Today's protest rallies are `political theater' that plays to media. Rallies more sophisticated than in '60s, scholar says

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Anti-apartheid demonstrations across the United States have been nostalgically compared with the civil rights and Vietnam protests of the 1960s. But a leading expert on crowd behavior says the anti-apartheid movement illustrates the way in which social protest is becoming more sophisticated and less spontaneous.

Today's social protest has become a form of carefully planned ``political theater'' aimed at the news media, says James Newton.

The San Francisco State University psychologist is one of the few authorities on crowd behavior. He studies crowds by actually wading out into a group and scientifically measuring everything from sound, to numbers of people, to smells.

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Classic theories of crowd behavior suggest individuals gather spontaneously to form crowds. But Dr. Newton says his research shows that social protests today are well-planned events of coalitions of special-interest groups.

The protests in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, including today's march by the National Urban League, may be a case in point. Since Nov. 26 a variety of groups -- including congressmen, lawyers, unions, churches, black activists, and celebrities -- have each had their demonstration day.

Newton says the traditional image of protests is of ``a bunch of people who come together and get swayed. . . . Instead, [today] you've got people coming together who intend to project a message through political theater to the media.''

He says the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s created a framework on which today's much more highly organized protests have been built. Modern protests include monitors and runners and walkie-talkies for orchestrating events. Protesters, coached in their own political sub-groups ahead of time, arrive with political agendas. Newton and his researchers have found that in many crowd situations, participants often know each other from earlier political networks in which they took part.

``The South African demonstrations stand out because they have a very clear issue and all [involved] are very united, and that is different from most of the demonstrations we see now,'' says Newton, who teaches a course at the university in social conflict.

Often, special-interest groups backing a demonstration will be competing for attention, even competing for control of the demonstration, he explains.

It's not unusual for each of the 20 or 30 special-interest groups supporting the demonstration to have two or three minutes to speak at the podium, he says. And looking across the crowds at a typical peace demonstration, it's not unusual to see many banners supporting various causes, like rights for minorities and women, or opposition to United States intervention in Central America.

The solidarity these groups are trying to create may end up being a contest for influence, he says. When a protest is planned publicly in advance, opposition groups even have time to organize counterdemonstrations at the same spot. Because of this diversity of coalitions, he says, protests have ``been less effective in drawing the attention from the policy- makers who they're trying to reach.''

But the recent protests over South African apartheid have been confined to a single issue.

The focus has allowed ``the crowd to deliver a concentrated rather than diluted message that is probably more effective because a clear sharp message gets through to the media in an undistorted way,'' Newton says.

Even when a political group is effectively conveying its message, he observes, the media may not depict it accurately. This, he says, is why the public needs a better understanding of crowd behavior.

``The media will say something like, `The crowd attacked the Bank of America building.' What that really means to a social scientist is that probably as few as two people threw rocks at the building, while perhaps five or 10 others were yelling in the background. To the media, that's a uniform action of 5,000 people,'' Newton explains.

This sort of overstatement occurs frequently on local television news, he says. This exaggeration, he adds, may also apply to media coverage farther from home, leaving viewers with a distorted sense of events worldwide.

``The most ingenious and analytical person is limited by the information available. If over a period of time only the most dramatic episodes [are seen], responsible people won't be attracted [to these events] -- or violent [people] might be attracted,'' Newton says. ``A distorted or spectacular picture of a crowd can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Police [for example] might go to crowd events more concerned, more worried, and ready to respond with preemptive action than they would be if they had a balan ced view of crowds.''

``The issue that threads through all of this is that it is easy to fall victim to the illusion of uniformity [of crowds],'' says Newton, who encourages people to get out and witness a demonstration firsthand.

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