Thinking about the Capitol Building riots, it occurred to me that an event that had a big influence on my personal politics also reflects the problem that those of us on the Left must confront today.
In the Summer of 1980, I was a college student at University of Connecticut, which was, at that time, a very rural campus. Over the previous year I had become politically active, in part because of the growing threat of a US war against Iran and the announcement that draft registration would be renewed. I had helped to form a student political group, publicly refused to register for the draft, and was an ardent pacifist.
That Summer a Connecticut based KKK organization announced plans for a rally and cross-burning on a farm in nearby Scotland, Connecticut. My comrades and I decided we needed to go there to “bear witness” against the KKK and racism.
When the day came we carpooled to Scotland and discovered that the road to the rally site was blocked by police. To get to the site, we had to submit to a police search, then walk for more than a mile up a backroad on a hot July afternoon.
We got to a place where a dirt road went uphill to the farm where the cross-burning would be held. By the time we got there the cops had closed access to the road because of the number of people already there. So we were standing on a pretty deserted stretch of road, baking in the sun, faced with a bunch of unfriendly-looking cops, trying to decide what to do next.
That’s when a group of large very nasty-looking, very drunk and very angry characters came down the road from the farm. Apparently, being scum that even the KKK didn’t want around, they had been turned out of the rally.
As they came down the road in our direction, the cops told us to get behind their car until these characters had passed by. So even though we were young rrrevolutionaries who were down with the idea that “the cops and the Klan go hand in hand,” it only took about five seconds for us to decide (without having to discuss and reach consensus) that the smart thing was for us to get our pale white asses behind that cop car.
That’s what we did. And as we sheltered behind those cops until the scary dudes were far down the road, all I could think of was how cowardly and hypocritical we were being. When we were on campus we were comfortable denouncing the police for brutality against Black people, but out here in the real world we were hiding behind them. And we knew we could do it because we were white college kids, but if we had been Black or Brown kids who bused down from Hartford to protest the Klan (and there were plenty who did so) the cops would have been just as likely to walk away while these drunken thugs kicked our asses.
That was the day I stopped being a pacifist. And it was the day I decided I would never hide behind the cops again.
It’s forty years later, and the Left is facing the same dilemma as those kids standing in the road in the Summer heat in 1980. The escalation of tensions between the Trump loyalists and the forces of law and order have reached the point where the state is cracking down on them. Mainstream politicians are comparing the way that the Capitol Police treated peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to the kid glove treatment they gave to the Trump gang. Mark Zuckerberg has kicked Trump off of Facebook and is cracking down on social media chatter appearing to support the rioters. There is even talk about investigating possible collusion between the rioters and the police — as if we didn’t already expect there to be white nationalists in law enforcement.
At this juncture, those of us on the Left — or, more specifically, those of us white folks on the left — have to decide whether we’re going to hide behind the US government to be safe. We know that’s a choice Black and Brown folks don’t have, because this government has already shown that it won’t and can’t keep people of color safe. But whether or how we make our choice is going to have a big effect on the future of the movement we are all trying to build.
Are we going to get drawn into the mood of confusion and fear emanating from Washington right now that makes it sound as if a couple hundred of crackpots, gun enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists constituted a serious threat to the stability of the country? Or are we going to listen critically and ask who has the most to gain from rallying support for the new administration?
Remember, President-elect Joe Biden — the one promising to deal harshly with the fascists — is the same Joe Biden who in 1998 called for tougher criminal penalties against the “100,000 real bad apples out there, 100,000 of the kids you read about in the front page of the newspaper every day,” who he called “predators.” The same Joe Biden that bragged of his friendly relationship with the worst segregationists in the Senate. The Joe Biden who voted for the Iraq War in 2003, a war opposed by a majority of Americans, and one that may have killed as many as 1 million Iraqis.
And the FBI that is supposedly investigating and arresting the Capitol Building rioters is the same FBI that framed Leonard Peltier and put him in jail for life . . . the same FBI that murdered Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Rios, shooting him and leaving him to bleed out on the ground for more than a half hour without medical attention . . . the same FBI that, since 9/11, has spied on, harassed, intimidated, jailed, and deported thousands of Muslim Americans.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all the arm-waving and shouting about impeaching Trump in the last dozen days of his administration and about tracking down and arresting rioters, ask what the Democratic Congress, Senate, and President are going to do about prosecuting DHS agents who took children from the arms of their parents and you can expect a long, slow stare and the sound of crickets. Which is the worse crime? Standing up on Nancy Pelosi’s chair in the House Chamber while wearing fur and horns, or putting babies in cages?
I have no problem with Trump fanatics being packed off to jail, Nothing would please me so much as the sight of Trump, Giuliani, Hawley, and Cruz peering out from behind bars (though, frankly, I don’t believe that would ever happen, no matter how much outraged invective we hear from Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, & Co.) But let’s ask ourselves: are they trying to get us to line up behind them so we don’t line up against them? Are the politicians offering to be on our side? Or are they inviting us to join theirs?