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When is violence permissible in an anti-Trump protest?



At the height of the Occupy Oakland days, when mostly peaceful protests were disturbed by small groups of agitators who called themselves “anarchists” but were more widely referred to as “the black bloc” (not for their race, but for the bandannas they wore around their faces and the color of their clothes), I took a hard line against the agitators.

They were missing the entire point of the protests, in my view. The point, you’ll recall, in 2011-2012-2013 was the increasing disparity between the ultra-rich and the rest of us—a disparity Bernie Sanders used to drive his campaign. My approach was for massive peaceful protest, a la Gandhi. Only in that way, I reasoned, could we attract the broad support of the American people, who, in their fair-minded and level-headed way, also were bothered by the riches of the 1% and their control of the levers of government.

Alas, I lost that round. The Occupy powers-that-be decided in favor of a “variety of means”, which meant that masked vandals, arsonists and looters were allowed carte blanche to participate in Occupy demonstrations. Two results were inevitable: first, that large swatches of American cities, including Oakland, were left in ruins every time Occupy marched; and, second, that this represented the death knell for the Occupy movement. Far from sympathizing with Occupy, vast numbers of Americans turned against it (including me). Occupy was not killed by the cops; it committed suicide.

Now we come to a different era, when Trumpism runs rampant across the land. I am worried. You, probably, are, too. And once again, we have huge protests, as evidenced by the magnificent Womens Marches of Jan. 21 (the largest collective demonstration in American history), and the smaller but equally dramatic airport protests following Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Both of those gatherings were entirely peaceful. At the Womens March in Oakland I saw, and briefly engaged, three young people who wore the bandannas and military-style gear. I urged them to keep it peaceful (for which I was accused of being an undercover cop [!!!] and told to go fuck myself). In the event, that protest—the largest in Oakland’s history—was entirely peaceful, for which the city was grateful.

And then, Wednesday night. That was when the “gay, Trump-supporting provocateur” (as he styles himself), Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak to 500 U.C. Berkeley College Republicans, was forced to cancel at the last minute, and be hustled off-campus by the cops, to protect him from a huge mob that might have harmed him, had they got their hands on him. The mob—at least, parts of it–went on to do grave, violent damage, both on campus and in the nearby streets of Berkeley.

What is the proper attitude to take?

To begin with, let’s be blunt. Yiannopoulos is an asshole. He edits Steve Bannon’s rag, Breitbart “News.” I won’t go into his squalid assaults on anyone and everyone he hates (which is everyone except the tea party, which–ironically–hates him because he’s gay), but his vulgarity is 100% in line with Bannon’s and Trump’s. Having said that, did he have the right to speak?

Legally, technically, constitutionally, yes. But the other side—the protesters who shut him down—argue that Yiannopoulos’s speech is hate speech, and we have to put limits on that kind of inciting-to-violence, lie-filled rhetoric. So we have two forces here—a rock and a hard place—where constitutional rights spar with decency, and only one can triumph. Where do I stand?

I’ve thought long and hard about it. This Trumpist movement is becoming so seriously perilous that we—who I believe are the majority—cannot stand idly by, crossing our fingers and hoping someone or something will stop it. Nothing will stop it, except We, the people. I still hope we can do so peacefully, by dint of our huge numbers. Organizations are sprouting up every day to mobilize citizens at the push of an email button or text message. We can produce huge crowds, and the more outrageous the Trump outrage-of-the-moment, the bigger the crowds.

And I’m still furious at the black bloc. They’re vandals, thugs, neurotic and immature schmucks who deserve a paddling, not to be celebrated as freedom fighters. But I remember that our own American Revolution required violence in order to be successful. And I’m starting to wonder if I should re-evaluate my position. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s going to take a gigantic collective effort to expunge the budding fascism here in America—if not to avoid a Third World War we might lose, given the pace at which Trump is pissing off our allies—and, when the stakes are this high, the tactics might just have to change.

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