Protests And Riots
I’ve been honestly amused by people posting to social media that, while they support protests they see riots as a crime. There’s a meme going around that says that protests should only happen when human rights are being violated. As if there’s a time human rights aren’t being violated! People want to walk a fine line where they don’t want to appear unAmerican and say people have no right to protest marches; on the other hand, at the first sign of violence, the whole event becomes tainted, kind of like dropping a drop of sludge in a wine vat.
Except, of course, protest marches are little more than controlled riots. Anger is directed toward constructive acts like carrying signs, joining with a large of group of like-minded people shouting slogans. In a large group of people, however, there will always be those for whom this just isn’t enough. Windows get smashed. Rocks get thrown at police. People are shoved, sometimes punched (like a white-supremacist was yesterday; some people said this was wrong because it made him a sympathetic character. Really? A Nazi gets punched in the face by an African-American and suddenly we’re all boohooing for the guy?) Broken windows, bloody noses, arrests – these are part and parcel of political protest, going back to colonial times. In our oh-so-proper bourgeois world, we dislike anything messy, untidy, and disruptive. These are social goods to be maintained at all costs.
In 1765, after the British Parliament had passed the Stamp Act over the objections of many of the colonial representatives in London, people in Boston in particular were not fond of the law. Besides being onerous, there was the principle that Parliament, which had not sought to govern the American colonies for over a century and a half, suddenly thought it not a problem to pass laws for them without their voice or consent. One sunny morning, the local Stamp officer, Andrew Oliver, was hung in effigy from a tree on the High Street. A crowd gathered, with some merchants coming and making mock obeisance before the effigy. Boston’s sheriff wanted the crowd broken up, despite the fact they were doing nothing illegal. Officers told the sheriff even trying to do so would bring on the violence they were seeking to avoid.
Soon, however, the crowd seemed to break-up and the effigy was cut down and nailed to a board. They marched through the streets chanting and shouting against the Stamp Act, reaching the docks in Boston Harbor. A building under construction, thought to be the new Stamp Office, was torn down. Then, the crowd turned and marched to Oliver’s home.
Oliver and his family were spirited away even as a crowd gathered and set up a bonfire, upon which was thrown first the effigy, followed by pieces of Oliver’s chaise. I’ll let A. J. Langguth continue the story:
[Rioters] raced to the bottom of Oliver’s garden and began ripping down a fifteen-foot fence. Once inside the garden, they stripped all the fruit from the trees, brokes off the branches and tore down a gazebo. When men began to smash windows at the back of the main house, it was not idle vandalism. Window glass had to be imported from England and was expensive to replace.
. . . [M]en were sindie the house and heading for the cellars, where they helped themselves to the stores of liquor. Ipstairs, rioters found the familys looking glass, which was reputed to be the largest in North America. They left it in shards and went on to break furniture and scatter the Oliver silverplate throught the house. [A. J. Langguth, Patriots, p.56]
Before we were a Republic, Americans have protested, including using violence, to make political statements. There were anti-draft riots in New York City in the summer of 1863. In Chicago, the Wobblies and Pinkerton detectives fought running battles in the streets that are now known as the Haymarket Riots. In 1932, World War I vets looking to receive the bonus promised them at the end of their service in 1919 gathered on the Mall in Washington DC. Local businesses claimed the so-called BEF (Bonus Expeditionary Force) was responsible for vandalism, robbery, and even rape. Against the direct orders of President Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur sent in tanks and cavalry who burned tents with the families of the protesters inside. A young cavalry captain named Goerge Patton bayonetted the leg of one Bonus Marcher; that veteran had, in 1918, literally dragged a young and wounded George Patton to safety on Flander’s Fields back in 1918.
Northern White America came to appreciate if not necessarily sympathize with the non-violent protests across the segregated South. Thinking well of themselves as broad minded and liberal, they thought the treatment the protestors received – beatings and arrests – an overreaction even while preferring there be no such protests at all. After all, didn’t these young men have jobs or school to attend? Wouldn’t they better serve their race if they were doing that rather than stirring up trouble? While in Seminary taking a class in Liberation Theology, I insisted that there was not nor could be any such thing as non-violent protest against injustice. Even if those doing the protesting do not act out violently, the powers that be most certainly will. American saw that in places like Birmingham, AL and in North Carolina where young men sitting in at the Woolworth’s counter were beaten and dragged off by mobs of whites, only to return to their silent protests.
It is fashionable these days to say, “Well, I like Dr. King and his peaceful protests, but people like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were too extreme.” This ignores the reality that, at the time, officials saw no distinction among these persons and group. Thus we create the distinction between protests and riots in the face of a historical reality that denies such a distinction.
Yesterday’s bit of vandalism provided good visuals for those who don’t like protests. I’ve yet to hear whether these were people who were protesting Trump’s inauguration, agent-provocatuers (something the feds have always been very good at), or just knuckleheads who might just want to show up on TV. By and large the protests yesterday was subdued and orderly. Today as hundreds of thousands if not millions of women around the country march to remind America and the incoming Administration that women’s rights are human rights, to be respected and protected rather than dismissed, I just have to wonder why anyone would be against such protests. Because of the possibility of violence? There’s always the possibility of violence. There usually is violence of some sort, although that has been reduced thanks to the examples of the Civil Rights era. Still, whether it comes from the protesters themselves or officials (just remember that young man facing a squad of militarized police officers in Ferguson, MO; that’s what I call an overreaction), the potential for violence is always present. Rather than try and create a false distinction between peaceful protests and violent protests/riots, how about we all grow up and understand that when people protest, they’re angry. Anger, particularly over rights revoked or denied, can be on high simmer for years, with a protest offering a forum either for constructive action or destructive action. Rather than insist that violence is bad, tout court, how about we recognize these as political acts rather than criminal acts, and treat them accordingly? Rather than sit at some remove from the scene of the action and presume to pass judgment on what is right and what is wrong, how about asking these folks why they’re angry and actually listening to their answers? How about thinking, for just one moment that people are acting out like this might very well have legitimate grievances? After all, breaking window glass in a home was a political act. Why should we not think busting the window at a Starbuck’s, the epitome of middle-class and upper-middle-class complacency and serenity in the face of human suffering, might well be a political act? And please remember, there’s insurance for for things like this, so I don’t get all that upset for the companies.
Donald Rumsfeld was a horrible Secretary of Defense, but when he told reporters asking questions about post-liberation rioting and looting in Baghdad that democracy is a messy business, he was quite right. While it was an excuse and smoke-screen to cover-up the reality the invasion had occurred with no thought given to what would happen once the government fell, it is also true. Democracy is messy. It’s never tidy. Having hundreds of thousands of people engage in acts of protest, resistance, and defiance is a sign of a healthy polity. It means people are engaged, they care what happens to them and others. It means they’re willing to take risks to make the world a little better. As someone who has marched in a couple really big marches and watched as police treated peaceful protesters badly, let me just say that violence, like H. Rap Brown reminded us, is as American as cherry pie. We should just pull up our grown-up pants and deal with it, rather than pretend there’s actually a distinction between political protests and riots. They’re just different stages of the same, larger, action.