Since the election of Donald Trump as President, there have been many demonstrations against his administration. In the case of the Woman’s March on January 21, which took place at sites all over the world, there was record-breaking attendance.
There is a lot of discussion about the appropriateness of these demonstrations. People on the right don’t like progressive rallies in any form. They say that the people organizing and marching in them are just sore losers. “Trump won, get over it.” Naturally, those who are in these events don’t think that is an accurate characterization. “It’s not that we’re sore losers, we just don’t like his policies and it’s our right to say so.”
But the most contentious discussions center around the kinds of protest that have been happening.
In the days after the November elections, protests erupted all over the country. Many of them turned violent and were described by police as “riots.” On November 11, Portland, Oregon police said some marchers were “trying to get anarchist groups to stop destroying property” and that “anarchists” were refusing to do so. Cars were damaged and windows were broken, two common objects of violent behavior at these actions.
On the day of the inauguration itself, groups of what are called the “Black Bloc” erupted in property destruction in Washington, DC (and punched a Nazi, caught on video and viewed millions of times on YouTube.)
On Feb. 1st, an estimated 150 protesters did thousands of dollars’ worth of damage at UC Berkeley, where Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. According to CNN, “Black-clad protesters wearing masks threw commercial-grade fireworks and rocks at police. Some even hurled Molotov cocktails that ignited fires. They also smashed windows of the student union center on the Berkeley campus where the Yiannopoulos event was to be held.”
Naturally, the right has strongly denounced these violent acts. But they are not alone. Many liberal and progressive people have raised objections to the destruction. Quoting again from CNN, “It’s a sad irony in the fact that the Free Speech Movement was founded here and tonight, someone’s free speech got shut down. It might have been hateful speech, but it’s still his right to speak,” said Shivam Patel, a freshman who stood outside of Sproul Plaza.”
This is typical of the kind of comments I’ve been hearing and reading all day, in the printed press and on NPR. We can’t violate free speech, even of someone like Yiannopoulos. There are also those who say that this kind of action detracts from the more legitimate protest mounted by the 1500 non-violent demonstrators who also showed up in dissent over Yiannopoulos’ appearance. Finally, there are some who say that this kind of behavior plays into the hands of the far right, who will respond with repression.
These are all valid points. First, free speech is an important value, regardless of your politics. Second, when you’ve planned a peaceful protest and something like this occurs, it’s easy to understand feeling as though you had been hijacked. Third, this kind of behavior really could lead to further repression by the white nationalists now in control in Washington and 32 states.
But that’s not the only way to look at these events.
First, the free speech argument. It’s settled law that free speech doesn’t apply to saying things that can harm others. There’s the famous “you can’t shout Fire in a crowded theater.” You can’t threaten people. It’s a very bad idea to joke about bombs while boarding a plane. And so forth.
But I’m not very interested in legalisms. Here’s the real deal: Someone who spouts racism, someone who spews misogyny, someone who promotes xenophobia, someone who slurs the LGBTQ community, someone who talks anti-Semitism: none of these falls under the protection of free speech. Not in my book. You don’t get to plead “free speech” when you are planning your white supremacist takeover.
Second, the argument that this distracts from legitimate protest. Hey, the other side doesn’t see your protest as legitimate anyway. But you know that. You’re worried about the undecided people who you would like to rally to your cause. Yes, many of them will be put off by violence. But if someone really shares your concern about refugees, or freedom of choice, they are going to show up anyway. Half-hearted people are of little or no use in social justice movements. If most of us are showing our dissent in a measured way, the right people will find their way to us.
Third, the “more repression” argument. That’s the strongest argument of the three. We don’t need to throw fuel on their fire. They really are just looking for excuses to increase their power. Handing it to them on a silver platter is a bad idea.
However, I’ve got to say this. Those of us on the side of justice and solidarity have to make it uncomfortable for people to be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Since the rise of Trump, it has gotten way too comfortable. Hate crime is on the increase. The fascists have to learn that there is a price to pay, and that’s not going to be accomplished by tweets about Trump’s silly hair or perma-tan or his tiny hands. It may not be accomplished by me keeping my own hands clean.
I am a pacifist. I am certain that non-violent direct action is more effective for making real change in most situations. But I don’t think that everyone participating in Black Bloc activity must be misguided or immature. Remember that Black Bloc tactics actually did shut down the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle in 1999. Remember that in every resistance movement there are disagreements about tactics among people sharing the same ultimate goals. Remember that, whether you agree with their conduct or not, they are putting themselves on the line for a purpose we all believe in.