What We're Good At: Marches, Rallies, et al. A Case Study
by David Rambeau
During the recent insurgent community action around Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his nine month fall from grace and power, a Detroit City Councilman produced a performance event at City Hall in the large auditorium on the 13th floor. He had a few months earlier produced a similar event in a local church. Both were typical of black so-called leadership's response to serious social issues or challenges.
To respond to crises, Detroit's pundits, preachers, spokespeople, elected officials, candidates, leaders, wannabe leaders and anyone else loitering nearby have a set formula regardless of the conflict. They resort to the tried and true, to what we're good at producing based on decades, if not centuries, of practice: rallies, meetings, marches, speeches, praying and singing, all of which have little material value or measurable results though they may provide some psychic relief or spiritual uplift.
We are noticeably short on: agenda development and communication, study, research, debate, planning, coalitions, clean-up, reports, critical analysis, underwriting, follow-through or archiving. No surprise then, that our problems recur with each generation.
At this city hall show, speaker after speaker took the podium and rhymed and rapped to an eager audience who were quite familiar with the standard script. Each in succession tried to match, if not outperform, their predecessor. Because the show was performed in a public hall no donations were collected. Because it was sponsored by a councilman, no rent was paid.
When the rental tab falls due, it will be picked up by Detroit's overburdened and exploited taxpayers, like most of the lawyers' fees, the settlements, the court costs and the wasted work time spent on the mayoral scandal of Team Kilpatrick.
What occurred at the rally was formulaic, ritualistic behavior, easy to digest, limited to a comfort zone of the least common denominator. Nothing much in it to learn, just a repetition of what everyone already knew. However, rallies do provide some opportunity for networking, entertainmnet, and the development of social contacts.
Vendors, too, can benefit from the sale of products, particularly fast-food and beverages. T-shirts and other memorabilia might be hawked to supporters of the "cause". Cean-up personnel and security can also gain employment, since the sponsors never think about cleaning up the mess their followers create when they willy-nilly discard flyers, napkins, wrappers, bags, banners, signs, plastic bottles and trash of all kinds.
Clean-up is not an overhwelming task. Throughout American history we've been relegated as maids, prisoners, janitors, busboys, street sweepers, garbagemen, yardmen and assistants of all kinds to cleaning up after somebody. Why can't we clean up after ourselves at home, in our neighborhoods, at our meetings and at our rallies? You tell me. Better yet, don't tell me, tell yourself or your black brother.
A case in point is the Million Man March. It took a million men a week to clean up after that march. No in-depth research report was ever written and distributed. And, of course, no financial report for all those baskets of money that was collected was ever rendered. Little did the bus companies across America suspect the economic windfall that materialized out of the air for them to haul black men to and from Washington, D. C. Government largesse could be no sweeter, nor be received with less chance of tax or reciprocity. All other marches bear similarities, if only on a lesser scale. Clearly, all black protest can't go the way of Nat Turner or Toussaint L'Overture. Still, one can hope for more efficient social and economic struggle at some point in our history.
If one is socially alienated, rallies can relieve one's isolation or stress, and place one in a crowd of sympathetic congregants all humming the same tune. The basic idea is to indoctrinate the true believer, not to educate. "Leaders" are there to pontificate, stroke their own egos and to reassert their "leadership". Thus, programs are designed not to have a q & a period, or to hold one briefly at the end as an irritating afterthought. Lord knows the "leaders" don't want anybody to point out any mistakes, to make points on their own, or to provide new information that the "experts" don't know. Anyone who dares to do that is castigated, labelled a trouble-maker, or verbally abused by the audience of the faithful. Sometimes "security" is summoned to quell the so-called disturbance.
My attitude in recent years has been to hope the speeches are skipped and that the performance procedes directly to the Q & A. The audience frequently knows as much, if not more, than the speakers, and the members of the audience aren't nearly as pretentious. This is especially so at city council rallies. Elected officals seem to think they're ''all that'' using titles which grow longer by the rally. Every other elected official is called "my dear friend" even though they use less affectionate introductions for their peers offstage. It's all an act, which is ok for the experienced who know the game and dialogue. Meanwhile, the affectations grow as each election approaches, while the courtesy to and respect for the voting public may also increase, at least marginally.
Marches frequently preceed the rallies. In and of themselves both provide public relations for the "Cause", turn the heads of on-lookers, and sometimes earn media attention. What marches are really good for is exercise, but how often have you heard a group announce they're holding an exercise march, after which they'll host a rally for some community purpose or another.
Praying is another component of the formula. Prayers can build the spirit, relieve personal tension and affirm personal beliefs. However, if a group is called to prayer, no one ever considers the varied individual beliefs that might be present in the crowd. How often are Hindus asked to present. Or Buddhists? Or atheists? Not likely.
And singing. If the rally is held in a church, singing is a sine qua non. When the attending choir is capaple, singing can be the best part of the show. When you have to depend of the audience, you never know what level of quality you'll receive.
In truth, rallies, and the other items on their agenda, are a sign of social and political weakness. When the rich or the powerful march or hold rallies then you'll know it's a sign of material and social strength, and be something the poor or the weak should work on. Until then, which time will never come to pass, we might as well prepare ourselves for another march, another rally, and more of the same to confront another problem facing our community.
Of course, these actions are culture, class, resource and skill appropriate for their developers, so I can hardly offer a negative critique of what they do. It has been suggested that at the zenith of community action in the 60s only 2% of the black populace participated in the Struggle. So any level of involvement today represents significant consciousness, and that I applaud.
I have made some marches and rallies in my day (and missed some too.) If I hadn't, I would be silent. At this point I'll leave them to another generation and wish them well.
Some of my readers may ask where are the "solutions" in this essay. One brief paragraph does contain some alternative suggestions. But, that said, why should I provide you with "solutions". I don't owe you any, nor do I intend to suggest (though one could easily think otherwise) that those I critique should, can or will ever change, or that I want them to. Wouldn't it be better, if you want "solutions", to discover them for yourself. I'm merely interested in analysis, and I think I've provided enopugh of that.
The likelihood is that you're reading this essay in a free media, so there's only so much one should expect for free. You can always contact me for consultation, but expect to pay for that. Warmest regards.