A People Ignored: The Future of Protest in America

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A People Ignored: The Future of Protest in America

On the day after the inauguration, there were two hundred marches against Trump in the United States and more than three and a half million people walking in them. Jia Tolentino, writing for The New Yorker, gave a wonderful description of the protest and her outlook in the aftermath:

The radical possibility of the Women’s March, the hope that hasn’t been squashed, is a broad alignment of straight, middle-class white women with all the people who were glad to stand beside them and march: the black and queer and disabled women, the minimum-wage workers and undocumented immigrants, all the people whose rights to self-determination are constantly under threat. The crowds on Saturday were so enormous, so radiant with love and dissent, that this larger coming together seemed possible. As Trump’s Administration proves itself unkind to all but the wealthy, perhaps there is a coalition ready to speak their hearts, to listen, to welcome anyone in.

The Women’s March’s organizers are already laying out a plan to tackle Trump’s First 100 Days. Other protests have popped up in the days since Trump’s inauguration. Thanks to his vile Muslim Ban, outraged citizens gathered at airports across the country and in marches in various cities, such as in New York City’s Battery Park. It’s a clear sign the protests won’t let up. What shape these protests take over the coming months, assuming Trump lasts that long, will reveal a lot about the state of America.

The day before the Women’s March, protesters in Washington, D.C. and other cities took to the streets during Trump’s inauguration. These protests were a little angrier than the others previously mentioned. A couple protesters broke a window at a Starbucks and others set a limo on fire. One of those protesters even punched Richard Spencer, the head of the Alt-Right movement and a man whose rhetoric very closely resembles that of a Nazi’s (he claims he is not a Neo-Nazi, but you can be the judge ), in the head. It’s become a meme since then.

These events became, predictably, a lightning rod for those who wanted to criticize the protests. During the protests, reporters rushed to take pictures of a trashcan set on fire, as if it was a dead body. The New York Times ran a piece noting the debate over whether punching a Nazi is acceptable behavior.  The fact the protests in Washington were almost entirely non-violent did not matter; every small act of destruction was recorded as if it was representative of the whole day.

After the coverage of the protests during Trump’s inauguration, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted her displeasure, going so far as to claim that violent protests were “unAmerican.”

This is so clearly false you have to laugh. The United States came about thanks to a violent revolution involving tarring and feathering the opposition. It’s ridiculous to frame what occurred as if it was some violent uproar. Even those who only know the smallest bit of history should be familiar with what a violent protest actually looks like. Here’s a hint: there’s usually a lot more property damage and injuries.

Still, it’s clear what McCaskill’s real concern is: protests in the future containing a lot more violence. She is worried a burnt limo and broken window could open the door to havoc. This matches the usual thought put forward by the media: violent protests are ineffective. A brief look at history shows us this is not true. In some cases, they are very effective; in other cases, they end up hurting the cause. Whether they are moral is a completely different argument, but that they are always ineffective is a falsehood gaining more and more currency.

No protest is truly peaceful. While not all protests are violent, they are, by their nature, disruptive. The Women’s March in New York City packed the subway stations, shut down some stores near Trump Tower, and blocked traffic. It is a necessity for any protest to cause disruptions if they are to be successful. If a protest disrupts nothing, then it is not very useful because it can be ignored by all. While winning people over can be a goal of protests, a protest does not need to do this to be effective. They merely need to create enough of a ruckus so those in power cannot ignore them. The more protests are ignored, the more likely it is future protests will become violent.

Take the case of Northern Ireland: Irish Catholics, after being treated as second class citizens, became more violent in their opposition to the ruling parties, the military, and England. This does not excuse the Irish Republican Army’s more heinous actions, such as the deplorable human bomb incident, but the formation of a group such as the IRA should not be surprising when a large percentage of the population is consistently oppressed. With that in mind, it should not seem unlikely a violent protest could occur in America.

Trump has promised to end Obamacare, give more power to the police, and prevent entry for Muslims from certain countries into the US. The GOP Congress wants to overhaul Social Security and Medicare in a way that will rob the poor of what little social safety they currently have. Right now, there is a class in America that will have little to no access to health care and little to no access to assistance in retirement years. Not to mention, marginalized and oppressed ethnic and racial groups, often gunned down with impunity for the police, are now being told these same law enforcement officers will be granted even more power. You have to ask yourself: how could people expect anything other than angry protests down the line? These policies put out by Trump and the GOP will not just harm people; they will kill people. It should not come as unexpected affected people might lash out. Another broken Starbucks window could be a best case scenario before long.

Whether violent protests work is another matter. They can be understandable but counterproductive. To return to the example of the IRA (or a segment of it, in some cases), their bombings resulting in civilian casualties would often backfire. The human bomb incident, wherein the IRA forced a man to drive a car bomb into a British military base and blow himself up lest he see his own family killed, was decried by many longtime supporters of Irish independence, such as Father Edward Daly. The effect of this violent reply to oppression was not in favor of the oppressed and set back the peace process.

But the IRA’s attacks on British soldiers, especially ones who had violently oppressed the Irish Catholics, did cause England and eventually America to take notice. Incidents against the military could be viewed as a war with the IRA on one side and the English soldiers on the other. It is difficult to imagine England would have come to the table for the Good Friday Agreement without some of the IRA’s protests and actions; at the same time, it is also difficult to imagine how vile oversteps like the human bomb incident did not put the eventual agreement in peril. Violent political actions are not always the answer, and in some cases can be quite detrimental, but they have achieved very significant political aims in the past.

This does not mean Americans need to follow in the footsteps of the IRA. What it does mean is that the discussion about protests needs to be refined. If one wants to prevent violent protests, making ahistorical claims is not the way to do it. Arguing a moral position might be more effective. Saying “violence could make change, but it’s not worth it” can win someone over more than lying about history. However, many who claim to be against violent protests seem to only blame the protesters. This ignores the exacerbation of violence by America’s police state.

Right now, Republicans in several states have put forward legislation allowing for harm to come to protesters or for the criminalization of protests themselves. This legislation being put forward shows that, to those in power, whether the protest is peaceful does not matter: all protest is bad in their eyes. Not only are these pieces of legislation morally abhorrent and against the First Amendment, they also assure future protests will be more violent because the protesters will already know the state is out to crush them. If you know the state is out to crush you then why not lash out? The results will be the same whether the protest is peaceful or not.

A perfect example of the state trying to intimidate protesters can be found in the recent overreach by of Washington, D.C. police. The charges against the reporters were later dropped, but the fact they were brought up at all sends a chilling message. If the police are going to throw reporters to the ground, pepper spray at will, and arrest anyone they can get their hands on, then there is going to be a large group of people who will say, “In that case, what do I have to lose by going all out? I’m going to be beaten anyway.”

A look back at some of the clashes between black Americans and the police in the late ‘60s and ‘70s shows just how easily the police’s response can escalate a situation. Things like the Newark riots came about because the police immediately went on the offensive, not fearing retribution for beating and, in some cases, killing black protesters. Rick Pearlstein’s Nixonland does an excellent job of explaining the atmosphere around the riots and just how off-the-leash the police and National Guard were when it came to ending the riots.

Let’s hope the protests in America remain like they have. Minor property damage and nonviolence will indicate the Republican Party listened to the people in the Women’s March, the protesters against Trump’s Muslim ban. It would mean those who do not want the safety net removed, who do not want Planned Parenthood shut down, who do not want refugees banned from America, and who do not want more wars were heard.

If things become violent, if there is massive property damage or, even worse, injuries and death, it means Americans feel they have no voice in their own government since the government did not take the nonviolent protests seriously. It means the average American is still seeing the overwhelming results of capitalism run amok. It means non-white Americans are being oppressed by the police. It means women are having their reproductive rights trampled on. It means America closed its doors on the victims of its imperialist foreign policy. It means Americans have lost hope in their future.

An angry protest is not a tragedy because a window got broken; it is a tragedy because it means America has fallen so far its citizens believe resorting to violence is the only way to get their government’s attention. The blame for that rests with the ruling class. In this case, that would be Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.