About three years ago at my college's largest protest since 1967, I witnessed a moment I've yet to forget, and one of the moments that defined my research senior year:
After an hour and a half of speeches, the marching began. Their numbers grew to approximately 800 as the protesters made their way around Ring Road. As the group headed toward Aldrich Hall, where UCIPD waited with barricades in place, half of the protesters suddenly broke off and marched onto Campus Drive. A few students pushed shopping carts into the street and cars slammed on their brakes to avoid potential disasters.
The protesters continued their march along the surrounding streets and, after an hour, finally returned to campus and headed toward Gateway Study Center. About 100 students entered the building, creating chaos inside the quiet study space, while the rest remained outside. Some students who had been studying before the invasion stood up to leave, but protesters blocked them by closing doors and barricading the entrances. However, the attempted occupation of Gateway, the location of the 1967 protest and teach-in, failed: in 20 minutes, a disagreement broke out among the protesters inside.Six days later at an organized event, one student fought back against the "agitate before you educate" model, saying, "If I’m at a protest and screaming and someone asks, 'Why is he screaming?' then it’s your job to say, 'Let me tell you why…'"
“Are you prepared to get arrested?” one student asked another.
“I’m prepared to get arrested,” she responded.
He sighed. “Then good luck.” And he left.
The “occupation” ended before the police could get involved, and the remaining group of approximately 60 students still on a protesting high regrouped at the flagpoles to discuss their next steps. All of the others had disappeared.
Education leads to informed organization, the student and others argued. "We can work on being assertive without being violent."
In a 1969 editorial from the New University criticizing the KBS movement (a very long, and fascinating, tidbit from University of California history), there was a graf that spoke to the division of a movement based on the differences in protesting methods: "They will not organize students, they will not bond a movement for acceptance of the two demands (rehiring, and change in tenure system) together. They will divide students. They will fractionalize them. They will give them no decision-making power."
While it was speaking specifically to what the protests over the firing of professors Kent, Brannan, and Shapiro, I think it rings true for many situations.
When you take on a cause, you take on a responsibility to create chaos for the purpose of seeking justice, to disrupt the status quo in order to deliver a message--peacefully, passionately. You lose your message when the action itself dominates the message.