Make no bones about it: The political violence overtaking the country is a terrible thing, a development that is both morally terrible and utterly stupid. Few Americans, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, will benefit from the spectacle of our fellow citizens injuring and killing each other in the streets. Yet the attacks seem to be spiraling out of control.
What is to be done?
Condemning the violence is the first step. That is what former Vice President Joe Biden did Sunday, after a man was shot to death in Portland during a clash between Black Lives Protesters and supporters of President Trump. "I condemn violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right," Biden said in a statement. Even that kind of humane declaration seemed beyond some right-wing luminaries, like Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter, who defended and even celebrated Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week. "I want him as my president," Coulter wrote.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Clearly, some people like to watch the world burn. So a few expressions of disapproval aren't enough. Action is needed. America's leaders can start with a simple, temperature-lowering gesture: They can take nonviolent protests seriously.
Right now, the evidence is they don't.
The Republicans who occupy the White House can occasionally muster up a defense of peaceful demonstrations. President Trump this summer called himself an "ally of peaceful protesters," and Vice President Mike Pence last week suggested that Black Lives Matter demonstrators might get a better hearing if they kept their activities nonviolent. "President Trump and I will always support the right of Americans to peacefully protest," he told the Republican National Convention.
It is difficult to believe them, however. Trump, for example, made his comments just moments before peaceful protesters were violently cleared from Lafayette Park for his Bible photo op. That is not exactly the act of an ally.
And there was a peaceful protest last week against police brutality against Black Americans. On Wednesday, the night Pence spoke to the RNC, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, inadvertently starting a strike that spread to the rest of the NBA and then to baseball, tennis, and football. "It's something that we did from our heart," said Bucks guard George Hill. "We were tired of different things going on in this world. We wanted action; we wanted things to be held accountable."
Trump and his allies responded with scorn and contempt for the players.
"I think what they're doing to the NBA in particular is gonna destroy basketball," Trump groused to reporters.
His son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, was similarly dismissive. "Look, I think with the NBA, there's a lot of activism, and I think that they've put a lot of slogans out," he said. "But I think what we need to do is turn that from slogans and signals to actual action that's going to solve the problem."
National Review's Rich Lowry added: "The term virtue-signaling is overused, but what possible effect can this have, except harming the sport that has made these athletes rich and famous?"
We have seen this before. When Black people protest police brutality, they can never do it quite right for pro-cop Republicans. If athletes take a knee, the president calls them vulgar names. If players go on strike, conservatives mock them, or say that sports is the wrong forum for politics. Trumpist Republicans spend a lot of time critiquing the form of Black protests — they never get around to acting on the cries for justice.
It is easy to guess why. At the RNC, Republicans firmly declared themselves to be on the side of America's police officers — despite ample evidence that Black Americans are policed much more harshly than whites. And it is clear Trump sees violent disorder as the key to his election. "The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order," Kellyanne Conway said on Fox & Friends.
If you want to produce that kind of disorder, the recipe is easy — just let injustices fester without action, then ignore or ridicule the people who make a sincere plea for reform. You can't demand peaceful protests and dismiss them at the same time.
Kushner and Lowry, at least, were wrong about last week's sports strike. The NBA players got team owners to commit to using their arenas as voting locations in the upcoming election. Bucks players used the time they were supposed to be on court talking directly to top Wisconsin officials about the police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, that set off the protests in Kenosha. There is much more to be done to fix the problem of policing among Black Americans, but the NBA players got off to a reasonably good start.
Nonviolent protests can be effective, it turns out, but only if the right leaders decide to be responsive. Taking protests seriously and acting to fix the inequities in our policing probably won't ensure peace in these dark times — but it might begin to curb the political violence plaguing America.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.