In my fever dreams about November 3, 2020, I see the summer of 1968 having unfolded all over again. Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon then, will have been elected to the presidency (Nixon on his second try, Trump re-elected) by parlaying a summer of urban riots, racial discord and the fear they engendered among threatened white voters to eke out an election victory despite attracting less than a majority of voters, and in Trump’s case, by once again losing the popular vote to his Democratic rival.
This is every Democrat’s and disaffected moderate Republican’s worst nightmare, and it could unfold exactly that way unless Democrats get very strategic, very measured, and very sober—very fast.
Central to that effort will be making their peace with the few hundred thousand swing voters in a few purple states who decided the 2016 election and will very likely do so once again.
And what will making that peace entail?
Democrats, led by Joe Biden but including every last senator and congressional representative and mayor and Black Lives Matter leader, will have to complement their defense of peaceful protest by uttering a definitive and persistent denunciation of violence against both persons and property.
No equivocation, no rationalization, no “WhatAbout-Ism” or “TheyStartedIt-ism.”
In other words, they have to do what fierce and tireless justice advocates have always done: persuade people with the moral force of their argument for a better, more humane government, not by letting fear enter their hearts that more violence might be coming their way.
It’s one critical means of not only getting rid of Donald Trump, but also of bringing about true and lasting change.
In 1968, Hubert Humphrey was an avuncular FDR liberal with a solid legislative record as an ex-senator, subsequent service at the highest levels as vice-president, and an approachable, human touch. Humphrey was far more comfortable in his skin than Richard Nixon could ever dream of being. But the times were anything but approachable.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in April. Bobby Kennedy, who likely would have beaten Humphrey for the Democratic nomination, had suffered the same fate in June. The country was listing like a ship that had hit an iceberg, with no certainty it could make it to port.
Blacks had risen up in righteous anger following King’s assassination, with race riots ultimately breaking out in more than 100 cities across the country. King’s lifelong call for non-violence was just one more victim of the times.
Then the Democratic convention came to Chicago in late August , and mostly white, anarchist street rioters managed to steal most all the thunder and headlines from the convention by creating chaos wherever they could. That brought the wrath of the police and hard-boiled Democratic Mayor Richard Daley down upon them, just as planned.
It all played out in prime time on the nightly news, and it looked like unremitting mayhem, a country coming apart at the seams.
And Richard Nixon could not have been happier.
Yet just underneath those widely shared views, there has almost always roiled an undercurrent that questions whether non-violence works too slowly, or simply isn’t as effective, doesn’t get the attention of the power structure one is trying to overcome…
Just as seems to be happening with Biden today, it put Humphrey in a quandary: Denounce the violence too forcefully and risk the disaffection of his leftist wing that had never really cottoned to him while they backed that era’s Bernie in Eugene McCarthy, or lose moderate voters frightened by anything resembling equivocation or tacit approval of violence.
All of which opened a huge lane for Nixon to jump into as the “law and order” candidate, promising to bring the looters and rioters to heel and stand up for the “Silent Majority” who just wanted to go about their lives in peace.
Nixon wound up winning by just under 512,000 votes out of 73.2 million cast, 43.4% to 42.7%.
Notably, Alabama Governor George Wallace, running an overtly racist campaign, captured 13.5% of the vote nationally (9.9 million votes) and actually won all five states of the deep South—his home state, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana.
(We might pause to think about that for a moment—an avowed racist running on a platform of strict racial segregation attracted nearly 10 million Americans to vote for him barely 50 years ago. Five states wanted him as their president…)
Wallace himself knew he couldn’t win, but he hoped to play spoiler and deny either major candidate an electoral college victory, which would have thrown the election to the House of Representatives. There, he hoped to wrest a commitment to laissez faire segregation in the South from the majority Democratic Party in exchange for releasing his electors.
It didn’t work out for him, but by any measure, his insurgent campaign had been a rousing success. And truly, if Wallace had been required to vote for one of the two major party candidates, he had far more in common with Nixon and surely would have allied with him.
Combined, they received 56.9% of the vote to Humphrey’s 42.7%.
Sobering, isn’t it?
Views on the rightness of non-violent resistance from both a moral and strategic standpoint stretch back to antiquity, and have been eloquently framed in more modern times by the likes of Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Albert Camus, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Yet just underneath those widely shared views, there has almost always roiled an undercurrent that questions whether non-violence works too slowly, or simply isn’t as effective, doesn’t get the attention of the power structure one is trying to overcome, as does the direct threat to its property or personal safety that comes with violent action.
Back in 1968, this latter view was propagated by the Black Panthers and figures such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Agitating to the left of King and the Democratic Party mainstream, they were suggesting that King and other more classic liberals were too stodgy and old school, unwilling to face the intransigence of racism and the power structure that benefitted from it.
“Violence is as American as apple pie,” Brown famously said, not incorrectly, considering our history.
Today, a history of violence against previous occupants of these lands—Native Americans, Mexico, Spain, England—and against African Americans brought here on slave ships—stands alongside the lofty ideals of our Constitution as the uneasy dual foundation of a country bitterly divided nearly 160 years after it fought a catastrophic war over slavery. A sizable contingent of its population today, in lingering racist resentment and fear of the changes brought about by civil and human rights struggles of the past, is armed to the teeth with weapons of mass carnage, and America sits near the top of a forbidding list with a staggering murder and mass shooting rate that resembles a failed state more than it does leadership of the free world.
I would submit that the answer to all this is not the countenancing, however equivocal it might be, of more violence in the name of justice. Brown was right about our history drenched in violence, but wrong to imply it should be ever thus.
So the cities burned that summer of 1968, and with them, Hubert Humphrey’s chance to become president. Which gave us Richard Nixon, a man of deeply flawed character whose cynicism begat such distrust of politicians and institutions among the citizenry that it arguably set the table for Donald Trump to take command a half century later, bringing his far darker vision of fear, loathing, authoritarianism and chaos right along with him.
I’ve been struggling with this issue amidst the violence that has accompanied what I should emphasize has been the largely non-violent protests that have been engulfing the nation and the world beyond after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more recently, Jacob Blake.
Some of that violence has been of the opportunistic kind, misbegotten souls slipping under the cover of righteous protesters for material goods—wide screen TVs, designer clothes, Air Jordans—while others of an anarchist bent have been content to sow chaos with fire, broken glass and the like.
More recently, the stakes have been raised with murders and beatings perpetrated by both far-left- and far-right-wing agitators.
Add to that paramilitary troops from the Department of Homeland Security deployed by President Trump to what have become urban combat zones, the troops tasked with scooping up, whisking away, detaining and then releasing private citizens without charging them with crimes, and we are faced with a powder keg ripe for more violence from both sides of the spectrum.
My concern here, however, is with violence from the left, both because of its long association with peace movements and non-violent conflict resolution, and also given its potential to undermine Biden’s sincere effort to be a healing and calming force for a country desperately in need of it. That concern is especially acute with otherwise peace-loving leftists and progressives who may have reached a kind of boiling point and are questioning whether non-violent protest is any longer sufficient to meet the challenges of our time.
This doubt often shows up as a kind of lip service to non-violence while emphasizing that the real culprits are poverty, oppression, inequality, and all their associated woes. And no matter how true that last part is, the argument often comes out sounding like a rationalization: “Well, what do you expect such desperate people to do?”
Certainly, even when we discount the anarchists whose arrested development sees them destroy for destruction’s sake, we can still seek to understand the rage that can lead to explosions of violence among people not normally inclined that way.
But understanding is not the same as accepting or condoning, and my fear is two-fold: 1) that we bend the arc of justice so far toward “understanding” violence that innocent parties get crushed in the indiscriminate rage that it often begets, and that 2) Donald Trump will be re-elected, just as Richard Nixon was his first term, amidst the backlash to chaos that he has cynically encouraged but manages to drape on Biden and his alleged liberal, permissive ways.
The rest of this post will elaborate the argument that violence presents both a political and moral hazard to a righteous cause, as expressed by two near contemporaries who lived an ocean apart but occupied the same sphere of tactical and moral clarity.
“Where do we go from here?” asked the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in an August, 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that was taken from his book of the same name published that year. King had helped found the SCLC a decade earlier and served as its president until his assassination just eight months after this speech, which keynoted the organization’s 11th Annual Conference in Atlanta.
The first portion of the speech reviewed an impressive number of accomplishments over the SCLC’s previous 11 years of existence. Then it pivoted to ask its title question as King acknowledged: “With all the struggle and all the achievements, we must face the fact, however, that the Negro still lives in the basement of the Great Society.”
With his rhetorical “Where do we go?,” King set about answering his question with powerful exhortations for black persons to take justifiable pride in what they did to build America with the sweat of their subjugated backs, and also for who they are, for the horrors they have overcome.
He then sketched a program of economic empowerment that he insisted was—and sadly these 53 years later, still remains—unfulfilled, but would be necessary for the full expression of black freedom and dignity.
The speech soars repeatedly, King in full black Southern preacher mode, rich with metaphor and incantation. (A lovely compendium of many such speeches that often sits on my nightstand is pictured to the right.) Though his rhetoric sometimes sounded darker and more discouraged nearer the end of his life, here he is still leaning heavily on his Christianity, extolling the moral power of love and the strategic virtues of non-violence.
And so he did keep talking about it, elaborating that very night his powerful call to eschew violence as far the weaker agent than love in bringing about change.
“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience…This is leading a few extremists today to advocate for Negroes the same destructive and conscienceless power that they have justly abhorred in whites. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.”
Some 15 years earlier, the existential philosopher, novelist and essayist Albert Camus had sounded very similar notes regarding the Algerian Revolution. Camus had been born in Algeria as a French citizen when it was a French colony, part of a lower class struggling to make a better life in a new land. Just a year old when he lost his father to World War I, he had grown up in Algiers slums with his nearly deaf, illiterate mother supporting him as a housecleaner, and had returned there regularly after his emigration to France for his education. His mother still lived there, and he was a passionate supporter of Algerian independence.
But not at any price. Not at the cost of the Algerians losing their own souls.
Whatever one’s utopian dreams of perfect justice, Camus warned, the blithe sacrifice of even one innocent human life in pursuit of that utopia stands as a crime— and a powerful indictment against your motives and your ideals.
Camus was no pacifist, having labored at considerable danger to himself in the French underground to drive the Nazis out of France during World War II. But he held human life in too high a regard, treasured human freedom and the integrity of the human body too much, to ever accept or countenance violence that had even the whiff of indiscriminate application.
During the revolution that Camus witnessed himself as an activist reporter, he beheld terrorist attacks meant simply to destabilize the French regime via bombings in crowded public places.
Despite his strong support of the revolution’s main goals, its often violent tactics ran counter to a core conviction of his: that the political can never be allowed to overrun the personal. To the notion that “to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs,” Camus would have answered, “Whose eggs?”
In reality, Camus put it even more urgently and personally, his philosophy and ethics always grounded in the personal, in life at it is lived on the ground in daily existence rather than in abstract ideological arguments. An atheist to his bones, he was, in my view, a most profoundly religious human being.
Whatever one’s utopian dreams of perfect justice, he warned, the blithe sacrifice of even one innocent human life in pursuit of that utopia stands as a crime— and a powerful indictment against your motives and ideals.
In one memorable exchange at a public forum with an Arab student who was upbraiding him for his relatively moderate stance, Camus finally became exasperated and declared:
“I have always condemned terror. But I must also condemn terrorism that strikes blindly in the streets of Algiers, and which might strike my mother and family. People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”
Thankfully, we have not seen mass casualties or massive bombings in the protests and upheavals currently besieging a number of cities across the country. But there have been dangerous skirmishes, some deaths and maimings, and no small number of crimes against property, which is often dismissed as something almost irrelevant compared to the oppression suffered by human beings.
This rationalization is problematic, I think, for the same reason Camus describes above. While it may trouble many people’s sleep not at all to see a corporate behemoth such as Walgreens or Starbucks torched and looted, many reports have surfaced of destroyed local businesses, often enough owned by African Americans and other wholly innocent parties, their livelihoods and hopes ruined amidst nights of flailing and rage.
On what ground do any of us stand accepting this as “collateral damage,” and figuratively shrugging our shoulders at its costs?
And even the Walgreens in every town employs hundreds of local people who may be burned or looted out of their jobs for an extended period of time. What about them, and their rights?
All of which, of course, feeds a narrative that progressives delight in violence, liberals enable them by looking the other way, and moderates hop off their wobbly fences by embracing the very human need for the security of their bodies and homes—and proceeding to vote for the candidate promising to deliver it.
Never mind the deception and smokescreen and profound irrationality of those arguments in light of the actual candidates and issues in front of us today. Voting for a demagogue strongman promising safety is not a matter of rationality but emotion, and in a battle between those two, the latter wins a lot more often than it loses.
Our gut feels it, then we employ our brain to construct arguments in support of that feeling.
And if someone’s gut is telling them it’s more afraid of violence from the left than alarmed by oppression from the right, they are likely to vote accordingly. And if enough of those current fence-sitters jump off in that direction, we will suffer a full-on catastrophe in this country of a Donald Trump second term.
Preventing that is of paramount importance, which means, among other issues of the day, quelling any hint of Democrats’ silent acceptance of violence against both people and property as unfortunate but of no great concern. That is a recipe for bringing about a great concern indeed, with reverberations of almost unimaginable consequence for the welfare of this country.
Besides which, it’s just plain wrong, and that ought to matter, greatly, always, to people truly concerned about justice.
MLK’s April 1967 speech at Stanford University, entitled “The Other America,” reaffirmed his commitment to non-violence, but as you will see in this clip, that affirmation was accompanied by a stern rebuke of the forces still arrayed against black progress. King wanted to make clear that he held white America accountable, and demanded that it understand the desperate circumstances that begat black violence. His is a voice always worthy of an attentive ear.
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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Smashing store window by Amber Kipp, Michigan https://unsplash.com/@sadmax
March on Washington, 1963, and lunch counter sit-in courtesy of the Library of Congress https://unsplash.com/@libraryofcongress
Portland protest photo by Matthew Almon Roth, Hood River, Oregon https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewalmonroth/
Protesters face-off by Scott Lum flickr.com/photos/scottlum/
Oakland looting by Gabe Pierce, San Diego, California https://unsplash.com/@gaberce
Wonderfully expressed Andrew, by you, MLK Jr. and Camus. Thank you. Please send this to the Times, the Washington Post and to Biden.
Many thanks, Royce, it’s always a pleasure to hang out for nice long stints with Messrs. King & Camus. Fine companions, every time!
An incredible, thought provoking essay that pulls together many of my scattered, swirling and yes, scary thoughts about our critical political climate. I agree this should go to the WPost, NYTimes and Biden.
Thanks, Andrew for putting together your thoughts with these dynamic thinkers.
Well, it put a great big smile on my face to see your name float in here, Suzanne McPhee—surely it has been forever and a day! Glad you’re still reading and sifting and thinking and trying to corral those scattered and swirling thoughts; that sounds really familiar! If I was able to assist you in that effort in some small way, it was only because I have been even more scattered and swirling these past months, and was desperate to do something about it. Hope you are well and feeling fortified for what will surely be a wild ride till November 3.
That was well crafted, Andrew. I have wrestled mightily to clarify my ethical stand over the place of violence in the struggle for justice since the unrest over the killing of George Floyd erupted. I have landed squarely where you have landed. It’s comforting to have it articulated so well. Perhaps too comforting? You and I are nice middle class liberal white males (see also: privilege). We both have a comfortable little place in the sun to keep our bones warm as we enter the 4th Quarter. We naturally want to guard our resources. If I were young, and faced a world seemingly on the brink over so many intractable issues, I might be inclined to toss a few bombs to get those f***ers to pay attention. Still……….Iove has to win, or what kind of a world will it be?
Thank you, Dennis. You’re right, for sure: easy enough for us to sit on our horses here and condemn violence, and given the general sense of dread pervading so much of the current situation—and the adults in charge having driven us all into the ditch—bomb-throwing would indeed be mighty tempting. It would be even more tempting if it weren’t so darn counter-productive! I would also go back to MLK and John Lewis, and today people like William Barber and Cory Booker, who weren’t/aren’t comfortable middle class white males, but knew the costs of violence, and clearly saw and expressed it being morally and strategically wrong. I’m with them! :-) And they, too, I am certain, understood and empathized with the impulse.
I’m glad, too, that beyond the strategic aspects, they, and you, held up love as the ultimate arbiter. Mushy, and so much on point…