Opinion / Politics

Peaceful Protests v. Violent Riots – History Teaches that Dangers Lurk

historyUnpack the current moment, one eye on history.  We have a chance to heal, but serious dangers lurk.  Too often, in this land where we try to improve, to respect every individual, balance freedom and equality, keep government limited, and protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” we fall short.

When we fall short, sometimes terribly short, Americans get strangely self-focused, start self-healing.  Our society tends to recognize failings, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, and seek correction.  A portion of society speaks up, using First Amendment rights to assemble, petition, and seek redress.

There is something unique about Americans. Down to the individual level, we have a profound sense of fairness.  With that, we try to fix things that go wrong.  We hate seeing wrongs unremedied, as much as we appreciate things going right.  We hate injustice, feel empowered to find resolutions and restore fairness.  It is in our character.

Some will call me an idealist or ethnocentric, but what students of history know is that we have always been this way.  Americans are different, as a function of our history.  We are not of one cultural or ethnic background, not like Europe, Russia, China, Far East, Middle East, Africa or even South America. We are different – bound to one another by ideals – like freedom, justice, and equality.

That is why, when we see an injustice, we react.  Our society uses First Amendment freedoms to throw light on darkness, awaken the conscience of fellow citizens, educate as much as legislate, infusing society with new understanding about what needs to be fixed.  We are at that moment now.

To be clear, our country has witnessed tens of thousands of protests, a strength of our nation.  Captive peoples in Communist China do not have the right.  We do have the right – with it the power of self-correction.   Credit again to our Founders.

Historically, protests have – as our Founders knew they would – helped us weather grief, educate and modulate, raising fairness over unfairness, equal treatment over unequal, and assuring fundamental liberties are never encroached or stolen by an all-powerful government.

In the spirit of 1773’s Boston Tea Party, following horrors of the Civil War, American farmers organized across the country between 1870 and 1900.  Their goal was to remedy monopolistic pricing and restore moral compass. They did, leaving the Grange, Farmer’s Alliance, and Populist Party.  Their example returned in 1979, when 3000 tractors descended on Washington DC – to halt farm foreclosures.

Likewise, the Women’s Suffrage “Procession” in 1913 was the first on Washington’s Mall, to be followed by others, including the Civil Rights March of 1963 with Martin Luther King, anti-Vietnam War protests in 1969, and so-called anti-nuclear and nuclear freeze marches during the 1980s.

Closer to our time, the Black community assembled a “Million Man March” in 1995 when Bill Clinton was in the White House, followed in 1997 by a “Million Woman March.”  Rallies against the Iraq War occurred in 2003, followed by a pro-abortion march in 2004, when George W. Bush was president.  The anti-abortion “March for Life” has filled the Mall annually since 1974.

All this leads to – now.  On the positive side, members of our society recoil at the racist, fundamentally cruel killing of a Black man by a police officer, as three others failed to intercede.  The video is searing. The death of George Floyd is an inflection point.  The First Amendment is being used.  It allows us to focus, become more introspective, and start self-healing.

But three dangers lurk.  The first – which afflicted protests in the 1970s – is that this effort at self-healing, addressing persistent inequalities, will be hijacked by violence.  Violent forces are afoot with no respect for democracy, no interest in peaceful resolution. They see the First Amendment as a weakness, chink in our armor, chance to promote anarchy and radical socialism – with violence.

That danger is made more acute by ignorance.  If we pretend that well-coordinated, pre-planned violence, spanning dozens of cities, is the same as a peaceful protest, we make a double mistake.  We miss the chance to have peaceful discussions producing positive change and self-healing.  Worse, we give the radical left – seeking to disrupt democracy – a chance.  Antifa mirrors the Weather Underground of the 1970s.  We cannot forget that.

The second danger lurks in mass turnouts.  In crowds, people become anonymous, often showing less personal responsibility.  Local police, currently backed by the National Guard, are important.  Mob violence – even without Antifa – can be destructive.  A combination of opportunism, unchecked anger, and greed has already done $400 million of damage, to which one can add burglaries, assaults, and deaths, shootings in Minnesota, California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and other states.

This brings me to the third danger – misunderstanding the role, temperament, training, and inherent value of men and women in blue, American law enforcement. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement is respectful of individual liberties, acutely aware of legal and moral imperatives, honors “equal protection,” and pursues justice with care.

Data lags, but police made 62.9 million public contacts in one recent year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They were “equally likely to initiate contact with blacks and whites.” One-in-eight adults, or 31.4 million Americans, called on police for assistance, with 85 percent satisfaction and no statistical difference between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics.  Nine-in-ten were willing to call again.

Finally, deterrence is a cornerstone of law enforcement.  Washington DC has 706,000 residents, only 3800 officers – a ratio of one to 144.  Los Angeles has four million residents, 9000 officers, a ratio of one to 444.  Cutting their numbers or support would be senseless – and dangerous.

In short, America is a nation premised on mutual respect, limited government, individual liberties, and the promise of equal protection.  We must keep striving for those ideals.  Our Constitution encourages peaceful self-healing.  The First Amendment makes that possible. Danger lurks in not healing, but also in misunderstanding the value of cohesion and law enforcement. History teaches that we must pull together – or we will surely be pulled apart.

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