Protests of all stripes, liberal, conservative, leftist, Juggalo, have taken up a majority of media space in weeks. Both traditional news outlets and newer social media companies seem to fill up any and all available space with reports on the various protests going on and around the country. And with the actual reportage and personal stories has similarly come a maelstrom of analysis of these protests. Screeds about tactics, moral jeremiads about the differences between “violent’ and “nonviolent” protests and protestors, in-depth exegesis after in-depth exegesis of “antifa”, and proclamations and pronouncements about who is right and who is wrong too numerous to count. All of these have the temerity to offer the “real solution” for how the protestors should solve their problems, placing before their reader the only effective way to win whatever fight they might be in. This narrowing of tactics is, of course bullshit, and often grounded in a complete misreading of history.
History education, at least as it is commonly experienced, tends to reduce complexity where ever possible. MLK got the Civil Rights Act passed, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, George Washington lead the American Revolution; most people reading this have all heard, ingested and regurgitated these “facts” at some point in their formal schooling. The true stories of these events, as most people are hopefully aware, is much more complicated, painful and intricate than what we learn in school. And it’s understandable why this reduction happens, it’s impossible to truly understand the totality of an event of something like the Civil Rights movement, a phrase which in and of itself defies actual coherent definition. So, reducing it to easily bulleted and memorized lessons learned is both seductive and profitable. History book authors don’t write these things for free after all. The problems come however, when we try to take elementary school understandings of history and apply them to current events.
Take the Civil Rights Movement, for example. It is typically taught as the height of success of nonviolent change, on par with only Gandhi’s movement to rid India of the British if you have a particularly woke history teacher. This simplification of the story of the Civil Rights Movement, easy as it might be to teach, fails in multiple key areas, as simplifications tend to do. While the general telling rightly highlights the nonviolent actions and teaching of Martin Luther King Jr, it often does nothing to place them in the historical context in which they were enacted, simply presenting actions like the March on Washington or the Bus Boycott as single events frozen in time. These solitary pictures have become metaphors in the popular zeitgeist as the sole model for effective and good protests. This ignores the countless other actions and characters, both violent and non-, that were occurring before and simultaneously with the actions of MLK. The Civil Rights Movement was not just the SCLC. It was the Black Panthers, it was Louisiana communities arming themselves under the banner of the Deacons, a leader of which directly denounced Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone who didn’t fight for them. It was socialists and communists looking to other revolutions for inspiration. The same is true for the tale of Indian liberation under Gandhi. All of these forces aligned their force against the monster of white supremacy, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes not, and achieved gains. A common argument is that MLK was successful precisely because he was more palatable to the whites in power than say someone like Malcolm X was. While I don’t think this argument fully gets at the truth, it is a sight closer than “nonviolent reaction” is the only way to go.
For any modern social justice movement then, it is important to embrace a myriad of tactics. A united left includes Antifa, members of the clergy and everyone in between. This is not say that every tactic is appropriate for every moment or for every individual, but the effort as a whole will not survive if it is limited to one way of acting. MLK’s effort to promote better housing in Chicago ultimately failed because the first Mayor Daly was able to circumnavigate the movement’s tactics and they weren’t flexible enough to change. It will take more than a single sledgehammer to demolish the house that capitalism and white supremacy built.