Saturday, August 1, 2020

Social Unity, Insurrection and Non-Violence

by Don Eichelberger

The nation has laid to rest civil rights icon John Lewis, and I cast about for what can unify the angry rift in the world. It is strongest between people who either love Trump or hate him; the one unifying message seems to be “disaffection with America-as-it-is”.  But there is no unity on the reasons for the disaffection, let alone how to fix them.

What started as localized protests in the name of Black Lives Matter against police for the brutal killings of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Amaud Arbery and others became a national protest movement against institutional racism evidenced not only by regular killings of black, often unarmed men by cops and white people, but also by Covid19’s disproportional impact on minority communities. 

Then, as sometimes armed white supremacists waving confederate flags protested the coronavirus shutdown and need to wear masks around the country, the symbols of white supremacy came under attack. Monuments to slave owners, Indian killers and leaders who led the fight against the United States for the Confederacy were attacked and taken down, and the Confederate flag was barred by NASCAR.

Donald Trump and his core rose to protect these monuments to America’s racist past, so what started as protests for black justice has evolved in to—some would say been taken over by — a more general protest against the government, and Trump specifically. If and to what extent BLM concerns lose focus will become known after the next (inevitable) killing of a person of color by police.

Meanwhile, the largely white battle lines being drawn seems to unite the Trump lovers and haters protesting either Deep State lackeys or Wall Street oligarchs, depending on your view. So the question becomes, is government an entrenched, corrupt Deep State stealing our taxes to create a communist welfare state that takes away our competitiveness and creates an administrative bureaucracy to stifle entrepreneurship with environmental and economic regulation? Or is it the puppet of oligarchic interests to keep labor costs down, stock markets and war profits high, support predatory Capitalism and cut taxes on the rich while gutting social support programs?

We can have our differences.

Citizenship is taking a hard hit as we try to come to terms with what America really stands for and what it is to respect the National Anthem. My mom came to this country in the late 1920’s as a child from Lithuania. She said she learned from American movies she saw in Vilnius that America had endless possibilities where everybody gets rich. She was shaken when the Depression showed her there are poor people in America, too. But she would still stand and put her hand over her heart when the Anthem played, even on TV before a ball game. If we look we see many non-citizens who love America’s promise. They send their children to school and work hard for a better life. They really are “the invisible hand of the marketplace”.  Sometimes they send money to help relatives back where they came from.

Natural born citizens populating Trump rallies cheer with anger at Mexican rapists, Kaepernick and anthem kneelers, anti-Fascists, anarchists, stone-crazy protesters, Chinese “Kung Flu”, fake news media and Barack Obama. Recent rallies were held at the site of a historical black massacre on the practically sacred Juneteenth Holiday, and soon after at a granite cliff defaced with the images of colonial conquerors of the original native owners of the defaced rocks on the day celebrating the founding of the invader country. Neither venues nor timing showed a great deal of racial sensitivity. The coincidence is stark.

Citizen protesters are tiring, and media is tiring of citizen protest, at least until the next horrific, inevitable killing happens. But as protests become insurrection against Trump’s strong arm tactics, a new level of chaos is emerging as a population restless from the weeks of shutdown acts out.

Armed paramilitaries patrol and set up barricades in the streets; illegal fireworks are shot at federal troops brought in by Donald Trump to “dominate the streets” against protesters. Feds escalate by shooting back tear gas and rubber bullets in shows of force. Emergency vehicles are blockaded; people protest having to wear face masks and social distancing; community shootings increase, with children dying. Protests are everywhere with no unifying voice or seeming goal; just the kind of chaos Steve Bannon has worked for.

As we slide from civil protest to civil insurrection, we need to keep in mind the opening this leaves for “strong men” of every stripe to take over and derail real “revolutionary” change through force and intimidation; those things that non-violence sprang from the heart of Gandhi to confront. Change obviously needs to come; it has been needed for a long time. Trump didn’t start all this, but he was definitely the water dropped in burning grease. But we can’t beat Trump by trying to be Trump.

John Lewis had fought this fight for over 50 years, but knew it was not over. He reminded us of the power of bold citizenship acting with non-violence against injustices. The fuse has been lit and the new generation is blowing up. How do we guide that charge so it takes down only the bad while preserving the good?

Anyone who has taken part in and organized non-violent protests knows the threat of violence flaring is always there. Causes are many: some people may react badly in the stress and chaos that can suddenly erupt, especially dealing with such iconic causes as Justice, Freedom and Democracy. Some on all sides my have legitimate strong emotions around control and dominance and governmental authority. Some small faction, like the Boogaloos etc. may be there to use the cover of protest to press for open warfare. And there is always the threat of provocateurs from the other side trying to agitate what a long-time activist friend calls “that little boy energy” so often prevalent at demonstrations to provoke confrontive acts that challenge authority and discredit or draw away from the purpose of the demonstration.

Non-violent protests can be organized or spontaneous. Organized protests such as labor, civil rights, peace and anti-nuclear make sure to have people in the crowd who have taken special non-violence training to spot potential problems and intercede in a nonviolent way to head them off. With more spontaneous demonstrations as we have seen with the uprising since George Floyd was murdered, some of those people may be there who have taken nonviolence or monitor training, but they will mostly be acting as individuals and not as a cohesive conscious effort. The thing driving the nonviolence is individual commitment to the cause and their ability to remain calm. This can vary widely, especially in the face of shows of force egged on by a president who acts like he’s at a Pit Bull fight.

Anger seems to be the default emotion in our time, so it gets harder for some to maintain control. It is a sad commentary on how mainstream media concentrates on violent acts to build ratings without also showing the efforts being made among protesters to stop them. The camera seems to consistently turn away just as someone confronts the guy dressed in black breaking windows or someone trying to talk down an agitator.

John Lewis’ passing at this crucial moment in American history should teach us that willingness to die for a cause but not kill for it is a form of strength we need to learn. Passive non-racism is no longer enough. For real social change to finally happen, as I have heard said, we need to be actively anti-racist and call it out wherever we see it consistently, for as long as it takes, non-violently.