Protest actions take an aggressive turn

Extreme tactics like throwing pies are drawing attention, but often hurt a cause's credibility.

Nobody saw it coming - not the security guards, not the environmentalists who sought to distance themselves from the incident, and certainly not the congresswoman who was the target.

At a recent hearing on the health of America's national forests, a young man concealing a tub of salmon rushed forward and tossed fish parts on startled US Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R) of Idaho. His motive: To protest the lawmaker's perceived hesitancy in trying to save endangered salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.

The fish-throwing incident is just the latest in a long list of protest actions becoming ever-more common across the US. Challenging authority is a centuries-old tradition in America, encompassing people as disparate as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr.

But what's new, and troubling, is the growing number and aggressiveness of these acts, and the role that the Internet is playing in motivating people on the fringe of social movements.

"Whether it's throwing pies, salmon, or bricks at people, by any name it's an assault," says Sean Anderson, a political scientist at Idaho State University in Pocatello. "This is an example of protest done in the name of civil disobedience that clearly crosses the line."

Acts of civil disobedience have taken many forms in recent years, ranging from riots protesting economic globalization to pies hurled in the faces of corporate executives and politicians.

These protests even occur on opposite sides of the same issue. In California, environmental activist Julia "Butterfly" Hill scaled a giant sequoia to protest corporate logging, while in Elko, Nev., citizens threatened to drive bulldozers onto US Forest Service land to open a road that had been closed to protect fish habitat.

"Dogma sparks passions," Professor Anderson says. "It doesn't surprise me that we have various forms of anti-environmental violence and pro-environment violence occurring at the same time."

The Internet has also become a powerful tool for modern activists, allowing them to find each other, stay connected, and amplify their perceived power in the public's eye.

"If you've got a group of 20 people trying to make a statement about a fairly obscure cause using civil disobedience, the media might ignore you," Anderson says. "But if you're using the Internet to network with dozens of other groups, and all of you come together in a place like Seattle to stage a demonstration, then you're going to get noticed."

Moreover, some groups are becoming more effective at getting in the faces of leaders. The Ruckus Society sponsors training camps in Berkeley, Calif., whose principle aim is to teach citizen protesters creative forms of nonviolent civil disobedience, the kind used outside the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Extremists, however, are another matter. How they cause trouble often depends on who they are. When fringe environmentalists engage in aggressive forms of civil disobedience, they tend to target property, such as pouring sand in the gas tank of a logging truck. But right-wing extremists, such as anti-abortion crusaders, tend to target people.

Crossing the threshold from passive resistance to active destruction or assault, however, can be counterproductive. Perpetrators of such actions often are condemned by mainstream members of the movement to which they claim to belong.

Bob Ekey, the northern Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society, was sitting in the audience during the attack on Representative Chenoweth-Hage. He suggested that the action might have created more sympathy for the congresswoman than for the cause of conservation.

And it wasn't the first time Mr. Ekey had witnessed an act of civil disobedience that undermined the credibility of an attacker's movement.

During the late 1990s, Ekey was at another meeting in Montana, in which Gov. Marc Racicot and US Sen. Conrad Burns were hearing testimony aimed at stopping the controversial slaughter of Yellowstone bison.

Several speakers made compelling arguments for why the killing should be stopped. Then a woman suddenly rushed the stage and threw bison offal at the governor and senator.

"Had that not happened, the local newspapers probably would have carried stories about the important points that conservationists made," Ekey says. "Instead, much of the attention was focused on the antics of the protester, which reflected poorly on all conservationists, the majority of whom wanted nothing to do with that kind of behavior."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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