Protesters who resort to violence discredit their cause

I was in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, January 20, and have some things to get off my chest about violence I witnessed. (I also attended the massive Women’s March on January 21, which was entirely nonviolent.) My companion on Inauguration Day was my old pal Robert, with whom I protested George Bush’s inauguration in D.C. in 2001.

Robert wanted to check out protests organized by DisruptJ20, which included self-described anarchists and anti-fascists. The website said: “We must take to the streets and protest, blockade, disrupt, intervene, sit in, walk out, rise up, and make more noise and good trouble than the establishment can bear.” The website does not encourage violence, but it does not denounce it, either, and it coyly advocates “diversity of tactics.”

Most of the protests Robert and I joined were peaceful, but just before noon we got swept up in a crowd dressed all in black–boots, pants, hoodies, facemasks–racing through the streets “disrupting.” Most seemed young and white (we could see the upper half of their faces). They smashed windows of shops and cars, obstructed traffic, knocked over garbage cans, detonated M80s (or some other powerful firecracker) and fought with helmeted, club-wielding, mace-spraying police.

Robert and I watched a young woman with a blond ponytail throw a trash can at a cop on a motorcycle, knocking him over. A burly guy wearing a motorcycle-gang jacket (lots of pro-Trump bikers were in D.C.) tried to tackle her, but she punched him in the face and escaped with the help of her hooded buddies. Later, we came upon a group of activists pepper-sprayed by police, and I poured water onto the upturned eyes of a young man blinded and groaning in agony.

Although part of me admires the courage of these rebels, the mature, rational part finds their violence appalling. Like the Weathermen and other deadly activists of my generation, these young people have been seduced by the macho glamor of violence and by the rough justice of combating state oppression with brutality of their own. I saw an anarchist sign that said, “Make racists afraid of us.”

After I returned to Hoboken, I saw a viral video of someone punching alt-right leader Richard Spencer on Inauguration Day. The video provoked people to ask, Is it ok to punch a Nazi? The answer is no. Punching someone, even a racist jerk, isn’t okay, except in self-defense. The answer to thuggishness is not more thuggishness.

History teaches that violent uprisings, if they succeed, often breed more violence. Think of the horrors that followed the French and Russian Revolutions. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth has shown that nonviolent resistance is far more effective than violence. I wish “disruptive” activists would take their lead from great nonviolent leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Gene Sharp.

I’m painfully aware that I sound like an old fogey. At one point on Inauguration Day, I found myself marching beside young folks who clustered around a black and red anarchists’ and denounced “the Bourgeoisie.” I wanted to say, Hey, come on, that’s me you’re talking about. I sympathize with their rage and frustration at all that’s wrong with our country, but you can’t create a more just, peaceful world by adding to its intolerance and violence.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”