31 May 2020   Leave a comment

My post yesterday was about whether the violence we are witnessing in the protests about the treatment of African-Americans in the US is justified. The post made a simple argument: if one is concerned about violence, then it is best to be concerned by all sorts of violence, including the normalized violence of centuries of discrimination. Today’s post will deal with the second objection to violence: that it alienates potential supporters of true change and undermines the message being conveyed by the protests.

Let me first make a personal observation. I have witnessed many protest demonstrations in my life and was deeply involved with some of them, such as the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. Political protests are energizing and they allow dissent to be made visible in ways that personal beliefs cannot. It is a mistake, however, to think that everyone participating in a protest is there for the same reason. In the Vietnam War protests there were people who joined the demonstrations because they believed it was an opportunity to procure marijuana, or because they hated capitalism, or because they didn’t wish to go to class, or because they saw it as a way to find casual sex. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a large mass of people has a monolithic mind. It might for some fleeting moments, but a protest is a dynamic environment and it is easy to lose sight of why one is there.

Second, and related to the first point, is that there are opportunists in every demonstration. And those opposed to the protests will almost invariably suggest that “outside agitators” have hijacked the protests. The tactic is calculated to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. In the current situation, US President Trump and Attorney General Barr, have singled out “far-left” agents as being the trouble-makers. Mr. Trump today went so far as to designate Antifa as a “terrorist organization”. The designation is only legal for foreign agents, not groups who are domestically based (one need only to think about how such a power could be abused to destroy all legitimate opposition to a government). I am not sure what the phrase “outside agitator” means in the context of a national movement–all American citizens have the same and equal right to dissent.

Third, protests have a very short shelf-life. They can be dramatic episodes. but the demands of daily life overtake the exuberance of the moment. And, for those who do not participate in the demonstration or who might actually be opposed to the demonstration, protests are generally flashes in a pan. Protests are wonderful instruments for learning more about oneself, but they do not have a long-term effect on those who do not participate in the demonstration. When protests are made over a long period of time and there are no effective changes made to respond to the issues raised by the protests, one can legitimately ask the question of whether they are useful politically. That question can certainly be raised in the current situation. There have been a large number of African-Americans who have been killed by police, and each of those tragedies stimulated protests. But there is little to show by way of making the changes necessary to avoid future tragedies.

The Smithsonian magazine ran an article about how the civil rights protests of the 1960s were addressed. Some of those protests were very similar to those we are witnessing today: burnings, lootings, and confrontations with police. The Kerner Commission which investigated the causes of the riots and made suggestions for change. The conclusions in 1968 were clear:

“Pent-up frustrations boiled over in many poor African-American neighborhoods during the mid- to late-1960s, setting off riots that rampaged out of control from block to block. Burning, battering and ransacking property, raging crowds created chaos in which some neighborhood residents and law enforcement operatives endured shockingly random injuries or deaths. Many Americans blamed the riots on outside agitators or young black men, who represented the largest and most visible group of rioters. But, in March 1968, the Kerner Commission turned those assumptions upside-down, declaring white racism—not black anger—turned the key that unlocked urban American turmoil. 

“Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African-American neighborhoods in American cities, north and south, east and west. And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.

“‘White society,’ the presidentially appointed panel reported, ‘is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.’ The nation, the Kerner Commission warned, was so divided that the United States was poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies—one black, one white.

Very little seems to have changed since 1968. The question is whether violence hastens change or retards it. Violence raises the visibility of protests since the media is more likely to film incidents of violence than incidents of peace. But the violence also allows opponents of the protests to focus on something other than the issues underlying the protests. And many supporters of a cause might be repelled by acts of looting or property damage. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a rejoinder to this argument in today’s Los Angeles Times:

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.

“What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.

“Worst of all, is that we are expected to justify our outraged behavior every time the cauldron bubbles over. Almost 70 years ago, Langston Hughes asked in his poem “Harlem”: ‘What happens to a dream deferred? /… Maybe it sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?’”

It is hard to imagine how violence can be avoided given the refusal of American institutions to protect the African-American community despite the overwhelming evidence that that community is the victim of both structural and episodic violence. The more reasonable question is whether the American people will refuse to let its vision be diverted from the essential issue, its aspiration to be a nation of true and genuine equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood well what the real issue was in 1963 as it remains in 2020:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Posted May 31, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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