If you are a member of the police force, if you are a member of the National Guard, if you work in a sheriff’s office or a military base — at the end of the day, all you want to do is go home and take your shoes off.
And the next day, when you are working, you would like to have an easy day. You don’t want to have to break up a domestic dispute, you don’t want to worry about someone you’re approaching having a gun, you don’t want to have an angry protestor screaming in your face.
And you don’t go to bed at night thinking that you will hurt someone tomorrow, or throw teargas at them, or shoot rubber bullets — or real bullets. It’s just a job, and the less aggravation the better
My former father-in-law was a policeman who rose to the rank of Captain in a town near Hoboken, New Jersey. A good day for him was shooting the breeze with his fellow cops, or with store owners, or — literally — making sure that people could cross the streets safely at busy intersections. A regular guy.
My father spent his career in the military. Neither he, nor any member of his crew were militaristic. He repaired airplane engines at bases all over the United States. I know because we followed him from Florida to Alaska to New Hampshire to New Jersey…. And along the way I met a lot of GIs. They were regular people, not saints and not monsters. I used to joke that my dad stayed in the military because he liked living in a socialist state: job security, a regular paycheck, free medical and dental care for the whole family, and a guaranteed pension when he retired.
Activists: Keep this in mind when you take to the streets. People who are being asked to keep order are not your enemies. Unless your demonstration is specifically about the police in your town, you shouldn’t have a beef with them, and they don’t want to get into a tussle with you.
I say this because of Portland. I say this because of Seattle. I say this because of Philadelphia. In each of these cases, the police were too often treated as though they had committed whatever heinous act had been perpetrated by some rogue cop in some other city. Or as though they had shaped a policy to which you were objecting.
Why am I writing this? Because very soon we may have mass demonstrations all across the country. I’m talking about Election Day and the days after the Election.
Activists on the left and on the right are anticipating trouble, especially if the result is not clear on election night. Every day that the contest drags on will be fraught with tension. There will be demonstrations. There will be conflict.
As a Democrat and Biden supporter, I have been surprised to read that many Republicans believe that the Democrats are trying to — and capable of — stealing the election. I know that Trump says this, but this notion is abroad — just as we Democrats fear that Trump and his allies will try to steal the election. Perhaps even declare Martial Law!
Both sides are pretty worked up. Violence could ensue.
I can’t counsel the Right. They won’t listen to me. But I can try to counsel the millions of people who want to remove Trump from office and who are counting on the vote to make this happen. And I especially want to counsel the hundreds of thousands who make take to the streets, because I will be there too.
And my counsel is: No Violence on Our Side. If you encounter the police in the street, remember that none of those cops is Donald Trump. None of those cops is William Barr. None of those cops is Kellyanne Conway. Not a single one of those cops is a Republican Senator. And most likely, none sit in your state legislature. If our goal is “to speak truth to power,” then our focus must be on those who have actual power.
Ultimately the power to stop a coup or correct a gross injustice lies with the American people. Our appeal should be to them, Republican Americans, Democratic Americans, Non-Partisan Americans.
Screaming in the face of an individual policeman or policewoman will get us nowhere. Who knows? That cop might personally agree with you. Try talking.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King had it right: practicing non-violence gives us the moral high ground. It allows our message to be heard. It keeps us from being painted together with violent radicals and deliberate provocateurs. Our message must be clear: If you practice violence — You Are Not With Us.
If you throw Molotov cocktails — You Are Not With Us.
If you throw bricks — You Are Not With Us.
If you set fire to cars or stores or government buildings — You Are Not With Us.
If you loot stores — You Are Not With Us.
If you provoke the police, hoping that they will respond with violence — You Are Not With Us.
If the National Guard is called out, whether to provoke us or to restrain looters, treat them as you would the police. They are regular guys. With the possible exception of a few bad eggs, or a few covert militia members, they do not want to hurt you — and you should not want to hurt them. Keep your focus on the decision-makers.
If violence erupts on our side, it will not be enough to assert that “they are not with us.” We will need to actively resist the violent radicals and the provocateurs who will try to hijack our protest. Issuing statements will not be enough. We will need to non-violently block these people from violent actions. We will need to stand in their way. Do you get what I am saying: we will need to protect the police from them. We will need to intercede when there is looting. We will need to stop anyone who is preparing a Molotov cocktail or carrying a brick. How do you do this? You stand in front of them and you try to talk with them calmly. You remind them that the demonstration has adopted a non-violent discipline. You enlist others. If necessary, you report them. Don’t look the other way because their goals are supposedly our goals. If they intend to commit acts of violence, They Are Not With Us.
Believe me, you can be radical in the defense of Democracy and not be violent. Consider an initiative called ChooseDemocracy that is trying to prepare citizens for non-violent action. They have crafted a worst-case scenario pledge:
- We will vote.
- We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
- We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
- If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.
How do you “shut down” the country? You peacefully sit down in the office of the nearest Republican Trump supporter. Or you blockade the office. If parts of the state and federal bureaucracy are aiding a coup, you go there. You may be arrested. Others will replace you. Yes, you may be committing a “crime” in the cause of stopping the machinery of repression, but you will not be committing a violent crime. It is called Civil Disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, that was civil disobedience. When students “sat in” at segregated lunch counters, that was civil disobedience. When anti-war protestors tried to block a munitions train, that was civil disobedience. Non-violent civil disobedience is what the Gandhian movement used to force Britain to “quit India.”
ChooseDemocracy has developed a detailed guide to mass resistance called Hold The Line. And they are offering online training workshops for non-violent resistance. Each workshop has become full almost as soon as it is announced, so now they are training more trainers.
PROTECT THE RESULTS
Since writing this piece, I have learned of a National Coalition that is being formed to protect the election results. This coalition is called Protect the Results. They have actions planned for November 4 in over 180 locations around the country. Sponsors include MoveOn, Sierra Club, Common Cause, Indivisible, and and many grassroots peace organizations. See: https://protecttheresults.com/
PROTECT THE RESULTS has developed an organizer’s handbook. Of everything I have seen, It is the most thorough exploration of the danger that Trump poses and how to mount a disciplined response.
Here is their take on demonstrations and non-violence:
If Trump declares victory before all the votes are counted, makes unfounded claims that the election was “stolen,” tries to stop votes from being counted, or otherwise threatens the integrity of the election or the peaceful transition of power, Protect the Results will activate nationwide mobilizations. We think the likelihood of activation is high and ask that groups plan their events for 5pm local time on Wednesday, November 4.
Here’s what we think it will take to win:
Commitment to a strategy of nonviolent action: We commit to a nonviolent strategy for several reasons. First, we want to prioritize keeping people safe, especially those most at risk from rising threats of right-wing violence. Second, we want to win. Rigorous study of social movements has shown that nonviolent civil resistance is more effective than violence at resisting oppression and making change. We expect all participants to act lawfully at all times and to seek to de-escalate any potential confrontation with those who disagree with our values.
Our commitment to a strategy of nonviolent action is a strategic choice connected to what we believe is most effective in defending and preserving democracy and implies no moral judgment about people who feel they have a right to be violent in certain circumstances.
We expect all participants to act lawfully at all times and to seek to de-escalate any potential confrontation with those who disagree with our values. We expect all participants to respect one another and seek to heal and look out for one another. We seek to reduce the potential for people to get hurt, be unwell, and during a global pandemic, to fall ill.
So their non-violence is both strategic and tactical. On this we agree. However, I do not agree that we cannot make a moral judgement “about people who feel they have a right to be violent in certain circumstances.” Thus far, the violence that we have seen is not moral, no matter how outraged and self-righteous these activists may be. At best, we can say “we understand how you feel, but if you act violently — You Are Not With Us.”
Let’s hope that on Nov. 4 we will be celebrating, not protesting. But none of us can take a peaceful transition for granted. So be prepared, and remember that if we take to the streets we must stand firmly on the moral high ground.
Adam Corson-Finnerty is a Quaker, a local Democratic Committeeperson, and a writer.