Nonviolence Is the Only Way For G-8 Protesters

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What does that death in Genoa mean?

Are Genoa, and the death of the protester Carlo Giuliani, to be remembered as the anti-globalizers' Bunker Hill, or its Altamont?

The anti-globalization protesters have grown now into a permanent nomadic tribe — all wired, and indeed globalized, by Internet and cell phones — that follows the G-8 and the WTO and the other Sinister Suits of the Haves from city to city around the world in the way that bands of plains Indians once followed the buffalo. In the months since Seattle, globalizers and anti-globalizers have become increasingly symbiotic.

It's hard to generalize about the protesters. Some are pacific, some are violent; some are coherent and sane, speaking for many of us in an uneasy intuition that something at the heart of global capitalism is amiss — not entirely because of the disparities between rich and poor, (most boats might presumably be lifted by an impartially rising tide), but more because they see the spiritual and environmental damage — the things that the tide permanently destroys, regardless. It wasn't the Indians, after all, who wiped out the buffalo.

But as the social thinker Ernst Becker said, a protest without a program is mere sentimentality. Some of the demonstrators are just migrating loons, for whom a WTO meeting offers the political equivalent of the mosh pit. Others are violently sentimental idealists whose program is to provoke Authority into retaliation, so that Authority may be discredited and, ultimately — they think, they project, they fantasize — brought down.

Perhaps. But what we know about the dynamic of dissidence and media spin in industrialized nations tends to teach that when things cross a certain line — when protests get violent — the protesters lose their legitimacy. With that, cops and soldiers have the excuse they need. The tables are turned and the dissidents' legitimacy may migrate over to the authorities. Violent protest that makes the cops look like victims is a sucker's game; the demonstrators might as well be on the payroll of the status quo. For in such circumstances, the general public — the sacred "People" in whose name the protesters claim to act — tends to support the cops. I remember standing on Michigan Avenue, outside the Hilton, that night at the Democratic convention in 1968, when the police cut loose against the anti-war demonstrators. All the media and the right-thinking people were horrified. But the general public supported the cops, and judged that the demonstrators had it coming.

Only people whose knowledge of world history begins with the death of Princess Di would fall for the argument you can provoke the authorities into system-changing overreaction. It tends to work the other way around. It's a revolutionary's equivalent of the fallacy that otherwise virtuous people, by committing every conceivable abomination, can hasten the advent of the messiah. Any of these revolutionary theoreticians ever hear of the Black Panthers? Of what happened to them?

Leave aside, for another time, the question of whether the anti-globalizers have a sound case, or have reasonable complaints and concerns. Focus for the moment on their methods.

Only an official overreaction to non-violent protest (a Birmingham, an Amritsar) can work in the demonstrators' favor. Has nonviolence become an archaic irrelevance? Maybe. But it does have a good historical record of succeeding where violence fails, where violence merely begets further violence, in the same fatal way that dictators beget revolutions that beget more dictators. If the demonstrators are to succeed, they would do best to adopt the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. But there is, as yet, no one leader or organization capable of disciplining the ragtag, centrifugal anti-globalist demonstrators to nonviolence; and there is no coherent agenda. It's hard to predict what will happen, except that institutions like the World Bank, the WTO and the G-8 will change their travel plans and way of doing business: Smaller, more private meetings in secure, out-of-the-way spots. Perhaps they should fortify an island (Elba? One of the Dry Tortugas? Or someplace in the Easter Islands?) for their conferences. And the demonstrators will slip onto the beach wearing scuba gear, the way that James Bond used to do.