Not long ago, I posted a three-part blog article titled “Can’t We All Get Along.” I pointed out the division in this country, within the Democratic Party, and even within Doctor Who Fandom. I had hoped to encourage folks to find common ground and not to be so polarized. Early last week, in the midst of the George Floyd protests, I took a break from posting cat videos and inspirational music videos on Facebook to pose the question – “Can’t we all agree on some common ground?” I asked the Liberals on my friend’s list (including folks from college, gatherings, and folks that I hang out with regularly) couldn’t we agree that rioting and looting are bad, even if the anger behind them is justified, and especially in light of the fact that most of the businesses being hit are small independent businesses already hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic. I pointed out to the Conservatives on my friends list (mostly family and folks from high school) that they’d be angry if the shoe were on the other foot and a white man had been killed in such a cruel way by a Black man. I also pointed out that they needed to get their story straight on protests. A few years ago, they were calling non-violent protesters against Trump, the Dakota pipeline, and other causes criminals, and calling for them to be arrested. Then a few weeks ago they all started showing up at state capitals with guns to protest stay-at-home orders. Now they’re condemning protests again. I asked them all to recognize our common humanity and that there are bad apples on both sides of the political spectrum, but there are also folks with compassion and humanity on both sides.
I was actually quite surprised by those who responded – three Liberals and two Conservatives – so more or less equal numbers. My post was mostly meant for Conservatives with a feigned slap on the hand to Liberals who I thought would agree that non-violent protest was for the best.
In the Conservative camp, one Conservative who is frequently spouting support for Trump, conspiracy theories and the like, responded quite rationally that “No, we can’t agree, but that disagreement doesn’t have to be the line in the sand that many people make it.” Another Conservative suggested that all the rioters and looters should be shot for breaking the law and that the authorities really have no other choice than to shoot these folks to bring back law and order. I pointed out that these are U.S. citizens and that there are all sorts of non-lethal tools and tactics in place for domestic disturbances. He did later concede that he thought there was no excuse for the police officer who killed Floyd and he hopes the guy gets the death penalty. At least he was consistent in his belief that shooting and killing people is the solution to all life’s big problems.
The Liberal camp shocked and dismayed me a little bit. At least I expected the shoot first, solve problems later from the Conservatives. After three years of Liberals staging non-violent protests against Trump and stressing the importance of non-violence in other protests and causes, it bothered me to see one of my Liberal friends suggesting that we should “Riot on!” Another suggested non-violence was a Pollyanna concept and that rioting and rebellion are necessary for liberty. Yet another sent a link to arguments on “How to respond to ‘riots never solve anything!’” This was after I suggested that non-violent protest should be encouraged but rioting and looting not so much.
I see so much of each other in all this. Perhaps if we can’t agree to aspire to the best in humanity, we can all at least agree to aspire to the worst. While my earlier Facebook post was meant more for the Conservatives, this blog post is aimed squarely at Liberals because I still believe there’s hope, compassion, and reason within you despite whatever anger you may be feeling at this point. While I still consider myself Liberal, due to recent polarizations both in our country and within the Democratic Party I find myself more middle of the road than I used to be. For parts of this article, I’m still going to say “we” and “us” even though “we” and “us” in the Liberal camp is more divided than ever before.
After criticizing Conservatives only a few weeks ago for coming out to protest the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders with their guns and general talks of stoking another American Civil War (violent, if necessary), I cannot in good conscience look the other way when our own side comes out (during a pandemic, I might add) stoking talks of violent revolution. While I believe, wholeheartedly, that the non-violent protests on behalf of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter are a good and necessary thing (and also that protestors should continue wearing masks and social distancing), it would be hypocritical of me to condemn violence and threats of violence by Conservatives only to rally for riots, looting, and violence to advance a cause (any cause) that I as a Liberal hold dear.
Might doesn’t make right. Right makes right (even if the results aren’t always immediate). That includes right action. Right action includes action (as well at thoughts and intentions) consistent with the ethics you believe yourself and that you believe the other side should follow. Right action includes making sure that any action, protest, or even war is directed at the right enemies, governments, departments, laws, policies, or systems, and not just random people or organizations who may or may not already be on your side (or might be persuaded to join your cause provided you don’t make enemies of them). In war, most folks consider it ethical to drop bombs on strategic military bases but not on civilian communities, schools, and hospitals. Right action doesn’t necessarily mean to be “Pollyanna”, complacent, or even lawful. Rosa Parks breaking the law prohibiting Black folks from sitting at the front of a bus is an example of a right action that wasn’t naïve, complacent, or legal at the time. It was both a powerful statement and non-violent.
What bothers me about the rioting, looting, and protests, is that they seem more random and less directed at the people, organizations, and systems that led to this situation in the first place. They lack any kind of strategy or goal other than maybe the threat of violence will cause folks to side with you out of fear of more rioting. In fact, a study of Civil Rights protests by political scientist Omar Wasow argues that peaceful protests during the 1960s actually swayed white people toward voting for Democrats, whereas violent protests brought backlash and swayed white voters in the direction “law and order” Republican candidates (http://www.omarwasow.com/). Isn’t law and order what we hear Republicans and Conservatives calling for in all this? Law and order, even if it means killing looters and rioters? I’ve seen stories about a number of small businesses hit with looting (many of them small Black, minority, or immigrant owned businesses). There was an African American woman on YouTube who went viral for shouting at rioters and looters (mostly white college students) for making her neighborhood unsafe. She shouted about the how people couldn’t safely get to their jobs or to get groceries, and how the homeless people in the neighborhood were affected too. One young Black male protestor interviewed for the PBS News Hour last week, pointed out all the pallets of bricks left in neighborhoods near protest sites and claimed that it looked like “a trap” to incite violence. From what I’ve seen across various media, most of the protesters on the front lines are adamant that the protests remain peaceful and non-violent. Among all this we are also putting more Black lives at risk – whether from corrupt cops looking for an excuse to act out, from angry gun nuts protecting their businesses by shooting to kill, or from the possibility of a surge of Coronavirus cases in an already vulnerable community.
While I agree with the non-violent protests and the support for Black Lives Matter, there is another bigger issue that I’ve taken on in recent years – that is the overall division our country, communities, and political parties have fallen into. While the divisions were there already, the 2016 election, the divisive rhetoric of Trump and his enablers, Russian bots, and the like have furthered these divisions. In this day and age it is easy to dehumanize those we don’t agree with. Trump dehumanizes people he doesn’t agree with on a daily basis by calling them “thugs”, “criminals”, and so on. The policeman who killed George Floyd dehumanized Black people. The police we see acting out badly in the news this past week or two have dehumanized the protestors. For our part, many of us have dehumanized Republicans and Conservatives on the whole, even though many have left the party or spoken out against Trump and his abuses. A Republican group called the Lincoln Project is even actively advertising against Trump. We all have Conservative friends, co-workers, and family members. In this situation, we have also dehumanized all policemen for the actions of some bad actors. We’ve dehumanized the real people living and working in neighborhoods affected by rioting and looting in their neighborhoods because it doesn’t fit our agenda or narrative. As someone once said, the best way to defeat an enemy is to make that enemy a friend or an ally. Perhaps it’s naïve to believe that we are all human, that there are some common ethics that we can all agree to, or that we can change minds through discussion and debate rather than threat of violence.
Despite all the bad stories from the front lines of things like continued police abuse of protesters and reporters, looters being shot and killed by store owners, and trucks plowing through crowds, I’ve been heartened by all the good stories out there this past couple of weeks too. Many police officers lay down their arms and joined the peaceful protests — some even “taking a knee.” Non-violent protestors protected community businesses from looters. One police officer separated from his troop, was protected from the angry mobs by other protestors. There are people of all colors, ages, creeds, and backgrounds out protesting Floyd’s death and supporting Black Lives. The events aren’t even limited to the United States.
During different times, I’d be out there joining in the peaceful protests. Given the current pandemic, I’ve been practicing social distancing and social isolation to protect myself and others from a potentially deadly disease that medical experts don’t yet know enough about. Despite this, I was proud to see on Facebook just the other day that my youngest niece, not long out of high school and who lives in a rural conservative area of Virginia, has been out joining the non-violent protests in her area. She has been sharing her own beliefs, experiences, and photos despite receiving flack for doing so.
I’ll end this post with three quotes on non-violence from Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
Mel has a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and is a seasoned LGBTQ community activist. To find out more, please visit his website: www.melmystery.com