Let’s start with these quotations:
From President Obama:
“[T]he small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods… and detracting from the larger cause…. [L]et’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”
From Terrence Floyd, brother of George:
“In every case of police brutality the same thing has been happening. You have protests, you destroy stuff … so they want us to destroy ourselves. Let’s do this another way,” he said, encouraging the crowd to vote and to educate themselves. “Let’s switch it up, y’all.”
From Congressperson Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis:
“When we see people setting our buildings and our businesses ablaze, we know those are not people who are interested in protecting black lives… Every single fire set ablaze, every single store that is looted, every time our community finds itself in danger, it is time that people are not spending talking about getting justice for George Floyd…”
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta:
“What we saw overnight was not a protest, and it was not Atlanta. We as a people are strongest when we use our voices to heal our city instead of using our hands to tear it down. . . . If we are to enact change in this nation, I implore everyone to channel their anger and sorrow into something more meaningful and effective through non-violent activism.”
These statements by African Americans contrast with some of the commentary that I have been hearing and reading in the liberal-tilting media like NPR, CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and online sources, commentary that effectively tries to ignore or wave away the destruction of public property, private businesses, and workers’ jobs. (When a business is destroyed, its employees as well as its owner lose.)
At this writing (midday, June 2), it appears that the street action involves three groups: One, the largest, comprises genuine protesters legitimately outraged at yet another unwarranted killing and at the persistence of institutional racism. The second are anarchist terrorists, overwhelmingly white and young, fomenting destruction. We in the Bay Area are familiar with them. They show up wearing helmets and Guy Fawkes masks, carrying hammers and incendiary devices, to hijack political protests and to break and burn. The third group is comprised of criminals, sometimes organized in caravans, exploiting the situation to break into upscale stores.
The inclination of well-intentioned whites to airbrush the ugly parts of this scene is condescending and it is bad politics. It helps the Trump administration claim that it is defending the peace against the violent and the appeasers of violence. Modern American history tells us that the political winner of these street confrontations is almost always the side of reaction and repression. So, it could be again on election day, 2020.
In the United States, street protests have rarely advanced progressive interests. In those few occasions when they have, they were usually accompanied by strict discipline, nonviolence, and connection to electoral politics. That was the story of the Civil Rights movement’s successes. The Women’s 2017 March on Washington may be another positive example, as it segued rapidly into 2017 and 2018 election victories, led by many who had marched. But those examples are rare. The more common and sad story is that street protests, especially when they end up in disorder and violence, create no progress and even empower reaction. The wider public understandably wants order; they want peace; then justice, in that sequence.
Recent examples of how large protest mobilizations fail include Occupy Wall Street, about which I wrote skeptically in 2011 (here and here) and the 2014 Black Lives Matter demonstrations (here and here).
Then there is the cautionary tale of 1968. Years of urban riots and anti-Vietnam War protests culminated in violence on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention that nominated Hubert H. Humphrey for president. It was probably clear to most television viewers that the police vastly over-reacted to taunts, but the equation, “Democrats = disorder,” is what lasted. Despite the “Happy Warrior’s” strong campaigning, and despite facing a right-wing divided between an unpopular Richard Nixon and segregationist George Wallace, Humphrey lost, getting only 43% of the vote compared to Johnson’s 61% four years earlier. That election affirmed the GOP’s claim to be the party of order and the party repeatedly confirmed that claim over the subsequent years. Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a long era of regress on the very issues that the 1968 protesters fought for.
(I have read a couple of feeble arguments that 1968 is not a lesson for 2020, for example, that the electorate today has a much higher proportion of people of color than in 1968. True, but Latina and Asian voters, who make up that increase, are probably no less worried by disorder than are whites; their attitudes toward police are like those of whites’. A better argument is that Trump himself is in power nationally, not the Democrats, and so must answer for the disorder. However, Nixon as president and Reagan, notably as governor of California, profited politically from outbreaks of disorder on their watches. Trump probably will, too.)
Where We Are
White liberal voices have repeatedly stressed how peaceful the (real) protesters are and how often police facing them have acted violently and that the vandals and looters are not part of the real protest and that, in final summation, disorder and destruction are the inevitable consequences of structural racism. However true these statements may be, the political reality is that, unlike the African-American leaders I quoted earlier, such comments line the speakers–and thus, their political allies–up on the side of disorder, helping the Right paint those on the Left as apologists for mayhem. Unfair? Sure, but what does fairness have to do with it?
The protests as demonstrations of outrage at injustice probably passed the point of diminishing returns a few days ago. Lacking clear leadership, lacking achievable goals (other than arresting three police officers), and lacking as yet any transition to electoral politics (is anybody registering protesters to vote?), the marchers may feel good but I doubt that they are doing good. Increasingly, they are–besides spreading Covid-19–providing distraction and cover for the anarchists and for the criminals. Elected black leaders like Mayor Bottoms are saying this. White liberals condescend not to.
No one event in 2020 could do more for racial justice than overwhelmingly defeating the Trump administration. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.
~ Update June 3, 2020 ~
In the last 24 hours a few commentators, in the Times and Post for example, have objected to the 1968 comparison. What have they said and why have they said it?
First, what: They basically argue that Trump cannot benefit from the disorder as Nixon and Wallace did in 1968 because it’s happening under his watch, while the 1968 chaos was under the Democrats’. But, as I said above, Nixon continued to benefit from disorders, which were mainly around Vietnam, in his first term. (His vice-president, Agnew, was the designated demagogue, attacking long-haired radicals and their abetting media.) Nixon ran again on law and order in 1972, this time against the very progressive George McGovern, to win a tremendous, 49-to-1 states re-election landslide in 1972. If a president does it right, he can portray himself as guarding the gates against the vandals. Moreover, as my post suggested, there are many other and recent examples of street action in the absence of discipline and politics backfiring.
Second, why: I think these essayists want to counter warnings about street action for fear that they discourage sincere and worthy protesters. Politically, sincere and worthy get you only so far; strategic matters more. One saving grace is that Donald Trump has turned out to be as incompetent as he is venal. His and his aides’ inanities seem (as of noon, June 3) to be sustaining sympathy for the nonviolent protesters. The maniacal rants, wobbling policies, and empty threats, the march to the church to wave a bible–these have been gifts to the protesters. Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and probably even G.W. Bush would have maneuvered into the role of the caring but strong leader – regretfully, patiently, but firmly restoring order. Maybe Trump will continue to be the missing ingredient this time.
Written by Claude Fischer for Made in America ~ June 2, 2020