Will a marquee New Year’s event be advanced or marred by the inclusion of protesters?
The parade, sociologists say, is one of the last bastions of American community: The event will be seen by an estimated 50 million television viewers, as well as the 700,000 that line the parade route. Adding protesters to a tradition that furthers togetherness has become a source of debate.
Some say the demonstrators, freshly ousted from tent encampments all over the United States, will drag down the image of one of the most cautious and conservative events in the country. They say that people don’t want real-world politics intruding on a day in which families can put aside mundane cares and simply have fun.
“Once you allow a group like OWS [Occupy Wall Street] into an iconic event like this, you risk changing the entire focus of it for everyone. Where does it stop?” asks David Johnson, an Atlanta-based media analyst. “Will it just become a parade of causes – Planned Parenthood, the tea party, presidential campaigns? I think Americans are tired of politics 24/7.”
But others say inclusion of the protesters will be a refreshing advance toward relevance – and thus more serious audiences – for the parade, which they say is otherwise mostly a feel-good marketing campaign for corporations, chambers of commerce, and civic groups.
“This makes the Rose Parade more relevant,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “This way, they are at least addressing what many of their viewers are feeling.”
For the protesters, she says, inclusion is nothing short of a coup. “With this move, the OWS movement moves from ‘storming’ to ‘norming’ – moving from agitating on the outside to being on the inside of one of America’s most established norms.”
This is not the first time that people have been allowed to march peacefully after the parade. Other groups have included animal-rights protesters and religious sects predicting the end of the world. Anti-Vietnam protesters showed up along the parade route in the 1970s, and in the ’90s, civil rights activists highlighted the lack of minorities on the parade’s governing board.
One year, demonstrators protested the use of a descendant of Christopher Columbus as grand marshal, unveiling a sign that said, “500 years of genocide.”
“One thing we want the public to be clear on is that we have not given these people a [parade] permit,” says Lt. Phlunte Etou Riddle, spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and lots of causes and people with political agendas have tried to elbow their way into national attention. We give them this spot that is officially not in the parade.”
Based on past experience with the Occupy movement, which underwent more than 700 arrests early on in New York and has had clashes with police in other cities from Florida to California – organizers are trying to allay fears of unrest in Pasadena. Precautions include readiness from local, state, and federal law enforcement.
Beyond that, Occupy activists have themselves trained 40 volunteers who will be outfitted in colored vests to urge marchers to be calm.
Although the Occupy protesters will not have a rolling float, they will instead carry a giant, “people-powered” octopus (to symbolize corporate greed), which they got from a film production studio. And they will carry blowups of the Constitution with the words, “We the People” and “We the Corporations.”
“The Rose Parade officials have been awesome to us,” says Lisa Clapier, lead spokeswoman for a Los Angeles group of Occupy protesters. Both sides have hinted that they are concerned about outside agitators causing problems.
The Rose Parade isn’t the only big event that Occupy protesters have descended upon recently. “Occupy the Caucuses” has been organized ahead of Iowa’s Jan. 3 vote for a GOP presidential nominee. Protesters have stationed themselves outside campaign offices, including the state Democratic Party headquarters. Police have arrested a number of protesters.
Piggybacking on the Rose Parade could be beneficial. "The choice of the venue – the Rose Bowl parade – will afford Occupy good media coverage without being co-opted by the mainstream media and the need to raise advertising dollars to spread their message,” says political science professor Catherine Wilson, who conducts research on social movements at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
Gordon Coonfield, a communication professor at Villanova University, sees pros and cons for the protesters’ use of a parade venue.
“On one hand, it beats being pepper-sprayed, dragged off the streets and jailed,” he writes in an e-mail. “On the other hand, such [official] sanctioning might suggest the Occupy movement is now on the same level as Disney ... and any other group or corporation marching in the parade or sponsoring floats.”