Sunday, June 28, 2020

The outstretched hand—a symbol for our times

A clenched fist is the political symbol of the moment. You see it more and more—at protests, in social media, on T-shirts.  It reflects the current mood and the political strategy of protesters like the ones outside of Trump’s Tulsa Rally last week.

Here’s how the Washington Post described the scene:

Nine-year-old Nila Faulk was leaving the Trump campaign rally with her grandparents when chants of "Black lives matter" rang out from the street where protesters were blocking traffic. The chants gave way to shrieks and shouts as a white man stepped out of a truck and pepper-sprayed one of the black demonstrators in the face.

The clenched fist is a symbol of power. Blocking traffic is one way to wield power. Dousing opponents with pepper spray is another.

The fist is also a symbol of solidarity. The fingers are drawn together to show that the people are united in demanding the system respond to their demands. In a rather undemocratic republic like ours, the people’s demands are rarely met without such demonstrations of collective power.

But the fist is also a symbol of violence and coercion. We use real-life fists to threaten and punch. The threat of disorder may be necessary to get a system run by and for the top 20 percent to respond to the demands of the bottom 80 (See James C. Scott reference to this 80/20 idea here).  But that did not seem to be what was going on in Tulsa. Instead of a united people punching up at the ruling class, groups in the bottom 80 were aiming their fists at each other. 

There may be good reasons to give up on politics and try to get as much power by, as Malcolm X put it, “any means necessary.” John Brown thought so in 1859 when he organized an armed uprising against slavery in Virginia, sparking the Civil War. People had been trying unsuccessfully for 82 years to rid America of that scourge by peaceful means. Awaiting execution for treason, murder and insurrection, Brown wrote: “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Brown seems to have been right.  The American electorate had become so polarized (and its system of government was so unresponsive to the free state majority) that it could not address the slavery issue short of war. We seem to be headed that way again.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that Americans today, like John Brown in the 1850s, are giving up on democracy. Polls have shown that an increasing number of Americans say they don't care whether   they live under a democracy or a dictatorship. According to one scholar who studies these polls, “millennials surveyed today are markedly more favorable to having a ‘strong leader’ than their parents’ generation was at the same life stage.” 

People who define themselves as centrists are particularly lukewarm about democracy. Compared to people on the far left or far right, they are less likely to support free and fair elections or liberal institutions and more likely to approve of strong leaders who do not have to “bother with a legislature.” 

Another sign that people are giving up on democracy is the degree to which they spurn compromise. Only 44 percent of Americans say they like politicians who compromise.

So we are increasingly raising our fists, not just against the system, but against each other.

I would like to suggest a different approach—one that combines the fist with an outstretched hand.

During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” It’s a word that means shameful, dishonorable, unworthy, unforgivable. And she added something worse: she said they were irredeemable. To try to reason with such people would be futile, to make common cause with them would be like making a deal with the devil.

Diane Hassen followed 300 undecided voters in the fall of 2016 for the Clinton campaign.  She says that more of them came to a decision (to vote for Trump) because of the deplorable comment than any other single event—not "grab them by the pussy" and not Jamey Comey.  Voters who once were considering a vote for Clinton can now can buy a “Deplorable” T-shirt at Walmart.

Clinton may have been right about some portion of Trump supporters, but why would a candidate for any office, who needs to somehow cobble together a majority coalition, want to write off any significant portion of the electorate? Why not assume they are all reachable, all welcome to vote for you?

Hassen concluded from her study that "instead of speaking about each other, we need to speak with each other."  When she "just listened hard," she found that she had more in common with Trump voters than she "could ever have imagined."

Politics in a democracy is about building coalitions with people you agree with on some issues, but not on others, and whose interests overlap here and diverge there. It requires talking and listening, negotiating and compromising. Everyone who votes against you today is a potential ally in the next election.

A line in the Post story about the conflict outside of the Trump rally suggests that an outstretched hand rather than the fist of a traffic blockade might have been a more effective strategy:

Explaining the traffic-blocking protesters, one of the Trump protesters told his daughter “it’s wrong the way they’re doing things."  "For those he views as protesting peacefully,” reporter Robert Klemko wrote, “he had more empathy.”

What if the BLM protesters had extended an outstretch hand to build on that empathy rather than holding up the clenched fist of a traffic blockade?  A political scientist who studied political activism to find out what works and what doesn't, says he found that effective organizers, using methods like "deep canvassing," understood that empathy for people you disagree with is the key to getting power for a political movement.  "The organizers I have met while researching this book are some of the most empathic people I've ever encountered," he said (Hersh, 128). 

But cognitive empathy—understanding—among citizens is the great missing piece in American democracy today. It’s why conspiracy theories thrive, a president can govern through division rather than unification, and why everyone’s favorite political symbol is a fist rather than, say, an outstretched hand.

I say protest by all means, and raise your fist—against the government, the powers that be, the plutocracy, entrenched incumbents, corporate greed, corruption, racism, crime, bureaucratic bloat, neoliberalism, taxes, student debt, unnecessary regulation, trans-phobia, the Fed, sexism, abortion, war, vaccines, global warming, contrails, mass incarceration, or whatever else you think needs fixing.

But to your fellow citizens, offer the outstretched hand and invite them into your coalition.
Above, the party flag of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, features an open, outstretched hand as its symbol.

The liberal, Democratic-voting sociologist Arlie Hochschild spent five years among conservative Republican-voting working class people in Louisiana to understand why they would consistently to vote—in her judgement—against their self interest. Read about her commendable attempt at developing cognitive empathy for fellow citizens in her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change (New York: Scribner, 2020).  See chapter 15,  pp. 127-133.

The theme of the December 2019 Atlantic was "How to Stop a Civil War." The issue explores causes of polarization and fracture, as well as potential solutions.  One article describes an intriguing effort by a group, called "Better Angels" after a phrase in Lincoln's first inaugural when he was trying to prevent a civil war, that seeks to mitigate polarization.  Andrew Ferguson, in "Can this Marriage be Saved?" (pp. 86-90) describes how the group organizes gatherings that apply the "techniques of couples counseling to bring reds and blues back together again."

Monday, June 22, 2020

Solidarity Now?

Source: Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Wisconsin

Even the celebrated Afro-pessimist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has found cause for hope in the current protests over the police killing of George Floyd. In an interview with Ezra Klein,  he pointed out a stark and promising difference between the rebellions in American cities in the 1960s and these ones: the participation of white people.

Have we finally solved one of the great problems of American history—the disunity of the working class? Many historians, especially on the left, are obsessed with this question. During my Ph.D. oral exams, one of my tormentors asked: who wrote “Why is There No Socialism in the United States?” (Answer: Werner Sombart). Another author posed the question this way:
Why is the United States the only advanced capitalist country with no labor party? This question is one of the great enduring puzzles of American political development, and it lies at the heart of a fundamental debate about the nature of American society.
Those of us who think it would be good if you could hang on to your health insurance when you get laid off in a pandemic, or who wish they could join a union at work (almost five times as many as now belong to one, according to this article) think that these are important questions, and some of us suspect they are connected to another oft-asked question about our history: where does American racism come from?

One such person was Martin Luther King, Jr. who outlined a theory that simultaneously addressed both questions in a speech at one of the important milestones of the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an extended excerpt from that speech, delivered in Montgomery Alabama, on March 25, 1965 at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.  (Audience reactions are in parentheses) 
The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma (Speak, speak) generated the massive power (Yes, sir. Yes, sir) to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South (Well) had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, (Speak, sir) and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight. President Johnson rightly praised the courage of the Negro for awakening the conscience of the nation. (Yes, sir)
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. (Yes, sir) From Montgomery to Birmingham, (Yes, sir) from Birmingham to Selma, (Yes, sir) from Selma back to Montgomery, (Yes) a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. (Yes, sir) Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. (Yes, sir. Speak, sir) So I stand before you this afternoon (Speak, sir. Well) with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral. (Go ahead. Yes, sir) [Applause]
Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (Yes, sir)

We’ve come a long way since that travesty of justice was perpetrated upon the American mind….
King was hopeful that finally, the American working class might unite. You can understand his optimism in this moment, before George Wallace ran one of the most successful third-party presidential campaigns in American history, stoking a mostly working class (mostly white) backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, the anti-war movement, college students, rising crime rates, urban disorders, and Black Nationalism.  That was 1968. As of March, 1965, when King spoke in Montgomery, white people had participated significantly in the freedom rides and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and a president from a former slave state had put his full support behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying in a televised address to the nation: “it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

For those of us who believe in democracy, it was one of the most hopeful moments in American history, alongside Congress's endorsement in 1776 of the phrase “All men are created Equal,” and the 1863 delivery of a presidential proclamation abolishing slavery as an “act of justice.”

After Selma, King began to shift his focus from legal rights for African Americans to economic progress for all of America’s poor people. In 1968, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a national “Poor People’s Campaign,” which “demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds.” And King died while organizing a union for garbage collectors in Memphis. (The union was AFSCME, which my white father belonged to at the time.) 

King’s hopeful moment in 1965 evaporated in the upheavals of the late 60s—in Vietnam, violent urban uprisings, assassinations, and a conservative political wave. 

There is reason to think that the current moment of hope on the left will be more resistant to a “white backlash” that divides the working class. A poll taken June 10-12 found that 64 percent of Americans support the protests of the George Floyd killing.  By contrast, 60 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of the totally peaceful 1963 March on Washington at the time,  which featured King’s “I have a Dream” speech, perhaps the most inspiring oration in human history. (Link: more polling data on public opinion of Civil Rights Movement.)

We would do well, however, to never underestimate the power of race to divide the American working class. 

In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, Cornel West expressed his hope for positive outcomes out of the current protests, but concluded with the caution of someone who has been down this road before:
We’ve got hope in the form of motion, but we have to get ready for the backlash. We have to get ready for the neo-fascist clamp down, because it’s coming. It is coming.
In his book, Future-Focused History Teaching, Mike Maxwell argues that the purpose of studying history is to reveal principles that will guide us in the present as we try to shape the future. It’s not that history repeats itself, but we can find patterns that tend to recur. Awareness of those tendencies is one of the great sources of wisdom about human affairs and effective citizenship.

West understands one of the recurring patterns in American history, that the class of people King referred to as “Bourbon interests” have often been successful at driving a wedge between different groups of working class people—especially black and white—to prevent them from forming a solid block that might pass legislation to make America more equitable, and redistribute power and prosperity downward.  And of course, the  working class does have divergent interests, so solidarity is always fragile.

The question for the marchers and the organizers, for the leaders of BLM and other organizations in the struggle, is how to organize a wedge-resistant movement.  So far so good. After an initial burst of anger led to a round of arson and looting, the protests have become generally peaceful and orderly—a contrast to the overreaction of law enforcement—the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the bullying of the press—and public support has increased.

I would like to suggest that an even more powerful way of solidifying white support would be to emphasize the ways in which the aims of the movement are good for white Americans too.

For example, although America’s obsession with law and order has led to a disproportionate impact on black people, it has also harmed white people significantly. According to the Washington Post, in 2019, police shot 10 unarmed black people and 20 unarmed white people. Statistics on total killings of unarmed people at the hands of police are harder to come by, but one database that includes statistics on shootings and deaths like George Floyd’s estimates that 28 black people and 51 whites were killed by police that year.

Of course, African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population and they accounted for 35 percent of those deaths. But are the 51 white people who were killed inconsequential? Would be we happy if those numbers were proportional to population? If 10 unarmed black people—13 percent of the total—were killed in 2019 and 69 whites? Or is the total number—79—just too big no matter the color of the victims?

Conservatives would have us believe that these rates are perfectly acceptable given the relative rates  of violent crime in black and white communities. 

But according to statistics I found on Wikipedia—at “killings by law enforcement officers by country”—the US ranked 21st out of 60 countries with 46.6 killings per 10 million people. If you look at only the nations with advanced industrial economies, the US is in a class by itself. Canada was the closest, with 9.7 killings per 10 million. Germany had 1.3; France 3.8; the UK .5. These discrepancies are similar to what we see with incarceration rates.

Though African Americans also make up a disproportionate number America’s incarcerated, the rate for just whites—306 per 100,000—is anywhere from 15 times (Germany) to twice (England and Wales) the incarceration rate in comparable countries. (According to my very rough calculations based on numbers from Pew and Wikipedia.) And some studies suggest that class may be a more significant factor in who is jailed than race—or at least that it is not irrelevant.  

I recently posted this cartoon on my facebook page:

Perhaps, though, the answer to “All Lives Matter” should be more along the lines of: good point; white people are also victims of our national obsession with law and order: let’s address the problems of mass incarceration and aggressive policing in a way that benefits all Americans. The BLM movement might even post a few pictures of white people killed by police on its site.

It seems likely that my fellow human beings are, on average, at least as good and decent as I am, in which case, they take the rights of their fellow citizens and what they perceive to be the common good into consideration when casting their votes and acting as citizens. But self-interest also comes into the equation.

King understood this, as did his rivals in the Black Power movements of the late 1960s, who said: “No group should go into an alliance or a coalition relying on the ‘good will’ of the ally…. All parties to the coalition must perceive a mutually beneficial goal based on the conception of each party of his own self-interest.”

My daughter, Lindsey Jordan, recently wrote a long piece on Instagram addressing the question of why George Floyd’s death has inspired so many white people to come out on the streets—more than after previous killings of black people by police.

I think the biggest reason white people care more right now, is because for the first time white people feel a general sense of fear, unrest, and confinement themselves. They too feel fear when walking out of their houses, or unease at the anger of others and how strangers might perceive them and their choices. Inequality in the US at the moment is on full display and it’s harder to not acknowledge how little power we have and how little we are looked after when our government is so slow to take action and the public suffers financially while the biggest corporations and the richest people benefit. Now everyone in the US can more so sympathize with (or are at least more so forced to confront) what black and brown people feel all the time— and I think without completely realizing it, the distress and frustration and anger and confusion and helplessness white people feel as a result of this pandemic is causing us to empathize more, and understand more how distressing and immediate the problem of racism is. A country that is willing to kill and beat its citizens, one that lets the people that commit these atrocities go unpunished, is also a country willing to let its people down— and not take care of them— during a global pandemic.

Lindsey’s analysis is backed up by this comment from a listener of the NPR podcast Code Switch:

During COVID I've also felt a physical vulnerability in the face of the virus that's made me more empathetic and shifted my priorities to some degree…. In some ways I think that increased vulnerability has also re-sensitized me toward images of violence against black bodies, which my privilege had allowed me to tune out to some degree before.

The Code Switch hosts and their guest, Nicole Fisher, ended the podcast on a pessimistic note—they wished white people were acting out of a nobler set of motives than self-interest, or the irrational feelings that Fisher says arise during quarantines and have stimulated rioting and protests in many quarantines past. I guess I’m more cynical than them about human motivation, because I don't tend to trust coalitions built on selflessness or piety.

Past interracial coalitions and movements like the Populist Party of the 1890s that King spoke of have fallen apart when white people came to see their self-interests as in conflict with the interests of black folk. The concept of “loss aversion” helps us see why. According to one definition,  it’s “a cognitive bias that suggests that for individuals the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.” This is why revolutions generally arise from groups of relatively well-off people—people who have something to lose. The American rebels of 1776 were some of the most prosperous people on the planet at the time.

And sometimes perceptions matter more than reality. Black and white sharecroppers in the 1890s unified because they shared common economic interests—they were both victims of a system of agricultural labor that was not that much better than slavery. But propagandists managed to convince them that what W.E.B. Du Bois called the psychological wage of racism—the feeling of being superior to all black people and some concrete benefits that came with it—was more valuable than escaping the sharecropping system. It’s hard to imagine that such propaganda could be as successful today. We live in very different times. But you never know.

Enough blue collar union democrats drifted away from the Democratic Party and the New Deal coalition in the 1970s to make the rise of Reagan conservatism possible. The causes of that drift are complicated and it’s impossible to separate them, but most historians (though not all ) think race played some role—that the so-called “Southern Strategy” was parallel to the Bourbon appeal to white sharecroppers in the 1890s.

So, as always, we are left with questions. Will this moment of apparent interracial unity be more long-lasting than similar moments in the past? Will the black and white protesters form the core of a political coalition that holds together long enough to elect a government that will support policies that address the unease of both white and black protesters? And among the white majority of American voters, what combination of rational and irrational, self-interested and altruistic motives will somehow come together in the weeks and months and years ahead. It’s good to feel hopeful, but better to have a plan that is informed by reality, how people behave, how things really work in a democracy and what the lessons of history suggest.

Some related readings

Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.

Mike Maxwell, Future-Focused History Teaching.

Lawrence Goodwyn The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America.

WEB Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.  (Michael McCord sees parallels between Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and Trump’s habit of stoking of grievances. “The Southern Strategy wasn’t solely about race. It was about a new way of politics. Nixon’s cynical poison would infect every cultural wedge issue imaginable in the following decades.”)

Ross Douthat, "The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders," New York Times, June 23, 2020.  This came out after I posted here and offers a less hopeful vision of the protests.  See also, this comment on the article, which predicts that the BLM protests will morph into a Sanders-style movement. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

Protest, violence, hope

Protests erupted all over the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police last week. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but many erupted in violence: vandalism, firebombing, the smashing of windows.

Atlanta’s African-American mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, appealed to the protestors to stop: “What are you changing by tearing up a city? You’ve lost all credibility now. This is not how we change America. This is not how we change the world.”  Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice King, echoed that sentiment: "The only way we get what we really want is through non-violence." 

But is that true? History suggests that disorder may be necessary to force change in a system that is resistant to it. And the system of US policing does seem to be resistant to reform, in spite of all kinds of peaceful methods: videotaping of countless police killings of black men and women; marches and rallies; petitions; commissions; federal investigations and guidelines. According to the New York Times, the Minneapolis police department has had a “long history of accusations of abuse,” yet never bothered to put federal recommendations in place to improve the way it tracks those complaints and removes officers who pose a danger to the public.

I would venture to guess that a solid majority of the American electorate supports the sort of policing reforms that would have got Officer Derek Chauvin fired at some point during the two decades, when he was the subject of “at least 17 misconduct complaints,” preceding the killing of George Floyd .

But it is the “cruel irony” of representative democracy that its “core purpose”—“to allow democratic majorities to realize their claims, however ambitious, in a thoroughly institutionalized fashion”—is “rarely realized in practice.”

Maybe riots and looting are necessary to get the attention of the powers that be.

My favorite political scientist, James C. Scott, argues that change benefiting the least affluent 80 percent of the people rarely happens “unless a sudden and dire crisis catapults the poor into the streets.”

As evidence, he points to the major reform periods in US history—the 1930s and the 1960s—and the “vital role massive disruption and threats to public order played in the process of reform.” There is no doubt in my mind that those reforms—the minimum wage, the right to join a union, voting rights for blacks, among many other things—significantly improved life for the bottom 80 percent, myself included.

But Scott also warns that protest can backfire. “It would be wrong and, in fact dangerous to claim that such large-scale provocations always or even generally lead to major structural reform. They may instead lead to growing repression, the restriction of civil rights, and, in extreme cases, the overthrow of representative democracy.” (Scott, 16-22).

Or they could lead to reforms that do more harm than good. I happen to be reading about protest uprisings in the 13 original US states after the Revolution, the best known of which was Shays’s Rebellion, out in western Massachusetts, where farmers took up arms against a state government they considered to be insufficiently democratic and dominated by moneyed interests whose fiscal and monetary policies were ruinous to agriculture.

The rebellion was put down, and the leaders punished. But pro-farmer candidates swept into office in the next election and enacted policies that provided relief to farmers.

But opponents of the agricultural majority had the final say. They used fear of disorder and anarchy throughout the states—episodes like the “paper money riot” of 1786 in Exeter New Hampshire— to convince enough national leaders to convene a constitutional convention in Philadelphia and draft a new national government that was less democratic and less responsive to the bottom 80 percent than what it replaced. This new system's many checks against majoritarian tyranny has made it astonishingly resistant to the will of the general population—more so, perhaps, than any other democratic government in the world today, according to a study by Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz.  In fact, in just a few years after this new government was put in place, western farmers in Pennsylvania took up arms in protest against another set of economic policies that they felt were ruining them.

We can never predict how our actions will affect the future.

The western farmer rebellions of the 1780s and 90s, like the recent riots in American cities, were more spontaneous than planned. Is it possible, through more systematic planning and strategizing, to organize protests that create disorder and even “massive disruption” and are more likely to stimulate positive change without triggering a backlash?

In his detailed history of the early years of the Civil Rights movement, Taylor Branch shows how Martin Luther King used the failures of the Albany, Georgia, campaign of 1962 to plan and organize a more successful campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the following year. “King always had entered popular movements more or less haphazardly,” Branch writes. 
Now, since his public stature made anything he did a referendum on his principles, pragmatism demanded that he design his own test. He needed advance planning, training, and mobilization on a specific rather than a general target area. In short, he needed control of a concentrated effort, maximizing both his risk and his chances for spectacular success. To his staff, King announced his resolve to swear off spontaneous rescue missions. "I don’t want to be a fireman anymore" (Branch, 632).
Labor organizer Jane McAlevey calls this having a credible plan to win, and in her devastating critique of the contemporary left, she argues that much of its activism is a matter of self-expression, emotional release or virtue signaling rather than well-planned actions likely to bring about a specific result. She contrasts that with the devastating effectiveness of more deliberately planned movements on the right. McAlevey is particular critical of posting on social media as a political act. (Eitan Hersh makes a similar critique of the left.)

But even with all of his elaborate planning in Birmingham, King was not able to exert total control over circumstances and results. As in Albany, Birmingham protests were constantly shadowed by the threat of violence, from white supremacists who opposed his movement, Bull Connor’s police department, and African Americans who were not part of King’s disciplined, non-violent army and who sometimes erupted in riots in response to violence against the peaceful protestors. For example, after white supremacists bombed a black church and the Gaston Motel, where King and other protest leaders were staying during the Birmingham campaign, 2,000 black rioters—one heard chanting “an eye for an eye”—hurled bricks and rocks at cops, broke storefront windows, torched a grocery store, and set a parked car on fire (Branch, 794-5).

In both Albany and Birmingham, King went out of his way to stop the spontaneous violence, which he thought would undermine his movement by turning national opinion against it. In both cities, he went so far as to make a tour of saloons and pool halls, places he thought had been launching pads for the rioters. Branch describes King's “peacemaker’s tour of Albany’s Negro dives”:

They popped into pool halls and beer joints . . . . like space travelers from another planet. “I have brought you the symbol of non-violence," [Ralph] Abernathy announced to startled, surly customers, and King labored to overcome the pompous effect. “I hate to hold up your pool game,” he said. “I used to be a pool shark myself." Loosening his tie and taking a pool cue, King showed them a few of the shots he had learned at Crozer [Theological Seminary]. Over this icebreaker, he told them that bottle-throwing played into the hands of the segregationists. “We don't need guns and ammunition just the power of souls,” he said (Branch, 619; on Birmingham’s pool hall tour: 798, 801).

Yet King later tried to harness the impact of riots to advance his cause. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said in a 1967 speech at Stanford University. And he sought to interpret that language for the American public.
What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.
As Scott says, disorder and violence might lead to progress or repression. The experience of rebels in the early American republic suggest it can also lead to “reforms” that make things worse. Rioting in Birmingham and many of America’s cities throughout the sixties may have helped to push Congress and the president toward enacting legislation like the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts. It might also have fostered a growing national obsession with “law and order,” which led to the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the sort of aggressive policing that got George Floyd killed this week. King certainly tried to influence the nation to choose the former path. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again,” he said, prophetically. “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention” (emphasis added).

We many never know if King’s non-violent campaigns would have had more or less success if they had not been accompanied by the massive attention-getting riots that occurred in American cities during the “long hot summers” of the 60s. But one of the most hopeful things I’ve heard in the last few months was in an interview with Erica Chenoweth, a scholar who has studied the relative effectiveness of peoples’ movements around the world.  She and Maria J. Stephan, studied movements from 1900 to 2006 and concluded that non-violent ones succeeded about half the time, while only 25 percent of movements that used or threatened violence succeeded.  The violent campaigns that did succeed took three times longer than non-violent ones. Both violent and non-violent movements created disorder, for sure, but non-violent ones were better at mobilizing more participants, more resistant to state oppression, more flexible in their tactics. And their results were more resistant to later backsliding.

Taylor Branch argues that King’s magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech “planted him as a new founding father.” I agree, but less because, “the emotional command of his oratory gave King the authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice,” than because he worked out a new element in the American democratic system by which the people could get around the Constitution’s barriers to the popular will (Branch, 887). But the methods he and others developed are not easy or simple to follow. They require courage, persistence, long-term thinking, strategic pragmatism, and an immense willingness to sacrifice. The foot soldiers of King’s army did much more than post selfies of themselves at weekend rallies. They subjected themselves to violent retribution, extended time in southern jails, and dangerous freedom rides, sit-ins, and voter-registration drives. No one should be expected to subject themselves to such rigors, however, in the absence of a “credible plan to win.” A proper education in American history and government should give equal attention to what Branch calls King’s second founding of the American Republic 57 years ago on the mall of the capital as it gives to the first one, at Lexington, Concord, and Philadelphia two centuries ago.  And students should learn how to recognize credible strategies for political engagement and victory.

During the current wave of protests, some have speculated that violence has been caused by provocateurs, either of the far left or the far right, who oppose the peaceful protests. Whether that’s the case or not, such speculation comes from a general feeling (which I share) that arson, looting, and vandalism are more likely to undermine than advance the cause of racial justice or reform of policing, and that they are not part of a credible political plan. They are even less likely to have a salutary effect than the sixties riots, because the movement lacks a moral leader of King’s stature who might help the nation interpret the message in the rioting that we have “failed to hear.”

The current disorders may stimulate worthy reform, or a repressive backlash. Only history will tell. But they do show that there is popular energy that can be harnessed to challenge injustice in the status quo. Such energy has succeeded often in history and throughout the world to bring progress, according to Professor Chenoweth, who said that in the process of doing her research, talking with people involved in protests, she has developed “a much greater sense of humility and awe at the way that the human spirit shines through many of these patterns of resistance” (Ezra Klein Podcast @ about 30 minutes).

That, to me, sounds like a cause for hope during these bleak times.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. This essay is one in a series I've been writing on the role of hope in politics.  Here are links to the others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7 


Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)

On rebellions in the early Republic, see

Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

Leonard Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006)

Also, see Ross Douthat's recent column arguing that violence undermines the impact of non-violent protest.

This critique of the condemnations of protest violence argues that riots reflect a worthwhile expression of "proletarian fury.”