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Time for New Tactics

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It's time for progressives to become practical. If we believe the things we say, and especially if what we most fear comes to pass — George W. Bush acquiring a second term — we must prepare for a whole new kind of resistance.

I had the luxury of attending the massive Aug. 29 demonstration against Bush in New York City. Some 500,000 spirited protesters marched past Madison Square Garden, the site of the 2004 Republican National Convention. Neither the oppressive summer heat nor the omnipresent show of police force diminished the populist spirit that took over the streets of Manhattan that day.

There was only one problem with the protest: Its power was purely symbolic. Its intended audience, the Republican delegates, wasn't even there for the show; the convention didn't start until the next day. We marched — full throated, hearts pounding — past an empty building and then rejoiced in our accomplishment. "See how many we are," we said. "See how diverse our chorus."

But imagine what could have happened if those 500,000 people — or even one-tenth of them — had been determined to have a practical, rather than a merely symbolic, impact. A half million people could easily have occupied and held Madison Square Garden, preventing the Republicans from having their convention at all.

A steady series of more vigorous protests — involving techniques aptly called "direct action" and often involving civil disobedience — began as the convention opened and lasted right through Bush's acceptance speech. The left has kept alive the sacred tradition of American resistance practiced by Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes for the Mexican War; King, who led boycotts and sit-ins against racial segregation; and McCrackin, who spent 111 days in jail rather than testify against escaped convicts who had sought his help.

The three "sleeper" activists who infiltrated the Republican Convention and got within screaming distance of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney showed the kind of disciplined, thoughtful resistance that yields practical results. For weeks the three activists worked as eager young Republican volunteers, thereby earning the credentials that enabled them to boldly disrupt the proceedings once the convention was underway.

Fortunately they face only the usual gamut of misdemeanor charges — criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Soon that could change, and we might see similar behavior — disrespectful, certainly, but in no way violent — classified as a form of terrorism, carrying stiff prison terms. Such protests as those that greeted the GOP might even be banned outright. If American cities suffer a handful of bombings in downtown business districts — God forbid — the security laws will almost inevitably ban large public gatherings.

If that seems farfetched, remember that already there is talk of suspending the presidential election Nov. 2 if terrorists strike — or even threaten to.

Consider the baseline contentions of much of the resistance community as we approach the 2004 election:

· The election system is no longer to be trusted.

· The First Amendment is endangered by increased police power.

· The United States has embarked on unprovoked foreign conquest.

· Our government has trampled human rights by committing war crimes, by jailing its opponents without access to the courts and by engaging in acts of repression against nonviolent political expression.

If we truly believe that a second Bush term will lead to further violations of our liberty, what steps must we take now to maintain a viable opposition? What skills will be needed when terror attacks lead to pre-emptive round-ups of activists, organizers, journalists and other troublemakers?

Progressives need to learn very basic survival skills for a post-constitutional era:

· How to communicate while being monitored

· How to create false identification papers

· How to hide people who are on the run from police

· How to hold clandestine meetings

When friends move away from Cincinnati, I ask them to make a deal: When the Great Clampdown begins, let's agree to hide one another. I hope it never comes to that. But tyranny has a way of creeping up on societies and catching them unguarded. Little steps are the best way to erode freedom. Who would have expected four years ago that the FBI would be entitled to know what books we borrow from a public library? Four years from now we might see the government banning some books from circulation. The doctrine of pre-emptive war has domestic applications.

The operating philosophy for most protests is to act within the law, even if that means being relegated to marching past empty buildings. But if the changes we have seen in U.S. governance in the past four years are a sign of oppression to come, the time for merely symbolic dissent is rapidly passing. Instead of only filling streets, in the near future resistance could mean closing them down — or even disabling the power plants that fuel the economy that is the source of American power.

We have mastered the technique of nonviolent protest. But we have much to learn about nonviolent resistance, and little time.

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