After the events of Wednesday few would consider it an understatement to say that the United States is more starkly divided today than at any time since the Civil War. Nearly half the country appears to be convinced that Donald Trump won the presidential election, and that Democrats have destroyed democracy. Many of them seemed willing to kill or die for this cause. The other half seems to believe that what happened on Wednesday was a nearly successful coup d’etat with which the Capitol Police and perhaps even the National Guard actively colluded in order to usher in a fascist dictatorship. It’s hard for anyone to find common ground in such a polarized environment.
But not impossible. There’s one point on which even Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity would seem to agree, along with Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Pelosi, every other member of the House and Senate, and the entirety of the televised commentariat: We must do everything possible to ensure that there is never a breach in security like this ever again!
As a left activist who has been trained to be skeptical of power in general, all of my alarm bells go off whenever there is such a consensus among ruling elites about anything, and if you count yourself amongst the left yours should too. Calls for law-and-order are not the same thing as calls for the rule of law, and we need to understand this distinction very clearly and articulate it constantly. The rule of law ensures everyone is equal under one set of laws. We’re for that. Law and order, in this context, means squashing dissent, no matter what that dissent is about. We’re against that.
We cannot leave militant, nonviolent direct action tactics off the table in the battles we need to fight now and going forward.
It is also a mistake to condemn all the tactics that were employed by the mob as inherently anti-democratic, as many of those same ruling elites have been doing, a bandwagon which far too many of “the left” seem to be comfortable joining. Rushing through barricades, breaking windows and occupying the seat of government power is not inherently anti-democratic. Given a legitimate reason and the correct circumstances, such actions might be both warranted and necessary to pressure the government to right a wrong, correct an injustice, and/or become more democratic.
This leads to questions about what is or isn’t legitimate, who gets to decide, and how we make that distinction. It might be easiest to start with why the actions on Wednesday were not legitimate, warranted, or democratic. For starters, they brought weapons, a tactic that I don’t believe has any place in a democratic society. Furthermore the basis of the entire action was a lie. Donald Trump has refused to accept the results of a free and fair election. He is actively attempting to cling to power by force, a move supported by elected officials and right-wing media outlets such as Newsmax and One America Network. The organized disinformation campaign coming from these ruling class forces, coupled with Trump’s literal call to arms, is a direct attack on democratic rule in this country.
What would confer legitimacy to an action that included occupying the Capitol, or similar symbols of state power? I can think of many legitimate causes, but perhaps the most salient one right now would be voter suppression, legalized or otherwise. Make no mistake, this will become the primary cause for right-wing organizing in the coming years, and they will try to pass legislation in state houses around this country. If left activists in those states were to seize and occupy state capitol buildings to protect voting rights, I would applaud such actions as warranted and necessary, just as I did 10 years ago this February when public sector workers and their allies peacefully occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol for almost three weeks to protest their Republican governor’s push to strip them of their collective bargaining rights. I would feel the same about occupying federal buildings.
As for more general rules of thumb for distinguishing between right and left movements, let’s keep in mind this difference: fascist movements are organized from the top down while left popular mobilization expresses bottom-up power. Participation in either type of formation is at least in part a choice, but the two approaches are radically different and say something about the character of the participants.
Our mobilizations must be different both in the content of the action and the form it takes, but we cannot leave militant nonviolent direct action tactics off the table in the battles we need to fight now and going forward. We cannot lend our moral outrage to the cause of empowering the security state. Instead, let us focus that outrage towards those in power that orchestrated and empowered an attack on the right of the people to choose their leaders in free and fair elections. Let’s fight that with all the passion we can muster, and with every tool in the toolbox available to us.
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