The looters, arsonists, rioters and vandals, like those in the Youth Liberation Front [Seattle Times, “Meet the young ‘Front’ behind a marathon of Portland protests” front page, July 12, 2020], antifa, boogaloos, ENDD and other militant groups have inserted themselves into recent protests. Their violent and destructive tactics have dominated the news. They have hijacked worthy movements and are traitors to the cause. Fire-bombing, smashing windows and throwing rocks and bricks at the police are not legitimate methods of protest. They are not first amendment protected free speech. Protesters who damage property and attack police pollute the message of legitimate protesters. They deny protesters their first amendment rights to be heard and they also, therefore, forfeit their own First Amendment right to assemble for the redress of grievances — because that clause of the Constitution clearly and specifically confers the right to “peaceably assemble.”
Their manifest anger over the inequality, unairness and injustice of the political/economic system may cause their belligerence but it doesn’t excuse it or justify it. These tactics are not likely to — and indeed are not intended to — accomplish any particular positive gain for their cause, whatever it is. They have no articulated political ideology or sophisticated public policy agenda; if they do, it is not being communicated by their antics. Their frustration, anger, outrage and evident hatred is not aimed at communicating or accomplishing any policy goal; it is instead retribution — just an emotional, mindless angry outburst in retaliation for being treated unfairly or unjustly by our political/economic system. But retaliation is not the communication of ideas or reason. It only invites a retaliatory response. These tactics hurt the cause of Black Lives Matter and of any other meaningful policy that protesters might advocate.
Worse yet, they are playing into the hands of those they oppose, instilling public resentment against themselves, their tactics and their beliefs. They are pumping new life into the faltering re-election prospects of Donald Trump. Scenes of fires, smashed storefronts, defaced public buildings and monuments play into his small hands. They are fodder for Republican talking points, sensational film clips and sound bites. These highly visible fringe groups are turning most Americans further away from their hopeless anti-capitalist fantasy or whatever point they’re trying to make.
I’m always dismayed at how protests attract small renegade and vigilante elements, just looking for a fight and how difficult it is to keep them away, no matter how few they are. Trump calls them a “mob” but their numbers do not justify that description. Yet there they are, taking up all of the news coverage and ruining the protest party, getting all the undeserved attention, apparently without deserved blame. I guess it is just a mostly unavoidable phenomenon. It is fascinating to speculate that the militants are really Republicans in disguise or right-wing provocateurs. There is no clear evidence that they are all or mostly far-left radicals, as Trump alleges. The evidence is that about 70% of those arrested for unlawful conduct at protests came from other places outside where the protests took place. I’m waiting to see more evidence.
This is not to say that the police are blameless. Far from it. Every time they confront, block, reroute or attempt to herd peaceful protesters they are interfering with the First Amendment rights of the protesters. Nevertheless, rock throwers and arsonists give the police an excuse, a justification, for using nightsticks, tear gas and flash bangs.
All the while police violence and over-reaction has cost them greatly in public image and in their budget. According to Merrick Bobb, to court-appointed monitor of the SPD under a Justice Dept consent decree, the police response to this summer’s racial justice protests in Seattle has left “many observers disappointed and crestfallen, if not disturbed profoundly by what looked like multiple instances of excessive force.” People are not going to put up with that either. So the police are now faced with a huge public image problem and outcry for defunding by 50% or greatly reducing their budget. Look what police excesses have got them. Police obstruction of peaceful protesters is the other side of the First Amendment coin – a clear violation of constitutional rights of the protesters to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances. Whether it’s the city or local police or armed federal forces or vigilantes, their excesses will cost them in the public mind.
Even in our imperfect democracy, reform movements can only achieve their goals by gaining public support. Public support is ultimately what it is all about. Protesters, I don’t think, are out there just to make themselves feel good. They are seeking public attention but it’s the wrong kind when things turn violent. Public support is indispensable for achieving public policy goals. Except for full-scale military revolutions or a civil war — which is a wacky delusion of the Cliven Bundys and Tim McVeys of American right-wing lunatic fringe and the equally delusional left-wing antifa faction — there is no place for throwing projectiles, burning buildings, brandishing guns or violence of any kind in political expression. So, (thankfully) the revolution these wannabe revolutionaries fantasize over is not going to happen no matter how many stores are ransacked and police stations are firebombed
It is hard to think of a violent movement that succeeded. Protest marches that have been successful, such as the freedom marches in Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern States and the famous March on Washington were totally non-violent. Non-violence won. The losers ultimately were the police with their Billy clubs; they were the violent ones. So violence lost. Violence and retaliation loses every time. As proof of that you need look no further than Portland Oregon where demonstrations, often punctuated with violence, have been going on for weeks and have accomplished nothing in terms of public policy or public acceptance. As a matter of fact, polls show that the black lives movement support has diminished in recent weeks.
Is the main goal of protest movements to change minds or to change laws? For the violent protesters it seems to be neither. For the rational and peaceful protesters the goal must be to change laws because we will never change all minds, but laws govern the conduct of everyone. Changing the rules applies to all, including the unpersuaded. If we don’t change laws nothing will change. To change laws you have to change lawmakers. It is often said that it is impossible to legislate morality. But we can legislate conduct and as conduct changes morality follows. When laws are changed ultimately and in the long run minds are changed. Laws are not changed and minds are not changed by violence. Policy change in a constitutional democracy is not decided by force; it is decided exclusively by the people we elect — and no one gets elected without public support. Like it or not that’s the way things work in a constitutional democracy.
So protest activities that are conspicuously violent instill public resentment, are largely unpopular and counterproductive. These young misguided protesters should wake up to reality and try to gain public support by words, not rocks and bottles, by public discourse, reason, argument and participation within the system of elected representative government as it is. If that system is not democratic enough, if it needs to be changed to protect the rights or the causes of protesters and to make the system more fair, equal and democratic that will occur at the ballot box, not in the streets. Have any of these firebrands ever run for office? I don’t think so. I think they’re the ones who vandalized the junior high school when they were kids. Democracy is not their thing. Thankfully, they mostly will get over all that stuff as they get older and probably wind up selling insurance.
In the meantime, protests continue unproductively, increasingly taken over by angry warring factions — spiraling downward into lethal depths and spoiling opportunities for reason, debate and democratic change.