Protests And A Prognosis

 Posted by Lawrence Davidson

Author - American Herald Tribune

Part I—A Dangerous Dichotomy

If we go with the United States’ own picture of itself as a constitutional democracy that aims to guarantee citizens equal rights under law, how are we to interpret President Donald Trump’s reported desire to use ten thousand active duty troops to “dominate the streets” and quell largely peaceful protests against racist police behavior? A reasonable interpretation of President Trump’s attitude, and that of his supporters as well, is that they seek to prioritize the political and cultural desires of a largely racist subgroup of whites over the constitutional rights of citizens in general. This sets up a very dangerous dichotomy that constitutes a danger to the country’s democracy—at least as defined above.  

It should be kept in mind that the right-wing side of this dichotomy, and its challenge to a democracy based on a liberal interpretation of the Constitution has always been with us. Considering just the 20th and 21st centuries, figures such as Woodrow Wilson and his consistently racist use of power both prior to and during World War I; J. Edgar Hoover and his rights-defying use of the FBI; Joseph McCarthy and his pernicious use of anti-Communism; George W. Bush and his initiation of war on false premises; and now the clearly autocratic aspirations of Donald Trump. Such “leaders” have ruined countless lives while eroding the constitutional basis of equal rights.

Part II—The Bureaucratic Factor 

Why has the Constitution proven so fragile in this regard? One reason is the autocratic nature of bureaucracies. All these men wielded power through bureaucracies, and their power was magnified by such institutions. Bureaucracies are top-down affairs, and so those operating within them are expected to, and almost always do, follow the orders of their superiors. For instance, the President of the United States is also “Commander-in-Chief” of the armed forces—which in turn are themselves top-down bureaucracies. When, in early June, Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump demanded ten thousand active duty soldiers for deployment onto the streets of America, none of them could be expected to pull out a copy of the U.S. Constitution and fact-check the legitimacy of the orders issued. Nor were they expected to take seriously their induction oaths to “defend” the integrity of that same document. They were expected to readily follow their orders regardless of constitutional limits. Thus, all things being equal, President Trump should have gotten what he asked for. We are very fortunate that at that moment all things were not equal—a factor is to be considered below. 

If the regular army had hit the streets in June of 2020, they would have done so in order to suppress largely peaceful protests over the lack of equal rights and lack of legal treatment under the law. Indeed, in Washington, D.C.—the only place Trump’s order was partially followed—active-duty military police and the D.C. National Guard did act side-by-side against peacefully demonstrating citizens. Elsewhere, the National Guard called up by governors abetted the police in “riot control,” during which almost no distinction was made between looters and peaceful demonstrators. A few National Guard troops have subsequently expressed regrets over their participation.

The typical police force is also a bureaucracy with its own institutional culture that in many ways mimics the military. Most (there often proves to be a small number of exceptions) of those in the ranks are going to follow the orders of whomever they recognize as having authority. Quite frankly, there is a strong tendency over time for the police, particularly those assigned to minority neighborhoods, to forget all about the U.S. Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and other niceties of law, and slip into a fraternal (often white supremacist) culture which sets them apart from those they are “policing.” They are then easily used as an arm of establishment power. That certainly was the expectation of President Trump and many of the nation’s chiefs of police.  

Part III—All Was Not Equal

At this point we can ask, What were the demonstrators protesting? Specifically, thousands of citizens across the country were protesting the behavior of the police, who had long been brutalizing African American and other minority group citizens in the name of law enforcement. Most of the demonstrators understood their cause within the context of both human and U.S. Constitutional rights of citizens to live in a community where the law serves the cause of equitable justice. “No justice, no peace.”

The nation was fortunate that most of the protesters understood rights in this way. That understanding allowed them, in their great numbers (less a relatively small number of both black and white looters), to quite literally save American democracy. They did so by demanding that those who had authority confront one of the autocratic threats of our day—racist police forces, the brutality of which was captured repeatedly on video. The demonstrators used that evidence to force the issue, and this, in turn, caused the bureaucrats to eventually stop acting in a knee-jerk fashion. Thus, city councils, mayors, governors and even military officials had to choose between oppression (which included, in this case, following Trump’s order that they “dominate the streets) and the Constitution. Choosing oppression would have resulted in two things: erosion of the constitutionally sanctioned rule of law and the burning of cities across the land. No one, except perhaps Donald Trump and his white racist base, wanted either of those two consequences. So the notion that “without the right to protest, there can be no [liberal] democracy” was upheld, and that made the protesters “the nation’s true patriots.”

Part IV—Will the Changes Last?

According to a recent piece in the HuffPost, the demands of the protesters for a just and safe America are being heeded. As proof, the article notes the following:

—Police officers are being held accountable for brutal behavior.

—Some police departments are reforming police practices.

—Monuments to racist and hardline historical figures are coming down.

—Technology companies are halting cooperation with police departments when it comes to facial recognition techniques. 

—Finally, there has been a shift in public opinion: Americans “support the anti-racism protests by a 2 to 1 margin.”

 All this is for the better, but will it last? Barack Obama has compared the present protests to those of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He believes that they have brought about a similar “sea change” or profound transformation. Is that actually the case?

It should be recalled that the earlier civil rights protests led to a series of changes in law and, ultimately, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that banned discrimination in the public realm. These changes smoothed the way for other legislation expanding rights to people with disabilities, to homosexuals, lesbians and transgender folks, and to others. However, and quite significantly, these events triggered a culture war that focused white resentment and resistance within conservative political and fundamentalist religious movements. Among their unofficial institutional allies were and are some of the nation’s police forces. The racism, now exhibited by today’s Republican Party and its leader, President Donald Trump, as well as modern episodes of police brutality toward African Americans, should be understood within the context of that on-going culture war.

Looking at things this way, we can ask if the progressive response to today’s protests is best described as a “sea change” or a continuing, albeit important, chapter in what is still a very long-term struggle? As one activist and organizer, Sajari Simmons, realizes this is certainly not the end of the struggle for justice. Referring to the protests, she noted that “This is not just it. This is just one component,” she said. “There’s a lot more that we can do to help impact and educate and support.”

Part V—Conclusion

The American political system is lobby based. If the average citizen is important, it is only to be rallied at election time. However, if they are organized into politically potent interest groups, those citizens can have a long-term impact. To ultimately win the culture war, today’s protesters must be somehow united into a standing movement capable of “educating and supporting” their cause at local, state and national levels over the long run. 

Lest we forget, the enemies of a liberal, non-discriminatory interpretation of the Constitution are still out there and they have power. President Trump and his minions are still in place, as are millions of racist voters. Their political power must be broken at the polls, in the courts, and through a multigenerational process of reeducation. In working toward these goals, demonstrations are necessary, but not sufficient. Without a competently led and lasting movement, police brutality will come back, and “ten thousand soldiers” might, someday, really “dominate the streets.”

About Lawrence Davidson

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

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