There’s Violence In the Streets Because We’ve Lost Faith (and Interest) in Political Parties
Jon Ward
1649

This is a tremendously irresponsible piece. For one thing, it misrepresents the civil rights movement.

There was a lot of violence during the Civil Rights movement. That history has been mythologized and sanitized, because we don’t want to treat violence like a feature: it is always treated like a bug.

But that has led us to where we are today: if the Founding Fathers didn’t think that mass movements were a powerful tool for change, we would not have the First Amendment. The First Amendment grants us the right to speak, organize and assemble.

The easiest way to discredit protests is to highlight violence. This was the case during King’s time, but also as Hitler rose to power and during the Haymarket Affair. Violence is a normal part of human struggle. It has to be managed and it has to be confronted, and we definitely prefer activists who at least nominally supported nonviolence: King is always more popular than Malcolm X because King’s words were designed to reach the white majority and motivate them toward racial justice. Those words were meant to be inspiring, but at the time, a lot of people thought he was a terrorist.

Malcolm X was speaking to other activists about how to drive more tension between oppressive laws and a majority that tolerates oppression instead of working for justice. People also thought he was a terrorist. It’s weird that that isn’t made more clear when people talk about social justice movements. People weren’t glad to see heroic, nonviolent Dr. King. In general the public wanted him hauled away and the local government wherever he was was usually happy to oblige.

The strangest thing about Lilla’s article and yours is the way you both fail to see civic movement and political strategizing as if they could be teased apart. But they both reinforce and drive each other. Without activists like King and X pushing against the status quo, there is no motivation for the majority to act and make political change. John Lewis came out of the civil rights movement. If King hadn’t been shot, he might have gone more explicitly into politics. The racists who killed King understood how effective violence is. And whatever you say about the framers:

“The framers of our Constitution arranged things so that political action would have to be filtered through institutions that require consultation and compromise,”

You can’t miss that the largest institution is always the people. There is no government without the consent of the governed. And as consent ebbs and flows, it alters the contours of political power.

It is profoundly creepy to see so many people campaigning against people actually using the rights we have. And the risk of driving people away from confronting the Nazi marches is really quite large: yes, antifa has brawled with them and it is scary. But as you noted, the safest and least violent marches and rallies have been the largest ones. Most people are not violent. When enough people show up, the nonviolent majority actually insulates the people who want to fight against each other. Like how vaccines promote herd immunity: if there’s 10 times as many people not wanting to fight, they help keep the violent minority broken up so they can’t hit each other.

That is the pattern we have to start seeing. When people are discouraged from attending these rallies, only the most committed and passionate people show up. That makes violence more likely, not less. Moreover, if people are convinced that protests are usually scary and violent, they will be discouraged from meeting the organizations that actually help people successfully run for office. Every rally is an opportunity for political and social networking.

Please join that party. That party is pro-speech, pro-peace and pro-civil rights. Together, we can de-escalate this. But not if you are more interested in watching it and pulling it apart.