Why the protesters should bow out of the fight with the feds

The demonstrations have already accomplished all the good they are likely to achieve — and from here on out, they run a considerable risk of backfiring

Portland protesters.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The protests that erupted two months ago and quickly spread around the country in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of the Minneapolis police were fully justified. They have also coincided with a polling surge in favor of progressive policy priorities, convincing many on the left that they have been a political boon. But that doesn't mean they should continue indefinitely. With President Trump using federal law enforcement officers to provoke greater unrest in order to set himself up as a champion of law and order as he heads into the November election, the unrest has outlived its usefulness.

It's time for the protests to end.

There has been little evidence, so far, that Trump's police-state tactics are paying off for him politically. Indeed, the president's inability to capitalize on two months of civic turmoil could well be a sign that all but the most hardline Republicans recognize that Trump himself, and not some ominous-sounding conspiracy of left-wing anti-American agitators, deserves the lion's share of the blame for fomenting the strife.

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Yet it would still be foolish for protesters to keep giddily taking the bait that Trump has begun dangling in front of them on the daily basis.

That's because the demonstrations have already accomplished all the good they are likely to achieve — and from here on out, they will run a considerable risk of backfiring.

The reason why is rooted in the complex mixture of motives at play in acts of protest and civil disobedience. At the most admirable level, there is a reaction to specific acts of outright injustice, as we saw in the first spontaneous protests after Floyd's death, as well as to evidence of its institutional and structural preconditions. Similar motives have also come into play more recently in demonstrations of outrage against the use of excessive force against protesters, as we have seen over the past week with the "Wall of Moms" who have showed up on the streets of Portland in reaction to Trump's deployment of well-armed federal officers. Such acts of civic defiance have mostly been productive — placing criminal justice reform high on the national policy agenda, for example, and highlighting the militarization of law enforcement in the hope of encouraging positive change.

Then there are those who take to the streets for different reasons — to push into outright rioting, including the looting and burning down of stores and other businesses, either out of anger at property-owners or an urge to take advantage of an opportunity for free stuff. Either way, that's stealing and the destruction of property — hardly the worst of crimes, but certainly nothing commendable either, especially when it treats morally justified rage at injustice as a cover and excuse. We saw a lot of this in the first week or so of protests in late May and early June. Some of it was covered in the news at the time, but much of it wasn't. As reporting by independent journalist Michael Tracey has documented, the destruction in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Olympia, Washington; and other midsized cities was significant, leaving many neighborhoods and minority-owned businesses in ruins.

Yet another group of people is motivated to take part in protests by a sense of injustice that goes far beyond specific acts and institutions to fasten onto corruption in "the system" as a whole. Theirs is a shriek of anger and frustration at the perceived impossibility of undertaking any meaningful reform within the existing political order. This makes them revolutionary anarchists — and they overlap in often indistinct ways with a final group of people who just like to smash things for the sheer nihilistic joy of it. We've seen many examples of both in the Pacific Northwest over the past week, as the number of protesters has surged in response to Trump's provocations, like rogue troublemakers aiming live fireworks and hurling weapons at federal officers in Portland.

All of it is taking place in a highly volatile national context — including decades of stories and videos of Black men and women killed at the hands of overly aggressive cops; three-and-a-half years of Trump's incendiary racial needling; and months of pandemic lockdowns, anxiety, isolation, and severe economic disruption. Those are the necessary conditions for the waves of protests we've seen these past two months, the most broad-based and widespread in at least 50 years. And now Trump has thrown gasoline on the still-smoldering fires with his decision to send in tear-gas-wielding federal officers who often look and act more like an occupying military force than fellow citizens attempting to keep the peace.

It's understandable that this would reignite unrest and violence. But that doesn't mean that such intensification is politically smart or morally excusable. In fact, if such unrest begins to fall into a self-reinforcing logic of extremism, it could spread and become horribly destructive. Think of the way that militant Israeli settlers and Palestinian maximalists both despise each other and yet thrive off of their mutual animosity. We've begun to see some of this over the past week or so in protest hot spots, as demonstrators and those cheering on the federal forces sent in to quash them feed off of their reciprocal loathing in a shared escalatory dance.

We've also started to catch glimpses of something worse than tear gas and pepper spray, in scattered outbreaks of sometimes lethal gunfire at protests in Austin, Texas and Aurora, Colorado. Urban violence has already begun to spike more generally this summer, as chaos rises in cities and cops back off and recede into their stationhouses. Now imagine the rise of armed militias and individuals on multiple sides of our rancorous political, cultural, and racial divides taking matters into their own hands.

America in the summer of 2020 is a tinderbox. The time to pull back from the brink is now, before a downward spiral fully sets in. With the president doing his best to cause trouble for what he believes to be his personal benefit, it won't be easy. But we need to try. And after all, what more do the protesters — even those with the noblest motives — hope to accomplish now anyway? They've already moved the national conversation several clicks to the left. And if their aim has now evolved to include the removal of the feds, then of course the surest path to that goal would be for the demonstrators to stop showing up every day to repeat the mayhem from the previous evening.

Two months of unrest is long enough. The protesters have made their point and accomplished a lot of good. But it's hard to believe that these gains won't soon begin to be overtaken and overshadowed by the downsides of disorder.

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