are some representative quotes; I've added emphasis.
“I think this march represents the passing of the torch,” said Corey Johnson, 27, an activist and blogger for the gay-themed Web site “The points of power are no longer in the halls of Washington or large metropolitan areas. It’s decentralized now. You have young activists and gay people from all walks of life converging on Washington not because a national organization told them to, but because they feel the time is now.”
Indeed, the marchers were enraged that a national organization was not protesting:
The rally on Sunday and a black-tie gala on Saturday hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy group, made for a glaring dichotomy. Mr. Obama, who spoke at the dinner, had the crowd on its feet reiterating his pledge to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and declaring his commitment to gay rights as “unwavering.”
The President had no statement, and Rep. Barney Frank dismissed the protest. And

Organizers of the march encountered considerable opposition from within gay political circles and from those who argued that it was hastily planned and would divert resources from campaigns at the state level.

This disjuncture between a national advocacy group and the marchers is a big difference with the health care protesters, who enjoyed varying levels of support from conservative groups. On the other hand, the national organization that might have supported the gay rights marchers under a Republican administration has instead sought an accomodationist footing with a nominally friendly Democratic one. When the White House next changes hands, we might see these differences reverse.

In any case, I think we'll see more hybrid and/or bottom-up demonstrations, tying in more groups and claims, and developing in sophistication and tactics as they proceed. I think we'll also see these groups drawing on each others' tactics in an ideology-free way, just as Blitzkrieg became AirLand Battle.

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