Looking Up: 8 Reasons to Stop Moralizing About “Peaceful” Protest

Looking Up: 8 Reasons to Stop Moralizing About “Peaceful” Protest

On the 21st we saw some of the largest protests this country has ever seen. It was truly amazing, but of course the real work is yet to come. There are a huge number of people new to or renewed in being civically engaged and seeing the need to protest. (Yay! Welcome!)  

There’s also been an upsurge in the debate around acceptable tactics for protest, specifically along the scale of how legal or disruptive it is. I want to make a plea to everyone that we spend as little time as possible down that rabbit hole.

I’m not saying this because I think we shouldn’t question each other or debate strategy. Not at all. If you’re part of a group that is discussing what tactics to use in a specific instance, by all means, weigh in. There are strategic reasons for setting bounds on what is sanctioned by given organizations at given times, and there are messages or tactics that can be specifically harmful or exclusive in other ways and should be challenged.

But here’s why specifically theoretical conversations leading with, for example, “Ugh, no one should break windows/punch Nazis” or “We’re so great ’cause we were peaceful” are dangerous:

  1. State powers, authoritarian and otherwise, are more than happy to use provocateurs to discredit a movement. You will often not know from the outside whether a given action was carried out expressly to get you to denounce it or not. Better not to take the bait.
  1. By announcing that you are heavily concerned with keeping yourself untainted by “disruptive” tactics, you are handing the manipulators of the post-truth era the tools by which to divide the movement. If they know that purism is a prerequisite for your support, they only have to paint future actions as possibly disruptive and associate anti-fascism with broken windows to render the resistance confused, uncomfortable, and passive.
  1. Repressive forces will steadily redefine “violent protest” to include more and more things. Clearly they have already successfully redefined violence beyond hurting people to include property damage. There are now bills afoot in several states to include blocking traffic. Others want to redefine boycotting, or peaceful protest that might affect foot traffic to a business, as “economic terrorism.” By the time they come for your sanctioned march, which they will, you will need allies who are used to disobeying.
  1. This conversation is also a great tool for those who want to divide us by identifying “good protestors” as different from movements like Black Lives Matter, which, though peaceful in their activities, are nonetheless considered in some people’s heads to be responsible for spontaneous “civil unrest” like in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s murder. Don’t drive the wedge for them.
  1. It’s easy to moralize about being non-disruptive when you are privileged, used to being listened to, and the police are not trying to goad you into doing something arrest-worthy. If those same millions of people had put on BLM shirts and marched in every city to protest the state killings of unarmed people by police, it’s possible that the people in Baltimore might not have felt they needed to resort to some property damage to get people’s attention. Meanwhile, arresting middle-class white women wouldn’t play so well, so law enforcement is less likely to stir up trouble at marches with large numbers of them present. It’s a good thing to use that privilege in that way, but it doesn’t mean those march participants are morally superior.
  1. Spending time on this reinforces double standards on what’s worth getting worked up over, whether it’s the differing outcry between post–football game riots and uprisings in response to oppression, or between grown white cops beating teenage girls who would be charged with a felony if they defended themselves and a grown-up actual Nazi getting punched on camera. We need to practice not getting diverted by false equivalencies, now more than ever.
  1. Strategy policing can lead us down troubling paths—like when a privileged white person is so concerned about some tactics that they call the police on a fellow resistor, bringing state violence into the mix. Or, as actually happened to Cat Jones of Lark Street at Albany’s protest, when some participants are approached and interrogated (by random participants, not organizers) about their intentions and made to feel unwelcome merely for the clothes they were wearing.
  1. Every moment we debate about this (including this column, I admit) is a moment we are not talking about the swamp cabinet, repression of the press, people dying from lack of health insurance, the unraveling of our democracy, etc. This is especially crucial if you get a moment to talk to the press and they want you to comment on someone else’s protest tactics. Practice with me: “I don’t have a comment on that. I’m much more concerned about. . .” This moment is too important to waste.

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