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Today's protest rallies are `political theater' that plays to media. Rallies more sophisticated than in '60s, scholar says

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Anti-apartheid demonstrations across the United States have been nostalgically compared with the civil rights and Vietnam protests of the 1960s. But a leading expert on crowd behavior says the anti-apartheid movement illustrates the way in which social protest is becoming more sophisticated and less spontaneous.

Today's social protest has become a form of carefully planned ``political theater'' aimed at the news media, says James Newton.

The San Francisco State University psychologist is one of the few authorities on crowd behavior. He studies crowds by actually wading out into a group and scientifically measuring everything from sound, to numbers of people, to smells.

Classic theories of crowd behavior suggest individuals gather spontaneously to form crowds. But Dr. Newton says his research shows that social protests today are well-planned events of coalitions of special-interest groups.

The protests in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, including today's march by the National Urban League, may be a case in point. Since Nov. 26 a variety of groups -- including congressmen, lawyers, unions, churches, black activists, and celebrities -- have each had their demonstration day.

Newton says the traditional image of protests is of ``a bunch of people who come together and get swayed. . . . Instead, [today] you've got people coming together who intend to project a message through political theater to the media.''

He says the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s created a framework on which today's much more highly organized protests have been built. Modern protests include monitors and runners and walkie-talkies for orchestrating events. Protesters, coached in their own political sub-groups ahead of time, arrive with political agendas. Newton and his researchers have found that in many crowd situations, participants often know each other from earlier political networks in which they took part.

``The South African demonstrations stand out because they have a very clear issue and all [involved] are very united, and that is different from most of the demonstrations we see now,'' says Newton, who teaches a course at the university in social conflict.

Often, special-interest groups backing a demonstration will be competing for attention, even competing for control of the demonstration, he explains.


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