2015 seemed as though it was another year of social protests. It was certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon as demonstrations occurred throughout the world over economic, religious, and social issues, often resulting in violent chaos. While Americans have over time become somewhat inured to the images of violence in the developing world, protests and violence in Europe seemed to have gained more resonance. Together with a continuous sequence of marches, disruptions, demands, and violence at home, a sense that we are witnessing another 1960’s- like collapse of the social order has contributed to a demonstrable pessimism and outright anger, which in turn has characterized the 2015/16 electoral cycle.
Analysis of this situation, and what, if anything, to do about it seems to have taken on the all too common conservative/liberal ideological split which seems to identify most social movements. However, in a recent commentary Thomas Freidman offers a more highly generalized explanation:
“In my view, this age of protest is driven, in part, by the fact that the three largest forces on the planet — globalization, Moore’s law and Mother Nature — are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones, while superempowering individuals and transforming the nature of work, leadership and government all at once.”
By “globalization” he seems to be referring to the access individuals have to stress inducing events worldwide, not the broadened sphere of economic activity. He emphasizes this with the impact of “Moore’s Law”, which predicts the rapid rate of acceleration of micro-technology in information and communication systems i.e. cell phones. His reference to “Mother Nature” is left without explanation but appears to be an attempt to place climate change in yet another list of causes and threats to human insecurity. Freidman goes on to quote philosopher and corporate leadership entrepreneur Dov Seidman as saying with respect to increased levels of protest that,
“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused.”
“But when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious conversation or the truth.”
Both Freidman’s and Seidman’s comments seem to have elements of truth for some social movements but are inadequate for explaining many others.
Certainly the availability of cell phones and social media make the mobilization of individuals for movements and protests much easier but the motives of the participants and their leaders need further analysis.
Some protests are clearly not based on the onset of “moral” arousal but on the pursuit of self- interest.
The large protests directed at Walmart and McDonalds restaurants in 2015 were simply demands for pay increases above the current minimum wage scale. Some might say these were part of a movement for a “living wage” to which they would attach a moral purpose. But the term “living wage” lacks a precise definition and is not logically derivative of the concept of a guaranteed minimum wage as minimum wage jobs are generally accepted as entry level positions which are temporary and not career options. The issue is further complicated by the fact that costs of living vary greatly across the nation so the requirements for a “living wage” would vary accordingly.
Thus the movement and the subsequent protests were simply based on the desire of the employees to get a raise; a perfectly understandable desire but one that was not directly relevant to individuals outside of that particular group, with the exception of course of politicians and pundits who talk and write as if “morally aroused” but rarely show up to protest.
In the U.S., public protests by illegal aliens have become commonplace. This is intuitively and legally contradictory since advocates for amnesty for this group have routinely claimed that they must live “in the shadows “ for fear of deportation, yet they gather in public spaces without fear of apprehension, to make demands and protest being treated as what they are, illegal aliens.
If there is a “moral arousal” element here it is mostly claimed by their non-illegal immigrant supporters and may indeed be genuine for some, such as religious figures and social liberals who see the opening of America’s borders to the world’s poor as a moral obligation. However, the motive of group self-interest is difficult to ignore either for the protestors themselves or when their supporters are officials of the Democratic Party and organized labor, both of which stand to benefit significantly by large scale immigration from Latin America.
One such protest among many, occurred in California in conjunction with the state’s new law allowing illegals to come out of the “shadows”, where they never are in this “sanctuary city” filled state.
A local newspaper, the Santa Barbara News Press, was the target of a violent protest involving the throwing of paint bombs and spray painted graffiti on the papers offices.
Reaching new levels of politically correct absurdity and audacity, the alleged offense committed by the News Press was a headline about the numerous illegal aliens lining up at the issuing agency for drivers licenses after the passage of an enabling law . The headline simply described the applicants as “illegals”. As justification for the hooliganism, Hispanic groups called the newspaper “offensive” and “racist”. Others claimed that “immigrants aren’t illegal; the border is.”
Protests are so commonplace and their motives so varied it is difficult to keep up with them and signs of public “protest fatigue” are abundant.
“Big” is often enough to mobilize those mostly on the Left, to promote conspiracy theories as a justification for self-absorbed fun in the streets. Thus “big pharma”, “big oil”, “big corporations” and especially “big” agricultural company Monsanto have become favorite targets of the Left. The recent Monsanto protests were based on scientifically baseless charges that it’s genetically modified seeds and latest weed killers are related to increased incidence of diseases and autism in children. Despite the lack of empirical evidence and the approval of Monsanto’s products by the Food and Drug Administration, the claims have achieved a sort of cachet among environmental activists.
“On May 22, tens of thousands demonstrators across the United States took part in the worldwide "March against Monsanto" that meant to highlight the company’s control of the food supply, and diseases linked to chemicals that they use."
"People are fed up. We should break up Monsanto," Adam Eidinger of Occupy Monsanto told RT. "Monsanto is a monopoly, and it's acting like one. It's basically controlling 90 percent of the seed market in the United States. We wouldn't let one cell phone company control 90 percent of the cell phones. But for some reason we let food be controlled."
It should be noted that the “morally aroused” Mr. Eidinger , now 43, has been in a state of arousal since his high school days when he campaigned to have foam trays removed from the lunchroom. While in college he led protests against tuition increases and since then has led or been involved in protests for such things as hemp advocacy, medical marijuana, then recreational marijuana in Washington D.C., which became legal in February, 2015. His state of moral arousal seems to know no bounds as he went on to protest the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank(IBRD), the inauguration of President George W. Bush, the construction of a new stadium for the Washington Nationals baseball team and later the demand for GMO labeling and of course the most commonly vilified culprit, Monsanto.
Mr. Eidinger’s resume’ might lead to the simple question, “If you see injustice in everything, are you actually committed to anything?” Or, has the process of protest, status seeking, and defiance of authority, become more important than any of the alleged goals?
Nowhere does this emphasis on “process” seem more obvious than on college campuses where protests are essentially the failed attempts of silliness in search of seriousness. Students across the nation are in a competition to come up with longer lists of “insensitivity” on the part of their respective faculties and administrations.
Demands are made to punish individuals for wearing, or even not condemning, Halloween costumes which are ethnically identifiable, or to change the names of buildings and remove statues of prominent alumnae and benefactors from previous eras because of alleged violations of 21st Century college codes of political correctness. These expressions of moral indignation provide feel-good moments for all involved as well as opportunities for administrators to feel properly contrite.
Students today may be more “morally aroused” than in the past but student protests have been a fact of campus life for centuries and their social importance should be considered in this historical context.
The first recorded college student protest in America occurred in 1766 at Harvard College. It was chronicled by historian Samuel Elliot Morrison and known as “The Great Butter Rebellion”.
“Since the opening of Harvard's gates in 1636, food service had been an issue. Despite periodic attempts at improving the service, the quality of the butter remained exceptionally poor. One meal with particularly rancid butter led Asa Dunbar (the grandfather of Henry David Thoreau) to jump upon his chair and proclaim: "Behold, our butter stinketh!— give us therefore, butter that stinketh not." The cry was adopted by fully half the student body as they rose together and exited the Commons in protest.”
The descendants of the Great Butter Rebellion are everywhere and for most it seems their list of demands i.e. “safe places”, “trigger warnings”, and “gender neutral pronouns”, are more trivial than those of the 17th Century, “Butter Matters” warriors.
There is a website called “Protester.net” which offers active and potential protesters a menu for participation. It lists an upcoming calendar of world- wide protests available for the would- be activist to vent their anger at “the system” and enhance their progressive activist bona fides. An “Events by Issue” menu offers twenty-four selections, more than enough for even the most disgruntled post-adolescent. One can pick from such favorites as “Animal Rights”,” Fascism and the Right Wing”,” Globalization and Imperialism” and “Prisons, Police and Repression”.
A “Protesters Handbook” offers this tactical advice:
“Protest is particularly effective when you have many people with little traditional power and a few with much traditional power. This is because the many can literally block the few from accessing their power by taking over buildings, forming picket lines, etc.”
In the U.S. the most prominent protests have been the Black Lives Matter events which have two faces, the urban protests and the college campus demonstrations. Unlike many other protests which have specific targets or political goals i.e. Monsanto, immigration amnesty, etc. this series of demonstrations are loosely organized without much central planning. Ad hoc groups which just want to be “part of the action”, whether urban or college based, spring up spontaneously and make a broad range of demands around the idea that blacks in the U.S. are victims of discrimination, police abuse, and on campuses, a variety of politically incorrect offensive behavior on the part of white people.
While the original impetus and focus was on the deaths of several black men resulting from confrontations with police, the broader iteration occurring on campuses have been characterized by “demands” for “sensitivity” to other demands i.e. more minority faculty members, counseling services for minority students, minority residences, and the power of job termination over administration and faculty members who are seen to be out of compliance with the demands.
Thus, with respect to the excesses and possible limits to this latest era of protests, a meaningful discussion needs to conducted, but so far has been ignored as the few voices of criticism almost exclusively from the conservative media, bring about the immediate charges of “racism”.
On the urban front, community officials i.e. mayors and city council members, seem intimidated by both the racist characterizations, and the prospects of out of control violence. Then, there is as well, the threat of civil rights investigations by the federal Justice Department if police departments try to enforce the law and deter or respond to violence.
Social activists, Left leaning media commentators and local supporters of the protests are quick to label them all as constitutionally protected rights. Indeed the Constitution does protect the right of “free speech” and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”
Subsequent Supreme Ct. decisions have found that:
“The right not only protects demands for "a redress of grievances" but also demands for government action. The petition clause includes, according to the Supreme Court,, the opportunity to institute non-frivolous lawsuits and mobilize popular support to change existing laws in a peaceful manner.”[
But in reality, the Black Lives Matter protests as well as most of the other social protests occurring in America including the campus versions, have clearly gone beyond the bounds of the First Amendment protections.
The operative terms are “peaceably to assemble” and “peaceful manner”.
No amount of legal or philosophical contortions can describe the violence and destruction that occurred in Ferguson, MO or Baltimore, MD in conjunction with Black Lives Matter protests as “peaceable”.
Subsequent protests involving taking over a shopping center in Minneapolis, and blocking public roads, bridges and access to airports, across the nation have been described as “civil disobedience”. This euphemism which attempts to conjure up the image of the civil rights sit-ins of the 1960’s has little in common with those historical tactics which sought to change specific local laws which were clearly unconstitutional and were ruled as such by federal courts.
Black Lives Matter and protests against such things as climate change, GMO food, the IMF and World Bank, and protests against the “Bigs” aren’t focused on unjust laws but on issues and institutions which simply stimulate the ideological hatred of the far Left. Black Lives Matter’s goals are highly generalized, “justice for blacks”. While a worthy goal, as it is for all U.S. citizens, it implies an almost national and unjustified disregard for the legal rights of American blacks and includes prominent elements of exaggeration and unsubstantiated charges, i.e. “Hands up don’t Shoot”. The movement’s participants reject any legal process involving any black vs. police violence that doesn’t produce criminal proceedings against the police officers involved. The threats of “No Justice, no peace” then produce volatile group actions of civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is by definition the use of tactics which are commonly illegal.
The term itself was drawn from an essay by Henry David Thoreau in 1849 entitled “Resistance to Civil Government” which was later reprinted in 1866 as “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau was motivated by his strong opposition to slavery and while he declared it a duty of citizens to oppose laws as their conscience dictated, he also believed that such law violators should be prepared to suffer the penalties of the law including imprisonment. He himself went to happily to prison for tax violations which he related to the financing of the Mexican War which he also opposed.
But the motives of many, if not most, of the contemporary protesters are not based on such lofty goals and their infringement of both the collective and private rights of citizens to free movement on public thoroughfares, access to businesses and public institutions, be they government offices or college classrooms is illegal. It takes little encouragement for the protesters to simply become a mob in which the individuals involved hide behind the anonymity afforded by numbers, to engage in violence against both police and private property.
The proliferation of such events is encouraged by media exposure, the belief by participants that they are immune to prosecution, the use of cell phone cameras to make claims of “excessive use of force” by any attempt by authorities to contain the violence, and now a new legal theory that attempts to rationalize illegal acts by individuals and groups as socially “necessary”.
An article in the newspaper “The Guardian” explains.
“For the very first time, US climate activists have been able to argue the necessity defense – which argues that so-called criminal acts were committed out of necessity – to a jury. “ The Delta 5”, who blockaded an oil train at the Delta rail yard near Seattle in September of 2014, have been allowed to use the defense in a historic climate change civil disobedience trial being heard this week. They said they acted to prevent the greater harm of climate change and oil train explosions.”
The judge initially disallowed the “necessity defense” and gave a credible explanation why:
“General harms by global warming are obvious - and potentially catastrophic - if government and individuals fail to act. But such generalized harm - even though it is extreme, cannot be legally cognizable because it is impossible to quantify the societal benefits of defendants’ illegal acts as they relate to the harm averted. Therefore, necessity is unavailable as a defense.”
He also noted that in a previous case protesters had blocked a train thought to be carrying nuclear warheads, the necessity defense was denied.”
But after a request to reconsider, he inexplicably reversed himself. Then at the conclusion of the trial on January 15th, 2016, essentially reversed himself again in instructions to the jury, saying:
“. . . this court will (not) engage in politics and violate its obligation to adhere to legal precedents.” “After making that ruling, Howard told the jurors to disregard the testimony from the five experts that testified on behalf of the defense.”
The five protestors were quickly found guilty of trespass but were given extremely light sentences.
This was a victory for common sense but one that will almost certainly have to be fought again. When individuals are given the authority to use personal standards to interpret laws, society gives up the consistency necessary for the fair application of the law. It doesn’t take much thought to project the legal chaos that would be produced through the widespread adoption of this defense in the context of today’s hyper protest era. Trespass laws, wanton destruction, and even physical resistance to police would become the legal fodder for over- zealous defense attorneys claiming it was politically or socially “necessary” to achieve their goals.
As the judge warned, individual and group politics would continue to replace the rule of law established by the legislative process.
So the question remains, should political authorities and campus administrators risk escalation of acts of non-violent civil disobedience in order to enforce the law by imposing rational limits to the level of disobedience allowed?
The quandary is currently being played out in the protest and occupation of a small government building in rural Oregon. Armed advocates for rancher’s rights are demanding the return of federal lands to private ownership. Federal authorities have been near the site of the occupation since January 2, 2016, but have made no attempt to dislodge the protesters. The occupation is clearly illegal and local area residents and Oregon’s governor are upset that the issue has not been resolved. The reticence of the federal officials to arrest and remove the protesters, which could easily be done, is understandable. The occupiers are armed and a use of force by authorities could trigger a violent confrontation resulting in deaths on both sides. The occupied building was not in use and the rural location represents no real threat to local residents. The FBI still bears the scars of previous confrontations and their violent outcomes in the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents and is reluctant to initiate a similar action.
But the larger issue of defiance of laws, both federal and local cannot be totally dismissed. Protests are becoming a national pastime and doing nothing is an overt and dangerous concession to future illegal actions by other radical groups and will encourage confrontations which could lead to even more dangerous circumstances.
At some point the rule of law as a national attribute , and the protection of the public domain for the benefit of society as a whole will have to be maintained or the U.S. will risk the chaos now so common throughout the rest of the world.