I have to admit: When I heard that a group of anarchists called the Black Bloc had sent “150 masked agitators” to an otherwise peaceful protest in order to disrupt a planned speech at UC-Berkeley by alt-right shithead Milo Yiannopoulos, and that they’d succeeded in scaring the hell out of everyone and shutting the whole event down, I felt a visceral satisfaction. It was the same satisfaction I felt watching the media’s favorite dapper Nazi, Richard Spencer, take a punch in the face. Yes, I thought, fuck you. It was, in the moment of witnessing, a triumph. The deluge of gloating memes that followed proved I wasn’t alone.
The reaction makes sense—for so long, “liberals” in America have been a party of capitulation and compromise, and have been bullied to irrelevance by conservatives who are morally repugnant but possess actual balls. Now Republicans control basically everything, and the president is a puppet of Steve Bannon, a man who amplifies white nationalism with every executive order. Meanwhile, as we rage at the latest evil screed coming from the White House, congressional Republicans are reveling in the chance to eliminate social safety nets, environmental protections, and anything else that a person with empathy would want to protect, all while driving income and wealth inequality to delirious new heights. And our only allies in power, the Democrats, are so unbelievably craven that they spend their days agonizing over whether Ben Carson is qualified to lead HUD (nope!) rather than mounting even a token opposition.
The situation on the ground, for leftists, is ugly. We are utterly powerless, the opposition has the worst possible intentions, and nobody has our backs. History shows us that real change starts at the bottom, with a mass movement of people, but it’s a hard lesson to learn for Americans who have long lived with a mindset of modification—the belief that little tweaks can fix our problems, rather than total upheaval. But the new order ushered in by Trump has left us in shock, shattered our foundations, and made us feel the true extent of our impotence. So when someone strikes back violently, some of us—myself included—will experience that invigorating frisson that comes with vengeance, with seeing the other side hurt. I’ll be completely honest—even when I read about the woman in the MAGA hat being maced, I wasn’t able to muster much outrage. She supports a governing philosophy that will lead to the suffering and death of thousands, if not more, and the violence and cruelty of that philosophy seems to know no bounds. Who gives a shit if she takes some mace in her eyes? I thought. It’s no more than she deserves. This act, which would have shocked me a year ago, no longer registers in my gut as something abhorrent.
What’s actually abhorrent is this lack of reaction—this loss of empathy, this rage, this desire for brutal comeuppance for the opposition. I have never felt this way before. I have never—even in the dark days of George W. Bush—hated half of America, been scared of half of America, felt like we were at war with half of America. I understand the Black Bloc. I understand those who cheer what they’re doing. I understand the bile in all our hearts.
And what I also understand, after the thrill wears off, is that my feeling is poisonous. Just as the violence is poisonous. And it will consume us.
Look, I could channel my inner Aaron Sorkin (I haven’t been able to murder it yet) and wax poetic about how we’re all Americans, political differences be damned, and that ultimately, despite our differing beliefs, we all want what’s best for the greatest damned country in the world. I won’t do that—I think the Republican congress and the current executive branch are filled with heartless vipers, and I honestly can’t understand the mindset of people who would destroy our planet and pursue the immiseration of any citizen, domestic or foreign, who isn’t rich. I want them out of office. I have no desire to reach “common ground” with them, because the reality of American politics today is that our polarization is so complete that common ground is impossible. The sooner we accept that, the quicker we’ll cast off the delusion of compromise. In brief, fuck unity.
That being said, succumbing to the impulse for violence, either passively or actively, will absolutely destroy us. For one thing, it means sacrificing an ideal that separates us from them. We are committed to alleviating suffering, and though there are historical situations where violence was necessary in order to end a greater suffering, we are not there. At our precise moment, massive protests are unbelievably powerful, and violent protests will undermine them. You know that phrase, “holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die”? That applies here. We have to resist with a dream of the future in our hearts, not a vision of destruction.
There’s another angle here, too. If you were Steve Bannon, and you wanted to justify a transition to total authoritarianism, what opportunities would you be looking for? If you were a Republican in a state house, and you wanted popular support for a bill that criminalized protesting (such bills are already in circulation), how would you get the people on your side? The answer is obvious: When organized protest presents a danger to the American people, a counter-action becomes necessary, and stifling dissent no longer seems so outrageous. It’s possible that Bannon and Trump could encourage the formation of citizen patrols to oppose leftist protesters, and that this organization could slowly integrate with law enforcement until America had its own version of the brownshirts. But it’s far more likely that retribution and domination would come from our militarized police force, who have already shown what they’re capable of when given free reign.
Pardon the Obama verbal tic, but let me be perfectly clear: The violence the Black Bloc can muster will pale to the crackback that comes from the state. They won’t be lighting garbage cans on fire or hurling molotov cocktails—they’ll be doing real damage. And the only thing preventing that action right now is that it would look particularly brutal coming from our government. At the moment. But each time a group like the Black Bloc undermines a peaceful protest with violence, the large portion of our country that would be totally fine with cops beating the shit out of the demonstrators—even killing them—grows larger. Fox News will amplify the story, moderates will be disgusted, and little by little, the threshold of acceptable retaliation from the state will grow. And once that counter-violence becomes normalized, the act of protesting will be too dangerous to undertake unless we accept the ultimate consequence. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be able to protest at the airport, or have my wife march on Washington, without being shot.
This, by the way, is why certain governments run false flag operations. The Reichstag Fire is the famous historical example—many historians believe that the Nazis staged a communist arson attack on the German parliament building in order to justify the destruction of their enemies. That happened in 1933, and it wasn’t long before their control of Germany, and much of Europe, was absolute. A dictator only needs a sliver of daylight in order to snuff out a tradition of democracy.
The Black Bloc may believe that they are perpetrating necessary violence, but—assuming they themselves aren’t a false flag—all they’re really doing is giving Bannon the first excuse he needs to tighten the noose of totalitarianism around the necks of the American public. And if you believe he doesn’t see that opportunity, and won’t take it, you haven’t been paying attention. When he finally acts, the Black Bloc—and all other groups like them—will understand just what they’ve invoked. And it will be ugly, and horrible, and scary.
So if you don’t subscribe to the idea that violence itself is an idea that must be avoided for our health and the health of democracy, consider the warning: You are playing into Bannon’s hands. Nonviolent action is what moves people, and exposes the hatred and brutality of those we’re opposing. Our strength will come from passionate, outspoken, peaceful opposition. Our destruction will come from failing to maintain those qualities that distinguish us from our enemy.