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Counterproductive Activism: How Direct Action Protests Could Harm the Progressive Movement in America

“Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.
It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction
devised by the ingenuity of man.”
– Gandhi


This article is about ineffective activism. To read about what actually works, read “An 11-Point Action Plan for Progressives.”

When Marching for Peace Turns Violent

About 14 years ago, in March of 2003, I began writing about the Iraq War and what activists could do to help prevent it. Aerial photos of cities around the world showed over 11 million people in the streets protesting the war.

In San Francisco, it’s estimated that over 2,000 thousand protesters were arrested with many more filling the streets. One report states:

“Although the protesters were largely well-behaved, splinter groups shattered windows, heaved rocks and bottles at police and left graffiti in their wake. Some protesters were clearly prepared for violence. Sheriff Michael Hennessey said some protesters had fired bolts from slingshots, and others had slashed the tires of squad cars. One protester tried to take an officer’s handgun, he said.” (Source: SF Gate, 20 March 2003)

Elsewhere in the world, anti-war protestors fire bombed police officers.

When demands for a more peaceful world morph into riots, violence, and vandalism, people begin to question the authenticity of those making the demands for peace.

Today we know that the methods used by anti-war activists around the world didn’t stop the Iraq War. Nor did those same methods prove effective at stopping any other wars. In fact, such actions escalate anger, fear, hatred, intolerance, divisiveness and misunderstandings.

The simple truth is this: We need different methods.

Love Trumps Hate

During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, we saw many people protest the election and various events believed to be caused by the election.

Two popular slogans were “Love Trumps Hate” and “When they go low, we go high.”

Unfortunately, the statement “When they go low, we go high” was acted out by some in a way that conveyed “When they go low, we go lower” and the “Love Trumps Hate” message became less effective the louder it was angrily shouted.

Public response to the more violent and angry “Love Trumps Hate” protests have been negative and critical.

The Irony of Expressing ‘Love Trumps Hate’ in Hate” is an article by Michael Mascolo Ph.D. published yesterday by Psychology Today, on 16 January 2017, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. who was a strong advocate for love and understanding. In the article, Mascolo states:

“If ‘Love Trumps Hate’ is delivered with hate, rather than with love and moral power, the message will not only be lost – it will generate still more anger and hate.”

How to Not Win Friends or Influence People

You have to wonder sometimes when people try to promote their cause in a way that is offensive and results in scorn. It’s as if they read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and are doing the opposite of what is prescribed in the book.

Publicized yesterday, on MLK day, was a report disclosing plans of agitators to disrupt the presidential inauguration and related events in Washington, D.C. this week. Here’s an undercover video about the group which is now being investigated by local police and the FBI.

Anger and Hate Produce More of the Same

The video below illustrates the kind of public response that’s created by counterproductive angry, hateful, and violent protests. It’s similar to the public response to terrorism. Nobody likes a group that uses such tactics to advance their cause. This is a commentary from a conservative influencer, but the principle is the same even if the tables are turned. You wanted airtime and news coverage for your cause? Well, here’s your news coverage…

The Weather Underground – SPOILER ALERT

The soil has been worked. The seeds have been planted. We’re at the point now where we’re watering those seeds, and putting fertilizer on militant extremist left-wing and right-wing groups which are now at risk of becoming home-grown terrorists organizations that will likely cause more harm and disruption than ISIS or any other terrorist groups ever could.

SPOILER ALERT – If you’re wanting to be surprised by the events about to transpire in 2017, then you may want to skip watching the following documentary about The Weather Underground from 1969. It represents what’s very likely to happen in the coming months and years if violent forms of protest are condoned and promoted by the leaders of various groups while also continuing to spread virally from one independent activist cell to another.

[Video no longer available.]

Here’s another look at the Weather Underground.

Present Day Calls for Anarchy

Here’s an example of a present-day call for anarchy:

“If movements are to become an important force in the politics of the Trump era, they will have to be movements of a somewhat different kind from the labor, civil-rights, and LGBTQ activism of the recent past that we usually celebrate. Those were movements focused on progress, on winning measures that would remedy long-standing injustices, and they were movements that some elites also endorsed. Now the protests will have to aim not at winning, but at halting or foiling initiatives that threaten harm… The anti–Vietnam War movement also had a difficult path: Years of marches and demonstrations and chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” may have influenced the tactics of the war party in Washington, but the war continued and even escalated. The solution turned out to lie in the expansion of the anti–Vietnam War movement—and the escalation of its defiance. The war only wound down when resistance spread from the civilian population to the armed forces, the very instrument of warmaking and imperial power. Rank-and-file troops began to refuse orders, to sabotage military discipline, and even to shoot their own officers. The prospect of an army in disarray prompted military leaders to join the search for a way to wind down the war, in effect allying with the antiwar movement and ensuring its success, at least for a time.” (Source: “Throw Sand in the Gears of Everything” by Frances Fox Piven, 18 January 2017)

Here’s another plea for activists engage in defiance and create disruption:

“’We call on all people of good conscience to join in disrupting the ceremonies. If Trump is to be inaugurated at all, let it happen behind closed doors, showing the true face of the security state Trump will preside over. … We must take to the streets and protest, blockade, disrupt, intervene, sit in, walk out, rise up, and make more noise and good trouble than the establishment can bear. The parade must be stopped. We must delegitimize Trump and all he represents.’ One member of the ‘D.C. counter-inaugural welcoming committee’ commented anonymously that housing space for 1,000 hundred visiting radicals, in both church halls and houses, had been organized by their group alone. New York anarchists are raising funds to rent whole buses to attend. And, as historic anti-fascist mass protest dictates, there are plans for a large black bloc—a spectacle both intentionally threatening and anonymizing. The expectation of altercation with Trump supporters who will also descend on DC is high.” (Source: “Anti-Fascists Will Fight Trump’s Fascism in the Streets” by Natasha Lennard, The Nation, 19 January 2017 @ 11:00 AM)

We Need Activism that Actually Works

This week I wrote an 11-point action plan for progressives. As you’ll read in that article, there are many good values, principles, and goals being advanced by progressives in America.

Unfortunately, the sometimes violent method of advancing those causes are completely contrary to the spirt of peace, tolerance, understanding, open mindedness, and cooperation purportedly behind them.

Will the Progressive Movement Survive?

We’re at a crossroads right now in our country. In the months ahead, the progressive agenda will either be seriously considered, building upon the message and broad appeal of Bernie Sanders, or progressives will become an irrelevant marginalized shouting angry annoyance that people will do their best to ignore.

If progressives make bad choices today, here’s what we’ll get tomorrow:

  • More wars (hot and cold) instead of more diplomacy.
  • Environmental exploitation and devastation instead of sustainability.
  • An increasing incarceration crisis and a justice system with greater institutionalized racism.
  • Deregulation that leads to low wages, unsafe working conditions, unsafe products, and price gouging extortion-like fees for pharmaceutical drugs.
  • Intolerant divided communities instead of a society that’s welcoming and supportive of minorities and others who might otherwise be targets of bullying or unfair treatment.
  • Reduced funding of public education from K-12 and higher, along with the ignorance, lack of marketable talent, exodus of industry, and the economic depression that results.
  • More Welfare for the wealthy with taxpayer money from the working poor being used to fund the lifestyles of the wealthy.
  • Less equal access to opportunity – the education, jobs, and financial resources needed to succeed in life.

That’s what we have to lose.

What I Ask

Whatever your politics are, liberal or conservative, and whatever your party is, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, or other, my plea is that we all raise the bar of respectful exchange, and denounce violent angry actions that don’t engage others in meaningful dialog. There are peaceful, intelligent, caring, hard working people in just about every group. We must all rise up and work together.

We live in a time when people are more likely to blame others for their failures and become defensive rather than listen and seek ways to improve. However, I’m hopeful that those with influence and power in our country can help inspire people toward better ways.

Examples of More Effective Activism

Criticism isn’t useful unless it’s accompanied by helpful suggestions, solutions, and alternatives. So, here’s a suggestion for more effective activism. Rather than marching and shouting angry chants, why not have a service project event where hundreds of would-be protestors become volunteers who mow lawns, wash cars, weed gardens, pay random parking meters, give gifts, or in the winter shovel snow. Hand out informative leaflets about your cause. Do something constructive to help people while still getting you message across. You’ll gain more respect and support from people doing service projects than you will stopping traffic.

Outcomes of Ineffective Activism

Here are a few examples of outcomes produced by ineffective activism.

Democratic Leadership Leaving the Party

As a very active member of the Democratic Party, Michael J. Hout, served on the National Council, as national chartering director, northeast regional director, and in other roles for the College Democrats of America. He was also vice president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts. In an open letter, he explains his reasons for leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an Independent.

“Not since the days of McCarthyism has the demand to conform been greater — and that should concern all Americans. This is not how the Democratic Party has historically operated… I was not the first to leave the Democratic Party as a result of this moral absolutism, which appears dangerously similar to the dogmatic nature of religious zealotry, and I surely will not be the last. These new crusaders for the church of the far left must be called out if we are to prevent the war they seek to engage in, and I hope my departure will contribute to this conversation. There’s a fundamental misconception that to be progressive is to inherently be on the right side of history. In this case, it couldn’t be further from the truth, and I will proudly stand athwart history in the spirit of William F. Buckley Jr. if it means preventing this divisive ideology from gaining in influence.” ~ Source: “Why I’m leaving the Democratic Party” by Michael J. Hout, The Hill, 18 January 2017.

Concerns about Short Sightedness of Democratic Party Leadership

The video below is an Election 2016 commentary by Jonathan Pie (Tom Walker) which outlines numerous failures of the Democratic Party that need to be addressed and fixed if progress is to be made in the future.

Concerns about Misguided and Hypocritical Reactionary Politics

In the video below, Debbie Lusignan discusses how reactionary politics and hypocrisy erode the Democratic Party mission and goals.

Feedback or Suggestions?

If you have feedback or suggestions, please feel free to use the comments area below or the contact page. Reader responses will further shape this document as changes, edits, additions, and corrections are guided by your feedback. Thanks!

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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