This week, protests turned to riots around the campus of UC-Berkeley in response to the appearance of pro-Trump provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Rioters smashed bank windows and ATMs, graffitied buildings, and maced at least one female Trump supporter. The event was canceled and Yiannopoulos had to be escorted off campus under protection. The total damage is still being tallied, but the idea that Berkeley was the birthplace of the “Free Speech” movement is dead as a doornail.
Media responded by denouncing President Trump’s tweet about the school, which included a Trumpian threat to withhold federal funds from those who riot in the face of political speech they don’t like. A New York Times headline mentioned the canceling of the speech and denounced Trump’s tweet, but never mentioned the violence that triggered both.
The Media Ignores Violent Protest Among Their Ranks
On the eve of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, two Gold Star family members—Ryan Manion lost her brother in Iraq and Amy Looney lost her husband in Afghanistan—were accosted and spit on for attending the Inaugural military ball of the American Legion, honoring war heroes and Medal of Honor recipients. Manion described the attackers not as masked anarchist forces, but as mostly women who looked like normal protesters. The incident didn’t characterize the anti-Trump protests that flooded the Mall that weekend, but it was part of the story.
When confronted with this story on-air, a member of the Women’s March decided the right approach was not to denounce this violence, but to defend a Madonna quote about her fantasies of blowing up the White House. Okay. To his credit, Van Jones denounced and lamented the attack, adding protesters can’t behave worse than Trump if they want to beat him.
Other than my mention, the incident got almost no press coverage. Manion wrote an op-ed about it for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
We Can’t Ignore the Victims of Civil Disobedience
In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order Friday, which put a moratorium on immigration from seven countries and resulted in refugees being detained for many hours, peaceful protesters blocked the roadway at one of America’s busiest airports. These protests, admirably, involved civil disobedience but not violence. Unlike the above examples, they were well within accepted bounds of protest in this country. But there were still people on the downside of this action.
Many travelers sat in their cars unable to move, or walked long distances lugging their bags, fighting the crowds and missing flights along the way.
ESPN commentator Sage Steele was among those who traversed the airport on foot, and committed the sin of empathizing with her fellow travelers.
“So THIS is why thousands of us dragged luggage nearly 2 miles to get to LAX, but still missed our flights,” Steele wrote on an Instagram post of the protest crowds at LAX. “Fortunately, a 7 hour wait for the next flight to Houston won’t affect me that much, but my heart sank for the elderly and parents with small children who did their best to walk all that way but had no chance of making their flights.”
“I love witnessing people exercise their right to protest,” she went on. “But it saddened me to see the joy on their faces knowing that they were successful in disrupting so many people’s travel plans. Yes, immigrants were affected by this as well. Brilliant. ”
Steele, who is black, was treated to a barrage of accusations of race treason. Why, she’d tell Rosa Parks she disrupted her bus commute, don’tcha know.
This Is What Fallacious Internet Messaging Looks Like
This is what disproportionate social media response looks like. The Internet’s message seems to be how dare she see an elderly woman dragging a suitcase in the sun for an hour and have one iota of concern for her. What an absurd assertion of privilege to see a mom traveling with tired kids and wonder how this might affect her. Are their plights as dire as those who are detained? Except in extreme cases, obviously not. We also don’t know the stories of those travelers and shouldn’t automatically discount them.
It’s hard to keep track of the privilege hierarchy, but does a jubilant hipster-bro doing some bongo-banging on break from his screenplay-writing at Starbucks take precedence over, say, Launita Walker?
Another driver, Launita Walker, 51, of Lancaster, said she also supported the protesters’ message but desperately needed to get to the home of her sick mother in the San Fernando Valley.
“I’m on their side all the way around but I need to get out of here,” said a visibly exasperated Walker.
It’s a fact of life that protest—particularly civil disobedience such as blocking roads and bridges—has its victims. Even if one deems the protest dire and necessary, and the collateral damage insignificant by comparison, it still exists. Our society rightly prizes free speech and assembly, Berkeley notwithstanding, and affords a lot of latitude to those who wish to engage in it. But it should be a fact of activism that one tempers the affect on the Launita Walkers of the world, if for no other reason than it makes them more likely to side with you on the issue you’re protesting.
I get that sometimes a protest’s purpose is to jar people from their privileged lives to see the travesty in front of their faces. I’m saying blocking a bunch of people, including the vulnerable and low-income, from getting where they need to go might not be the most just and effective way to do it. On the more extreme end, burning businesses and spitting on war widows certainly isn’t, but far too many either ignore, or in the case of Berkeley, outright cheer these actions as necessary and righteous.
Would a Conservative Protest Be Treated Like This?
It’s a helpful thought exercise to ask oneself if one would be as, ahem, tolerant of such acts of civil disobedience (obviously rioting and violence should be out of bounds) were they done by someone on the right. Of course not. At best, they’d be viewed as gratuitous inconsideration and, at worst, as violent threat. Many would rightly be concerned for those caught up in the chaos. Acts of violence would be met with lots of negative press coverage, inducing fellow protesters to quell the worse angels of their companions, lest their cause be rejected by everyone outside the protest. Press coverage would not carefully excise the vulgar and the violent from its coverage of protesters.
That’s how the peaceful Tea Party townhalls of August 2009, peppered with yelling and precious little violence to speak of, came to be portrayed as a dangerous mob on the verge of plunging the Republic into madness, and the good, eccentric folks of Occupy were, well, the good, eccentric folks of Occupy notwithstanding their damage of public lands, violence, and defecating on cop cars. The electoral results suggest the difference in standards doesn’t ultimately serve the Left.
Liberal protesters (even ironically, violent ones) often ostentatiously advertise their own kindness and love at such events. Such signage is a hallmark of these gatherings. Empathy sometimes requires looking outside your protest culture and figuring out how to reach those not already standing with you. Telling them and anyone who notices them to suck it up and walk a mile in the sun with their baggage, because privilege, will not help.