In the wake of the Chicago Trump rally shutdown and the traffic stoppage protest in Arizona, I’ve been hearing a lot about civil disobedience and protest. I also heard the opinions of the people around me at the St. Louis Trump rally, including the woman sitting next to me who kept indignantly asking why the protesters who disrupted the rally didn’t have to “follow the rules” like the rest of us – but this question was being asked as protesters were being hauled out of the venue by police. I’ve heard that protesters are rude, disrespectful, that they’re depriving Trump of his free speech – yesterday I even saw protesters referred to as “fascist storm troopers”. So I’m joining this conversation with a few thoughts of my own. I’ll preface them by saying that I am committed to non-violence – not only physical non-violence, but non-violence in speech – even in political protest. “Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
Note: This is a lightly edited version of thoughts I first posted on Facebook.
1. We are the political heirs of insurrectionists. Long before we had declared our independence (itself an illegal act), there were violent protests against British soldiers in the colonies. Those soldiers weren’t the occupying force of foreign invaders: they were the agents of “our” lawful government. They experienced regular verbal and physical harassment, but I’ve yet to read an American history curriculum that treated those protesters as agitators, law breakers or violent thugs. We esteem and honor them. Perhaps the willingness to defy authority is part of what makes us Americans. Perhaps it’s written into our DNA as a people. Perhaps every act of protest and civil disobedience that has ever taken place in the United States is tied to our birth in a violent revolution.
2. Most people who commit acts of civil disobedience as a form of protest are prepared to face the legal consequences. They are prepared to be removed from Trump rallies by security or law enforcement, for instance. They know that they may even be arrested, depending on what transpires. The law does not, however, give anyone the right to assault those protesters – and when they’re assaulted they are victims of a crime. A rally attendee who punches or kicks a protester is no less in violation of the law than someone who is trespassing on private property. That seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ve seen it directly contradicted this week.
3. I believe walking on the American flag is a terrible thing to do, even though I recognize the law that protects free speech in such cases. I think it’s a terrible thing to do not because I revere the flag (I don’t), but because I have empathy for those who do. There are, after all, things I revere – most notably the cross – and I know how it feels to see the cross desecrated by the KKK, for instance. That same empathy extends to Muslims when they see their Quran desecrated. Remember Abu Ghraib? I understand the outrage over the flag, I just don’t think it should be selective.
4. There was a time when absolute non-violence was a strategy in the Civil Rights movement, and protesters were trained to meet resistance with “Soul Force”. I often hear people waxing nostalgic for the days when protesters knew how to behave in “respectable” ways. We forget that those protesters – including Dr. King, so often quoted on the Right these days – were labeled agitators, criminals, Communists. We forget that their non-violence was answered with dogs, fire hoses, beatings, bombings, and assassination. Those are the good old days that Trump hearkens back to when he wishes protesters could be “carried out on stretchers” and “would never come back”.
5. Many politicians present a false front: I’m as cynical about that as anyone. The dignified, respectable face often conceals a terrible character. But Trump hasn’t even bothered to pretend. We know what we’re getting with him, and his supporters do not have plausible deniability. For months, years even, Trump has been telling us what he really thinks: that blacks are lazy, that Jews should be counting his money, that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that Muslims hate America, that members of the press are disgusting, and that women are just pieces of a**. He’s advocated torture and the targeted assassination of the families of terror suspects. And as Trump has rejected our national ideals; as he’s demeaned, degraded and threatened huge swaths of the people who live in this country; respectable people responded by saying, “He’s just telling it like it is.” “He’s saying what everyone else is afraid to say.” “He’s got some good ideas.” Is it any wonder, you who have defended Trump while he has attacked your fellow Americans, that those protesters may now see you as the enemy? That they do not trust your motives in backing Trump? We’ve been sowing the wind in letting Trump’s campaign get this far. Now we may see what it looks like to reap the whirlwind.
6. I am, I suppose, a respectable person. I might wave a sign about loving your neighbor, but I won’t be blocking traffic or shouting profanities at Trump supporters. But what of it? I’m still complicit. I enjoyed the early days of Trump’s candidacy. I laughed at his outrageous statements, ignoring the poison they were tapping into. Some of us have relished sticking it to the establishment GOP, others of us are so consumed with contempt for Trump’s opponents that we can’t recognize the qualitative difference between disagreeing on policy and disagreeing on the humanity of people you may be elected to serve. Now we look at the people who are made most vulnerable by what Trump is peddling, and we ask with consternation, “Why are they so angry? Why can’t they just behave?”