Not surprisingly, the recent non-indictment of the police who killed Breonna Taylor provoked angry sometimes violent protests. This shows us once again how systemic racism works. It kills blacks and other people of color, as it has done for centuries, and then, when community members and their supporters express outrage, despair or aggressive grief, the protesters are the ones who are castigated for expressing their dissatisfaction in “improper” ways.
All this comes in the wake of months of unprecedented demonstrations against systemic racism. Yet, as the go-home-free verdict for Taylor’s killers shows, the mass movement’s work is far from done, since it hasn’t yet created the groundbreaking structural changes the country needs.
Hence, the following—a series of thoughts pertaining to the issue of what kind of revolutionary (as opposed to reform) consciousness is required to destabilize and remove white supremacy, in all its systemic forms, from the nation’s institutions.
Biden, the presidency and protests
Trump’s white supremacism and the anti-scientism of his responses to climate change and Covid-19 already have had catastrophic impacts on the nation. As have many of his other actions. It seems clear he should be replaced. But by what? I will examine here only one aspect of this complicated question—If Biden wins, what will happen to the protest movement against systemic racism?
On August 3rd, Joe Biden gave a speech in Pittsburgh in which he clarified, along with other points, an issue Democratic strategists were eager for him to speak on publicly—his take on the interconnection between peaceful demonstrations against systemic racism and the flare-ups of illegal acts (looting, arson, etc.) which sometimes accompany them.
In his Pittsburgh speech, the Democratic candidate announced the following, which he since has repeated in slightly reworded form many times:
I’m going to be very clear about all of this, rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.(Biden 2020)
Biden’s meaning is clear. He believes in peaceful protests but has no sympathy for violent ones. Furthermore, he wants those involved in illegal acts charged with crimes.
Many Democratic Party (DP) insiders greeted this statement with applause, since they didn’t want Biden pigeonholed by Pres. Trump’s accusation that their candidate had no respect for law and order.
Not only DP leaders but also many media outlets were pleased by Biden’s remarks. NBC, for instance, noted approvingly that Biden had gone on record as “strongly condemning a spate of recent violence in multiple U.S. cities.” (Edelman 2020)
Unfortunately, neither Democratic insiders nor the positive media reviews got it right analytically. Their cheers were ideological, not ethical. They believed Biden had strengthened his campaign by making the necessary practical move required to win—i.e., to state unequivocally that only orderly protests were acceptable and deviations from this rule would be met with appropriate police measures by a Biden presidency.
In pushing this philosophy, Biden and his applauders rejected as irrelevant the fact that Biden made no effort to place recent US protests against police brutality and systemic racism in historical context. Yet by not doing this and instead offering only anti-violence platitudes, Biden demeaned and distorted the very US history which he claimed to be protecting when he declared, without nuance, that when it comes to “rioters” breaking the law in Kenosha and Portland or anywhere else, “None of this is protesting.”
I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. I say this not because I think protesters should loot stores or set cop cars ablaze but because what Biden omitted from his statement defines the statement’s character more than what he included in it.
If alive today, Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Biden misleadingly quoted in his speech, would have similarly indicted Biden—for being overly judgmental and not examining the situation in all its complexity.
How do we know this? Because of King’s own testimony as he struggled with similar issues. Although a nonviolence advocate, King eventually concluded that the heart of the looting/rioting/violence matter resided in the fact that in a time of white supremacist anti-black violence, a riot on the part of the targeted “is the language of the unheard” (King 1967) and therefore must be approached as such—i.e., with respect and an attempt to understand.
King’s message was simple: One didn’t have to like this particular “language” but one nonetheless had to listen and learn from it, rather than reflexively condemn it, since in the end the oppression which foments rioting is more a bludgeoning of decency than the riots.
In the same speech, King made this abundantly clear directly after making his “unheard” statement.
And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.(Ibid.)
Unfortunately, Biden couldn’t bring himself to say anything this astute. Instead, he stuffed his few words about protest-related violence into a terse series of campaign phrases designed not to shed light on the US’s struggle with white supremacy, but merely to win campaign points by countering Trump.
Clearly, Biden doesn’t have it in him, or isn’t knowledgeable enough about the issue, to clarify that racial oppression is the culprit here, the ultimate systemic promoter of violence. Consequently, unlike King, he doesn’t realize that until systemic racism is defeated once and for all, public outbursts of violence such as looting and arson will continue. King may not have liked this, but he faced up to it, understood it and factored it into his analysis. Instead of showing this kind of grit, however, Biden strikes out.
His refusal to confront this dilemma head-on incarnates the formula for how to fight racism “diplomatically,” without being too “disruptive”— i.e., to go slowly, not rock the boat.
History is real, but first you have to find it
As with the George Floyd protests, political agitation and struggles for justice are never easy. They’re always complicated by interactions between multiple factors.
Given such complexity, the idea that protesters’ efforts (demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, boycotts, declarations of purpose, losses of temper, etc.) can be summarized accurately by platitudes and ad-speak rather than with analysis is ludicrous. Yet sometimes such triteness seems seductive. After all, such responses require so little thinking and therefore so little time. The easy answers are so easy.
In terms of the US love for easy answers, we need no further proof of this than our nation’s central myth: our fairytale of the American Revolution with its supposedly sacred Founding Fathers supported by throngs of liberty lovers. According to the story, all of these folks, Founders and throngs alike, were guided by the same perfectly working moral compass as they marched toward Democracy while singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in harmony.
So, since the American Revolution is the beginning point of our mythicized history, let’s look at a few of the protests during the two decades prior to that event and see how they compare to Biden’s definition of what divides “real” protests from lawlessness. Also, what do they reveal about the dissenters’ character and the divisions among them? Finally, what do they say about the evolution from reformist demands to revolution: seceding from Britain and becoming an independent nation in charge of the continent’s colonization?
One thing the colonies’ protests show is how untidy such dissenting actions can be. This was illustrated in the heated differences among colonists over how protests should be conducted. Some of the most robust of these arguments took place between the wealthy on one side and artisans, laborers, free blacks and other so-called low-class persons on the other. As historian Gary B. Nash has written, “For those in the lower echelons of colonial society, elementary political rights and social justice, rather than the protection of property” (Nash 2006, 94) were their primary political concerns.
This divide between rich and poor protesters unfolded prior to the revolution in tactical collisions between the two groups.
One tactic that unnerved wealthy colonists sprang from the outrage felt by colonial inhabitants against England’s practice of inflating costs for British-made products by forcing colonists to pay extra taxes on them. In retaliation, many colonial merchants united under the banner of a non-importation agreement––i.e., a collective refusal to buy British products or to sell England colonial goods. This agreement, however, soon became more complicated when members of the so-called rabble decided to police shopkeepers to ensure their fidelity to the accord. If they found one who’d wavered, a small band of rebels would break into the owner’s shop, then vandalize it as a warning that no slacking was allowed.
Even anti-British property owners disapproved of such behavior. They reasoned that if common folk were willing to destroy alleged traitors’ property, they also might turn someday on wealthy protesters. The affluent’s fear of this stemmed from the poor’s resentment of them for passing local laws which restricted wages, criminalized poverty, and banned unemployed persons in search of work from entering towns. (Quigley 1997, 114-115)
As tensions between pro-British Tories and more seditious colonists grew, rowdy insurgents patrolled their communities in search of spies suspected of informing officials about residents who operated smuggling rings in order to circumvent British duties. Although alleged spies were given a variety of possible punishments––e.g., stripped naked and paraded through the streets, tarred and feathered, thrashed by rebel gangs, etc.––one type made the “more refined” cringe. Rebels “painted” the outside of the suspected traitor’s house with a foul gunk made from a variety of stomach-turning ingredients including human body waste.
Another penalty imposed on monarchy loyalists was home invasions. One famous instance of this occurred in 1765 when protesters broke into the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, who was a known British sympathizer. The invasion was a spinoff of rioting earlier that night in the wake of England’s passage of the Stamp Act, which mandated that colonists use only printed materials published on special highly taxed paper manufactured in Britain and marked with a government stamp.
Hutchinson later described in a letter to a friend how a subgroup of the rioters “fell upon my house with the rage of devils, and in a moment with axes split down the doors and entered. (Hosmer 1896, 92)
Once inside, the protesters went on a wrecking spree. They knocked down all the interior walls, stole whatever they wanted, climbed to the roof and toppled the house’s cupola to the ground. At dawn, the rampagers finally fled. Not only was Hutchinson’s home in ruins but, he wrote, “The garden-house was laid flat, and all my trees, etc., broke to the ground.”(Ibid.)
Another form of protest entailed rebels’ destruction of symbols of British rule like coats-of-arms, effigies of loyalists, British patrol ships in search of smugglers, etc. An additional example of symbol demolition occurred in New York after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence five days following its signing. Subsequent to the reading, a mob, including colonial soldiers, toppled a lead statue of King George III, then smashed it to pieces. Later, the fragments were melted down to make bullets for use against the British in the unfolding war. (D’Costa 2017)
This act proclaimed that no matter what English law said they should do, they instead chose to ignore the law, destroy the old political system and take their destiny into their own hands.
Although there were certainly peaceful protesters during the pre-revolutionary period, I gave these examples of protesters’ excesses to make a simple, but important, point: the Biden statement quoted at this essay’s beginning isn’t merely wrong, it purposefully distorts our history. This falsified version of our past is a type of distemper vaccine designed to fog people’s brains, depower us. It’s what political insiders call upon when they want to stir our patriotism and convince us to adopt so-called traditional values. They’ve institutionalized this mirage history so we can’t find the lessons in our real history.
One such lesson is that there are sometimes good reasons for lawlessness. For instance, during the decades prior to the revolution, Britain’s relentless repression of the colonies without regard to how restrained many protesters were, created a combustible environment in which everything occurred at a higher fever-pitch than normal and consequently serious conflicts ensued.
But those conflicts weren’t only between the colonies and the British. They also included class conflicts within the growing numbers of those who supported independence. Additionally, there were what we might label the silent collisions between the very idea of freedom and its realization, collisions which most whites didn’t yet possess the courage, cultural introspection, goodness or intelligence to articulate—e.g., the need for full equality for African slaves and the indigenous.
All freedom and justice battles—whether the American revolution or the fight today for systemic change regarding racism—contain such volatile ingredients. Therefore, those who claim to support such revolutions and battles, but only if those movements adhere to strict rules of decorous behavior, are anti-change. They’re the kind of people who, after placing a pot of water on a stove turned to high, badmouth the water’s “violent propensities” if it boils.
This doesn’t mean we can’t keep our movement today as peaceful as possible—we can. However, we shouldn’t let Biden and others sucker us into forgetting Rev. King’s warning that no true racial peace will be achieved until systemic racism is permanently laid to rest. It’s not the protesters, but the attempt to repress them and the movement they’ve built, which sparks the violence.