Michelle Obama’s 2016 declaration that “when they go low, we go high” quickly became the unofficial motto of the anti-Trump resistance. But instead of being used against Trump himself, this attitude is now being wielded against protesters confronting his administration’s obscene immigration-detention policies. Even in the face of family separations, a racist travel ban, and overt, violent white nationalism supported by the upper echelons of this country’s government, pundits have clung to a seemingly indelible faith in decorum over moral clarity. That’s its own kind of terrifying.
In the past two weeks, figures ranging from right-wing ideologues to Democratic operatives have chided protesters in Washington, DC, for interrupting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s Mexican dinner. Twitter users have been kicked off the platform for sharing White House staffer Stephen Miller’s phone number. Waitstaff at the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia have been chastised for refusing service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that blurring the public and private spheres isn’t a “healthy” development, and that “those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment.” Even former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod has weighed in to agree.
This attitude reveals a poor understanding of how a “resistance” actually works. The original “resistance” was an international movement against Nazism that employed tactics inspired by guerrilla warfare. The Nazis, shall we say, went low; the resistance met them in the gutter to fight for their lives.
Nazi comparisons aren’t always perfect (except when they are), so let’s stay closer to home, and consider black resistance to white-supremacist terror in mid-century America instead. When black members of the civil-rights movement demanded to be treated equally by sitting in at lunch counters, blocking highways, and confronting public officials, they were labeled traitorous and impatient. The “be patient” attitude of white moderates famously prompted King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
The actions we’re seeing around the country today have involved no violence–just mild discomfort. Still, civility enforcers like former education secretary Arne Duncan seem committed to taking the dumbest possible lesson from the civil-rights movement. “No matter how much we dislike or disagree with someone, we should not deny them the chance to have a meal,” Duncan tweeted. “The history in our country of denying people access to restaurants, to water fountains and even bathrooms is too raw, too real.” Does this, then, make the Kirstjen Nielsen the new face of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee? If you take from the civil-rights movement that denial of service is a slippery slope, you may have missed that the movement wasn’t about pancakes and coffee but about eradicating inequality upheld by armed white people.