Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Protest Cycles

Social movements, protest movements, radical change movements always work in cycles. They can be difficult to sustain, especially when they operate primarily at an organic, grassroots level. There will be periods of great activity and then periods where nothing much seems to happen. Depending on how you see things, it can sometimes appear as if too much protesting is going on, because you don't perceive the gaps, or it can appear as if not enough is happening and something, some opportunity is being lost in the process. You can list the factors involved in order to better understand how this works, but part of it will always elude you. As they say in Chamorro, "Si Yu'us, Yu'us. I taotao, taotao ha'."

Each in their own way is a mystery. Si Yu'us and his/her mysterious ways, structurally incomprehensible to everyone. The impossibility of it is meant to be a test of faith, the ultimate pledge of loyalty without any guarantee that anything you do really matters.

The mystery of humanities takes on features of this in a smaller and more frustrating way. Humans have the uncanny ability to lie to themselves, on a level you could argue no other creature on the planet has. Humans and our ideologies. It allows us to impose our will not truly on the world, but how we see the world. It gives us a shred of sovereignty, in the same way someone who is crashing in a plane can panic and freak out or take the controls, ride the descent and imagine that they are choosing to die.

This is the frustration for everyone, but activists eat this everyday and it tastes like a mala'et and disgusting gruel. The issue you take up may feel so important and it may seem like everyone should believe what you believe and see the problems of the world aligned the way planets do in sci-fi movies. But people don't work like that, people don't respond like that. That shred of ideological sovereignty means that they can stab themselves in the neck and argue that it is a weight loss strategy. They can argue that they should have less power over their lives. They can argue that other more powerful people should be given the power. They can feel attached to a system that feeds off of them and exploits them because it makes them feel unique, special or better than everyone else.

While the activist may feel that an issue must be protested all the time, most may not see it this way, and so any activity will follow that cycle of ups and downs, ginaige yan tinaigue. One year the message you propose will be taken up eagerly by people. The next year no one might care.

In Guam on such source of frustration is the ability to organize people around militarization in the form of training in the Marianas Islands. The military buildup as outlined by the last EIS in 2010 was something that people easily organized against because the variables of loss involved connected strongly to people on an ideological level. Note, I said ideological level, not necessarily a knowledge-based level. Even if more people seemed to come to a position that I would agree with, that doesn't mean that they were becoming more informed or understanding the process of the buildup better. What happened was that the variables for talking about the buildup in the public square shifted, with new topics being added that people connected to differently.

Prior to the DEIS comment period, the discourse was dominated by empty positives, jobs, money, patriotism. People who knew little about the buildup supported it because of those empty positives, in the same way in which people who know nothing about children or our future, will say that children are it. When empty negatives began to mix it, things started to change. Traffic, land loss, disrespect, Pagat, colonization had all been part of the conversation, but more and more people began to form their ideological cocoon using those ideas. As a result, empty negatives started to brim with life and people soured on the buildup.

Training as in the construction of five live firing ranges, is something that people can get upset about, especially if you are going to build those ranges above places that people like to visit or think should be kept open to the public. But training in a more general sense is something that people don't see impacting them. Most of it in Guam happens not just behind fences, but out on the waters in the ocean. People don't see it being connected to them in the same way they don't see water connecting but instead cutting people off. What happens over water is less ideologically important than what happens on land that you are connected it. Hahasso, "Managges hit put i katen i paluma. Lao ni hayi tumangesi i hagga' i guihan. Manggaisuette ayu i manggaibos."

A prime example of this came in 2010. The year started off with a wild (by Guam standards) period of protest and public outcry around the military buildup and the comments over their DEIS for their planned buildup. People commented in the thousands, came out to testify by the hundreds. It was a remarkable period. Given that thousands of people signed up to learn more about militarization in Guam and what they could do about it, and that hundreds came out to testify, to hold signs and to make their opinions known, you might think that a coalition of protesting critical thinkers had been created. In some ways, a small cadre of new organizers had been created, some consciousness had been instilled in people. But this transformation was tested just a few months later when DOD asked for comments about the MIRC, Marianas Island Range Complex. It is something that exists primarily in the minds of the military, but it takes the space around the Marianas Islands and turns it into a massive interwoven complex of training areas.

After the large turnout for the DEIS military buildup hearings, there was some expectation that the momentum would carry forward and lead people against this MIRC as well. That did not happen. I attended one of the MIRC sessions at UOG and there was literally a handful of activists there. Even less concerned citizens. It was amazing and sobering to see the difference. I always remember Noam Chomsky talking about how social change is cyclical, but I had never realized the extent, to which a place can appear like a stark crazy anti buildup island one moment, and then seemingly could care less the next.

Had people fallen in love with the buildup again? Was that why no one came out to protest the MIRC, whereas so many had come out to protest the buildup? No not at all, but the variables, while both being about "militarization" were completely different. One happened outside of the realm of most people on Guam, far out in oceans, with ships and planes practicing war games. It didn't seem to touch or affect the soil where people build the castles of their lives. It didn't seem to affect the roads that people spend their angry moments in waiting to go to the jobs they most likely don't enjoy. It didn't seem to affect the length of the line at K-Mart or Ross. So the MIRC, with their training far out of sight, didn't really touch the ideological bubble.

Last night another public informational meeting this time for the MITT, Marianas Island Training and Testing took place at UOG. I had flashbacks to the MIRC hearing and imagined an empty room where the DOD personnel far outnumber the residents visiting, asking questions, sneaking free food or protesting. Thankfully that empty, depressing vision did not come true. A large group of largely young, budding activists and artists came out under the banner of "Our Islands Are Sacred." They put up signs outside the meeting room, asked questions, chanted and even organized a "Fanoghe Chamorro Flash Mob."

It was inspiring to see the energy come out, so much of it around the protecting the island of Pagan in the Northern Marianas. After several years of relative quiet over military buildup and militarism such, I hope that we are entering a new protect cycle.

1 comment:

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