This protest is brought to you by American Express (transcript)

Published February 4th, 2017

Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard¬†with your ears.¬†Follow this link to podcast happiness.

Hello, is it me you’re looking for? It is I and me, mjp, Michael Phillips I be, and this – well, THIS IS NOT A TEST. Maybe you thought it was a test, right up until the inauguration, eh? Now you know it’s not a test. Just like I’ve been saying all this time. THIS IS NOT A TEST means the time is now, whatever the time is, now it is and now you are here and I am here and together we’re really living, man! Don’t you feel alive? Doesn’t it feel like snakes on your feet and hot coals in your iPhone pocket? Or are you just glad to see me? What? I don’t know, I don’t know.

Coming to you at the end of a week-long head and chest cold, so forgive any freakiness in my vocal emanations, and coming to you direct from my music room, which is in a state of chaos and disarray. I am not so wealthy that I have a separate room for music, it’s just a dining room that we don’t dine in, so it was taken over by the stereo, records, CDs, musical instruments and amplifiers, and until a week ago it was quite the cozy getaway. But I bought some big speakers that didn’t quite fit into this room, what with all the other crap in it, so I moved the stereo and the record cabinet out into the living room. Now we look like we really love the sound of our TV, but the stereo is still used just for music.

All the CDs are still in here, because, well, because I don’t want to move them, and there’s nowhere to put them in the living room anyway. So now what is this? It’s still the music room I guess, since it’s still full of guitars and amplifiers and various noise making implements. And podcasting junk. You know, the stuff needed to make this magic happen. This wondrous form of high brow entertainment and diversion. So yeah, big speakers. Big German speakers that my neighbors must be enjoying, but you know what they say about neighbors. I don’t, but maybe you do. I haven’t had big speakers in many years, so I’m enjoying their return. The little JBL studio monitors and nice and polite and all that, but sometimes you just need to move that air, baby. You know what I mean. You understand.

Anyway, I’m glad you’ve taken time out of your busy marching and protesting schedule to stop by for a listen today. Where were you on January 21st? I was on my couch, but as you know, on January 21st there were what were called “Women’s Marches” all over the country. And all over the world, I guess, people were out and about everywhere, making a fuss, causing a ruckus and generally chanting down Babylon. I say they were called “women’s marches” because like a lot of things that involve a lot of people, they grew into something more than marches agitating for women’s rights. They seemed to encompass a vast litany of grievances.

A few decades ago I was walking past a fancy hotel in Century City when I found myself in the middle of a protest. I was working a job in the basement of one of those two triangular towers in Century City, and I was heading to my old car far off in a distant parking lot on the other side of town, where the poor people parked, and I had to cross paths with fifteen or twenty people marching in a circle in front of the hotel, chanting slogans. The President was in town, and apparently he was due at the hotel to have lunch or a massage or pick up a suitcase full of Swiss Francs, and there were the scraggly protesty types, marching in a little circle, chanting something about war or El Salvador or El Polo Loco. I couldn’t really tell what they were angry about, because every time I was close to understanding what they were saying they would switch gears and sing about something else.

They had a lot of different complaints and each one of them rhymed. They were damn good rhymers, I’ll give them that. I made the mistake of standing and watching them for a minute, so one of them broke away from the circle and came up on me all grinny in a cloud of patchouli sweat and said, “Hey, where did you get that hat? I want a hat like that…” I said, “I don’t remember,” and he said, “You don’t remember? Isn’t that a little weird? That you don’t remember where you got your hat?” So to change the subject away from my hat and toward anything else, I asked him what he was protesting. “The President is going to be here any minute and we’re going to be here to shout him down when he walks in. We’re going to make sure he hears what the people have to say.” So I asked, “Why?” which seemed like a reasonable question. But it really threw him for a loop, he wasn’t expecting me to say that I guess, so he said, “‘Why?’ What do you mean, why? Don’t tell me you like Reagan!”

I told the guy that the President didn’t have any effect on my life, so I really didn’t care who he was or where he was. And I may have also mentioned that I couldn’t even understand what he and his chanty brethren and sistren were protesting because they changed songs too often. I might have suggested that they, “pick one complaint and stick to it.” “Man, you’ve got it all wrong,” he said, “There are so many fucked up things in this country! We need more chants! And the President does affect your life, man! His policies affect everyone’s life.” I didn’t have anything to say to that, so I just stared at a distant spot somewhere over the top of his head until he left me alone.

But I think my point was valid. That complaining about everything is like complaining about nothing. You have to focus and be specific in your complaining, I think, if you want to be an effective complainer. Or protester. I understood the protests in the 60s and 70s. “U.S. out of Vietnam! Hell no, I won’t go!” Cool, got it. I agree. I don’t want to go to Vietnam either, brother! You knew right away where you stood with people like that. You were for or against, in those days, and where you stood said just about everything that needed to be said.

And women should march, I should probably be clear about that. Women should be in the streets saying “fuck you” to the old men who really believe that women are inferior and dismiss them and their needs or rights, and there are a lot of those old men. But I can’t help but remember the thousands – or millions – of women who marched in the late 70s for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and how when it went to the states to decide, enough legislators said, “No no no, now calm down sweetheart, you don’t need no equal rights,” and that was that. And part of the reason those states declined to ratify the ERA was because conservative women lobbied against it. And they lobbied hard. They were everywhere with their bouffant hairdos and station wagons claiming that equal rights – it was equal rights they were talking about – and they were saying that having equal rights would be a terrible thing for women. That really happened. Look it up. So the ERA, which had started making its way through governmental channels in the 1920s, was never ratified. 50+ years of work down the drain. And now here we are almost 40 years later and women still have to get together in the millions to get anyone to pay attention to what they’re saying. And is anyone really paying attention?

If you ask 100 people what those marches on January 21st were for, 90 of them will say, “Something about Trump, that they don’t like Trump.” That it was a women’s march won’t register. Or that at some other time it was a million black men, or hundreds of thousands of coal miners or whoever, wherever, whenever, it just won’t register with most people. “Look at all those people,” they’ll say as they watch the news and open another diet Coke.

Now you might sense where I’m going with this and you may be wondering if I’m stupid and don’t see what’s happening in the country now, with this new government, such as it is. You may be thinking, this is different! It’s a catastrophe and an emergency! Well, sure it is. But if I may, it’s always been a fucking catastrophe and emergency. All my life it’s been a catastrophe, pretty much, and the ruling class has always stood in direct opposition to what I thought was right and decent and obvious to everyone. I grew up thinking that my generation, the children of the 60s and 70s were going to get into power – take power, seize it! – and everything would be straightened out. The world, or this country, at least, would be where it should be, everyone getting a fair shake and everyone taken care of and peace and love and all that.

Well my generation turned out to be a generation of hypocritical shitbirds, didn’t they, just like this generation and other generations before and after were and will be. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t march alongside you. I don’t see the point. Especially with this current Donald catastrophe. Protests won’t make Trump think twice about anything. 99% of the country and congress and the house of representatives and all of his children and house pets and that captive he calls his wife could tell him he’s wrong about something (or everything) and he would still believe he was right. He’s mentally ill, you get it? That’s been clearly demonstrated hundreds of times now.

The difference you’re seeing now, and the reason people are losing their minds now is that Donald has no finesse. He has no qualms, no diplomacy. He’s just a big orange monster truck and he’s going to run over everything and everyone right out in the open, right in the middle of the football stadium with everyone watching. Because that’s what monster trucks do, and the country paid to see a monster truck in action. And what he’s doing is only different because it is out in the open. The shit the Bushes did, or that any president did, are no less repugnant and unfair and heinous than what’s happening now, but they were politicians, so they knew to do their dirty business outside of the spotlight. To keep it on the downlow and deal with people eventually finding out by shrugging and saying, “Well, it’s too late to change it now.”

Protest only has an effect on power when that power has a conscience. Which is exactly why protest is so rarely effective. And one-time protests, which the January 21st marches were, are even less effective. I know this isn’t the groovy thing to say, but protest doesn’t cause real governmental change. Violent overthrow does. Economic pressure does. Those are things power understands and respects and fears. If you want to march, march the king up the steps to the guillotine or gallows, that’s how you get change. Go ahead and march, go ahead and riot, but that march better end at the door of those in power and there better be some reckoning, or you’ve wasted your time. Those kids in the streets every day during the 60s and 70s with their anti-war protests did not stop America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. It wasn’t until the soldiers started shooting their commanding officers that the military said, “Uh, okay, this definitely isn’t going our way…time to rethink…”

Black people were in the streets in the south during the 60s too, but the civil rights movement was still more or less ignored until it started having an economic impact on rich white men. Civil disobedience and passive resistance and turning the other cheek was all well and good, and maybe it would have worked if they’d kept it up for 20 or 30 years, but what really worked was the bus boycott. When black people started taking money out of the white man’s pocket, the white man took notice. The same for Apartheid in South Africa. You remember all the people up in arms over that. Well those protests didn’t break Apartheid, divestment did. Companies and institutions saying, “Yeah, sorry, we won’t be investing any of our money in South Africa anymore.” That’s what did it. They could deal with protests in South Africa and Alabama, but losing money – that they couldn’t stand for. And if it took telling “those people” that they’re equal to get the money flowing again, if they had to say, “Okay, we changed our minds, you’re equal now, here’s a constitutional amendment to prove it,” well, that was a small price to pay. And you see what that amendment really means when everything is said and done. Go ask the first black person you see how equality is working out for them in America.

You can say, you probably are saying, you are probably screaming at me right now, saying, “But those protests resulted in the bus boycott or universities divesting in South Africa,” and maybe they did. They almost certainly did where the South African protests were concerned. But it was still economic action that made the actual cultural change. And that cultural change was a lie anyway. Things may be slightly better than they were in Soweto or Birmingham, but they aren’t fixed. The oppression and injustice just became more sophisticated and hidden. The system did not really change in a major, appreciable way. People are still not equal. They still aren’t free the way that the ruling class is free.

I understand why people want to protest, but those protests, at least here in America, are more about making people feel good about themselves than they are about changing anything. Life is too good for most of the people who were protesting on the 21st. I know people who flew from Los Angeles to Washington for that march. You know, on airplanes. Staying in hotels. Using their credit cards. This march is brought to you by American Express, Pinkberry and Uber. There was a march here in town, they could have stayed home and marched, but why not pop out to the East coast and show some solidarity. The hungry and desperate make much more effective protesters. So maybe in a few years there will be enough hungry and desperate people to mount a real protest. And guess who those people will be? They won’t be the pussy-hatted lefties who were Instagramming on the 21st, it will be the people who have been betrayed by the corporate government they were duped into supporting. They will be so fucked by their heroes that they will demand a reckoning, and unlike the people marching on the 21st, they will have nothing left to lose. And no one is more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose.

I understand the dynamics of protest, and the importance of protest and people definitely should protest when they feel it’s necessary. I won’t be there, but I like to see it. I like to see that people still have some spirit. I just don’t think they take it far enough. Power only respects greater power. I’m sure the people gathered together on the 21st were upset. Everyone with any sense is upset. I’m just saying a one-day protest is more picnic than political movement. Protesting might soothe your conscience, but the men in charge aren’t sitting in their offices watching protests thinking, “Oh, the people don’t like what we’re doing, we’d better change.” Economic pressure changes things. Force and violence, messy as they are, can change things. Lawyers change things. Marching in the streets does not change anything. Thousands of people protested at the airports after the ban on people from half a dozen countries entering the US was put into place by the fuehrer, but it was lawyers who actually did something useful and worked to throw a wrench into that plan. Lawyers. Not protesters. Politicians respect lawyers because most of them are lawyers. They don’t respect protesters. They think you should get a job.

You’ll have to forgive me, but my cynicism where protest is concerned comes from a lifetime of seeing protest accomplish nothing. If I seem glib or dismissive where these recent protests are concerned, I am not glib or dismissive where the civil rights protests were concerned, or I should say are concerned, or where any human rights protests are concerned. When people are oppressed and have no voice all they can do is get out and scream or throw a brick or a rock or a fistful of dirt. When things are bad and you feel like you have no hope you have to protest. I know that.

I think what I’m reacting to is people, well-intentioned but misguided people, saying that you are “part of the problem” if you’re not out in the street waving a sign and chanting and shaking your fist. If you are not shouting your resistance from the housetop. That, my friends, is some bullshit. Because when I think about it, my entire life has been lived in protest. All the music I played when I was traveling this country and this world in punk rock and reggae bands was protest music. Protest is ingrained in all the art I’ve ever made, every poem or story I’ve ever written, it’s part of every election ballot I’ve ever cast. How I look, the clothes I wear. Protest. Opposition. I have been in opposition to power since I could speak. Resisting, questioning, fighting, protesting, working, and often paying a real-world price for being on the wrong side of the majority.

And I can tell you that the sum of all that opposition is nothing. But then I’m not really doing it to accomplish anything. I do it because it’s just how I’m wired. There’s something in me that can’t go with the flow if I know the flow isn’t the way I should go, ya dig? It’s baked in. I didn’t decide it, it wasn’t ingrained in me by radical parents or a radical community. I didn’t have the benefit of either. It’s just how I was made, so I don’t really think about it. In fact it’s never really occurred to me until now. I never thought about my entire life being one long protest. But it sure as hell has been. You know, except for the expensive new speakers. They are not protest, they are celebration. Though most of what comes out of them is protest music, maybe not surprisingly. I guess I owe the marchers a debt of gratitude for helping me realize something about myself. It’s all about me after all, isn’t it?

So when I see people having a one day protest, maybe you can understand why I’m not impressed. Why I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel, or how the protesters might like me to feel. To me protesting for a day is like saying you’re going to be a schoolteacher for a day or a bus driver for a day. Then what? Then what are you going to do? I know what most people are going to do, they’re going to go back to doing whatever they’ve always done. Because real protest is a full time job, and most people already have a full time job. They can’t go on a protest tour, or a two month march or call and write politicians all day every day. Hang around local council meetings and elected official’s offices. Most people have other things to do. But the people in power, they’re working full time, baby. That’s where the crucial advantage lies. That’s how the game is fixed and why you can’t win by kicking against it part-time.

Oh me, oh my, that felt like a lecture. Did it sound like a lecture? I guess when we talk about things like this, crazy real life things it’s always going to end up sounding like a lecture to someone. I’m sure the anarchist punks running through the streets and spray painting things don’t need any advice from me. They are busy smashing the state, and bless them for that I guess. If they overthrow anything I’ll be sure to buy them a case of beer and some tacos. They look like they aren’t getting enough to eat, you know? And I want them to recognize me as a compatriot. I want you all to recognize me that way, because we’re all in this together, after all. Those guys wreaking havoc on America, those aren’t my guys. Hopefully I’ve explained why my reluctance to participate is not complicity. And hopefully you will extend that understanding to everyone else who isn’t out burning bras or draft cards or whatever you’d burn these days to show solidarity.

Now it’s time to go. For some reason I’m craving tacos and cold beer. I hope tacos are still legal. I haven’t checked CNN or Twitter yet today to see what the new rules are. See you next time, if we’re all still here.