The war on the other side of the world was launched with high expectations but is now widely seen as a fiasco. Young Americans are being sacrificed in hostilities whose justification once sounded high-minded but has since decayed into a farrago of political dogmas, lies and distortions. Americans are sometimes negligent, sometimes brutal toward the people the US government is supposed to be liberating, and the latter want the former to leave. Support for the war erodes at home, and the President is despised worldwide.
The furies of the war echo in the furies of the antiwar movement. Despite efforts to sustain a playful mood, rage grows in activists’ hearts. Rage has become a sort of identity looking for outlets, as the Iraq stance of the Democratic nominee for President frustrates antiwar forces. For months, demonstrators have been making plans to manifest their displeasure during the Republican convention in New York City in late August.
Peaceful demonstrators are squaring off with stiff-necked authorities over the city’s refusal to grant permission for the rally they want. Meanwhile, other demonstrators welcome a chance to provoke mayhem. Their numbers may be tiny, but the press is primed to amplify the sour notes, acting on its ingrained principle, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Authoritarian forces are ready to chortle at the resulting spectacle and swing public opinion behind them.
For all the differences between the Vietnam of 1968 and the Iraq of 2004, between Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, aren’t the similarities a trifle unnerving?
Red-hot rage may seem in order when the country’s values have been trampled upon by a government with a dubious claim to legitimacy. Yet the theatrics of rage can easily play into Bush’s hands. Righteousness, if not rooted in humility and focused on results–on persuasive power–will offend more than it attracts and fall victim to its own arrogance, as surely as arrogance undercuts Bush.
The power of nonviolence rests in its welcoming spirit, its power to elicit identification and its promise of reconciliation. Consider the brave young men and women of the civil rights movement, sitting with dignity at lunch counters throughout the South. In film footage of the time, you can see them attacked by uncivilized whites, who curse them, beat them–and thus reveal themselves as bullies and cowards. The civilly disobedient cover themselves in self-defense but never raise their hands in anger. They appeal over their adversaries’ heads to the majority who, they believe–they have to believe–will see the justice of their cause.
As thousands of Republicans gather to nominate Bush for re-election, and as many more protesters–perhaps fifty times more–gather to express themselves against the damage Bush is doing, Americans of all stripes will be watching. Fair-minded people can understand dignified opposition even when they disagree with it. Rage in the streets is something else altogether. Protesters who spell “Bush” with a swastika, who smash windows, fight the police or try to block Manhattan commuters might as well stay home and send their contributions to the Republicans.
It is, or ought to be, so obvious that violence and chaos in the streets works to Bush’s advantage that not a few oppositionists worry about the Republicans planting their own provocateurs in the protest. Such a scenario is not farfetched. Provocateurs know some history, too. They know that disciplined handfuls can start riots amid turmoil. In 1968 a substantial number of the toughs who surged through the Chicago streets, inciting the police to riot, were later revealed to be police and intelligence agents. They urged violent actions, pulled down American flags, led taunts and otherwise triggered police attacks. Afterward, demonstrators exulted, equating their seduction of the cameras with victory. But most spectators who watched the clashes on TV sided with the police. Richard Nixon’s people knew what use to make of the footage. They strengthened their hold over the law-and-order vote.
In jittery 2004, swing voters in a country poised on a political knife-edge could again be stampeded to support the incumbent if they equate the opposition with disruption. Although we have no idea how many demonstrators are prepared to act recklessly, recent postings on antiwar websites suggest a go-for-broke mood among some: “If we kick their ass in the early part of the week, we’re going to inspire people to come out into the streets and join us…. Harassing the shit out of the GOP delegates is going to create a mosaic of interesting, militant resistance.” “We need to destroy the model of what ‘normal people’ think of protest movements: all that sign-holding, standing around and chanting slogans.” “Who gives a fuck about some voter in Missouri? How about the billions around the world who are fucking tired of the U.S.A.?”
Everyone shares responsibility to avert a debacle. The police ought to be scrupulously well-behaved. The media ought to cover disruptions proportionately. Viewers must understand that the cameras are drawn to sensational excess. And the marchers need their own monitors to practice nonviolent discipline and contain any disruptors–who are, de facto, not misguided friends but opponents.
Now, in a precarious time, every force in America is being tested. The Bush Administration plainly flunks. The Bloomberg administration has proved its small-mindedness. But we who oppose Bush face our own tests. If, as the whole world watches, rioters hijack the protest, the fine intentions of millions will have been canceled by the behavior of a few. Let dissent with dignity win the day and let us get on with a more perfect chapter of American history.