(CURAphotography via Shutterstock/Salon)

American exceptionalism is dead: Why the nation rediscovered its protest roots

A nation’s delusion finally ends. And from fast food to Ferguson to Moral Mondays, the evidence is in the streets


David Dayen
December 10, 2014 12:59AM (UTC)

I have been out of the country twice this year. The first time, I was in Mexico when protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of Michael Brown; more recently, my two weeks in Argentina coincided with nationwide demonstrations against the lack of grand jury indictments in the cases of Brown and Eric Garner, the Staten Island police chokehold victim.

Witnessing a nascent anti-police brutality movement from a distance has given me a different perspective on it, because the novelty of getting out in the streets in America and demanding justice stands in stark contrast to the utter ubiquity of such actions in other parts of the world.

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That doesn’t mean such actions always lead to success; in fact, challenging power often fails. But it is a tool in the public’s arsenal, as much as voting or any other civic effort. We have a long way to go in America to rediscover a daily regimen of mass public protest as an altogether normal – indeed, fundamental – component of the rights of citizenship.

Take Argentina, for example. I wasn’t going around looking for civil unrest in the federal capital of Buenos Aires last week. But I saw a large rally of transportation workers outside a gathering of economic leaders, complete with music and fireworks. A related transit strike shut down the efficient subway system during a busy weekday. I walked out of my hotel one morning to a leaflet drop, which demanded higher salaries and an end to corporate favors from government. I saw some street art featuring three patron saints: Jesus, tango singer Carlos Gardel and Che Guevara, a native son whose image is all over the capital. Virtually every large public square I walked through featured handmade banners full of slogans and pleas. None of this makes the papers, probably because it’s such a commonplace factor of daily life in the city.

I found a similar culture of protest in my last visit to the country 11 years earlier, including widespread opposition to the war in Iraq. Heck, one notable protest movement, 30 years in the making, appears in all the guidebooks: the Mothers of the Disappeared, relatives of those killed by the military junta in the so-called Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, demonstrate every Thursday at 3:30 in front of the presidential offices, seeking answers to the atrocities caused by the previous regime (“400 crazies fighting for the truth,” read one banner). In fact, the Mothers have achieved such respectful status in the country that they have adopted a more general commitment to social justice.

Protest movements in Argentina do not occur in association with electoral politics. Despite posters everywhere touting candidates for the next presidential election (which isn’t until December 2015), everyone I spoke with exhibited a broad disgust with practically every candidate and political party.

But the simple act of asserting rights in the public square can force a response from the political class. The government of President Cristina Fernández Kirchner announced last week that 800,000 poor workers making less than 35,000 pesos a year (roughly $4,100) would receive an exemption from income taxes, which labor leaders alternately praised and denounced as a pittance of what was needed to protect vulnerable citizens.

Some of this comes from larger union density in Argentina (about 40 percent of workers have labor representation). And the legacy of official corruption and even military repression has logically led the people to believe that their best efforts at change come from the street. But whatever the reason, in Argentina, part of the role of being an engaged citizen includes making your voice heard.

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I found the same commitment to resistance in Mexico. We all know about the movement that has arisen in response to the deaths of 43 student protesters, a case of official corruption and collusion between federal authorities and drug cartels. But behind the headlines, back in August I saw a prominent town square in Jalisco state completely occupied by protesters, who had erected a tent city in opposition to what they called the despotism of the local government. The police had seemingly given up trying to dislodge it. The protesters held a dance party one night, handing out food and literature to the revelers.

We used to have this same belief in America, that street action mattered and needed to be nurtured. From the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement, from the Bonus Marchers to the Pullman strikers and many more, America has a rich tradition of uprising against a seemingly immovable political and social apparatus. The right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution, even if it largely seems theoretical today.

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But sometime between 1776 and now, mass engagement became separated from American political DNA. Like solar panel manufacturing, the United States invented the political protest and then let it wither away while other countries kept it alive. Modern-day demonstrations have evolved into media-friendly one-off events rather than a continuing struggle, a way for people to simply register their dissent without having to sustain it. We hear about the need for a national conversation on race, injustice, violence or economic suffering, but we actually need a daily conversation, an evolving and energizing force of public opposition that those in power cannot easily dismiss.

We’re starting to see this, like a long-dormant volcano sputtering back to life with initial plumes of ash and smoke. The movements in Ferguson and now across the country have become more organized and concentrated. Striking low-wage workers continue to demand the respect that accompanies a living wage and the right to organize. The Moral Monday movement in North Carolina has fused these two pillars of economic and social justice into a coherent whole. Smug intellectuals say that Occupy Wall Street left no legacy amid its demise, but these newer movements come directly out of that commitment to ongoing protest.

These movements have registered modest results, from minimum wage increases in major cities to incremental moves toward reforms to the criminal justice system. But we’re a long way from a time where protest is mundane, ordinary, part of how we engage with our politics. And we need to get there, because organized dissent has historically uplifted virtually every other facet of our civic culture.

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I believe this revival of the culture of protest comes out of a belated realization, one that Latin America and other countries had already internalized. They understand that their vote can only go so far, that the entrenched interests who control the social and political infrastructure will only respond to a massive disruption to their smoothly functioning machine. We had a delusion in America that we were somehow exceptional, that we wouldn’t succumb to oligarchy or the control of an ossified elite. We preferred to look the other way when confronted with institutional racism or the rigidities of class. “We’ve gotten better,” we’d tell ourselves. And we gave up the struggle instead of redoubling efforts.

Maybe it took the financial crisis and its sluggish aftermath. Maybe it took a black kid getting shot by the cops to recognize the illegitimacy of the justice system. But there has been some small awakening that we’re not all that exceptional, that our democracy is prone to the same capture we see all around the world, and that we don’t have many options to fix that outside of getting in the street and shouting.

In Buenos Aires, I took a picture of some street graffiti, which read, “Cuando la tirania es ley, la revolucion es orden”: when tyranny is law, revolution is in order. We’re discovering in America the existence of the former, and finally easing up on our dismissal of the latter.

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David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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