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Militancy and its Discontents

What the civility conversation gets wrong about activism

In early July, historian David Greenberg issued a kind of warning about the current state of American politics, the latest entry on the hand-wringing over civility on the anti-Trump left. He’s not alone: recently a CNN anchor chided a commentator for calling Stephen Miller, the ostensible architect of Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, a “white nationalist.” Democratic Party leaders also criticized Rep. Maxine Waters after she encouraged supporters to “push back on” administration officials in public, as when protesters confronted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC. (Waters did not, as Donald Trump tweeted, incite anyone to violence.)

What makes Greenberg’s take different is that while others suggest that Trump opponents are “going low” by making the political personal and public, he also points to the historical record as evidence that such incivility portends something much darker. Greenberg warns that in the late 1960s the United States was in a political place very similar to where we are now, when anti-war activists saw fit to “[accost] administration officials and family members when they ventured out in public.” That kind of norm-breaking, he argues, is just a short slide away from the lethal violence practiced by the infamous Weather Underground during the 1970s. But Greenberg gets the politics of this moment fundamentally wrong.

I’ll step back for a moment and tip my hand: I’m writing this as both a historian of activism and an activist. Over the last year, I’ve been arrested on Capitol Hill and confronted elected officials in public as well. As a historian and citizen, I argue that both tactics are not only justified, but necessary.

Let’s be clear as to what David Greenberg gets wrong about the history of the American left. For one, the Weather Underground and similar groups occupy a much larger place in our historical imagination than they did in the massive anti-war and anti-racist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But a lot has also changed since then. As historian Dan Berger pointed out on Twitter, the radicals in Greenberg’s piece “were inspired by Leftist, anticolonial armed revolts the world over.” At that point, armed struggle seemed to win freedom for oppressed people elsewhere, and groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers adopted those tactics in turn. But that has changed: today, global freedom movements are relatively non-violent, and over the last four decades the U.S. left has largely used the kind of non-violent tactics (in notable contrast to the alt-right and its antecedents) that we’ve seen come back under the Trump administration. And many of those tactics were downright “nasty.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) used direct action to demand important changes to the way that AIDS was researched and treated in this country. Their work ultimately helped to save millions of lives. In the process, they broke all kinds of civic norms — they shouted down public officials, carried the bodies of dead friends through the streets of New York Cityflaunted their queer sexuality, and wrapped notoriously anti-gay Senator Jesse Helms’ vacation home with a giant condom. They also caught hell for it. Just a few weeks ago ACT UP veteran Peter Staley posted on Facebook, “If I had a dollar each time ACT UP was told to ‘be civil’ I’d be a rich man. If we had listened, I’d be dead.”

It’s no accident that ACT UP-style protest tactics have resurged under Trump. Since November 2016, veteran and novice activists have linked up and learned from one another. In early 2017, ACT UP offshoot Rise & Resist staged a “cough in” at a restaurant in Trump Tower to protest the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act. AIDS activists were also responsible for some of last summer’s demonstrations on Capitol Hill against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I know because I was there with them on more than one occasion. The first time that I went to Washington to practice civil disobedience, I was trained by activists who have spent decades using the tactic. Later that day, I was arrested with others whom I have admired since I began studying the history of activism as a graduate student.

Those actions exemplify the kind of protest that meets with Greenberg’s approval, which he sees as of a piece with the Gandhian nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement. But this kind of analysis represents what Dara T. Mathis has described as a “flattened” vision of King’s worldview. For King, she writes, “nonviolence did not constitute passivity or mollification, but a militant commitment to change.” Remember — as historian Tom Sugrue has urged — that King’s most famous piece of oratory lauded “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community,” and exhorted listeners to seize on “the fierce urgency of Now.”

In fact, the same activists who last summer taught a roomful of us the ins and outs of sit-ins also trained me — and hundreds, if not thousands of others — in “bird-dogging,” which Greenberg seems to suggest is downright dangerous. If you saw any of last year’s videos of constituents angrily confronting their Congressional representatives over the Republican health care agenda, then you’ve seen bird-dogging. It’s also the tactic that protesters employed recently when they confronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outside a restaurant in Louisville. And while bird-dogging is frequently passionate and impolite, it is definitely nonviolent.

It’s also a tactic that I have used myself. Two weeks ago, I ended up on a flight with Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who represents the South Florida congressional district adjacent to mine. When we deplaned, I had some questions for him about his stance on immigration — would he oppose family detention for people seeking asylum? Would he stop taking money from private prison companies that profit from immigrant detention? (His answer to both questions was no.)

Being questioned in the middle of the airport terminal probably made Curbelo uncomfortable, but in South Florida we have little other choice. According to the Town Hall Project, which tracks elected officials’ public events, he hasn’t held an in-person town hall since before Trump took office. Instead, he prefers “tele-town halls,” conference calls that are not open to the public — and he’s far from the only Republican lawmaker looking to avoid constituents. And then there’s Trump’s cabinet secretaries, who mostly seem determined to gut the agencies they oversee while enriching themselves as much as possible in the process. We have no hope of voting them out before 2020. (However, EPA chief Scott Pruitt did resign the same day that Greenberg’s essay ran; days earlier, a woman had confronted him at a DC restaurant, urging him to step down.) Now, I don’t like confronting people in public — in fact, it makes me very anxious. But in a political environment where people with power flout accountability, we have little other recourse.

That’s all well and good, Greenberg says, but isn’t there value in preserving “a nonpolitical space of human interaction”? The problem with this argument is that restaurants and airports are political spaces. Many people — especially those who are most vulnerable under the Trump administration — would be hard pressed to find spaces that, for them, aren’t political. If you think restaurants aren’t political spaces under an administration that demonizes immigrants, ask yourself who’s cooking your food, or clearing your dishes. If you think airports aren’t political spaces, watch Jorge Garcia say goodbye to his family in a Detroit airport terminal after 30 years in the United States, or think back to last year’s airport protests over Trump’s Muslim ban. The fantasy of non-political space, it seems, is a luxury afforded to those least likely to suffer in the years to come.

No serious person in the broad anti-Trump movement advocates violence, and we are horrified at the use of violence against peaceful protesters, no matter its source. But to draw a direct line from confronting politicians in public to throwing things at them, much less to planting bombs, is intellectually dishonest. It’s also the kind of response that disruptive, nonviolent protest tends to inspire. It’s no accident that King wrote his most celebrated treatise on civil disobedience as a rebuke to the tut-tutting of white moderates in Birmingham, Alabama. Confronting public officials may be “definitely becoming a thing,” but counterproductive criticism from would-be allies is a much, much older problem for those who speak truth to power.

Dan Royles is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University. He is working on a book about African American AIDS activism. You can follow him on Twitter @danroyles.

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