This Week, Democratic Protest Outlasted Riot and Repression

Fascism got out to an early lead, but a late comeback won the week for democracy.

A week ago, peaceful protests by day were competing with violence by night: violence by protesters, violence by opportunistic looters, violence from mysterious agitators seeking a wider conflict, and violence by police. President Trump seemed to think this unrest worked in his favor politically — perhaps his re-election campaign could ride a wave of white backlash, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 — so he ignored the peaceful protests, denounced the rioters, and focused on “dominating” American streets with overwhelming force.

That cycle peaked Monday. Washington D.C. had no governor with the authority to object, so Trump brought in National Guard units from across the country, and moved 1,600 active-duty troops to nearby bases. (According CNN, those troops were not used; “no active duty forces have entered the city yet to respond to civil unrest.”) CBS News reported a heated meeting at the White House Monday, when Trump demanded that the Pentagon deploy 10,000 active-duty troops in the streets in cities across the country. (To get around the restrictions the Posse Comitatus Act puts on military law enforcement, Trump would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act.) Defense Secretary Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley all opposed the idea.

But if the Army wasn’t deployed, another ominous force was: unidentified federal police, who would say only that they came from the Department of Justice. They had no name tags or other means of identification, and hence zero accountability. One protester nailed the issue:

God forbid if there’s an escalation of violence and there’s a video circulating of an officer using his baton on a protester, and there’s no way to identify who that officer is,

Also Monday morning, after a conversation with his autocratic mentor, Vladimir Putin, Trump berated governors in a teleconference, calling them “weak” if they did not call out the National Guard and “dominate the streets”.

Trump also claimed to know the sinister conspiracy he needed to dominate: Antifa, which Wikipedia describes as “a diverse array of autonomous groups”. Trump is often best answered by laughter, so the satire site Beaverton posted: “ANTIFA surprised to discover it is an organization“.

“All this time all I thought I was doing was taking direct action to fight nazis,” stated self-professed anti-fascist Mattheus Grant of Eugene, OR. “But when I learned that I’m actually a member of an organization, I got so excited! Maybe we can get an office now?”

More seriously, The Nation obtained a situation report on the D.C. protests from the FBI’s Washington field office (WFO):

based on CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison, FBI WFO has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.

So either Trump knew more than the FBI, or he just made this up.

The photo op. Trump’s photo-op stunt with an Episcopal Church as a backdrop and a Bible as a prop happened Monday evening.

That PR gimmick began a half hour before curfew with an attack on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. After the crowd was cleared away, Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church to have his photo taken holding up a Bible. Brandishing the Bible like a weapon seemed to be the only use he could think of.

Leaders from The Episcopal Church have condemned the reported use of tear gas and projectiles to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, so President Donald Trump could use it for an unauthorized photo op on June 1.

Video of the attack is disturbing in some places and boring in others, but I recommend watching chunks of it, particularly after the 30-minute mark when the police begin moving the crowd.

What I see in that video are angry but entirely non-violent demonstrators, mostly young adults and a surprising (to me) number of whites. Police push them back with gas, exploding projectiles, shields, and horses.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the baldly false statement issued by the Park Police afterwards:

At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. … As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park

The video shows none of this, and none of the journalists covering the demonstration saw it. In the video, the police look entirely undisturbed. They do not flinch to avoid projectiles, and nothing bounces off their shields. After the police begin to fire gas and advance, I noticed two or three water bottles hit the pavement in front of them. The bottles hit with a splash — they are not frozen — and do not hit the police. No one appears to be trying to grab police weapons.

As the week went on, more and more people in the administration claimed to have nothing to do with the decision to launch this attack. No one was responsible. Not Mark Esper. Not General Milley. Not even Bill Barr. Success has many fathers, the proverb says, but failure is an orphan. By that standard, Trump’s church-and-Bible photo op was a failure.

Damage to America’s standing in the world. If you think this combination of factors — calling out the military against protesting crowds, blatant lying, secret police, using low-flying military helicopters to intimidate dissidents, attacking journalists, and denouncing imaginary conspiratorial enemies — sound like the kind of autocratic response to dissent that the US usually condemns, you’re not the only ones who noticed. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who learned about autocracy by studying Putin, described it as “the performance of fascism“.

A power grab is always a performance of sorts. It begins with a claim to power, and if the claim is accepted—if the performance is believed—it takes hold. Much as he played a real-estate tycoon in the most crude and reductive way, Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it. In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.

China noticed too, and gloated. The editor of China’s Global Times tweeted:

The US repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself “beacon of democracy”. The era that the US political elites could exploit Tiananmen incident at will is over.

And Thai Enquirer couldn’t resist an ironic jab at the oh-so-superior United States: “Unrest continues for a seventh day in former British colony“.

The United States has had a long history of suppressing and persecuting its various ethnic minorities since the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.

The treatment of its indigenous ‘Native Americans,’ its imported Asian and Black communities, and its Hispanic community has long been a source of friction.

American black minority groups were under a program similar to South Africa’s Apartheid policy until as recently as 1964. Today, the ethnic black community is still detained and killed with impunity by the state security forces and black Americans make up the majority of those incarcerated under the country’s archaic judicial system.

Religion also plays a major role in governance with religious beliefs separating key state organs including the country’s highest court where many social laws are passed based on the justices’ personally held religious convictions.

In short, US ambassadors around the world have just seen their moral authority collapse.

In addition to Trump’s proposed misuse of the Army, his unilateral dismantling of America’s soft power is probably a major factor causing previously silent military figures to speak out: Trump’s ex-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to name two out of many.

Peaceful protest wins out. But if Trump imagined that unleashing police power on the protesters at Lafayette Park would intimidate them, he was wrong. On Tuesday they were back in larger numbers, and have not stopped protesting near the White House since. Friday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the section of 16th Street that ends at Lafayette Park “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and painted an enormous “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement. (In the vanishing point of the photo below, you can barely make out the White House.)

Bowser’s move was an institutional version of the well-known protest chant: “Whose streets? Our streets.”

Wednesday, President Obama filled the healing role that Trump has left vacant, urging young African Americans to “feel hopeful even as you may feel angry”. Don’t choose between protest in the streets and action within the political system, he advised. Do both.

This is not an either-or. This is a both-and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented. … Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals, has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing in a peaceful, disciplined way to be out there making a difference.

A memorial service for Floyd was held in Minneapolis on Thursday, and another in Raeford, North Carolina (where he was born) on Saturday. Both were surrounded by emotional, but nonviolent, crowds.

That turned into the pattern across the nation. As the week went on, violence faded and peaceful protest gained momentum. The largest protests occurred this weekend unblemished by violence from either looters or law enforcement.

Strikingly, protests occurred all over the country, in small towns as well as big cities, and included many whites as well as people of color. (Mitt Romney marched Sunday in Washington.) In this photo, taken Wednesday a few blocks from where I live in Bedford, Massachusetts, two passing police stop in the Great Road to take a knee in front of the protesters on the town common. The officers were later commended by the police chief, and every protester I’ve talked to was touched by the gesture. (Our local protests continued all week; I attended on Friday.)

There are two ways to interpret the late-week peace. In one narrative, the overwhelming display of force on Sunday and Monday sent the message that protester violence would not be tolerated. As rioters went away, law enforcement withdrew. But in another narrative, it was law enforcement’s lower profile that de-escalated the cycle of violence.

One inarguable point, though, is that the absence of burning buildings and marauding police left the media little to cover other than the substance of the protests. By this weekend, there was increasing discussion of proposals to get America’s police back under control. (See the next article.)

Thoughtful people can disagree about whether the early-week violence was necessary to focus the nation’s attention. But it was clearly necessary for that violence to end so that the message could be absorbed.

In the end, on balance, it was a good week for democracy and for the nation. But we’ll need a lot more good weeks to see change take root.

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  • Kenneth Apple  On June 8, 2020 at 10:32 am

    I take some issues from your basic thesis. You use the word violence to cover two very different things. Violence is not property damage. While there was some actual violence against the persons of police officers, it was extremely rare. Because the police have a near monopoly on use of force, and the accouterments that go with it. The violence, in the sense of force used against human beings, was nearly all on one side. A few thrown water bottles. These claims keep being made and in virtually all cases, like Lafayette park, the ‘explosive devices’ in Seattle clearly marked ‘candle’, turn out to be police propaganda.

    The overwhelming show of force early by police did not curtail property damage, not violence, it encouraged it. It caused it in many cases. When you use indiscriminate violence against whole crowds, you incite incidents. This is not a flaw in police plans, it’s crowd control 101 circa 1968. You incite the crowd through the use of kettling, the crowd reacts, and any use of force becomes justified. When the cops back off, incidents go down. If you were to design crowd control techniques from the ground up to actually protect peaceful protesters and property….I don’t know what that would look like. It’s never been done in this country. But it doesn’t look like the outright police misconduct on the scale we’ve seen the last week.

    So many of the police units that took a knee turned around and gassed whole crowds for little to no reason. During this week of police misconduct no cop turned on another. The good cop narrative is no longer useful, and should be discarded.

    In Ferguson in 2014 they passed a law against standing still, so that anybody not moving along invited arrest. It is an excuse to use the state monopoly on actual physical harm. Curfews are the same. They don’t, ever, calm the situation, they just allow overblown reaction. You have, in the piece, largely confused cause and effect.

    • weeklysift  On June 8, 2020 at 10:55 am

      We’re getting into semantics here, but I continue to think that breaking windows and setting fires are violent acts. If my livelihood depended on the small shop my family owned and operated, I believe I’d rather be tear-gassed than have my windows broken and my store looted.

      • Anonymous  On June 8, 2020 at 12:20 pm

        But there’s already a word for that. Vandalism. If we conflate these two things you play into the police narrative.

        We gassed and dispersed a violent mob. Versus, we gassed and beat a group of protesters who were just in our line of sight when somebody, who we didn’t catch, broke a window.

        Semantics it is. The cops use it to their benefit. You’re just buying into their usage, said usage is not neutral or precise.

      • Anonymous  On June 8, 2020 at 12:25 pm

        Think about the language that would have surrounded George Floyd’s death without cameras. Subject resisted arrest and had to be restrained. There was a medical incident that led to his death.

        Language meant to deflect blame. Passive language. One side in this conflict has a near monopoly on violence. The police. But if both sides are violent, well, that becomes understandable. Okay. And this language and these tactics are designed to lead to that conclusion.

      • Kenneth  On June 8, 2020 at 12:49 pm

        And are those the choices? Would you rather a crowd of peaceful protesters were gassed and beaten than your store vandalized? Hospitalized? How many hospitalizations are okay? What if it was a right wing agitator who broke the window?

        If the police came and tried to catch actual vandals, that would be one thing, but it’s all just excuses to use actual violence against protesters and the press. That bargain you’re making for your shop is the bargain white america has been making for two hundred years.

      • Kenneth  On June 8, 2020 at 12:52 pm

        How many times have you been gassed while pelted with rubber bullets (semantics again to make them seem like they don’t mess you up) sprayed with pepper spray while running for your life? Just as a measure.

      • weeklysift  On June 8, 2020 at 2:11 pm

        My point was not to say that the looted store justifies tear-gassing the crowd. My point is that we have to have some sympathy with people who are losing something they’ve spent their lives building. Brushing that off as “property damage” is heartless.

      • Kenneth Apple  On June 8, 2020 at 3:36 pm

        Fair enough. Agreed whole heartedly. Conflating it with systematic police oppression using their monopoly on violence, by using the same word to describe the two, does not convey that sentiment in a useful way.

      • Kenneth Apple  On June 8, 2020 at 3:38 pm

        And using the exact same language the police force uses to justify extreme response is counter productive. There has to be a better way to make that point.

      • Kenneth  On June 8, 2020 at 3:53 pm

        Your point wasn’t that it justifies gassing and pepper spray and batons and rubber bullets. If it was I wouldn’t read your stuff. If it was I wouldn’t have commented. But the language of the police does implicitly make that point. And it’s the same language. We need a different way to talk about it. Otherwise we are letting a very toxic police language frame the discussion.

    • Jacqueline (Bonin) Gargiulo  On June 8, 2020 at 10:57 am

      Good points, Kenneth. I will note that our suburban town protest, organized by our youth and mostly white, was well protected by our police department. You wondered if there were any examples. This is what came to mind. I am duly aware of the influence of our white population and participation had. What we want is for the same positive bias to be extended to our brothers and sisters of color.

  • Anonymous  On June 8, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    “Died in police custody”

    Some news reports talked about a police officer who knelt on a guy’s neck after he was already handcuffed Some used the phrase “died in police custody” – like some people “die in the hospital,” some people “die at home” – it’s all the same thing… This guy didn’t “die in police custody,” he was “calmly murdered in police custody.” It got me wondering how many other times “died in police custody” really meant “murdered.”

    • Kenneth Apple  On June 8, 2020 at 1:24 pm

      A lot. But don’t worry. It’s semantics.

      • weeklysift  On June 8, 2020 at 2:19 pm

        Hey, I’m not the guy trying to make a distinction between setting fire to something and “violence”. When the KKK used to burn the houses of blacks trying to move into white neighborhoods, was that “violence” or just “vandalism”?

      • Kenneth Apple  On June 8, 2020 at 2:57 pm

        I’m not the guy trying to make out the KKK and a bunch of mostly peaceful protesters as using the same tactics. A ton of those KKK were specifically there as a threat of physical injury and death. The bulk of the damage done during the protests is, however much it impacts someone, not a threat of death. And they are used an as excuse.

        I’ve been following you for a long time. You have written thoughtful and irreplaceable pieces that I still link my friends to. It is odd to me that you feel the need to conflate mostly incidental damage done by a small, small minority, then used to justify the majority’s suppression, with the KKK. All I’m asking for is precise language. For a writer that would seem an obvious point.

        And there is a difference. If someone is setting fire to my house, I don’t get to shoot him and kill him under most circumstances unless my family is in there in danger. I don’t get to spray the crowd that has gathered in my neighborhood or the EMT’s arriving to give first aid with pepper spray. There is, indeed, a difference.

        This is very reminiscent of All Buildings Matter. You are conflating things with people. That is the language used to justify outright police misconduct. Always has been in these situations. That ‘died in police custody’ wasn’t about you. It was about how the police use language to justify the most heinous of acts. I apologize if that was seen as a personal attack. I have tried to be precise and non personal here. To make my point about how language is used, and for what purpose.

  • Dave Weissbard  On June 8, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Oh, do I know and miss the intersection of the Great Road and Springs Road! Wow! How the Bedford Police Department has changed!

  • Kris  On June 8, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    “A week ago, peaceful protests by day were competing with violence by night: violence by protesters, violence by opportunistic looters, violence from mysterious agitators seeking a wider conflict, and violence by police. “

    The violence by police towards protesters has ample video evidence of unprovoked pushing, shoving, baton smacking, rubber bullet shooting, pepper spraying, tear gassing, kettling, and kneeling on necks. Credentialed reporters who identified themselves were also the target of this violence. One woman of the press lost an eye. All in situations in which there is a clear imbalance of power. The cops are armed and armored. The protestors are not. This is the violence by police that is mentioned but not elaborated upon nor qualified in your first paragraph.

    The other types of violence that you mention and seem to equate with the police violence are…what?

    What violence was done by protestors? Were protestors hurting people who could not fight back? Was there the same sense of an inequal balance of power? Are there some specific acts of violence that protestors were engaging in that didn’t fall under the category of the “opportunistic looters?” What was the type of violence done by “mysterious agitators?”

    If you were to guess, based on all the video of these protests, how many police officers were violent towards unarmed protestors, Vs the number of your other three categories of people who were also called violent, how even do you believe those numbers to be?

    Do we count depraved indifference to the injured as police violence? What about the destruction by the police of medical stations and supplies, something specifically off limits in war under the Geneva conventions.

    The police have the directive to protect and to serve we pay them for that. Did they violate that directive?

    Many videos I saw were white people breaking windows and looting and spray painting. There was at least one video of cops breaking window of a business. There were videos of protestors telling those mysterious agitators not to vandalize. We have a history that you are well aware of, of our own government using these tactics to discredit earlier civil rights movements. But all these are violence, equates in that first paragraph.

    Do these four categories of violence even belong in the save sentence?

    A week ago, peaceful protests were met, in cities all over the country, with extreme police violence. This prompted the protest movement to grow in support and police violence to escalate.

    Video of Violence and looting, often perpetrated by mysterious agitators, became the catalyst for curfews, which the police used as an excuse for cracking down even harder.

    Businesses in minority owned areas have banded together in support of the movement and each other, while armed groups of militias, similar to the groups who brought high powered weaponry into the legislature without repercussions, were seen standing guard outside local Target, Hobby Lobby, and other chain retail stores.

    In my little mostly white town, we had a lone black teen standing by the meridian with a sign asking “am I next?” Some saw him and formed a group to support him and his family. A local business owner saw that a march was planned, to walk from the fairgrounds to the library, followed by some speakers. He went on local neighborhood Facebook groups and suggested all his 2nd amendment friends should meet at his bar and go help the police prevent looting.

    Some violence is used to threaten and intimidate. Some, I would argue lessor, is an expression towards objects, that is born out of frustration. Some is intended to stir things up, and incite more violence.
    They are not equal.

    Justice, equity and compassion in human relations Includes taking care to recognize the context of and the difference in power dynamics of the violence.

    Protest is Part of the democratic process, and there certainly appears to be an organized group that is clearly engaged in an abuse of our principles and the public trust, and a loosely related Group that is trying to affirm and promote the ideals of our nations foundational principles of equal justice.

    I hope that you will take some time to reconsider the framing of your initial paragraph. It doesn’t sound like the compassionate And thoughtful person who usually siftS through our weekly news.

    This doesn’t seem to be a “both sides” issue.

  • Marty  On June 9, 2020 at 12:28 am

    Unblemished by violence by law enforcement? Really?

    What do you call this?

    I would say that the police using gas to disperse protesters in Seattle is a blemish. Law enforcement is still attacking peaceful protesters.

  • Kathy Campbell  On June 14, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Thanks for this: And Thai Enquirer couldn’t resist an ironic jab at the oh-so-superior United States: “Unrest continues for a seventh day in former British colony”. Perfect.


  • By Order and Conflict | The Weekly Sift on June 8, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “This Week, Democratic Protest Outlasted Riot and Repression” and “How Should American Policing […]

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