What difference does it make?

by Jesica Davis
November 24, 2002

As I put on my coat, leaving work to attend a major protest, a few of my remaining co-workers (most of them had been laid off) asked me: What's the point? Does going out there and waving a sign really change anything?

I smiled, and sighed, and realized that I didn't have the time to fully answer them; with such mixed thoughts and emotions on the subject, standing there, explaining everything would keep me from the event. It's impossible for me to attend a protest and not be aware of the irony. Protesting, in its historical context, can be both a revolutionary act and a joke.

The answer I gave the people at my office was simple: I will protest because I can. Because this thing is happening a few blocks away, I want to experience it. Because I'm sick of watching corporations put profits before people. Besides, I wanted to take pictures.

Protesting that day meant challenging myself about what I accept on a daily basis. To stop and think where the clothes I wear are made, about the people who worked on them, and the implications of eating genetically modified food that was grown thousands of miles from where I consume it.

Going to this protest was a re-evaluation of not just where I stood on certain issues, but why. It's easy to buy into popular stances pushed by party lines, musicians, and family. But they all work on the assumption that to be against something commonly thought of as bad is to be for something good. It's a subtle shift, from "good and bad" to "right and wrong," but it's a major one, too frequently made based on assumptions.

With this dichotomy in mind, I participated in one of Chicago's biggest and most controversial protests in a while: the protest against the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue. Multiple other causes were represented as well: Wal-Mart's anti-union and anti-human policies, Bush's impending war on Iraq, Azteca Tortillas. Critics of the rally referenced the diversity of protesters as a negative thing with statements like "They didn't know why they were there, except to cause trouble," and "They couldn't even get it together enough to protest a single cause."

However, I maintain that the spectrum of protest alliances was a strength. This is Chicago, where the '68 Democratic Convention has not been forgotten. I work across the street from Tribune Plaza, where there are frequently protests consisting of somewhere from 10 to 40 people. Perhaps in California and Washington, DC, or even Midwestern towns like Madison and Ann Arbor, protests are more commonplace and well-attended events. But when they happen here, they get little coverage and experience little turnout. Chicago has not forgotten.

Hence the largest display of police force I have ever witnessed. There were possibly more cops than protesters, upwards of three thousand, in full riot gear. Daley had them there to instill fear, right? Not necessarily. As I marched down Michigan Avenue and listened to people jeer from the sides, I was glad they were there, the police; it was one of the first times I've ever felt genuinely protected by a police officer's presence.

Earlier that day, before the protest started, I went over to Tribune Plaza to take pictures of cops that had been out there for hours. The men in full riot uniform were visibly jovial, relaxed, smiling. As I was photographing one of them, he waved to me, told me to get in the picture. Um, ok...so I stood next to him. As my friend readied the camera, he said, "Here, hold my shield!" and meant it. So I did, with quite a few mixed feelings. I wondered what he would have said if I'd told him I would be in the protest a few hours later.

I may have been somewhat comforted by police presence (after all, I was not alive in '68), but some people chose to reinforce stereotypes that widen the gulf between cops and protesters. A self-proclaimed anarchist carried a cardboard donut from a string tied to a stick, to taunt the sidelined police or something. When the rally died down, and the force wouldn't let anyone march from the Tribune Plaza to the Sheraton Hotel where the world's most important CEOs were staying, the kid dropped the donut on the street and left (an act which I thought summed up his commitment). My friend picked it up and carried it home, where it hangs in my living room today: the anarchist's donut. A nice conversation piece.

So why was I there, participating, besides to take pictures and experience something different? I had my own set of reasons, but the most important of which was that I could be there. So many places in this world imprison dissenters, make people "disappear" when they speak out against governments and government-sanctioned institutions. America isn't the greatest place in the world (especially not after this November's elections, ugh), but what's the point of having a freedom if you don't exercise it? Which is what I did that night: got loud about what bothers me in the current political and economic system: corporate greed, among many other things.

Unlike people who blanketly accept a party's or a trend's rhetoric and ideas, I am not ashamed to admit that I have mixed feelings on globalization. Like most things in life, it's neither right nor wrong; simplistic dichotomies exist mostly in the minds of people who use them as tools to get what they want accomplished. Like it or not, globalization is a fact of modern life. Yes, it's terrible that so many third world countries' rulers allow their people to be exploited for cheap labour by overseas corporations. It sucks that we as a first world nation have polluted the environments, cultural, and political structures of other countries to serve our own ends.

But there is always another side. Globalization has brought the internet to China and other places where the suppression of information has been a way of life for decades and centuries. Without foreign investment and aid, many people would not get hunger relief and medication they severely need. For a more thorough account of the full economic and social impact of globalization both "good" and "bad," read The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a well-written book that's not totally biased in one direction or the other.

I should include this disclaimer: I am the daughter of an economic developer, and aging used-to-be die-hard liberal that now sometimes leans towards fiscal Republicanism. I grew up learning about urban planning and gentrification from an economic standpoint, and it's given me a fascinating way to view the cities of the world; for that, I will always be grateful to my father. However. My political beliefs, when I choose to have them, do not fit into any party lines; I suppose the Green Party might be closest, but I hesitate to align myself with any group that has hardline principals, and views the world with the simplicity of black and white, basically, any organized political party.

Taking all this into account, I cannot forget that the positive results of globalization usually come at too steep a price, such as unquestionable political alliances and massive human rights violations.

So I marched. And I yelled. Wow, do I love to yell! The intensity of being in such an energized group was amazing. There were a few points at which I got choked up and started to cry a little, not out of sadness, but because emotions were running high; it was a powerful feeling, a rush. It's a strange feeling, to be (as fully as possible) aware of the danger inherent in an activity while in the midst of it. Mob mentality is a frightening thing, which is why I don't protest much -- the last protest I attended was an all-night rave in Sydney, Australia, on the steps of the corporate headquarters of a company mining uranium at Jabiluka, sacred Aboriginal land. That was four years ago.

The way I see it, the system exists to perpetuate itself. Protesters are a part of that system; sometimes I feel their presence only reinforces the status quo. They're an easily dismissed group, idealists, people wanting to change the world. "They'll grow up one day" is what the general public seems to say. Those critics, however, are only speaking from personal experience. I grew up watching an entire generation sell out, a generation that thought they could change the world -- and did! Baby boomers made a huge social impact in middle class America, only to retreat into the 80's, chanting "greed is good" to justify their wincing consciences.

Yes, I'm making sweeping generalizations here, but people like me watched this cultural shift portrayed again and again in almost all forms of media, and then play out in our own homes. So when protesters are dismissed with a wave and a "grow up," I say, "fuck you, I learned by your example what not to do." Of course, only time will tell. Besides, despite what the local television coverage would have you think, not everyone at the protest was under thirty. At various times I found myself next to paunchy middle-aged Teamsters and gray-haired women alternately using canes to help them walk and shake in the air.

Did marching down Michigan Avenue yelling "Bush, you corporate whore! We don't want your bloody war!" make one lick of difference in the fact that the United States is about to attack Iraq? Of course not. I knew this even as I was screaming my head off, and it made me scream louder. It felt good to do something, anything, besides complacently accept a nationalistic agenda.

When I came home and saw the head of the World Bank talk on TV, so easily dismissing the protests, it reaffirmed why I marched: the world is still run by rich old white men and that really pisses me off. It always has and I'd like to think it always will. Correction: I'd like to think it's possible to change that, to distribute power and wealth (same thing, really) more evenly, and that I will see that change at least begin in my lifetime. My idealism is something I thought I'd hidden well over the years with layers of bitterness and disappointment. But it's still there, and I hope it always will be, for it's that tiny light of hope that makes revolution possible.

I spent so many years being apolitical, refusing to talk politics or work for social change because I felt so defeated whenever I thought about it, that making any kind of difference was a lost cause. As long as people think like that, it will be. I'm not about to quit my job and become a full time revolutionary, but I would like to think there is a way to affect change. However, if such a thing were to happen, it must come from outside the system.

It's frustrating, wanting to change the world and not knowing how to go about it. For now, I will do what I can at a local level: volunteer towards equalizing the socioeconomic imbalance; talk to my younger brother and sister about why the world is a screwed up but beautiful place; and continue to not support corporations whose practices are detrimental towards people, on both an individual and global level.