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Protest and responsibility

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Protest is as American as cherry pie. So too is the association of protest with violence, the other element in H. Rap Brown's formulation, putting aside for the moment distinction between property destruction and violence against persons. Colonists protested the Stamp Act of 1765 with mob violence, intimidation of stamp distributors, and the ransack and destruction of the homes of colonial officials. In 1773 a group of colonists led by Samuel Adams and fellow tea smugglers protested the British tax on tea by dumping 342 chests of the stuff into the harbor at Boston.

A few years after revolution and independence farmers in western Massachusetts rose up against rising taxes and court action against indebted farmers. Violent attacks against courthouses and other government buildings in 1786 escalated into military confrontation in 1787. Some public officials spoke out in favor of the rebellion. That old tea smuggler Sam Adams called for the execution of the rebellious farmers. Shays' Rebellion, small and easily put down, figured into the call for a constitutional convention to form a stronger national government than that provided by the Articles of Confederation, which may not have been what farmers chafed by taxation they considered unjust had in mind.

Thomas Jefferson, never among the more level-headed of the nation's founders, was prompted by the uprising to share his enthusiasm for periodic rebellion:

God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion.… And what country can preserve it’s [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?… What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s [sic] natural manure. (Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia)

Every decade of the 19th and 20th centuries had its share of protests, riots, and sometimes massacres, from the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794) in protest of a tax on whisky to Nat Turner's slave rebellion, all manner of labor strikes and strife, assorted Know-Nothing riots of the 1850s, the Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, the turbulent sixties, civil rights protests, Vietnam, white supremacist violence, black militant violence, white radical violence, and so on up to the present.

Nonviolent appeal to moral conscience is not always sufficient to right wrongs too grievous to be endured. The proposition that disruption is an integral element of protest, that nonviolence alone is more often than not ineffective, is voiced with disquieting enthusiasm by a growing chorus among intellectuals, the intelligentsia, the media class, and our public at large. Righteous wokeness exerts its pull on young hotheads and on more than a few older hotheads of my generation drawn by the siren call of 1960s era radical chic and memories of youthful glory. Maybe they are right that disruption, destruction, and violence are sometimes necessary to wring meaningful concessions from the powers that be. They are wrong when they share Jefferson's tolerance for spilt blood and neglect or downplay the price the innocent always pay in these affairs, oblivious to the irony that they should be to some degree in league with the reviled slave owner.

The right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances is enshrined in the Constitution. There is no companion right to vandalize, loot, riot, and assault. In Portland protest has over the years taken on quasi-religious overtones, not just a constitutional right, but a sacred rite. To question or criticize it on any grounds is tantamount to heresy. Nonviolence has its advocates, but they are reluctant to call out comrades who go in for destruction and violence. The antics of our homegrown anarchists are accepted as something that has to be put up with, like traffic snarls on the freeway, signal issues holding up MAX trains at the Steel Bridge, and bicyclists whose reading of the rules of the road is distinctly idiosyncratic.

Alumni of cultural revolution reeducation camps, figuratively speaking of course, who dominate NPR speak of the summer's uprising, a word that suggests not protest but insurrection, not reform of constitutional government but overthrow of the existing order. Little thought is given to what might come after. Even sympathetic reporters concede that there are people who use peaceful protest as cover for property destruction and violence. Rarely do their reports go beyond that concession before returning to anodyne rhetoric about largely peaceful protests.

A common refrain from protesters who declare themselves peaceful, when asked about their more rowdy compatriots, is that they cannot tell anyone how to protest. The press and our public officials give them a pass and join this flight from responsibility, never thinking to ask why this should be out of bounds when telling the mayor how to manage the police bureau and telling police officers how to perform their duties is not. Little remarked is the fact that protest leaders were happy to tell the white, suburban Wall of Moms how they were expected to protest, leaving no doubt just who stood where in the pecking order.

Serendipity. While pulling together thoughts expressed here I read The Wages of Whiteness by Hari Kunzru, published in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Kunzru begins his essay with a brief account of a 1981 robbery of a Brink's armored van by members of the Black Liberation Army in which a guard and two police officers were killed. Four white communists from a faction of the Weather Underground acted as getaway drivers. Three were unarmed but were nonetheless convicted of murder and sentenced to decades in prison. One driver told an interviewer in 2001 that she did not know anything about the robbery. Kunzru quotes her explanation:

My way of supporting the struggle is to say that I don't have the right to know anything, that I don't have the right to engage in political discussion, because it is not my struggle. I certainly don't have the right to criticize anything. The less I would know and the more I would give up total self, the better—the more committed and the more moral I was.

This denial of agency and personal responsibility was more fully articulated in a theoretical statement by the Weather Underground published in various forms between 1970 and 1974:

The Black struggle for self-determination is the strategic leading force of the US revolution… Black and Third World people's right to determine the direction of their struggle is undeniable.… Whatever decisions Black people and other oppressed people make in exercising this right to self-determination, white revolutionaries and anti-imperialists have a very clear-cut responsibility to support those decisions once they are arrived at. This does not mean to support only those choices one approves of. (quoted by Kunzru, emphasis in concluding sentence mine)

Substitute "white antiracists" for "white revolutionaries and anti-imperialists" and this bit of rhetoric would be unexceptional today. At issue here is not listening to and taking seriously and learning from the testimony of black people about what it is to be black in America. Submission to the command to obey blindly is an abdication of responsibility. It is not even possible. First I must judge who speaks authentically for an amorphous community unfailingly invoked and choose who to obey. Do I obey Portland protest spokesperson Demetria Hester? The dictates of Ibram X. Kendi on what I must do to be an antiracist? Mayors like Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta and Lori Lightfoot of Chicago? Tim Scott? Clarence Thomas? All are black. All have opinions on these matters.

In an early August interview (KGW8 Straight Talk) Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone declined to denounce the "smaller group" who go in for destruction and violence under cover of darkness at the nightly protests:

I know nobody controls a social movement. We need to understand these protests are part of a healthy democracy. Peaceful protests, in my opinion, might not necessarily be moving the conversation forward.

The following day her campaign attempted damage control with this pro forma statement sent to the television station:

Criminal activity is illegal, and of course I don't condone it. What I'm focused on is ensuring police do not use violence and even lethal force against people who have done nothing wrong, as we have seen nightly, and for decades. We must not take our focus off why these recent protests began, and reimagine public safety so we can save lives. I condemn arson, obviously. I also condemn the countless deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, with the smug arrogance of police officer Derek Chauvin etched in the national consciousness, and the procession of killings that follow seemingly without end, even individuals whose every instinct is to give police the benefit of the doubt are profoundly shaken and join the call for public officials and police officers to bear responsibility and be held accountable and for a fundamental rethinking of what public safety means. Is it in any way serious to suggest the conversation is moved forward by arsonists who start fires in the doorways of buildings occupied by people deemed less than innocent, hurlers of bricks, water bottles, and the odd Molotov cocktail, tattooed Davids launching ball bearings from slingshots, weaponizers of lasers, and so on? Is it only my dull wit that convinces me to the contrary that this stuff is a distraction from the conversation and indeed moves it backward if at all?

Largely peaceful protesters may not be able to prevent property destruction and violence by a determined few who are bent on it. Surely though they have some responsibility when they allow themselves to be used as cover for what is defiantly not peaceable. Surely too those who take up the banner of protest have an obligation at once practical and ethical to think critically about what they hope to accomplish and the efficacy of tactics employed to that end.

In Portland demands range from general and broadly accepted calls for police reform and racial justice to the specific demand to strip $50 million from the police bureau and reallocate those funds to other bureaus and community organizations that will be responsible for services that will no longer be under police purview. The number is big, round, plucked from the air. No analysis underlies it.

Demetria Hester, a protest leader and spokesperson affiliated with the group Moms United for Black Lives Matter, speaks of revolution and reparations. She wants "reparations written into law…Teressa Raiford [write-in candidate who garnered 8 percent of the vote in May's mayoral primary] as mayor…defund the police" (Pedroja, Black Moms). When asked in another interview what kind of reparations she envisions, her response was expansive: "the justice system broken down…dismantled… Everyone makes enough money to survive, plus some. We’re having free everything: free education, free food, free clothes. Our country can do that" (Dave Miller, Portland Activist Demetria Hester). This is not a serious program.

The Portland protest has lost its way. A dwindling number of protesters, some largely peaceful, others not so much, only make a costly nuisance of themselves when they take to the streets day after day, night after night with amorphous demands that do not constitute a serious program to bring about political and social reform that is sorely needed and past due. The same kabuki theater plays out again and again as a few hundred people elected by no one attempt to impose their will on the city in the name of a community they appoint themselves to represent. It makes little difference whether they act from a misguided idealism or less lofty motives. They are not moving the conversation forward.

Editorial note: I want to take a moment to put to rest the nonsense coming from Trump, Barr, et al. The nightly disturbances in Portland take place in fairly discrete locations. Their numbers were dwindling until Trump sent in federal paramilitaries and they are dwindling again. The city is not under siege. People are not being paid and bused into the city to riot. This is for the most part the work of our own homegrown knuckleheads. For the majority of Portland residents wildfires raging to the east and south and the smoke they bring are a far more pressing concern.

References and related reading

Readers can get a feel for some of the more radical rhetoric out there at the Twitter feeds for PNW Youth Liberation Front and PopMob (Popular Mobilization).

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