U.S. News


How Americans Surrendered the Mantle of Artful Peaceful Protest

We Americans, a hubristic lot, imagine we are exceptional at most everything. Even our name is a conceit, one nation in the Americas, and nah, we are the real Americans.

There is certainly a huge dallop of delusion in the notion of America as a beacon of human rights, civil liberties, peace and freedom, leaders of the free world, standard-bearers of democracy, guardians of the rule of law, and the separation of powers. Still, as I travel the world, I am continually impressed by the deep and abiding admiration this country commands, large, radioactive warts notwithstanding. Especially the two-fifths of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that guarantee that Congress shall make no law abridging the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Peaceably.

On the 6th of January – already that date bursts with meaning and imagery – the utter failure of Americans to grasp its own traditions came home to roost. “Patriots” violently intruded on the lynchpins of constitutional freedoms. The five dozen court rulings, the validated elections of the 50 states, the establishment by state and federal election officials that there was no evidence of fraud, were all repudiated and scorned in an orchestrated attack on the Congress, with murderous intent, cheered on by the President of the United States.

These conservative standard-bearers, who never saw a protest they didn’t disdain – Black Lives Matters, women’s rights, climate change – bastardized the notion of protest into, “We take what’s ours.” Ours being predominantly white, male, and Christianist.

I recently traveled around the United States – and four continents – to visit activists and thought leaders who witnessed or analyzed 13 iconic political protests, from Selma, Standing Rock, Occupy, and the Bonus Army, to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, Ukraine’s Euromaidan, and South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution. What struck me repeatedly was the fresh, passionate convictions of overseas protesters, religiously nonviolent, and vividly aware of the U.S. tradition of people’s governance, as a contrast to the declining understanding at home of the need to protect and nurture our political traditions. Our history of native genocide, slavery, and endless military misadventures aside, they struck me as more appreciative of American civil society than Americans.

In the printed chronicle of that trip, Surmountable, co-written with Adam Monier Edwards, we document a litany of absurd gaps in citizen education.

“We are awash in a tsunami of digital information, increasingly uninformed. Most Americans can’t list the freedoms in the First Amendment, can’t list the three branches of government, can’t name their own members of Congress – nearly half don’t know that each state has two senators – and most can’t name a single Supreme Court Justice.”

The net effect is dreadful political stupidity, as evidenced by the Capitol insurrection. QAnon fanboyz/girlz, online and off, had been predicting the Great Awakening for months. And despite defeat after defeat, at the polls, in the courts, in expert analyses such as the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, they smugly guaranteed a second Trump term. Whether viewed as closely guarded and coded Q drops or brazen declarations of plans to stop the presidential election process, this conspiracy theory, as with all conspiracies worth noting, was propagandized in the full light of day. It went something like this…

An upper echelon of Pentagon officials, installed after the election, would ensure the unfettered assault on the final validating of the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States. The President would actively agitate for the gathering of followers, including right-wing militia groups (“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”), white supremacists, and neo-Nazis (“Camp Auschwitz”), speak to them along with a battery of Senators and supporters, then direct a march down Pennsylvania Avenue culminating in the attack (“trial by combat!”). As the Vice President and members of Congress were captured and likely executed, martial law would be declared until “we can figure out what the hell is going on,” to borrow from Trump’s hideous Muslim ban justification.

The right of the people peaceably to assemble. Americans have been indoctrinated by our cuddly and well-dressed ruling class to dismiss protesters, those who assemble and “petition” for a redress of grievances, as anomalies, as troublemakers, outside agitators. But the Founders considered it a literal and essential requirement of liberal democracy, as important as an informed public. I interviewed a Madisonian scholar who reminded me of the First Amendment author’s admonition that, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

And as the world’s greatest manufacturer of amusements, our Capitol assault was both a farce and a tragedy.

Nonviolence was a recurring theme in my travels for Surmountable, both as effective strategy and as a transcendent notion, winning justice with grace and beauty. Activists and protest chroniclers from Occupy’s Kalle Lasn and Alice Paul’s biographer to the frontline activists who put their bodies on the line in Tunis and Kyiv often spoke of the practice in ecstatic or metaphysical terms. In fact, it is often the excessive application of violence by authorities (Kent State, Standing Rock, Ukraine, South Korea, Occupy) that turns the tide of public opinion in favor of peaceful demonstrators.

The perversion of the notions of patriotism and justice is nothing new for militarists seeking to preserve the status quo. What is worsening is the persistent dumbing down of Americans in their understanding of democratic processes, the necessary art of peaceful protest, and the stakes of autocracy and domestic terrorism.

After traversing the country to harvest stories of, in the words of the old Superman TV series, “the never-ending battle for truth and justice,” we found plenty of inspiration and lessons learned.

But when we sought the fiercest, most recent clear-headed advocates of the American Way, it was more often on the streets of foreign capitals where the art of peaceful protest seemed most effectively manifest.