Rusty, Silent Protestors Need to Get on the Same Page

In March of 2011, I was sitting in a diner off Market Street in downtown San Francisco. While my spoon splashed absentmindedly about in my bowl of chicken soup, I kept my eyes on the streets outside the broad glass windows. I expected a show.

The previous evening, then-President Barack Obama ordered American military forces to fire in anger on Libya – attacking Libyan air defense targets in aid of rebels during the heady days of the Arab Spring revolution. This was an American President involving U.S. military forces in an internal struggle — an intrusion into a civil conflict. The rebellion seemed at the time to be a noble one in search of civil rights, but stepping into the fray meant the U.S. was following similar patterns of force used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, surely there would be protests. This was San Francisco – the biggest jewel in a Bay Area serving as the unofficial headquarters for civil disobedience and counterculture righteousness. From the Vietnam War to Desert Storm, the city’s social justice obsessed took to the streets, often in massive numbers and often to great effect. The protests from the Bay would often spread nationwide and trigger outcries on the issues of the day in cities and on college campuses throughout the U.S.

There was a war on that day, and there I sat in the heart of the city known for Tony Bennett’s cardiac carelessness. I dragged out eating my lunch, waiting for the big dance. Any protest might start at the courthouse or at some federal building, but it would find its way to Market Street soon enough.

But, it didn’t. The city was not only protest free, but it seemed unusually (almost impossibly) quiet. I paid the lunch tab and took to my heels, searching for a little politically aware unrest somewhere. Nothing.

The next day I checked the Chronicle for reports of demonstrations I missed while downtown. Nothing. American missiles continued to fly in Libya, and the Bay Area stayed silent. If on my bike, I would find similar silence in Los Angeles, Austin, New York, D.C. and any other progressive enclaves.

Indeed, 2011 taught me the meaning of one of Gandhi’s Social Sins. Dante highlighted the traditional self-destructive Deadly Sins (lust, envy, greed, sloth, pride, wrath and gluttony), but the Indian civil rights legend penned his own list. The final entry in Gandhi’s group was “Politics without Principle” — the phenomena of letting the group-think of the day in a given region eclipse the common and universal concepts of goodness and decency. To put it more simply, Gandhi referred to the sort of partisan hackery that rationalizes the same action in different ways to fit preexisting loyalties.

To abandon Gandhi’s poetics entirely, it comes down to: “We don’t like it when their guy does it; but when our guy does it’s OK because he’s our guy and he must mean well.” Such thinkers are so enamored of their own worldview — so convinced that how they view the world is beyond reproach and reconsideration — that anyone who agrees with them is immediately free and clear to act and speak without fear of reproach.

In U.S. politics, that narcissistic slavery to a worldview takes shape in two political parties. Republicans and Democrats engage in the act to varying degrees. The latter are the more egregious offenders over the last 10 years because their golden god was in the White House. There’s no doubt the Republicans will quickly close the gap now that their orange lion holds the Oval Office.

The terrifying aspect of such partisan thinking is empowers or enables a sitting power figure to act largely without the fear of reprisal from his own party. Consider the last eight years. In addition to firing on a country that posed no threat to the U.S. in Libya, Obama threw around more armed drones than a queen bee with a box of dynamite. He allowed the use of chemical weapons in Syria without reprisal. Guantanamo stayed open. Cuban refugees were left at the mercy of a foreign government eager to punish them. While thinking those examples through, please identify one progressive protest event enacted against any of them. Find just one.

The #blacklivesmatter movement was the art of protest’s only champion for the last couple years, and it had to find a presumed right-wing authority in the police to fight rather than consider weak federal leadership continued the decline of urban areas. Firearms were an easy spot for floating protesters to land, but no one said a peep when the White House issued little more than mournful speeches regarding gun control.

Surely, the concepts of war, urban violence, weapons of mass destruction and imprisonment without trial are high on the list of offenses in the progressive mind. But, to confront a President implicit in their existence becomes impossible when he’s supposed to be a progressive President. For eight years, it’s as though Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other Democratic epicenters took a nap and avoided reading anything resembling a newspaper. All was well in the world as “their guy” had the big gig pinned down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Cue the three monkeys and cover your eyes, mouth and ears.

There’s a price to pay for “politics without principle,” and America is paying it now. With Donald Trump in the White House, America’s lazy, rusty protest types are waking up and staggering into life again. But, it’s too late to fend off much of what they suddenly rally against in 2017.

For the last eight years, the Middle East twisted into an uglier mess under an inactive and ineffectual U.S. foreign policy. Inconsistent, political application of civil rights blurred the lines of what the term means. Lack of commitment to international justice reduced America’s presence as a source of optimism and light in the world, and now that darkness is turning within and stirring endless conflict between Americans.

The broken U.S. immigration system continued to deteriorate for the last 10 years. No one on the left protested. Dictators and tyrants killed and spread their nets with no reply from the U.S. No liberal or Democrat protested. The American healthcare system sputtered under a one year attempted to improve it, followed by seven years of ignoring inherent problems in current legislation. Crickets chirped.

The protesters kept largely silent for the better part of a decade, lest they admit the man they voted into power couldn’t save the world with pretty, smug speeches. There were objections to raise and calls to action to ring, but progressives stayed in bed with their President.

Now, we see the result: An embittered, divided and angry America with an overreaching, thin-skinned lout for a leader. As a nation, we earned this state of affairs. It’s unlikely any amount of stomping around and shouting slogans now is going to do enough to fend off the consequences.