A Widespread Misunderstanding of Protest

What does it mean to protest the government?

Our understanding of protest has been skewed by many years of peace, and by a sanitized and romanticized nostalgia for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, popularized by both media and the government. When most people think of protest they think of peaceful protest, and when they think of peaceful protest they think of something like a march or a rally, a gathering that is most likely planned beforehand, permitted, and subject to restrictions by the police to make it as safe and non-disruptive as possible. While there’s nothing wrong with peaceful and well-regulated gatherings it’s naive, ahistorical, and ultimately dangerous, to see them as the only legitimate form of protest against injustice.

Injustice naturally engenders anger in those being treated unjustly, and human anger has within it the potential to be vented through violence. On a purely gut level, we all understand this: It’s why we take a step back if someone is screaming in our faces. The most natural form a group of angry people takes is a mob.

Nonviolent protest in the modern world comes to us through Ghandi, and the successful resistance to British colonial rule in India. In America, the inheritor of Ghandi’s nonviolence was Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black clergy who were leaders of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Our most iconic images of that movement are from the March on Washington, which perhaps explains why we conflate protest with nonviolent protest and nonviolent protest with large peaceful gatherings like that one.

However, history is replete with examples of violent protest against injustice. The American Revolution, for example, is a successful violent protest that we should all have more than a passing familiarity with. The Civil Rights Movement as well had moments of great violence, race riots that made white American’s intensely angry and fearful. The nonviolent protests of that era were an alternative and an imperfectly realized ideal. Their success was due in part to the fear of violence that was constantly in the background, and in part because brave nonviolent protesters put their bodies on the line, intentionally drawing a disproportionate and violent response from white authorities that shocked the conscience. If fact, it would be more accurate to call these protests “nonviolent on the part of the protesters” since violence directed toward the protesters was constant, brutal, and essential to their strategy for winning moderate whites over.

Ultimately, I do not believe in rioting, or in “Nazi punching.” I do believe in breaking unjust laws, and sometimes even in well-planned acts of vandalism, property damage, or sabotage, depending on the seriousness of the cause and the specificity of the action. However, I worry that  many years of peace has caused us to conflate protest with nonviolent protest and nonviolent protest with rallies. A rally alone will never be enough to effect change, because at the end of the day everyone goes home and there’s no actual pressure on those in power to listen.

If we don’t understand the potential for violence to break out among people who are being treated unjustly, or if we act as though any act of violence instantly de-legitimizes any potential grievances on the part of the protesters, it just makes violence all the more likely as the pressure builds without release. I personally believe that nonviolent methods are both more morally justifiable and more effective as a means of making change, but I also know they’re not a particularly easy or natural outlet.  If a culture wants to encourage them, it’s not enough to whitewash and romanticize past protest movements, we have to keep in mind the human capacity for violence. We have to recognize and respond to nonviolent measures, praise those who engage in them and give them a platform, and search for solutions to their grievances before violence breaks out, not afterwards.

What Do We Know: Trump’s Rise

This will be an ongoing series, trying to tease out facts we can rely on from a morass of opinion, suspicion, and outright falsehood.

We know that in the primaries Donald Trump made sexist and racist comments, mocked a disabled reporter, said false and prejudicial things about a major religion, and made suspicion of legal and illegal immigrants a key plank in his platform. This was unlike the statements of any politician in recent memory, and brought sexism, racism, etc into the political mainstream in a way those of us in our 20s and 30s had never seen before. We also know that this rhetoric was rejected by many Americans, but greeted by some of his supporters as a refreshing lack of a filter and a rejection of oppressive political correctness, and by others of his supporters as a chance for white nationalist groups to gain newfound political influence.

How do we know this? We heard his words with our own ears (some of which I’ve linked to above), as well as the words of his opponents and supporters, including those who were members of white nationalist groups such as the KKK. Our memories tell us that this is a change from previous politicians, who were careful not to say openly racist, sexist, or prejudiced things, or who apologized when they said something that was construed that way.

We know that Donald Trump believes in torture, which is illegal according to the Geneva Conventions, that he’s expressed an openness to using nuclear weapons, and more recently in sending “the feds” into a major American city. We also know that he has spoken admiringly of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. This knowledge supports a belief that he is an authoritarian who respects strength to the extent that he might not agree with (or even understand) the constitutional limitations on presidential power in America, or the consequences that the use of torture or nuclear weapons might have on American soldiers or the safety of the American homeland.

We know that Trump has visited Russia, but at present we do not know what sort of ties, if any, Trump has to Russia, or if Russia has some sort of leverage against Trump. On that we have only rumors, suspicions, and innuendo. In fact, the evidence for Trump’s Russia connections at this time resembles the “evidence” for weapons of mass destruction that was amassed in the lead up to the war in Iraq, which subsequently turned out not to have such weapons. The case for Russian hacking and subsequent dissemination of material harmful to Hillary Clinton in the election is stronger, but I’m still hesitant to put it in the category of something we know for certain. This is my skepticism at work—I haven’t personally seen the proof of Russian hacking and do not have the technical expertise to evaluate it if I’d seen it.

To summarize: I know that Donald Trump has brought racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant sentiments into the political mainstream. I believe he has an authoritarian temperament and lacks respect for (or understanding of) the US constitution, based on the evidence in his own statements. Some people suspect (but I do not know) that he has unusual support from/connection to Russia for an American president. We can argue about whether these are good things, bad things, or irrelevant things, but I believe we can agree on them.

A caveat: Philosophically speaking, all of these things are in some sense unknowable. We’re just doing our best here. If you’d like to dispute my facts or their interpretations, leave me a comment.