Thursday, January 21, 2021

And the Unrest Goes On

NY Times:

Protesters in the Pacific Northwest smashed windows at a Democratic Party headquarters, marched through the streets and burned an American flag on Wednesday in a strident challenge by antifascist and racial-justice protesters to the new administration of President Biden, whose promised reforms, they declared, “won’t save us.”

In Portland, Ore., lines of federal agents in camouflage — now working under the Biden administration — blanketed streets with tear gas and unleashed volleys of welt-inducing pepper balls as they confronted a crowd that gathered outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building near downtown. Some in the crowd later burned a Biden-for-President flag in the street.

Another tense protest in Seattle saw dozens of people push their way through the streets, with some breaking windows, spray-painting anarchist insignia and chanting not only about ICE, but the many other issues that roiled America’s streets last year under the administration of former President Donald J. Trump.

“No Cops, Prisons, Borders, Presidents,” said one banner, while another proclaimed that the conflict over racial justice, policing, immigration and corporate influence in the country was “not over” merely because a new president had been inaugurated in Washington, D.C.

“A Democratic administration is not a victory for oppressed people,” said a flier handed out during the demonstrations, during which protesters also smashed windows at a shop often described as the original Starbucks in downtown Seattle.

Of course these people are exactly right: Biden's election will do nothing to create the world they want. But that's because the world they want – “No Cops, Prisons, Borders, Presidents” – is impossible. 

Certain things they want, like abolishing ICE, are possible, but on the other hand are unlikely to get the necessary votes, partly because people like them keep smashing things.

Here's a question: do people like this, pushing for the impossible with low-level violence, have any sort of positive role to play in a democracy? Do they generate any momentum toward their causes, by raising awareness or what have you? Or this just a straight-out loss for the world?


David said...

I think it would be very hard to get past one's personal attitudes toward such groups to get to some kind of quasi-objective analysis about whether they help move things further along, even if their own objectives are never realized. My personal attitude toward them, like my attitude toward the far right, is a mix of hostility and voyeuristic fascination.

That said, the main effect I seem them as having right now is to provide rhetorical ammunition for the hard right.

G. Verloren said...

"Of course these people are exactly right: Biden's election will do nothing to create the world they want. But that's because the world they want – “No Cops, Prisons, Borders, Presidents” – is impossible."

Royalists scoffed at the impossibility of successfully running a country without a monarch. George III scoffed at the impossibility of the Thirteen Colonies succeeding in their revolution. Slavers scoffed at the impossibility of society surviving the "mixing of races" in every sense of the word you can imagine. Countless people in every age have scoffed at the impossibility of the next revolutionary new technology and the fundamental changes it would make to society. Remember - people protested pencils.

Be careful what you call impossible - history has made fools of smarter men than you.


You also seem to be making the mistake of taking slogans literally.

When people say "No Cops", they don't literally mean zero police officers - they mean fewer and less militarized police officers; and more social workers, crisis counselors, and other people trained to handle issues peacefully instead of responding with truncheons and guns.

When they say "No Prisons", they don't literally mean zero incarceration - they mean overhauling our legal system so that people (usually black men) don't receive life sentences for selling $20 of marijuana (that is NOT an exaggeration - it has literally happened many times in the country, both official life sentences and de facto sentences so long that the individual is unlikely to live to see release); they mean getting rid of our current system that exists to punish and to produce profits, and replace it with a system that works to reform people, to help them overcome the problems that led them to break the law to begin with, and to serve the needs of society and individuals alike rather than just inflict harm and extract wealth.

When they say "No Borders", they don't literally mean no borders at all - they mean borders that are easier to cross and that operate more fairly and justly; that aren't able to be used as an excuse for racial bigotry and oppression of minorities; that are humane and merciful and don't complicate or even destroy lives needlessly.

When they say "No Presidents", they don't literally mean zero presidents - they mean reforming the office of the presidency so that it isn't such a central, all-consuming, dominant force in our society and the actual running of our country. (Or maybe some of them actually DO mean zero presidents - after all, lots of other free and democratic countries don't use presidential systems, but instead rely on parliamentary systems which usually focus on political coalitions rather than our absurd two-party system. If our presidential system is causing more problems than it solves, maybe we need to consider an alternate system that is better suited to the realities and needs of the present day.)

The simple truth is that "Fewer Police, Prisons, Borders, Presidents" doesn't make for a handy slogan. It's kind of a weak message, kind of muddled, and doesn't really roll off the tongue the same way. Hyperbole works better as a slogan - the only issue is people taking that hyperbole literally, when it should be obvious overstatement.

David said...


Actually, there is a hard core of real insurrectionary anarchists in antifa and similar groups, and there's every reason to believe at least some of those described in the NYT article John is referencing are of this type (including, quite possibly, the author of the sign John quoted). "Insurrectionary anarchists" is the technical term for them, as I understand it. They really mean no borders, no presidents, no prisons, no cops, etc. There aren't very many of them, and they don't define BLM and similar movements, which are more like what you describe. But they do exist, and they make a lot of noise. They seem to be especially influential in Portland and Seattle. These are the sort of people I was talking about in my post.

pootrsox said...

G. Verloren gives far too much credit to the anarchists who are crying "no cops, no prisons, no borders, no presidents." That is *precisely* what they mean. They are *anarchists.* And many of the antifa are really just out for the thrill of smashing stuff up-- there were no fascists at the Democratic headquarters, for instance.

Their chants are not hyperbole-- they're demands for anarchy.

Rational people mean "fewer" of the first three and reform of the fourth. Rational people don't run riot through cities smashing targets indiscriminately.

G. Verloren said...


Oh, I'm aware the Anarchists exist. But they're a tiny fringe of lunatics, and I'm tired of them being invoked every time more moderate reform movements make the news.

Lack of faith in Biden to make needed change isn't limited to Anarchists, and the bulk of people who lack faith are in fact simply out for much needed racial justice reform.

You don't have to be an Anarchist to smash windows and burn flags because white police officers routinely get away with murdering black citizens. You just have to be fed up with injustice and cruelty on a systemic level.

On some level, I wish the bulk of the people rallying behind these slogans could find a way to better distance themselves from the Anarchist nutjobs. But I really think that messaging is a problem, and that the human rhetorical practice of resorting to hyperbole and absolutist speech unintentionally gets the public at large to lump the more moderate elements and the full blown Anarchists together and conflate the two. I wish I knew a solution, but I don't.