The events of the past few days have left me exhausted. I’ve sat down many times since Saturday, wanting to write more, wishing to say something – anything – coherent enough and sensible enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to post it. These have been days of chaos, of irrational hatred, of violence, of death. Part of me wants only to make sense of it so this will no longer be true.
The truth is, I’m just going to leave it be what it has been – days of rage and violence, of irrationality, of chaos, of the official sanctioning of racist violence by no less a person than the President of the United States. There is no way typing that can make any more sense. No matter how hard people will try, it is what it is.
Part of me wants to remind readers that Hillary Clinton warned us, last fall during the Presidential campaign. People got upset with her for calling some of Trump’s supporters “deplorable”. Even I, at the time, thought that wasn’t the best move on her part, even though I also thought she was right. The thing is, at that moment she wasn’t caring about politics. She was doing what she thought was right: Warning us as a nation not only what kind of man Donald Trump was, but what kind of people he was carrying along with him in his train. People like David Duke:
Which leads me to say this: Anyone who claims either that Trump isn’t a racist, or that no one can know what’s in another’s heart: (A) Of course he’s a racist. His record on that score is long and very public; (B) White supremacists and Nazis were among his most vocal supporters during his campaign, telling the world he was one of them; (C) You know what’s “in a person’s heart” by that person’s words and actions. Yesterday Donald Trump stood and gave cover to Nazis and white supremacists, cover for their violence that killed one person and wounded 19 others, cover for a group of pipe wielding thugs beating a young African-American.
I was quite sure Trump’s Presidency would be horrible. I remember once saying it would be even more horrible than I could imagine at the time (before the inauguration). The complete and utter moral collapse of the Presidency, however, was nothing even I could imagine. The silence of the Republican leadership following Trump’s horrible press conference yesterday leaves them complicit in his ongoing embrace of the worst among us.
Let me be clear: As long as the Republican leadership – Congressional, Party bureaucracy, Administration members – remain in place saying or doing nothing, they own this turn toward overt white supremacy support by their party. Pretty words by a few here and there, mean absolutely nothing. Either the Party rises up to save itself, or like everything else Trump touches, it will be forever stained by his very presence. Either the Republican Party acts out a very clear, “No!” to white supremacy, it is now the party of white supremacy.
We are at a critical moment. Our President has taken sides with the most morally depraved elements of American society. His failure as a human being, on display for all to see, leaves us with the simple choice of continuing to support him in an office for which he has always been demonstrably unfit, aligning oneself with Nazis, the Klan, white supremacist murderers, and their enablers; or we stand as a country and demand an end to this failure of a Presidency, removing him from office as quickly as possible. While Mike Pence is no one’s choice for President, either, his brand of crazy conversatism is just slightly less deplorable than Trump’s.
Trump has made his bed, in linens covered in swastikas, and is quite comfortable there. The damage he has done to the instruments of our state power is vast, including now vitiating the moral authority the Office of the Presidency. It is up to we the people to demand an end to all of it as soon as possible. Only then can we begin to sort through the wreckage for what’s salvageable.
Yesterday, I had a post planned on the series of New York Times articles concerning Donald Trump, Jr. meeting with people he believed to be agents of the Russian government. Monday afternoon the Times published a story online that claimed there was an email in which it specifically stated just that. The problem with that article was the email itself wasn’t disclosed and the article stated the reporters had only the word of three sources such a monstrosity existed. At that point I thought the Times had jumped the shark. I was highly skeptical for one simple reason: I refused to believe anyone involved in this kind of high-level nonsense would be so stupid as to write such things down so clearly. So, after completing some work I needed to get done, I was sitting down to write about my skepticism.
Before I did that, however, I was going through Twitter and discovered my feed had exploded with news that Donald Trump, Jr. had released the email chain that included precisely the email about whose existence I was so skeptical. I quite literally spent the next ten minutes sitting with my mouth hanging open, aghast at just how stupid Donald Trump, Jr. really is. I honestly felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Even though I was seeing it, and reading the emails, and reading what others were saying (including one independent journalist whose shock was personal; he’d spent a year on this story and Trump, as this journalist wrote, “just tweeted it out”), I just couldn’t wrap my mind around just how stupid these people are.
So my post yesterday was out the window.
Today I just want to offer some reflections on the reactions to this story. I’m not talking about Trump, Jr or his father carrying on about how innocent Junior is in all this, because the emails pretty clearly incriminate not just him but Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort as well. I think it should be obvious that many people see this quite obvious evidence – at the very least – of attempted collusion with a foreign power as not only shocking but bordering precariously on treasonous behavior. Now in the US, “treason” is the only crime defined in the Constitution:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
As we aren’t at war with the Russians (although one could easily make the argument, as many have, that their cyber attacks on our major political parties constitute an act of war), I’m not sure that, legally, anyone should be charged with this specific crime. I do, however, believe it has the same general stench, a willingness to act against both the laws and best interests of the United States and receive information from a hostile foreign power during a national election. This is appalling and, one would think, indefensible.
All the same, almost immediately, Trump supporters online, including on my Facebook page, have been out in force slinging all sorts of mud in the form of what’s called “Whataboutisms”, as in “What about when Obama worked to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu?” or, “What about when the DNC worked with Ukraine during the last election?” or, among my favorites, “Since the Russians didn’t offer any actual information, no crime was committed.” I like this last one because it elides the reality that Junior not only believed such information would be on offer, but responded enthusiastically – “If it’s what you say it is I love it” – to the offer. Now, any other campaign would immediately have taken this information to the FBI. Why? Because you don’t meet with agents of a foreign adversary trying to influence a campaign for the Presidency!
As to the matters of the US interfering in the domestic politics of Israel and dozens of other countries, all I can say is conservatives used to love all those CIA front groups, invasions, and assassinations. People such as me who were outraged by them back during the Cold War were frequently called unAmerican and communist sympathizers because we thought it was pretty horrible that the United States would, say, kill the democratically elected leaders of Iran and Chile, say, or work with dissident military officials in Greece and Cyprus to overthrow their civilian governments. Now, however, the fact that the United States has acted this way means it’s perfectly fine for the Russians to do the same to us.
That’s not even close to being anything other than nihilism, pure and simple. These alleged superpatriots (at least according to many of their self-descriptions) are somehow down with the Russians attacking the United States during an election. I’m just dumbfounded that anyone calling themselves a patriotic American would ever say anything like this.
We are at a crucial point in what is clearly the biggest – and let’s say it, the stupidest, most venal – corruption story in American history. President Trump really does have the power both to fire independent investigator Robert Mueller (and not a few of his allies are insisting he do just that) as well as pardon anyone convicted of any crimes. Trump is both unstable and really quite idiotic, so we might just see these things, although I make no predictions. Were he to do so, however, this would constitute a very clear act of direct interference in an investigation (his firing of former FBI director James Comey looks more and more like just that), and would most certainly create an even deeper Constitutional crisis than the one we’re currently embroiled in.
I say we’re in a Constitutional crisis because the Republican leadership in both Houses of Congress have abdicated their responsibilities under the Constitution to act in their oversight and investigative capacities. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are refusing to act, for very different reasons, even as Democratic members in both Houses are demanding action. Which brings me to a point about which I want to be very clear: the willingness of elected Republican officials to defend both the President and his idiot child make this a partisan issue. The Republican Party’s willing acquiescence in acts like these should become a Scarlet Letter any Republican seeking office should wear for a very long time. The Democratic Part, after the Civil War, was often characterized as the party of rebellion (along with rum and Romanism, but that’s for another post), hindering their ability at rebuilding a national party base; there were only two Democratic Presidents between 1865 and 1932, sixteen out of sixty-seven years. I believe the Democratic Part needs to begin right now to make clear the entire Republican Party establishment is tainted by these events. They’ve proven themselves again and again over the past nine years unfit to govern. With their acceptance and defense of Trump and his son, they should be labeled the part quite willing to work with foreign powers against the United States. These events should be painted on their foreheads, worn on their arms, and called to mind each and every time a politician with an “R” after his or her name is mentioned. To pretend otherwise is to invite more such actions in the future.
Events are happening quickly, and – who knows?!? – by the time I hit “publish” this whole piece may well be mooted just as yesterday’s was. All the same, I think Americans need to speak out about these events. Our civic institutions, from the federal bureaucracy to our national elections, are and have been under attack and been seriously damaged by less than six months of a Trump Presidency. These are things worth fighting to preserve. Calling out people willing to put family and Party above their country is an ugly but necessary part of ensuring nothing like this ever happens again.
While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations. If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community? What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power? In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014
A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.
They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .
No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” nbcnews.com, May 15, 2017
I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.
First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.
What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.
Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.
That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.
There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.
Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.
For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.
While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.
It’s one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies: Delta Chi fraternity has just had its charter revoked; the members are expelled with their draft boards being notified they are now eligible. Shocked and stunned, they wonder what, exactly, they can do now that they have nothing left. Someone says, “We have to do something!” One member pipes up, “What the hell we s’posed to do, you moron?”
I feel a bit like that guy in Delta House right now. Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, ostensibly for how he handled the release of information regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails (actually, it was Weiner’s emails, which included emails to Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin, who happens to be Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife). I largely agree with Josh Marshall’s assessment that, in the abstract, the arguments made in the letter to the President make some kind of sense. In the current context, however, in which the President and much of his campaign staff (who are now members of the Administration) are under investigation for their ties to the already-established Russian interference in our previous general election, this abstract argument is worthless precisely because it looks as if the President has something he does not want coming to light. Indeed, in the six months since the election, both Presidents Obama and Trump could have fired Comey for these very reasons. They chose not to do so for sensible if not necessarily good political reasons. Since the man who wrote the legal rationale for Comey’s firing was only confirmed two weeks ago with enormous bipartisan support, it looks clear both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were waiting for a person with a reputation for integrity, who had support among both Republicans and Democrats, to enter the Justice Department so that, on the surface, it wouldn’t appear as if either Trump was acting impulsively or Sessions – who has slightly more political sense than Trump, which isn’t saying much – was acting on standing orders. It gives them both the appearance of distance. Sadly for them, neither are adept enough to make such an appearance stick.
And so we are now in the strange position of witnessing a clear abuse of Presidential power – as much a political matter as a legal matter – and we all wait and wonder, What do we do now? I know people are contacting their elected representatives. I applaud the sense of civic duty. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for an end to investigations into the possible collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians, and the House Republicans both spineless and hyperpartisan, the necessary political will for the submission of articles of impeachment just isn’t present. Both the House and the Senate have demonstrated their lack of any interest in the questions, comments, and other input from their constituents. Particularly the Republicans have often closed down their phone lines, their email, and refused to hold meetings in order to avoid feedback they won’t like. They have worked on passing legislation the public neither wants nor needs, particularly their “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act, the vast majority of Americans oppose. To further demonstrate the Trump Administration’s contempt for the Constitution, a West Virginia reporter was arrested yesterday afternoon after asking HHS Secretary Tom Price a question.
Impeachment is far more a political than a legal action. While it certainly involves matters of lawbreaking, most Presidents, at least since James Monroe, have violated one or another statute or Constitutional provision. The first President who faced an impeachment trial in the Senate, Andrew Johnson, did so because the Radical Republicans (they were the good guys back then) felt Johnson wasn’t pushing hard enough on their agenda for reforming the Southern States (Johnson was a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee who refused to join his state in seceding from the Union). Richard Nixon’s string of corrupt acts would most assuredly not only forced him from office had he not resigned, but landed him in federal prison had President Ford not pardoned him. Bill Clinton faced impeachment for the rather narrow and arguable crime of lying under oath. Precisely because the larger matters surrounding the question involved Clinton’s personal rather than professional conduct, the Senate found no reason to find Clinton guilty of anything. Just because a person may (or may not) have broken the law doesn’t mean they should be removed from office.*
Now we face a moment during which the question of the survival of our Constitutional order might very well hang in the balance. I know this sounds melodramatic. I happen to believe it’s true. That the Russians intruded themselves into our last election is a matter of fact, not of opinion. That there appeared, even at the time, to be some kind of links between the Trump campaign and the Russians is also a fact. Russian interference was discussed mid-summer, 2016, both publicly and far more extensively in meetings with members of the Obama Administration, senior Congressional leadership, and the Intelligence Community. None of this is arguable. What needs to be done is a thorough investigation into whether or not Trump or his campaign had any knowledge of, contact with, or cooperation with these Russian efforts to undermine our last election. Rather than not investigate, one would think an investigations in to matters of such profound importance would be welcome. That members both of the Administration and senior Republicans are now calling for an end into such investigations demonstrates that there is no political will to curtail abuses of power by this Administration.
So . . . what the hell are we supposed to do? Call, write, be vocal about the insistence this matter not rest: these are, I suppose, important things. I doubt their efficacy, even in the long run. So we are faced with an increasing dictatorial Executive Branch with Legislative Branch unwilling to protest abuses or power or assert their primary prerogatives as overseers of the Executive. The Judicial Branch can only do so much, and they certainly cannot bring action on their own that gets Trump and his Administration out of office.
What? Do? We? Do?
*I think the authors of the Constitution, particularly James Madison, couldn’t imagine someone holding the office of President who had so little personal integrity they would willy-nilly violate their oath of office. Alas, honor is a republican rather than democratic value.
There are few things that really bother me as much as self-professed working-class heroes. These are the folks on your timeline who carry on about their long hours, their hard work ethic, occasionally make fun of people who don’t do the same jobs they do, and generally enjoy a kind of smug superiority. Particularly over other working-class folks whose views on life, politics, and workplace solidarity differ from their own.
These are the folks who carry on about protesters needing jobs so they won’t have time to protest. These are the folks who insist they’re the real backbone of America. They dismiss unions as promoting little work for a big paycheck. And they make sure everyone knows the world will stop if they decide not to go to work.
Except, of course, it won’t.
On the contrary, such self-promotion earns these people exactly nothing at all. The may feel good about themselves, but they won’t get a bigger paycheck. Their supervisors may pat them on the back, but when the ACA is repealed, their healthcare is going to cover less for a whole lot more money. They may flaunt their moral superiority over all the rest of the layabouts in the world, but when budget cuts come around, or the factory moves to Mexico or Thailand, they’re going to be just as unemployed as everyone else. With far less to show for it.
The thing is, the myth of the working-class hero plays on American themes – that hard work is a goo in and of itself and brings with it rewards; the myth of the powerful individual facing a hostile world and surviving, even thriving; the myth that organized labor is a long con looking to separate workers from their wallets in order to benefit a few – which makes it difficult to counter even with facts. The appeal is so basic, so much at the heart of how we see ourselves as Americans, it becomes difficult to resist.
Like most myths, however, these old American myths contained far less truth than they claimed; with changing social relations, they are functionally meaningless now. Setting aside the reality that the myth of the self-made American ignored pretty much everything else going on the world even as it was being propagated, now it’s impossible to be a successful individual without help from others. Whether it’s municipal ordinances governing where businesses can and can’t operate, through local street and sidewalk maintenance, to the local police force up to and through workplace hour, safety, and pay regulations that keep our workplaces safe physically and financially, not a single person working today has made themselves who they are.
And all those pesky things like maximum hours legislation, minimum wage laws, the weekend, health and retirement benefits – these exist because of unions. People died to make sure their fellow workers would live better, be safer, and have better overall living conditions. And if you want to work more than 40 hours a week, these laws make sure you’re justly compensated for that work. It doesn’t prevent you from working more. It prevents you from being underpaid.
Setting oneself up as a paragon of working-class American virtue does one thing only: it makes those who do feel better about themselves, morally superior, somehow. Your bosses will encourage you to feel good about yourself at the expense of others so they can ignore overtime pay rules. They’ll use your own smugness against you, denying you benefits and continuing to keep your wages low, while constantly sending you notes thanking you for your example. You won’t be any better off. You’ll just have a bunch of paper to throw out.
I’m actually quite tired of self-professed working-class heroes who go around flaunting their alleged virtue for all the world to see. Businesses exploiting a meaningless myth in order to drive wedges between and among workers keeps everyone down. And the heroes themselves? They get nothing. Their pay is still low. Their jobs are still as vulnerable as everyone else’s. They work without any real guarantees their benefits will be there for them. Solidarity isn’t just a word from 1980’s Poland; it’s a goal towards which all workers should strive in order to benefit everyone.
Just because your boss pats you on the back doesn’t mean that same boss won’t exploit your smugness for his or her own benefit. Just because you have all sorts of letters and notes thanking you for your service won’t save your pension when the company decides to save money around the time you decide to retire. Being a working-class hero benefits no one. Not even you.
So get over yourself and start thinking of your fellow workers. We are all in this together. Even if not everyone knows it.
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.