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Speaking truth to power and people by demonstrating at public speeches

The recent demonstration by antiwar activists on the Georgia Tech campus, in which audience members turned their backs on General Petraeus, is reminiscent of an attempt to disrupt a talk by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at last year’s World Affairs Council in San Francisco. Both actions challenge activists to consider effective methods of communication and audience outreach, particularly in an effort to stop the further dissemination of war propaganda during public speeches.

In the Georgia Tech case, silently standing in a large auditorium allowed Petraeus to continue unabated. Also, many people in the audience seemed oblivious to the political action and the security response. For the participants, it seemed like a powerful personal statement, but as a public witness, it seemed only somewhat effective. Petraeus surely knew what was going on, but many in the auditorium did not. Speaking truth to power happened, but speaking truth to people less so (a distinction I heard Noam Chomsky make some years ago). Still, I thank the protesters for carrying out their action.

In the San Francisco case, organized by several of my personal friends and long-time activist associates, the audience was very aware of the action, which was far more disruptive in intent and effect.

As much as I liked the serial disruption approach, the need to scream became less as time went on and anyone standing up, even whispering, would have created a problem for Olmert and the audience. Instead of yelling, which likely jarred the audience into sympathy for Olmert, it would have been more effective to speak with a more normal voice and engage with attendees on a personal level. Neutral audience members might have remained open to the demonstrators’ points about free speech and the problem of giving a platform to someone defending crimes against humanity.

More such actions are necessary. I am reminded fondly of a night in Berkeley some years ago when so many people demonstrated outside of a planned talk by Benjamin Netanyahu that he decided not to give his presentation at all. We felt very powerful that night. I look forward to developing more effective approaches to carrying out actions like this. The potential to shift attitudes of questioning people is great.