In an editorial on Gods & Radicals from this month, Rhyd Wildermuth criticizes the American middle class for being afraid of violent protesters like Antifa and the Black Bloc anarchists, who incited the violence and destruction of property that occurred at UC Berkeley last month. According to Rhyd, nonviolent protest “is a strategy that coddles the concerns of the middle classes, especially their fears.” He also contends that “coddling” the middle class in this way is precisely how we’ve ended up with Donald Trump as our President. Rhyd then talks about how Antifa and Black Bloc groups are “breaking the spell of police invulnerability,” demonstrating to the American people that the state does not own a corner on the market of “legitimate violence.” Finally, he wraps up his editorial by questioning why he and his fellow resistance fighters should care about trying to win over the middle class. After all, “What good are allies too worried about what their neighbors might think if they risked arrest to change the world?”
There is much truth for us to consider in this editorial. For one thing, Rhyd points out that minorities and the poor have long been victims of police brutality, and that it is unreasonable to expect them to resist nonviolently when they are attacked. When some asshole in a uniform is busting your head in with a nightstick, wouldn’t you want one of your friends to come over and fight him off? I certainly can’t argue with that. If I were homeless and defenseless and some crooked cop were coming after me for no good reason, you’d better believe I’d do whatever I could to protect myself (which admittedly wouldn’t be much).
But that’s not what happened at UC Berkeley this month. It’s not what happened at the Presidential inauguration in January, or at the anti-Trump rallies back in November either. These were not situations in which minorities or the poor were being brutalized by the police. These are situations where peaceful anti-Trump protests were hijacked by assholes who specifically went there to commit violence, as well as to provoke further violence from the police. They even attacked innocent civilians who weren’t doing anything harmful or illegal, pepper-spraying them in their eyes and busting their ribs. And while it’s hard to be sure without knowing their identities, I’m willing to bet that many of these vandals are middle class themselves.
Don’t get me wrong; Milo Yiannopoulos is a major asshole, and he can go eat a bag of dicks for all I care. The peaceful protesters at Berkeley had every right to go out there and protest him being allowed to speak at the university. (Why an institute of higher learning would even want a devolved right-wing mutant to speak there in the first place, I’ll never know.) But we can react to jerkolas like Yiannopoulos in ways that will disturb people and make them think, but which don’t involve harming or threatening anyone physically. If spending a night in jail is one’s measure of success for these things, why not take some notes from Femen? Strip naked in public for everyone to see, and take a big ol’ dump on Donald Trump’s portrait. (“Dump-n-Trump!”) Lots of people will think it’s horrible and crass, and one will definitely be punished by the system for it somehow (starting with arrest, jail time, some restraining orders, and probably lots of fines). But people will certainly notice it, and they will certainly talk about it afterwards. I have much more respect for that sort of thing than I do for smashing windows, attacking people, or setting cars on fire. Do we want to take a stand against the system in a way that actually involves some personal risk? I say do it in a way that doesn’t involve forcing that same level of risk on everyone else; otherwise, one is just as much of a tyrant as the people one claims to fight.
At the end of the day, resorting to violent self-defense and staging a violent public demonstration are two different things, and we can appreciate one while rejecting the other. I side with the innocent who experience dubious “justice” at the hands of our police and government, but I don’t side with turning an otherwise peaceful public situation into a riot. It would be one thing if these people were to patrol their neighborhoods like those real-life superhero groups, looking for situations where police officers are brutalizing minorities or the poor. If they were inserting themselves into those situations to try and save the victims’ lives (despite any physical or legal repercussions), that would be far more commendable than upstaging nonviolent protests.