Other voices: When ‘peaceful protests’ turn violent

2September 2020

CHICAGO — Candid, passionate and even angry debate is an essential feature of a free and democratic society. The First Amendment establishes an inviolable space for Americans to express their views and to “peaceably assemble.” Rallies, protests and marches are all protected by those guarantees.

What the Constitution doesn’t protect is the right to intimidate or engage in violence against those with different views. Harassment, even if technically not against the law, is wrong and corrosive to discourse. When advocates stop trying to persuade and choose instead to bully, frighten and threaten political opponents, they are at war with the values that underlie their own freedoms. They aren’t adding their voices, they’re destroying the right of others to speak and act.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been the object of voluminous criticism for her handling of the protests and violence that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Activists have rallied at City Hall shouting demands for change. All that is part of what any mayor signs up for.

But when protesters began showing up in her Logan Square neighborhood, trying to reach her home, the Chicago Police Department had every justification for blocking them out. There’s a difference between legitimate expression and targeted personal harassment aimed at the mayor and her family.

In what’s becoming too common a scene across the country, militancy is crowding out vigorous advocacy. Many recent protests for racial justice have attracted anarchists eager to throw rocks and bottles, damage property, loot stores and even attack innocent bystanders. In Washington, D.C., Black Lives Matter protesters have encircled and shouted at random people dining outdoors at restaurants, demanding that they make gestures of support. After President Donald Trump’s Thursday night convention speech, a hostile crowd surrounded Sen. Rand Paul and his wife as they left the White House, and police had to escort the couple to safety. Paul said he feared for his life.

Is this the “tolerance” we so often hear about and see on bumper stickers from liberals and progressives?

The right has its own bad actors. In a May rally against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders, demonstrators entered the state Capitol building carrying rifles and signs saying, “Tyrants get the rope,” and death threats against lawmakers were posted on social media.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a former alderman put up a Facebook post urging fellow gun owners to bring their weapons to the city after it suffered riots, telling them: “This is what the 2nd Amendment was written for. We are at war in Kenosha.” A 17-year-old Illinoisan, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged with shooting three people, two fatally, during the rioting. And Black Lives Matter activists marching from Milwaukee to the nation’s capital to protest police abuses encountered gun-wielding opponents and racial slurs; one was shot.

Developments like these raise the specter of even greater and more lethal violence around political demonstrations. Some people seem eager to get in someone’s face — or to smash someone’s face. The prospect of bloodshed hangs over every demonstration.

“We are sort of at the stage of polarization where there are more and more people who are seeking confrontation, where they are not simply satisfied with disagreeing with the other side or yelling at the other side, but they want to confront,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told The Washington Post. “We are not just a polarized society — we are increasingly a confrontational society now. ”

That trend badly undermines the entire debate over how to deal with racial inequities and other social ills. It deters reasonable people from participating in such events, giving more power to a small minority of bullies and vandals. It makes it harder for people to find areas of agreement and devise remedies that both sides can accept. It encourages people to see each other as irredeemable enemies. It fosters bitterness and despair. As a political weapon, violence and intimidation are nonsensical strategies. How many voters are likely to be persuaded to change their views by being shouted down or threatened?

The nation has many problems that are fully deserving of the attention they are getting. But tactics aimed at injuring or scaring people will solve nothing and should be persecuted as much as the law allows. Civil, peaceful disagreement is indispensable to our system of democratic government. Now is the time to protect it.

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