Kelly Hayes: As Black Lives Matter protests continue to play out around the country, images of protesters squaring off with police in Portland have inflamed debates about “peacefulness,” violence and respectability. Some liberal figures have argued that Trump’s law and order narrative is facilitated by imagery of police dueling with protesters, and that unity will be needed to halt the march of fascism. Such critics have pointed to the riots of the late ‘60s, claiming that the Civil Rights Movement was derailed by those who resorted to violent tactics in the streets.
As someone who has been calling on people for years to lock arms against the threat of fascism, regardless of personal difference, I can appreciate some of the sentiments behind these assertions. But I, too, see some tired historical patterns at work. It is very easy, as Nathan J. Robinson recently wrote in Current Affairs, to blame groups whose actions frustrate us for larger outcomes that disappoint us. This phenomenon can be observed in arguments that particular riots derailed the Civil Rights Movement, despite innumerable efforts to derail civil rights organizing, and a disastrous presidential campaign waged by Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon. Some people have blamed those who riotously rebelled against anti-Black violence for Nixon’s election, despite the many factors working in Nixon’s favor, including Humphrey’s incompetence as a candidate.
We are seeing a similar narrative being spun now. Even though Biden is not a terribly formidable opponent, we are told that if Trump wins, it will be the fault of people who threw soda cans at police after being brutalized and terrorized their entire lives, rather than the fault of people who have enabled Trump, and those who paved the path to his violence. We are told that if Trump wins, it will be the fault of Black protesters, and others acting against the anti-Black violence of the state, rather than the violence of white supremacy itself.
We have similarly seen claims that the L.A. Rebellion of 1992 led to a newfound enthusiasm for mass incarceration and austerity among Democrats, even though such accelerations had been well underway throughout the 1980s. Even historic romanticizations of the idea of general strikes — a tactic we may well need in order to remove Trump — often strip away the reality that the labor movement is, itself, rooted in a great deal of rebellion and historical violence. But blaming rioters for the outcomes of presidential elections is much worse than whitewashing the history of the labor movement in the U.S. Because blaming those with the least power for what unfolds at the highest levels of government is an abdication of responsibility.
Why would I trust someone who paints the marginalized as the problem because they are demonized? Why would I trust people who say that our communities must be controlled in a manner that demonization dictates? Demonizing people while demanding their votes is, to put it mildly, a flawed strategy. It’s also absurd. When water sits too long on the stove and boils over, do we lecture the water for jumping out of the pot? Black people are tired of being murdered without consequence. They are tired of employing all manner of protest, only to be briefly applauded or spit at, and then cast aside. Decrying a lack of nonviolent direct action training among people who are tossing plastic bottles at police will not transform them into Alinsky-style organizers — which also shouldn’t be the goal.
It takes a certain belief in liberal politics to blame those who benefit the least from such politics for the failures of the Democratic Party. Many of us are unlikely to survive another four years of Trump without winding up in a cage. Many will not survive at all. There are horrors ahead regardless of who wins, to be sure, but the importance of derailing fascism is not lost on me. But how the Democrats win, and who is ground under or sold out in the process matters. I will not sanctify this system to save it from a fascist because burying the truth about how we got here will not help us escape.
Folks who have positioned leftists as the problem in this moment have found an easy mark in Portland — and this is true of both conservatives and liberals who are taking aim at direct actions that they consider violent. Portland is largely white, which allows people to attack the actions of protesters without directly criticizing Black protesters around the country who may also have destroyed property or thrown objects at police. But the targeted goal is the same: to foster the idea that good liberals aren’t like that, so centrists should relate to them and share their goals.
Liberals are demanding cooperation from the left and from the most oppressed people in the U.S., not just at the polls, where our executive options are extremely limited, but also in how we endure an era of collapse. The idea that unrest can be kept at bay as a society falters is folly. Unrest will be part of the current political moment. Pivots in energy and expression are important, because narratives are easily lost amid chaos, but if unrest is the key to Trump’s victory, then liberals need to figure out how to leverage unrest, and the potential for unrest, to their own advantage, because they simply do not have the power to wish it away.
I will organize for collective survival and for collective liberation, but as someone who wants to dismantle the oppressions that uphold this system, I will not play into ahistorical notions of what these institutions are, in order to rally people to protect them. I will not insult Black and Native people who have righteously rebelled by asking them to pledge allegiance to a country that has violently excluded them from its social contract since its bloody inception. I believe that marginalized people are capable of processing the need for a united front, and if I am wrong about that, it won’t be because the mythological unity that some are proposing would have persuaded people.
I do think imagery of street fights between Trump’s fed squads and protesters could help reelect Trump. But Trump will also win if this political moment becomes a duel between liberals and the left over respectability and “peacefulness.” I think this is a good time to examine the lessons of history and also to ask questions. Why did people in the 1960s riot rather than uniformly committing to nonviolence? How did nonviolence fail them? How did white people who demanded an adherence to nonviolence fail them? Was measuring the utility of their efforts in electoral outcomes alone true to the needs or the aims of Black people? Why are some liberals so sure that it was the riots of the late ‘60s, as opposed to a historically inevitable white fatigue around Black-led protest, or the horribly run campaign to elect Humphrey, that delivered us to Nixon? History is a progression of events, but it is also a jumble of actions and reactions that cannot be cleanly divorced from each other.
Trump sows chaos. Liberals attacking the left over a “peacefulness” that will not come is part of that chaos, although to them, it may feel like order because it is an effort to impose order. In an unjust society, restoring order is often the work of maintaining injustice. If you want people who are inclined to break things, to do something else, then organize something meaningful and invite people to direct their energies there.
Let’s hold direct actions that invite people to do more than just show up for the next march. Let’s plan actions that invite people to defend tenants from eviction. Let’s invite people to actions that become blockades against ICE. Let’s invite people to actions that encourage networks of care in our communities, where we meet our neighbors and align against the forces that are harming them. Militancy has a place, and that place is the discipline with which we sustain one another’s survival. Because even larger storms are looming in the distance, and we need to be anchored to one another when they arrive.
As an organizer, I will not ask people to claim unity where it does not exist. I will not ask people to pledge allegiance to anything or romanticize anything that would kill them. I will not tell people they must publicly fetishize social contracts that were never meant to include them and rarely have.
What I will do is tell people that living to fight another day is always part of my strategy, and that — come what may, and whatever tactics we must employ — we are worth it. The things we believe in are worth it. The future that could be is worth it. And survival is worth it, because without that, there is nothing else. So whether we are taking on police violence, evictions, federal relief, ableism or any of the other issues we must face, when I step into the fray, I am inviting folks to join me in an act of survival in the pursuit of collective liberation. So let’s dream new worlds into being with the protests we stage, and let’s survive together, so that we might live to see those dreams realized in a freer, more beautiful world.
To those of you who are in the streets protesting, whether you are marching, setting up mutual aid tents or squaring off with Trump’s feds, my heart is with you, and with everyone who would be there if they could. Onward to Black liberation, the destruction of capitalism and white supremacy, and the abolition of the prison industrial complex. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.