Learn from Berkeley’s mistakes: Resist violence to resist Trump
Watching events unfold in Berkeley the night of February 1st left me feeling the most terrified and despondent I’ve been since Trump got elected. I watched fellow progressives pat themselves on the back for what may prove a Pyrrhic victory of historic proportions. By geographically and philosophically positioning protests in opposition to the remarks of an individual provocateur, Berkeley self-sabotaged a key opportunity to refute an appalling ideology as a whole — rather than just a single articulation of that ideology. The left will be paying for the outcome of this wholly justified, but poorly planned protest for a very long time to come. We need to protest, but we need to protest more intelligently and strategically.
I am passionate about resisting a slide into fascism and I understand why many believe it necessary to do so by violent means. But we must understand that to violently resist or overthrow the American government would be to attempt to salvage our democracy by destroying it first. This is not likely to end well. It is true that the majority of Americans did not support Trump and that a growing proportion disapprove of him. But that doesn’t mean that anywhere near a majority are on board with West Coast ultra-liberal notions about violent resistance. If we are pushing for a violent uprising or resistance that the majority of Americans do not support, then we are also acting counter to democratic principles.
It is also historically unwise to foment a violent uprising if the other side has more guns. It is even less wise if the other side has the support of the military. Making physical might the ultimate key to American power would almost certainly put us on the losing side of any confrontation and accelerate a slide into dictatorship. Many a revolution has ended in a government that was equally if not more oppressive than the one overthrown.
So what are we to do? How do we push back on this administration without pushing away the people we need to win back political power? All of this is easier said than done, and there is no magic bullet. But in all things we must be strategic. The right is playing three-dimensional chess while the left plays Taboo. People like Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway are thinking three and four moves ahead. We must learn to do the same.
When we plan protests, we need to position them for success. That means explicit calls for non-violence and avoiding locations, times of day, and protest formats that give cover to violent elements. This is why the Women’s March chose the day after the inauguration — the organizers of the march understood the potential pitfalls of protesting on inauguration day and deftly avoided them. The UC Berkeley protest could have done the same by taking place earlier in the day and/or far away from the site of Milo’s hateful talk. That way, even if the Black Bloc showed up to make mayhem, it would have been much clearer that the majority of protesters had nothing to do with that brand of violence. Had they not had a larger crowd to blend in with, maybe they could have even been stopped.
If we want to block Trump’s agenda starting now, we must also go beyond coastal/urban protests to reach moderates, swing voters, and even conservatives. They are the ones who we most need to be calling their representatives. (Calling Congresswoman Barbara Lee to reinforce the resistance she is already engaging in is not going to move the national policy needle.) Our arguments against Trump’s policies need to be not just principled, but also emotionally intuitive and impactful. I deeply value arguments based in fact, logic, and rationality, but we have to understand the value of emotion and gut feeling in at least getting a foot in the door.
We also need to enlist the help of the mammoth corporations that have mostly sat on the sidelines of American politics. The idea of a Google, an Apple, or a Facebook inserting itself into the political process is not without risk. But we and our democracy face immediate threats that perhaps call for taking these risks — and neutrality/inaction can be political positions unto themselves. We should be pushing these companies to use their platforms to express the importance of equality and diversity in the delivery of the products and services they provide. Imagine the impact if Google, Apple, and Facebook put up matching screen overlays that said “Immigrants, LGBTIQ people, and people of all religions and colors make our products and services possible. We support equality, diversity, and fairness for all. Click here to learn more and to let your representative known that you share these values.”
These suggestions may be idealistic and they are hardly complete, but I believe strongly that they represent the direction we must go if we are to win back our democracy and build a better future.