Why activists occasionally lose

In an ongoing series of posts (such as "Why Activists Win" parts I and Part II), I've explored the mechanism of intimidation by activists (something I've been a target of personally).

I've long believed that there's a tacit (if not officially unacknowledged) connection between the public activist "leaders" and their anonymous-if-not-covert "followers." (The "street," if you will.) I fully recognize the inherently problematic nature in using terms like "leaders" and "followers," because they're interchangeable and replaceable. They tend to follow philosophies. (Or anti-philosophies.) Because of this, even the identities and names of the groups and "organizations" are not a reliable guide. In the event a group is identified and targeted, that group and its members will launch a ferocious defense -- but even that is a tactic intended to waste the enemy's time and resources.

The people who get the real work done -- the job of intimidation -- why, they'll just start another organization with a different name, or no name at all. Or act individually. Whatever works in accordance with the philosophy.

The more anonymous elements carry out violent acts from which the public elements disassociate themselves. The publicly identified "leaders" generally condemn the violence in a lawyerly manner -- even as they simultaneously give a wink and a nod to the violent acts as relatively minor compared to the various evils they were directed against.

After reflecting on the New Jersey verdict and my last essay in the context of Timothy Garton Ash's piece in the Guardian (via Glenn Reynolds), I was left pondering a singular question:

what makes a New Jersey jury braver than a city commission?

Are jurors not "ordinary people" of precisely the type I've repeatedly contrasted with "activists"?

What is going on? Does my thesis needs reexamination?

Not if we see jurors as ordinary people in extraordinary (but temporary) circumstances. I think the crucial difference between jurors and city commission members (or prominent business execs) is that jurors don't have to come back day after day, week after week. They can go home and return to their anonymous lives -- generally certain in the knowledge that their windows will not be broken, their names will not be published on activists' lists, their families will not be threatened, and they've probably read that juror intimidation is still taken seriously (well, more seriously than intimidating the owner of a business). For this one moment in their lives, they are allowed to be brave with impunity. (To make a Warhol analogy, instead of fifteen minutes of fame, they have fifteen minutes of unaccountable power -- and they seem to know this intuitively.)

So jurors are ordinary people, but they're in extraordinary circumstances. Plus, they're enveloped in a protective bubble, carefully shielded from "pricks." (Well, usually, but not always....)

I hate to always look on the dark side, but as activists grow more sophisticated, this may change.

For now, jury system remains a loophole allowing temporary bravery.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Speaking of "protective bubbles," I almost forgot about anonymous blogging. Now why would I forget something like that? These days, even vulnerable people can say whatever the hell they want without having to worry about the bravery issue.

(And for the very very nervous, secret voting is still allowed, but I'm getting off topic....)

posted by Eric on 03.05.06 at 10:12 AM

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