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On Protest

At the end of Thanksgiving break during my senior year of college, I found myself in the company of seven or eight other eager young citizens in a traditionally elegant private school in Metairie. When we weren’t taking turns being called before a panel of intimidating interviewers in a dimly lit, stifling library, we – the Louisiana state finalists for a prestigious national scholarship – sized each other up via awkward, falsely self-deprecating small talk.

wto-02Large parts of that stressful day are now a blur, but one memory has always stuck with me. There was a television in our waiting area tuned to a national cable network, and the regularly scheduled programming was interrupted several times with updates on the chaotic protests that accompanied the November 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. As images of the angry, chanting crowds filled the screen, one of my fellow scholarship hopefuls exclaimed, “This is just so horrible, for this to be happening in our country. It’s so un-American!” 

I remember feeling – and probably looking – incredulous. “Un-American?” Do you enjoy voting? Because those suffragettes didn’t just politely ask, you know. And segregation didn’t disappear into thin air.

The “un-American” label clanged in my ears because my favorite historical Americans – my heroes – also happen to have been protesters. Whether the issue was women’s suffrage or civil rights or the fight to dismantle other systemic institutional injustices, they’ve been courageous and patriotic enough to demand – publicly, loudly – that the lived experience of every American should match the ideals we’ve inscribed in inspirational marble. Protest can be an important tool in the service of progressive causes, helping to expose, challenge, and ultimately weaken entrenched structures of power and privilege that block the path to our collective betterment and are often ferociously protected by those who benefit from them. It is disruptive by design, and while this kind of disruption is necessarily uncomfortable, and disorienting, it is not “un-American.”

This memory has come up for air for obvious reasons: protesters are on our screens again, making noise about things that I’ll venture most of us care about much more than the WTO’s trade practices. As the demonstrations at Donald Trump’s campaign events grow in volume and intensity -and especially as Trump’s own words (or strategic silences) appear to embolden his supporters to respond in increasingly violent ways (including right here in Louisiana) – we are palpably, collectively anxious. There is fear not only about the potential consequences of an unchecked escalation of the current tensions (“someone is going to get killed at a Trump rally”) but also about the general health of American democracy and the fate of certain cherished American principles.


Supporters and opponents of Donald Trump faced off after the cancelled rally in Chicago on March 11. Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

In particular, we’re beginning to see some ideologically diverse hand-wringing about the “proper” application of our Constitution’s First Amendment to protect both free speech and the right of peaceable assembly in the context of the protests. There’s the predictable stuff-you-love-to-hate from some of the usual suspects, like Sarah Palin’s recent description of anti-Trump protests as “petty, punk-ass little thuggery stuff” designed to “take away your First Amendment rights.” Tea Party Nation founder and blogger Judson Phillips, claiming to have uncovered the “shocking truth” that the protests that shut down Trump’s March 11 rally in Chicago were a well-organized left-wing conspiracy, wrote that the incident “shows the fundamental difference between real Americans and the radical left.” And Ann Coulter never disappoints:


But now comes the hard part. There are other people (with whom I’m much more programmed to agree) who are also suggesting (in a more reasonable and intelligent way that appeals to my internal wiring) that the anti-Trump protests have sometimes veered into the territory of preventing rather than facilitating free speech. The New York Times briefly tackled the topic in its “Room for Debate” feature on March 15 with commentary across the political spectrum, ranging from the assertion that Trump – as an aspiring chief executive – “needs to show respect for free speech” to the stance that the demonstrations “are unhelpful and counterproductive.”

While I don’t agree with everything I read in that mini “debate,” all of it was completely innocuous in comparison to a piece by Jonathan Chait that really rocked my heroic protest worldview last week. Chait describes Trump’s authoritarian politics as “grotesque” and likens his rise to a “disease.” But he doesn’t believe that the malady is confined only to Trump’s supporters:

“Because Trump is so grotesque, and because he has violated liberal norms himself so repeatedly, the full horror of the goal of stopping Trump from campaigning (as opposed to merely counterdemonstrating against him) has not come across. But the whole premise of democracy is that rules need to be applied in every case without regard to the merit of the underlying cause to which it is attached. If you defend the morality of a tactic against Trump, then you should be prepared to defend its morality against any candidate. Now imagine that right-wing protesters had set out to disrupt Barack Obama’s speeches in 2008. If you’re not okay with that scenario, you should not be okay with protesters doing it to Trump.”

Deep breaths. There’s more.

“Of course it is Trump who has let loose the wave of fear rippling out from the campaign. And it is Trump who has singled out African-Americans peacefully attending his speeches for mistreatment, and Trump who has glorified sucker-punching attacks on nonviolent protesters. This is part of the effectiveness of authoritarian politics. The perception that Trump poses a threat to democracy legitimizes undemocratic responses — if you believe you are faced with the rise of an American Mussolini, why let liberal norms hold you back?”

It’s important to note that Chait has been taken to task in the last year, especially by progressives, for criticizing what he views as an unproductive and censorious movement of political correctness that is “perverting liberalism” on college campuses. And he rubbed people the wrong way with last week’s article on the protesters, too.

So there’s clearly a theme here (and probably fodder for dozens of other posts) but the point is that I think he has a point. For better or worse, we’ve been presented with (or created for ourselves?) a moment in which it is essential that we act like real Americans – to reclaim a term dragged through the mud by the above-mentioned Mr. Phillips. If we’re doing this whole “America” thing right (the inspirational marble bit) then we should be constantly evaluating and interrogating both the theory and the practice of our democracy, and making sure they actually go together – for everyone.

It should not need to be said, but acting like real Americans first means categorically rejecting all physical violence, as well as hateful speech that crosses the line into the realm of direct threat. Acting like real Americans might mean that we have to listen to Trump supporters interrupting Clinton campaign events throughout the summer and fall – an unpleasant and unsettling thought. I imagine that when I see it in action, I’ll have a much better appreciation for the anguish my one-time colleague expressed many years ago about the scenes from Seattle.

But I also think that we have to let it happen and, going further, reaffirm the right for it to happen – in order to preserve the right of those who oppose Trump to answer back, whether it’s with a silent courageous presence, a shout, or a vote.

It will be a disruption that is uncomfortable, and disorienting, and so very American.

Note: This is Kate’s first of what I hope will be many posts as a contributor to the Daily Kingfish. Learn more here. – MB

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