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What do Copenhagen protestors want?

In the absence of real progress to report, news coverage of the ongoing U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen has lately begun to focus on the protestors.

Here is what we know: There are a lot of them (estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000). They've got some nifty signs and face paint (slogans include: "Planet not profit" and "There is no Planet B"). They've come from around the globe. And several hundred have been thrown in jail.

What we don't know is: What do they want?

For all the stories I've lately read about whether the protests were generally peaceful, whether the anarchists were a fringe minority, or whether jail time for anyone was warranted, I'm still a bit hazy on the larger point.

Where have all the good protestors - and message disciplinarians - gone?

Once upon a time, there was a grand tradition of protestors channeling their energies toward some clearly defined goal. I've written about this before for the Washington Monthly, so please excuse the zeal for history. But here's a quick run-down of the golden age of American protests:

The very first protest march on Washington, DC took place in the midst of an economic depression in 1894 when populist leader Joseph Coxey led an army of 500 jobless men to the Capitol steps to demand a public works program that would provide jobs for the unemployed.

Two decades later, in what must have been the first counter-inaugural protest, 28-year-old Alice Paul organized 8,000 women wearing white to march down Pennsylvania Avenue a day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The women were there to lobby for women's suffrage, a demonstration that was rewarded by the passage a few years later of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

In 1941, the mere threat of a public protest was enough to force political change: When A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, announced plans for a march on Washington, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense industry and federal jobs.

And the granddaddy of all protests, the March on Washington in 1963, drew a quarter million people to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to demand voting protections and desegregation of public spaces; shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

You get the point. In each of these cases, a specific goal was identified; people were rallied behind the cause; a plan was devised; and often, as in the case of the women's suffrage and civil rights marches, a button-up dress code was enforced. The objective was for the message to be taken seriously. Everyone was more or less on the same page, and there was a clear benchmark for success.

Fast-forward to Copenhagen. Not only are the protestors' intentions and goals scrambled, but reporters have even stopped asking about them. It's no longer expected that protestors should have much purpose beyond self-expression. Which is a shame.

If today's tens of thousands of Copenhagen protestors wanted their efforts to amount to more than color for reporters' stories, they would do well to recognize the real reason why the marches of yesteryear are still remembered. It wasn't just about the messengers showing up; it was about the message - and a clear goal.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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Guinea's descent into chaos

Let me be honest: I'm pretty worried about Guinea. That's a huge understatement. I'm terrified for Guinea. After years and years of muddling along, it looks unlikely to do so now. Here's why: 

By now, you likely know that the leader of Guinea's military junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, was shot on Dec. 3 and sent to a hospital in Morocco for treatment. It was a head injury and the prospects don't look good. Today for the first time, the shooter, Lieutenant Aboubacar "Toumba" Sidiki Diakité, spoke out in a radio with France's RFI radio. Camara, he claimed, was planning to pin responsibility for the September massacre of around 150 democracy protestors squarely on him. He shot to avoid that eventuality and is now in hiding. Even more alarming, he acknowledged what everyone already feared: "What happened on 28 September was planned. ...Everything was planned and I was the one who had to take the blame for everything."

In the aftermath of Camara's shooting, the junta looks as paranoid as ever. The AP reported last week that the military was sweeping through the capital, scooping up civilians with any potential links to Diakité. Human Rights Watch is expected to release on Guinea tomorrow, and I imagine it will reach similarly dismal conclusions about the military's violent over-reach.

Yet despite all this, as soon as Camara was gone, the United States, France, and even the opposition in Guinea started talking about working with the defense minister and new de facto junta leader, Sekouba Konate. Speaking with Reuters last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald said, "What we've always been looking for is a transition as quickly as possible to open and transparent elections. If Konate offers something like that, certainly it is something that we would consider very seriously[.]" France is rumored to have similar intentions of reaching out to the junta, despite being accused by the junta of being involved in the assasination attempt. Oh yes and meanwhile, a Chinese deal for mineral exploitation looks to be moving forward as $100 million was reported today to have been deposited in the country's central bank. The junta can't touch the money, but it's a downpayment on mining rights.

Moving forward with the current junta leader, Konate, might not be half bad (I say with a lump in my throat) -- given the alternative. He was a senior member of the junta, something of a high power potential rival to Camara, and J. Peter Pham told me late last week that the Guinean opposition seems willing to work with him. A Morroccan and French-trained soldier, many view him as more professional than Camara. And with any luck, this accidental "transition" could put an end to the rumored training of ethnic militias that Camara was said to have begun. In short, said Pham, "the international community has a chance to end a year of disaster."

Maybe. I am still skeptical, and I'm not alone. The regional group of West African states ECOWAS met earlier this week and seemed to lay the preliminary groundwork for an intervention there, if need be. What everyone fears is the scepter of civil war breaking out in a region that was not too long ago overcome by just that.

Unfortunately, that fear is warranted.

Photo: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images