In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing loss to Donald Trump — someone who had widely been regarded as the most un-electable candidate in the history of presidential politics — millions of liberals have stepped out of their yoga classes and re-emerged in our social movement spaces. And they brought their bad politics with them.
These masses who had been content to watch their hero, Barack Obama, deport immigrants in record numbers, bomb eight countries, and negotiate job-killing trade deals are now outraged at the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House.
In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, a broad coalition of sophisticated organizers working through the DC Welcoming Committee of #DisruptJ20 developed a bold and ambitious framework for actions at Trump’s inauguration. The #DisruptJ20 call to action put forward an ambitious vision:
“From day one, the Trump presidency will be a disaster. #DisruptJ20 will be the start of the resistance. We must take to the streets and protest, blockade, disrupt, intervene, sit in, walk out, rise up, and make more noise and good trouble than the establishment can bear. The parade must be stopped. We must delegitimize Trump and all he represents. It’s time to defend ourselves, our loved ones, and the world that sustains us as if our lives depend on it — because they do.”
Hundreds of people — mostly anarchists and other radicals — came together for planning meetings, strategy sessions, and action camps. A plan to blockade checkpoints into the parade route was hatched along with a permitted “Festival of Resistance,” and an un-permitted Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Fascist black bloc.
Anticipating different participants wanting to engage with the inauguration in different ways, the DC Welcoming Committee adopted the St. Paul Principles for solidarity in the streets. Key to the principles — which were developed through a process of negotiation in the lead up to the 2008 RNC protests in the Twin Cities — is a respect for a diversity of tactics and an agreement to ensure separation of time and space between tactics that don’t work well together.
St. Paul Principals
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the
plans of other groups.
2. The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of
time or space.
3. Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any
public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4. We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance,
infiltration, disruption, and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.
Then, one day before the inauguration a group of liberal organizers including the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington and coordinated by the thoroughly irrelevant “Democracy Spring” issued a call for non-violence at ALL inauguration events. They wrote “Any action that harms people or destroys property which can be attributed — even falsely — to our movements will empower Trump and the forces of hate and fear while weakening our resistance.” The writers went on to call on participants to participate in “self-purification” before participating in action (it is still unclear, however, if this refers some sort of bizarre communal cleansing ceremony, a self flagellation ritual, or something else completely).
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with non-violence — whether it’s tactical non-violence or non-violence born out of a political or moral ideology. I have agreed to principles of non-violence for numerous actions and I’ve even advocated for such statements at actions.
But the authors were not just dictating the tactics and tone of the actions they were organizing; they were attempting to dictate the tactics and tone of actions they had no hand in organizing, seeking to take agency away from others. This statement was dangerous because it sought to draw a line between “good protesters” and”bad protesters” implicitly encouraging law enforcement to engage in violent repression against individuals participating in activities that may be deemed as ‘violent.’ This statement seeks to legitimize state repression of dissent.
In the end, this statement may have led to very real consequences. On January 20th, the DC Metro Police broke from a 14-year tradition of refusing to kettle protestors or engage in mass arrests by summarily rounding up 217 people on riot charges. Police used gallons of tear gas indiscriminately and dozens of rounds of concussion grenades.
It’s unclear if the statement on non-violence had any impact on the conduct of the DC Metro Police on January 20th. It’s difficult (and terrifying) to understand the thoughts and motivations of law enforcement. But on January 20th we did see a major shift in an approach to policing that had been in place for more than a decade.
To be absolutely clear, my critique of the statement on non-violence is not a critique of non-violence or a position advocating violence (however you define it) or property destruction. I’m quite frankly, not interested in a debate about violence. My critique of the statement is a critique of the author’s unilateral attempts to take agency away from others and their role in legitimizing state violence.
The misguided and dangerous statement on non-violence is not the only time that bad liberal politics reared their ugly heads in social movement settings in recent weeks. The Women’s March on Washington drew heat early on from women of color who criticized the initial calls for the march for failing to be inclusive of issues impacting women of color, immigrants, and poor women. Organizers responded quickly by opening the organizing space and adopting a broad and progressive set of principles.
Sister marches in other cities didn’t always respond as gracefully. In Pittsburgh and in other cities the failure of Women’s march organizers to address concerns brought forward led women of color to organize a separate march altogether. Even the thoroughly silly looking ‘pussy’ hats drew criticism for excluding trans-women from the movement.
The debates between radicals and liberals about tactics and political analysis are not new, but liberals are stepping out of their whole foods lines and onto the picket lines and they are coming up in our social movements more than any time in the past eight years. With a federal government dominated by the far right, liberals who were active (and similarly problematic) during the Bush regime returning to social movement spaces.
As liberals re-join our social movements after an eight year hiatus we should resist their calls to adopt more centrist positions in the interest of appealing to ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they are). The center-left politics of the Democratic Party have clearly failed to build social movement power and there’s no reason begin embracing them now.
Rejecting center-left politics and organizing practices, however, doesn’t mean pushing away people who have historically embraced those politics. Now, more than any time in recent history, there is an appetite for a new political paradigm that rejects capitalism and the oppressive control of the state. People who supported Hillary Clinton because “she can win” and embraced center-left politics because they seem “realistic” are now realizing that Hillary couldn’t win and those center-left politics are no longer part of our political reality.
This is certainly not the time to retreat into our anarchist ghettos or radical-only playhouses. We need to organize, we need to mobilize, and we need to bring new people into our social movements. Be we need to maintain an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian political analysis and strong horizontal organizing models. We also need to be vigilant and keep our movements from becoming an arm of the newly-activist center-left Democratic party establishment.