Protesting for Disruption’s SakePublished in First Things
Disruption can be an effective protest tactic if limited and carefully targeted. But disruption seems to have been the ultimate purpose of the recent “Ferguson” eruptions — and I am referring not to the rioters but to the nonviolent marchers who closed down bridges, stopped trains, and blocked traffic. We all know why the protesters are upset. Grand juries refused to indict police officers in the deaths of African-Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Their anger and disappointment are understandable.
But what is now being accomplished by preventing tired commuters from getting home for dinner? Or by impeding Christmas shoppers at Macy’s? Where is the progressivism in blocking a San Francisco Bay Area freeway for hours last Monday night, requiring the emergency evacuation of a woman in labor from the miles-long traffic jam? No justice, no birth!
It seems to me that these protests are about disruption for disruption’s sake. Blocking roads does not enlighten. Disrespect doesn’t challenge consciences. Using raw mob intimidation to coerce a legal result does not further justice.
I am reminded in all this of the angry protests in the wake of the 1970 Kent State killings by a frightened and ill-trained Ohio National Guard unit during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. That tragedy shook my generation to its core. The killed could have been any of us, we knew, particularly since some of those shot weren’t protesters. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young expressed our fears when they sang:
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
We’re finally on our own,
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
But rather than harnessing the sympathy that tragedy generated to further the cause of peace, radicals quickly took control, disrupting classes and closing college campuses — in much the same way as today’s freeway squatters — shouting down all discussion with, “On strike, shut it down! On strike, shut it down!”
The dead students quickly faded into the background as the protestors became the issue. That approach not only badly damaged the Peace Movement but also, ironically, contributed significantly to the overwhelming reelection of President Nixon.
How shabby the current disruptions are compared to America’s many successful social protest movements that succeeded by defining their goals clearly, convincing people to accept reform through patient persuasion, and, when necessary, stoically accepting unfair lawful punishment — the essential core of civil disobedience so often overlooked today.
The fight for women’s suffrage epitomizes that model. Over decades, the suffragettes’ patient outreach, peaceful marches, and sheer indomitability — before automobiles, Susan B. Anthony even trekked to mines high in the Rocky Mountains to explain why women should receive the franchise—convinced men to pass the 19th Amendment. Society was justly reformed through a piercing moral appeal—not disruption—and no one ever looked back.
Likewise, the protest against Jim Crow’s segregated lunch counters. The civil rights activists didn’t block the doors at Woolworths. They didn’t hide their identities behind Guy Fawkes masks. They didn’t prevent anyone from ordering a hamburger. Rather, a few African-Americans just sat quietly at a counter where segregation values claimed they didn’t belong. The real disrupters were the racists who refused service and had them hauled away in handcuffs.
Ditto the Birmingham Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks wouldn’t change her seat. Boycotters didn’t prevent buses from running their schedules. They didn’t block bus stops. They simply walked where they wanted to go—allowing the laws of economics to induce change.
The gay rights movement may have started with a riot. But whatever one thinks of its goals, the movement’s peaceful and focused strategies — urging gay people to risk “coming out,” embracing the bourgeois respectability of marriage, engendering public sympathy with the AIDS Memorial Quilt — drew people to the cause rather than frightening them away from it. Indeed, having witnessed the horrors of the AIDS epidemic in mid-1990s San Francisco, I found the Memorial Quilt particularly evocative, its thousands of “patches”—personalized tributes to deceased loved ones — sewn together into a quilt that eventually grew so large that it covered the Mall in Washington, D.C.
It is a telling indictment of our times that Ferguson protestors enjoy media sympathy and the winking encouragement of liberal elected officials up to and including the President of the United States. These same progressive political and media types supported harsh jail sentences for Operation Rescue demonstrators who nonviolently impeded the business of abortion clinics. Disruption mattered then. And remember the intense media hostility toward the peaceful — and clean — Tea Party protests, whose participants were slandered as somehow racist? It seems social protest is only worthy when it marches on the left side of the road.