Ever since Donald Trump was sworn in to an office he never deserved, America has become a place few if any of us recognize or understand, and that has us frightened. While a dystopia or oppressive police state has always been a dark fantasy of the most hysterical, any time the opposition holds power the fear can come to the surface, no matter which side it is. Whenever these dark fantasies arise, it brings out not just the worst in people, but the worst people. Fortunately, at the same time, there are the people who are also some of the best of us. The question is which type of person you will be during these times.
Both types showed themselves in the first few hours of Trump’s time in office, and both showed who they are. On the Saturday after his inauguration, millions of people turned out all over the country and even the world for peaceful marches to show that they would resist Trump. Literally millions of people and not a single act of violence. Trump’s reaction was to scoff and mock and bluster, which really wasn’t surprising at all; that is the way he does things. But the real moment that showed the best of America, the spirit of not who we are but who we can be, was when tens of thousands spontaneously, with no organization, appeared at airports all over the country after Trump banned entry by people from seven Muslim-majority nations. Behind them, armies of lawyers appeared ready to defend their rights.
Later, a woman sacrificed her life’s work as a lawyer for the Department of Justice to declare Trump's executive order illegal and indefensible, and federal judges from all over America — both liberal and conservative — called for his order to be blocked. It was a moment when the worst of America was defeated by the best of America, and it began to empower liberal politicians in Congress to take a stand and made the Republican Party begin to distance itself from Trump. We had found the way to fight Trump. In our darkest moment, we shone brightly.
Yeah, all of that is cliché and cheesy as hell. In fact, if this was a movie, that would have been the part where the chorus of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" rang out and some old veteran stood up in his medals and saluted while the crowd cheered. There’s a reason that is such a classic trope, though; it kind of is how we want to see ourselves and how we want to believe we would behave. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.
The day before the Women’s March, a group took to the streets of Washington, D.C., and basically proceeded to cause havoc. They smashed windows, destroyed bus stops, set garbage cans on fire, pulled up stones from the streets to hurl at police, and set multiple cars aflame. These crowds chanted "Black Lives Matter" and carried signs that said "Make Racists Afraid Again." Clearly, their intent was to show solidarity with blacks, Muslims, and other groups that would be under threat by a Trump administration. Yet the irony surely never registered. Only 4 percent of D.C. voted for Trump; additionally, the protesters were destroying the property of a city that is 64 percent people of color. Irony can strike in the strangest of ways. So while the city had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to curtail this violence and repair this damage, the money could have been spent on schools, homeless services, women’s shelters, drug rehabilitation programs, civic beautification, after-school care for children of single parents, or any other number of government services that would have benefited the community.
Just recently, in protest against Milo Yiannopoulos, an internet troll who’s entire shtick was tiresome and predictable four years ago and is now coasting on unoriginal offense and fading mediocre looks, chaos broke out at the University of 0alifornia, Berkeley. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole of the arguments of no-platforming and free speech — those are their own articles — but the ridiculousness at Berkeley boggles the mind. People spray-painted anarchy symbols (so edgy) onto campus buildings and "Fuck Art" on the side of the art school, hurled Molotov cocktails, and set things on fire. They also physically assaulted people who were there to hear Milo, beating some who later had to be hospitalized. Basically, to protect the campus, they felt they had to damage the campus and nearly kill people.
To be fair, these riots were the act of a small group of people — a part of the Antifa (anti-Fascist) movement, direct-action anarchists, and other radical groups commonly grouped together under the catch-all of "black bloc," based on their wearing all-black clothes and hiding their faces for anonymity. These groups of people are routinely and rightly condemned by almost the entirety of the left that they claim to represent. The victims of the violence at Berkeley were even helped by the students who earlier protested their gathering to see Milo. An example of being the light in the darkness.
What bothers me, though, through all of this, is what seems to be a casual flirtation on the left of seemingly enjoying violence when it serves our interests. The best example of this is the video of Richard Spencer, the notorious founder of the racist alt-right movement, getting sucker-punched by one of these protesters in Washington. Look, I won’t hold myself as being above this. On my Facebook and Twitter, I laughed and joked about it, because just like everyone else, I was upset at about the idea of a man as terrible as Trump taking office. I reveled in the idea of a man as vile as Spencer getting some karmic payback. Yet, as the internet’s coverage of his getting punched, not once but twice that day, began to stretch into days and then to morph into an open encouragement to keep hitting him and people like him, I began to feel a bit queasy and bad about my schadenfreude. It wasn’t right. Again, we could easily go down the free speech road and debate about that until the next election, but that’s not the point here. The point is far too many of us are beginning to justify and normalize the idea of violence against our opponents, and that’s what frightens me.
You see, I’ve read probably one too many history books for my own good; I’ve seen what happens when people replace politics with violence, and it never, ever ends well. Political violence should be the means of last resort, every single time. The only time it can be justified is when there is no other recourse open to the marginalized and disempowered. A perfect example of justifiable political violence would be the moment that gave birth to the modern LGBT movement, the Stonewall riots. After years of being abused by police, criminalized by the courts and government, and cast out from society, enough was enough. In the end, there was no recourse but violence. Also, one could make the same argument for the Rodney King riots that followed the verdict that let four police officers walk away from a clear act of police brutality against an unarmed black man. The system having failed them yet again in their pursuit of justice against the systemic racist abuses of the Los Angeles Police Department, black residents of L.A. took to the streets. Yes, there were innocent victims like Reginald Denny and the dozens who were killed during these riots. Yet the cause of these riots was indisputable— that the system of justice in Los Angeles did not work for black Americans. Investigations and criminal proceedings by the city and the federal government forced changes on the police department. While certainly not to the satisfaction of many or even most, changes were made that did improve the department to some degree, something that would never have happened without the riots.
Yet these still remain examples of the end result of political violence ultimately justified by a system where no other recourse remained. The idea of randomly punching members of the alt-right is not that. It is the exact opposite; it is street violence. It more closely resembles the street warfare that occurred between political movements on the streets of Germany in the 1920s, of which only one was the Nazi Party. We have far more options open to us (currently, at least) to silence, resist, and turn the tide against the alt-right and Trump. We have peaceful mass action; we have a legal system that already has shown an opposition to Trump and his intimidation tactics against it (even his own Supreme Court nominee has spoken out in favor of judicial independence). That these people are racists and fascists is not enough to justify assaulting them. While we think it may be morally justifiable, the consequences are not.
Last summer a conservative blogger pulled a gun on some BLM protesters. He was never seriously threatened, but in his mind he feared for his life, and thank God he didn’t shoot. Yet when we laugh and encourage, even in jest, assaulting these people, it's seen by some as an open threat, and all it takes is one time for it to end in a shooting. When that happens, of course, many on the left will retaliate in kind. While this seems like a slippery slope argument, any basic understanding of history shows this is how it all begins to fall apart: not with a bang, but a sucker punch, an itchy trigger finger, and moral righteousness. Violence begets violence, and for all of our voyeuristic joy in seeing it, I really don’t think most of you really want that, nor are you willing to participate.
It makes us feel good to see karma have her say. I can’t deny that seeing Richard Spencer cry after getting punched doesn’t produce some measure of pleasure in our minds; I and almost every one of you had a grin when we saw that video. Yet when we move beyond that, when we try to justify assaulting people because it’s funny to us or that it’s karmic justice, we lose something. The left has always held itself out to be the more moral, the more kind, more peaceful side. When we give that up and turn to darker means because it makes us feel good and righteous, we lose our way. When we caution against normalizing the disgusting ways of Trump and his supporters but casually excuse our violence, we are normalizing it for ourselves. There are far too many recourses left to us to strip these people of their power, and we are not at the point where it’s justified. We have already seen how peaceful action can and does work in our country still, and that violence, no matter how satisfying, is by no means justifiable or moral. God help us all if it ever gets to that point.