Everybody loses in ISAG protests

Okay, raise your hand if you were the least bit surprised that last week’s protests against the International Society for Animal Genetics resulted in arrests, violence and general chaos. Yeah, that’s about what I thought. By now, everyone has seen the high-publicity protest scenario played out often enough to know what to expect. Every step of the way, these events followed the pattern established by such old favorites as the Highway 55 reroute protests (remember those?) and the World Trade Organization blow-up. If all goes according to form (and it will), we are now in for several weeks of over-analysis and finger-pointing that will fade from memory as soon as local media attention shifts to whether Daunte Culpepper is ready for the quarterback job.
After all that’s gone before, then, everyone involved with this messy affair knew exactly what to expect, which means that they must have been planning their actions for the inevitable aftermath. And although I’m sure none of them would admit it, this outcome was most likely exactly what a good number of people on all sides — the police, the protesters and the press — were hoping for.
Obviously, your take on this whole affair depends mainly on your personal ideologies. Taking that into account, each of these parties can easily claim victory and have the majority of its constituency agree.
The police, for instance, immediately issued statements to the effect that protesters were inciting a riot, thereby justifying swift correctional actions. Responding to complaints of misconduct and rights violations, Chief Robert Olson said, “Overall, (officer) restraint was remarkable.” That last statement implies, of course, that the cops behaved better than expected and could possibly have been excused had they gotten a little more forceful.
Indeed, to many observers, last Monday’s chaos will only solidify their notions that the activists were nothing but troublemakers who needed either to be forcibly kept in line or locked away. For these people, the presence of “bad elements” somehow justifies riot gear, tear gas and baton beatings. From the law enforcement perspective, what happened was a well-trained group of professionals performing an unpleasant duty and doing a good job of it at that. The cops get to cast themselves as patient peace keepers who aren’t afraid to bite back when provoked.
As usually happens when the police play the public servant card, the protesters have quickly adopted the role of the martyr. This make-yourself-the-victim approach seems to be all the rage in today’s world of protest. If the police respond violently to your actions, you can always claim it as further proof of the oppressive system trying to silence your viewpoint. Who can blame you for winging what Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman described as “a baseball-sized chunk of concrete” at a police-state stooge intent on violating your rights?
Anyway, violence gets your cause to the public eye. Can anyone name a famous incident of peaceful protest in the past twenty years? Many would argue that ruckuses like last Monday’s events are necessary for publicizing a movement. Certainly, a good portion of the public must have been disturbed by news images of a cop dousing five prone, cringing protesters with pepper spray, or of a literally thin blue line of officers lying in wait for a parade marcher to step off course. The activists get to cast themselves as the wronged defenders of justice, struggling heroically against overwhelming odds.
The media obviously had a lot at stake here. A protest of this size and profile could be either the biggest story or the lamest nonevent of the summer. No prizes for guessing which one they would prefer. Local news reports built this thing up for weeks beforehand, with any number of stories along the lines of “What’s going to happen?” and “Who are these protesters?” and “How are police preparing?” When conference day finally came, there was a palpable tension in the air, much of it generated by news sources hungry for good print.
The first two peaceful days of protest were met with noticeable disappointment. To remedy the lack of action, the press deemed it newsworthy that nothing of note had happened … yet. When the absence of news becomes news itself, someone is surely doing something wrong. Luckily for the media, though, last Monday presented plenty of excuses to burn ink and film in the pursuit of truth. As always, they get to cast themselves as the impartial observer with a responsibility to present the facts.
So, after all of this Rashomon-style posturing, what will the results of the ISAG protests be? A glance through section A of last Tuesday’s Pioneer Press may provide some indication. Cover story: “Police arrest 81 in protest clash,” accompanied by two color photos, with three more on the back page.
Underneath that are Coleman’s meditations on the causes and implications of the melee. Conspicuously absent are any mentions of the proceedings of the ISAG conference itself or of the motivations of those who protested against it. Granted, all of that had been spelled out in previous editions, but it is Tuesday’s paper that will live in our collective memory.
Ten years down the road, Minnesotans will recall the summer when there was all that trouble with the cops and the protesters, but I would bet most of them will be damned if they can remember what it was all about. So long as public protest continues in these increasingly familiar cycles, with all parties able to demonize their opponents and lionize themselves with equal validity, the purpose of such civil disobedience will be lost.

Ira Brooker is University senior. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected].