In the Streets

About a year and a half ago, as the Tea Party began to dominate headlines and cable-news chyrons, liberals were befuddled. This "movement" had seemingly come from nowhere. Slowly, a general-consensus explanation emerged: A few tiny conservative gatherings were trumpeted (and trumped up) by right-wing media until they had the appearance of scale. We still, however, had a hard time wrapping our heads around how big and widespread these gatherings really were. When Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin called the Tea Partiers to the National Mall this summer -- but stopped just short of calling it a Tea Party -- liberals couldn't look away.

The left countered with a national gathering of its own, a demonstration organized by labor leaders just a few weeks after the Beck rally. Unions bused in members from around the country, but the turnout -- and media coverage -- was disappointing. The event was also overshadowed by a well-attended rally of a less political sort sponsored by Comedy Central hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert just two weeks later.

Old-fashioned picket lines and street demonstrations are enjoying their most popular moment since the late 1960s. And while it initially seemed the right was set to lay its claim as the movement of protest, even in the Obama era, it's liberals who are dominating the streets. One of the biggest news stories of February and March was the standoff at the state Capitol in Wisconsin after Republicans threatened to gut collective-bargaining rights. Between 60,000 and 100,000 union supporters (depending on whose count you trust) protested proposed legislation to weaken workers' rights. Workers were rallying in other states across the Midwest, too. In Indiana, labor organizers counted more than 8,000 people assembled on the steps of the state Capitol, and another 8,000 showed up at the Ohio statehouse in a show of pro-union solidarity. On March 15, more than a thousand citizens -- many of them seniors -- chanted "It's not fair!" on the steps of the Michigan Capitol.

As a member of a generation that saw post-September 11 demonstrations for peace and against the invasion of Iraq as largely inconsequential, I'm not inclined to view protesting as an effective form of activism. So I've been fascinated by these pro-labor rallies. True, it remains to be seen whether the demonstrators will be effective in pushing back against austerity measures, staving off further erosions of bargaining rights, and stoking excitement for pro-labor candidates in 2012, but these dedicated Midwest protesters have forced me to re-examine my cynicism about the power of physical assembly. They have also provided an important counterweight to the notion that the only grassroots movement alive in America today is the Tea Party.

If you don't find the sheer numbers convincing, rest assured that conservatives certainly do. Right-wing media outlets have called the protesters thugs, slobs, loons, criminals, "frothing radicals," "howling liberals," and "long-haired, maggot-infested Michael Moore fan[s] bused in from out of state to raise holy Hell." If they weren't threatened by these protesters, I trust they would not be devoting so much airtime to them.

For those of us inclined to support social services and the right to collective bargaining, these pro-worker rallies have given us important visuals. If you're a regular reader of political publications like the Prospect, you may have noticed a trend: stories about legislation or policy -- on topics ranging from free trade to health care to voter rights -- are frequently accompanied by photos of protesters holding up poster-board signs, even when there have been no memorable or national rallies about that issue in recent memory. That's because the visual is powerful. Budget cuts can seem pretty abstract until people stand up, admit that they will be personally harmed, and put a face to the bottom line.

Liberals have been inspired by the statehouse rallies -- not just because of the sheer numbers but because the kind of people who turned out are markedly different from those who protested the Iraq War. Whether these protests are more effective than antiwar demonstrations -- whether they influence the outcome of the 2012 election, for instance -- remains to be seen. But even if these governors don't acquiesce and restore workers' rights or implement more reasonable austerity measures, it's worth heralding this series of 2011 push-back rallies as a genuine movement. The right may have needed cable news to breathe its grassroots movement into being, but ours is already afoot.

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