Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (2)

Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court toward the end of Earth Day. He was evacuated by helicopter and died in a hospital the next day.

Concerned with government inaction on climate change, and deeply immersed in Buddhist traditions, Bruce chose a dramatic and painful death to demonstrate sincere convictions.

The picture, at right, is from The Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, where Bruce was a frequent volunteer and participant in meditation retreats. The Center posted a memorial–and will post more about his life and efforts. His friends say they knew about his concerns, but not about his plans to self-immolate. Had they known, they stress, they would have tried to stop him to prevent pain and suffering.

Surely, Wynn Bruce knew that, and didn’t tell in advance. He also knew that, despite commitments to avoid suffering and violence, there had been dramatic instances of religious people self-immolating to protest mistreatment of the Vietnamese and Tibetan people.

He surely knew that Norman Morrison, a Quaker, had burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon in 1965, protesting the war in Vietnam, and that David Buckel, a civil rights attorney, had self-immolated in Prospect Park in 2018, protesting climate change. And he must have known that the Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation in 2011 had been the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

On his Facebook page, Bruce had written about irreversible climate change and threats to the earth, quoted Martin Luther King, and praised young activist, Greta Thunberg.

It’s hard to describe a suicide as strategic, but it’s very clear that Wynn Bruce’s death was purposeful. By choosing an extremely painful way to send a message, he meant to demonstrate commitment and sincerity, as well as a sense of urgency.

So, here’s the dilemma of escalation: Decades of science, political action, cultural struggle, and protest have–as yet–failed to generate anything approaching an adequate response to the reality of climate change. Whatever you’ve been doing hasn’t been enough, so there’s a search for something more. Self-immolation, thankfully, will not be a common choice, but the search for a way to demonstrate commitment more effectively doesn’t follow a predictable or obvious path. Wynn Bruce chose to take the pain on himself rather than imposing it on others.

In the aftermath, the rest of us can argue about impact. Every bit of speculation on Bruce’s frustrations or mental health suggests that his message missed the target. But, to the extent that conversation moves to threats to the Earth, Bruce has left a mark.

Many others are searching for, and trying, other ways to escalate.

Much more to come.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (1)


Rather than donning the jersey of her favorite team, Sasha Zemmel wore a referee’s uniform to an NBA playoff game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies. Her plan was to run on the court, stop the game, and call a technical foul on the owner, Glen Taylor, for cruelty to animals.

She didn’t get a chance to pull off her jacket or call the foul. Arena security, on heightened alert from days of animal rights protests, watched her every move, and when she bolted to the Court, they moved in to tackle and arrest her. The proximate cause, an egg farm owned by Taylor destroying millions of chickens during an avian flu epidemic, got attention mostly through social media run by activists and Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), an animal rights group. The video of Zemmel being tackled and escorted from the arena went viral.

Activists know that their progress is always too slow, and that it takes extraordinary efforts to get anywhere. After you write the letter, and then attend a demonstration, and then speak to a school board and still don’t see the world you want, you think about next steps.

It might mean taking the cause somewhere else, reaching newer–and larger–audiences. It could mean doing something more dramatic, disruptive, or even destructive. It often involves more risk and more cost, and all of your allies won’t necessarily join you.

Movements, made up of lots of different people and groups doing different things in the service of roughly similar goals, don’t make these decisions–individuals and groups do. But whenever anyone escalates, it affects the rest of the campaign–and not always for the good of the cause. Mainstream groups are often quick to disavow people who take up arms, for example–killing doctors who perform abortions, storming the Capitol, or busting up storefront windows. Moves like these can make their allies look bad, discredit the cause, and invite repression.

But, sometimes, well-timed escalation–even at greater cost and risk–can bring visibility and sympathy to the cause. In the next few posts, I’m going to consider efforts at escalation in a few different movements, and ask whether they help the cause or not.


Glen Taylor, a billionaire whose assets include the Timberwolves and an egg farm, provided a great target for DxE, and the playoff game a great site, stuffed with fans and broadcast on television. Animal rights activists made repeated efforts to use the NBA audience to promote their concerns: one chained herself to the basket; another glued her hand to the court. You can find pictures on the Internet, but the protesters were managed and evacuated pretty quickly. The games went on, played to an audience more interested– at least this night–in basketball than animal rights.

The protesters paid a price to stage their performances–starting with playoff tickets and props (chains, glue), risked physical harm, arrest, and fines. Some viewers might be impressed with their ingenuity and commitment; some might think they’re crazy.

I don’t know whether their efforts advanced or undermined the larger cause. (I do know that the playoff series continues, and that the Timberwolves are trailing.)

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American anti-vaccine variant circles

Canada’s Freedom Convoy found more support in the United States than North of the border from the outset. I wrote about it here and at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage on February 24, when Canada declared a state of emergency and arrested protesters and truckers who wouldn’t leave.

The Canadian convoy disrupted life around the parliament in Ottawa, and then international trade. Mainstream conservatives in Canada withheld support as the disruption offended most Canadians, and the politics of the Convoy shifted to the very far right. Canada’s clear-out of the truckers won broad approval, even as the government began relaxing most Covid restrictions and mandates. It didn’t seem like a big victory, and I concluded:

“A truckers’ convoy may now be en route to D.C. But in the United States, if supporters with 18-wheelers can find allies in office, things may be different.”

Although some institutional conservatives thrilled at the idea of an American Freedom Convoy, American truckers faced different obstacles.

Not the least of these was the entrepreneurial and grifting traditions of American organizing, particularly

on the right. At least three different groups invested in organizing and plotted routes, assuming truckers would follow; apparently, they didn’t cooperate on routes or events. A DC demonstration planned for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address was a massively conspicuous fail, turning out no truckers and a crowd that didn’t come close to reaching the low dozens.

The Capitol insurrection just last year meant that local police were determined not to be caught unprepared. Security fences went up and security was better staffed. But that’s not all. Truckers in the US don’t face the same vaccine mandates to cross the border, and restrictions are being lifted everywhere. Even more, trucks used to commit a crime–like block traffic–can be seized when drivers are arrested in the US. There was a lot to lose, and much less to gain.

But that was last week. Today, another stream of anti-mandate protesters circled around Washington DC. There were a few trucks driving break-down lane speed, in a convoy that included cars, minivans, SUVs, and motorcycles, congesting weekend travel around the Beltway, fueled by more expensive gas–yet another thing to protest.

The participants and organizers interviewed made no commitments about assembling by the Capitol, or any place downtown.

The mobile protest strategy didn’t begin in Canada this year. During the pandemic, activists protesting Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s protested harsh restrictions on public life by clogging the streets of East Lansing in their cars–but then many got out and marched on the state capital, armed.

Before that, immigrant rights protesters drove by a detention center in formation, honking. Before that, farmers frustrated by falling commodity prices in 1979 staged a Tractorcade in Washington, DC. And before that, in 1964, civil rights activists thought that it shouldn’t be all that easy to get to a World’s Fair in a world that wasn’t fair, and staged a stall-in on the roads leading to the Fairgrounds.

It’s a partial list above, but the important thing to note is that attention translates to influence only with support from a larger movement and institutional allies. For today’s Freedom truckers, that’s still a long haul.

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Citizen action against the Russian invasion

Russia’s audacious invasion of Ukraine unleashed an unprecedented wave of citizen action against the war, taking very different forms in Ukraine, the West, and in Russia. None of it is likely to end the war

soon, but if activists are able to sustain their efforts–a big if–it could make a massive impact on the conduct of the war, and even the international politics that follow.

Ukraine has quickly fielded a citizen army of resistance, visibly inspired and led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has risen to the moment in heroic fashion. The political neophyte has insisted that neither he nor his government would flee for their safety, but would fight back with whatever resources they could muster. Zelenskyy is posting frequently: statements of purpose, pictures of himself in fatigues, and pleas for support from the West. It matters, making it harder for Western leaders to ignore the war.

And Ukrainian will is much broader than the president. Ukraine’s territorial defense forces have offered weapons to any Ukrainian ready to fight, and tens of thousands have joined the fight…so far. This resistance has made the invasion and planned decapitation of the state far more difficult–and costly–than Russia anticipated.

Russia still claims massive advantages in military power. But the invasion no longer appears quick and simple.

Even more significant, every sign now is that the resistance will continue even if the government is ousted.

It’s not that toppling a government is easy, but rather, governing a resistant population in its place can be much harder.

Russia’s leadership knows this central fact–from a decade in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. Americans know this as well–from two decades in Afghanistan, to cite one dramatic example. (There are many others.) The point is that if occupying and governing Ukraine–a large territory with more than 40 million people–is more difficult and costly than any security or resource benefits it provides, it will be harder to sustain.

The vigorous Ukrainian opposition–and the harsh Russian war it’s exposed–has made it a little less difficult to impost an extraordinary package of economic, political, and social sanctions in record time.

Stigmatizing the Russian state while squeezing the economy, the sanctions have brought the costs of war home to both the Russian people and the oligarchs who support Vladimir Putin’s rule. Ukraine’s resistance has helped the international community build a broader coalition, including previously neutral nations, than anyone expected, and to poke Russia more aggressively. The pokes have included an influx of weapons from Europe and North America to Ukraine’s resistance.

Sanctions cost the countries imposing them as well as those they are imposed upon. The costs of energy and food have already begun climbing in the West, and broader inflation is likely to follow. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is now considering releasing oil reserves to limit the growth of energy prices–and allow the world to continue burning fossil fuels.

The flush of attention has, for the moment, overshadowed what will surely be growing costs of sanctions in the West. Here, the expressions of support for Ukraine that have bubbled up in public demonstrations can help. Blue and yellow flags everywhere, ribbons at award ceremonies, and performances of Ukrainian music on television don’t challenge the foreign policies of the United States or allied governments, but make it a little less difficult to continue and even accelerate a sanctions regime.

The early expression of resistance to the war in Russia is far riskier than the demonstrations in the West, and requires tremendous courage. Street protests broke

out in St. Petersburg and Moscow almost immediately provoking harsh policing and thousands of arrests. Since then, protests have continued, often just an individual holding a small sign not much bigger than a piece of printer paper.

It’s far more dangerous to lodge such a protest in an authoritarian state, and activists surely know the risks they’re taking. It will be hard to keep going.

And we know that anti-war protests in democracies often fail to prevent or end military aggression, even when there are mechanisms of democratic accountability. But if the protesters can help convince authorities that their prospects are better without Vladimir Putin, they could promote dramatic change. (Think of Tahrir Square, where mass demonstrations led the Egyptian military to dump President Hosni Mubarak–and maintain their rule.)

Right now, resistance in Ukraine and protests in the West and Russia all feed each other. All of the activists are likely to face more difficultly in sustaining their efforts in the coming days–and weeks–and months. But this is how history is made.

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Occupy on Wheels? The Freedom Convoy

Freedom Convoy: Canadian truckers, more protest vaccine mandate | TSLN.com

With far fewer people than the Occupy movement a decade ago, a group of Canadian truckers has been far more successful in disrupting politics and life as usual in a much shorter span. Starting with a moving blockade, the truckers stalled traffic, particularly at border bridges, and eventually staging a sort of occupation of Ottawa–or at least a part of it.

The truckers have already shown at least one way that a small group of committed people can command international attention for their cause.

The point of disruptive protest–when there is a point–is to draw attention to the cause. For the truckers and their supporters, it was mandatory Covid vaccination to cross the border–at least initially. More generally, they framed their resistance as standing up for FREEDOM. The broader frame makes sense, since a vast majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and Canadians support vaccination–and get vaccinated–much more than their neighbors to the South.

But the convoy upstaged the grievance in fairly short order–a risk of all disruptive protest. A colorful and confrontational, maybe damaging event, makes message control much more difficult. When public attention focused on the truckers, all sorts of people tried to crowd into the spotlight and press their own messages. Very far right Canadian politicians like Tamara Lich, mostly out of office, jumped to support the truckers, making more institutional conservatives wary about endorsing the cause. Critics were quick to find and project the Confederate and Nazi flags that somehow turned up at trucker actions. QAnon enthusiasts penciled the convoy into their plans, all part of a larger unfolding plan. And support from the far right in the United States and even globally far outstripped support in Canada.

The message control problem is hardly peculiar to the truckers. Occupy, hamstrung by hyperdemocratic governance, consolidated around some images and phrases (The 99%) and a tactic, rather than a detailed program, and certainly inspired some unsavory figures claiming allegiance. But the broad message–protesting against growing political and economic inequality–came across–and spread globally.

The anti-vaccine mandate freedom agenda is even less clear–at least so far–at least to me. It’s not clear that the truckers want to sign onto the libertarian or neo-nationalist agendas would-be allies are foisting upon them. At least partly for this reason, the Convoy has been far more popular in the United States, where even institutional Republicans have signed onto their version of the cause. Reliably hypocritical Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) lauded the truckers, wishing that their protest might spread to American cities, and maybe even disrupt the Super Bowl. He enthusiastically coded the convoy as an expression of the time-honored practice of civil disobedience against injustice.

A decade ago, unsurprisingly, Paul was an unsparing critic of Occupy. Occupy tactics never enjoyed the support of most Americans, but for a while their causes did. And the Occupations were able to stand for just about three months because they were, after all, far less disruptive.

Canadian politicians were, up until just about now, reluctant to deploy state power against the truckers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is wrestling with his own public support problems, and wanted to avoid the convoy becoming a partisan issue. Intentional or not, Trudeau’s slow burn allowed public sentiment–at least in Canada–to turn overwhelmingly against the truckers. Notably, the very conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford followed public sentiment and turned strongly against the truckers, declaring a state of emergency, and ordering them to go home. Canadian police forces are beginning to clean out the blockades–with strong public support.

Protesters are entering their third week of blocking many streets around Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

As the cost of protest increases, the Freedom Convoy drivers and their supporters will have to weigh their well-being against their cause. The police are likely to be far more harsh elsewhere as the campaign spreads internationally. In the United States, for example, the drivers will come up against American police, who can confiscate their trucks.

I think the key issue for protesters, virtually always, is the extent of connection between the streets and institutional politics. In Canada, institutional conservatives won’t carry water for the protesters….at least not yet.

Note: Here’s some writing that helped me think about the Freedom convoy:

Lesley Wood writes about the sort of freedom the truckers convoy supports. (It’s ugly.)

Howard Ramos posted a useful Twitter thread on the connections between the convoy and other far right movements, and what it all means.

Sid Tarrow examines the links between the truckers and the American far right.

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Happy Birthday Rosa Parks, 2022 (repost)

(In thinking about this repost, I want to encourage readers to take a look at the link to To Tell the Truth, the tv game show. The celebrities questioning three older Black women didn’t know her–except for Nipsey Russell, a Black comic who’d attended the March on Washington. Russell used his question period to shout out the names of some of the key–but less famous–organizers of the early civil rights movement. These days, Rosa Parks’s face is far more familiar, but her long term efforts are even more obscured.)

Happy birthday, Rosa Parks!  Born on February 4, 1913, Parks was not a tired old lady in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of the bus.  She was an experienced and committed activist, deeply tied into the activist networks that animated the civil rights movement.  She wasn’t the only one who took a risk to challenge segregation laws in the South, but that hardly makes her less heroic.

Activism in the civil rights movement was hardly a career move for Rosa Parks. She paid a serious price over many years for stepping outside of expected norms of behavior and into history. Her role in sparking the bus boycott brought her a bit of celebrity that made it hard to find work in Montgomery, and soon afterward, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she continued her activism.

Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon) extends the story of the civil rights icon, undermining the myth of spontaneity surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The popular version of the story recounts Mrs. Parks as a tired old lady who unexpectedly decided to resist a bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus.  Theoharis describes the deep roots of Mrs. Parks’s activism: she was raised by a grandfather who supported Marcus Garvey, married to a long time civil rights crusader, and had served for more than a decade in a leadership role in the local NAACP.  In the summer of 1955, she attended a workshop on civil rights at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.  She says that she had decided to resist any directions to the back of the bus long before the opportunity presented.

Many years later, on a television game show, for example, or–more significantly–when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, she could be described as an old lady.  But that was 1996–forty years after refusing to move to the back of the bus.

The popular story makes activism seem like something that comes suddenly, out of nowhere, and unpredictably.  The fuller tale, just like the one about the Greensboro sit-in, shows that it generally takes long and focused efforts to create those seemingly spontaneous moments.

And recognizing that Rosa Parks is only one of the best known of many many civil rights heroes suggests the possibility that each of us could also, one day, step into history.

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Greensboro Sit-in Anniversary, February 1 (1960!)

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the sit-in campaign in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m always moved and encouraged by the audacity of those young men. (repost)

The anniversary is also a great reminder of the important leadership roles that young people have played in making social movements and social change. It’s particularly relevant when we’ve seen young people at the front lines, innovating, in the campaigns for gun safety, action on climate change, and –still–racial justice.

Woolworth sit-in

There was once a store called Woolworths.  It sold dry goods, mostly cheap stuff, including paper and pencils.  Many Woolworths also housed a cheap restaurant where you could get coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich, also cheap.  Fifty-three (61!) years ago today, a Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, was the site of a new phase in the civil rights movement, the beginning of the sit-in campaign.

On Monday morning, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, wearing their best clothes, went shopping at the Woolworths, bought some school supplies, then sat down at the lunch counter and tried to order coffee. The four young men, freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College,  knew the store wouldn’t serve food to black people, so they waited. Woolworths shut the lunch counter down.

The next day, black and white students filled the lunch counter at Woolworths, and by the end of the week, every lunch counter in downtown Greensboro was filled with students protesting segregation–and organizing a boycott of the downtown businesses that practiced segregation.  Over the next weeks, sit-ins spread across the segregated South, led by student activists.

The four freshmen, no not the singing group, had all been active in the NAACP’s youthcouncil, but none of them saw the large organization as a good foundation for a more activist and confrontational phase in the civil rights struggle.

Ella Baker https://ellabakercenter.org/who-was-ella-baker/

Pushed by the heroic Ella Baker, the NAACP launched an initiative to create a new student-based civil rights organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which staged dramatic education and direct action campaigns across the South for most of the rest of the decade.

Today is a great day to commemorate the sit-in movement, but anniversaries can be slippery.  When I tell the story to my classes, I usually start with the long Sunday night conversation when the brave young men talked themselves into action.  You could start the story much earlier, with the sit-ins organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized decades earlier, or with the sit-down strikes organized by the Industrial Workers of the World at the start of the 20th century, even before the founding of the NAACP.  You could also start the story with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks, or the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.  The Greensboro students knew all those stories.

Anniversaries help us remember important events and twists in history, but they invariably simplify longer and more complicated stories.  The drama of the Greensboro sit-in makes for a good entry into thinking about the civil rights movement, and into thinking about how regular people sometimes make history.  The names of Baker, Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond are not particularly well-known today, not like those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis (who would lead SNCC), or Thurgood Marshall.  The names of the thousands of young people crusading against segregation with them are even lesser known.  But movements are only possible and potentially effective with people willing to take risks without counting on seeing their names in the history books.

Woolworth lunch counter

The lunch counter itself, or at least a portion of it, has been reassembled at the American Museum of National History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC.  There are only four seats on display.  When we think about the civil rights movement, however, we need to extend the counter a long way.

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Martin Luther King Day, January 17, 2022

January 17, Martin Luther King Day, falls two days after what would have been King’s 94th birthday, a reminder of how young he was during his ministry. King was born when Betty White, who recently died at 99, was almost 7. It’s not that long ago.

Still, the holiday offers a good chance for politicians across the political spectrum to misquote or misinterpret King. Many advocates are trying to use the Federal holiday to drum up support for protecting Voting Rights–a strong commitment for King during his life. Others push for a day of service, really because it’s much harder to create a consensual feel-good moment out of a commitment to racial and economic justice and opposition to war. Here I repost a slightly edited version of last year’s post on the holiday.

Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a light snow-covering

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday not long ago, the president of the United States announced, emphatically, that you can’t find anyone less racist than he is. If you’re suspicious of such proclamations, perhaps it’s just that you’ve learned to distrust people who laud their own honesty, their color-blindness, their respect for women, or concern for the poor. Like the salesman who claims the nickname, “Honest,” Donald Trump never succeeded in fooling most people, just enough to sell the next condo or secure the next loan. Then some large number of elected officials and voters who knew better chose to look the other way, and Trump won the 2016 election.https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?id=b0488081-61a1-446e-b300-80362bc38f5d&gid=108379A9-3701-4049-ABB5-0F178044536F

The office of the presidency, however, starts with obligations to all Americans, and it doesn’t end there. Trump is hardly the first US president to harbor racist thoughts or sentiments, but he’s displayed less worry about revealing them to large audiences, often through words, and consistently through deeds.

We now have a new president, and an African-American vice-president, but white supremacy has hardly disappeared into a Florida estate without its most visible champion.

It’s worth considering the resources and possibilities Martin Luther King’s memory gives us in combating those who would restore what he fought against.

One of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement was the establishment of King holiday. This means that Americans expect any president to pay respects to the man, and even more, to the movement. Tradition really is powerful, and activists are wise to attend to establishing new ones.

If Donald Trump displayed less appreciation or enthusiasm for the King holiday than, say, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, that’s no mystery or surprise.

Each holiday event is a moment, unlikely to capture much attention in the White House during the rest of the year.

For the rest of us, however, the King Day reminder is an alert. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many others, put work behind their words on social justice, often facing great risks and paying serious penalties. Their heirs continue today.

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

To Build a Mature Society: The Lasting Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  “Beyond Vietnam” Speech — The Gotham Center for New York City History

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day. That year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday, while expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - Wikipedia

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry. In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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How punishment works

Jenna Ryan, who joined the Capitol insurrection on January 6, is putting a an upbeat spin on serving 60 days in federal prison for trespass. She’s announced on TikTok that she plans to exercise, do a lot of

yoga, eat healthy food, and lose roughly 30 lbs.

I’m not sure this is the typical prison experience.

Ryan hitched a ride from Texas on a friend’s private plane to attend the Trump rally, then got caught up in the moment. Initially, she denied any involvement, but there’s so much video! Then, she announced–on TikTok, that her white skin and blonde hair would keep her out of prison. Ulp. It’s dangerous to say the quiet part out loud.

Then she took a plea and apologized, sort of. Prosecutors intend to seek harsher sentences in trials, and there are plenty of pictures of people doing far more damage. Sometimes, it’s smart to cut your losses.

The judge was clear that he meant to make an example of Ryan. This makes sense. It’s not clear that she is on the verge of intruding on another Capitol, and there isn’t much sign that she’s going to learn a lesson of any kind. Punishment is about another audience–a broader American public.

At base level, sending Ryan–and hundreds of others–to prison for trying to overthrow the government–is about showing America that violent overthrow of the government isn’t okay. By showing would-be insurgents that invading the Capitol is risky. It’s disappointing to note that this message needs to be sent: at least a few of the invaders were astonished that they would pay a price for their efforts. Trump didn’t go with them and won’t help them.

Capitol police are shown using pepper spray and tear gas

Punishment also sets the boundaries of acceptable conduct, drawing lines between politics and crime. In principle, the law is supposed to draw lines based on conduct, not belief. That police, courts, and the government more generally have often fallen short of this aspiration doesn’t destroy the worth of this goal.

Punishment also draws lines between criminals and deviants and more mainstream politics and society. Effective punishment requires imposing costs–prison and fines–serious enough to send the message and separate criminals from dissenters–without punishing so severely to create martyrs.

Mostly, mainstream politicians have shied from publicly supporting the Capitol insurgents.

But we’re still in early stages. We’ve seen plea bargains so far. Next year will bring criminal trials for others determined to use the courtroom as a stage to announce their support for Donald Trump, claiming that their intense loyalty is, by itself, justification. They will raise money for criminal defense–and who knows what else–on that basis.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 07, 2021 in Washington, DC. Greene, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) held the press conference to describe the alleged treatment of January 6th defendants in DC jail

Already, an insurgent group of four Republican representatives has held a press conference decrying the cruel treatment that the Capitol invaders have suffered. It’s hard to think that most Republicans want to be represented by Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert, but criticism from within the caucus has been muted. Republicans need to step up.

Gaetz and Greene plan to run for reelection in extremely safe Republican seats–and Gosar hopes for the same. Gohmert is running for higher office in Texas, where a Democrat was last elected to state-wide office decades ago.

The future of the American republic rides on where the line between acceptable dissent and crime is drawn. Courts will need to do their part, but we need to watch how many Republicans are willing to cross that line.

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Rittenhouse and more: verdicts versus signals

Courts decide cases, not causes. On the surface, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha was only about a kid with an assault weapon who killed two men and maimed another. The jury, considering two weeks of testimony, videotapes, lawyers’ arguments, Wisconsin law, and a judge’s instructions, found Rittenhouse not guilty. Not heroic, appropriate, or helpful–just not guilty.

Sometimes, justice prevails in courts, sometimes the law carries the day, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. If the verdict here, dramatically unjust, followed Wisconsin law, something is wrong with the law, and state legislators should be rushing to fix it. This isn’t happening.

In the meantime, people far from Kenosha, most unlikely to be scouring criminal law statutes in Wisconsin, are figuring out just what the verdict means. Most of what’s being learned isn’t good.

Because Rittenhouse had come to Kenosha with a gun intending to defend a car dealership against a Black Lives Matter demonstration (about the police shooting of an unarmed Black man), he became a

hero to many on the right, who contributed more than enough money to secure Rittenhouse a top-flight criminal defense team. After the verdict, they tried to figure out what else they could do for him. A few Republican members of Congress announced that they would compete to hire the young killer.

Noting that Rittenhouse felt menaced by a few of the BLM demonstrators, some armed, his defense claimed self-defense. Because the men he shot shared more or less troubled and unsavory backgrounds, Rittenhouse supporters lionized the killer as a righteous executioner. Rittenhouse, of course, knew nothing about the men he shot, and we should be alarmed that anyone would suggest well-armed teens should stand in for the legal system and dispense street justice. Really.

Even more threatening: armed protesters opposed to BLM protesters will claim vindication not only for bearing, but also using, guns against the threats they fear. Knowing that at least a few of the white BLM protesters in Kenosha were armed themselves, the gun industry can look forward to more demand from across the political spectrum. Faux militia from the right will feel emboldened about standing in for the police. At least some on the left will see their own need for personal protection increase, particularly when out in public. And every demonstration will appear more dangerous to police officers charged with keeping public order and fearing for their own safety.

That something worse will happen is too easy a bet.

Meanwhile, courts chug along slowly processing the grievances that stem from politicized violence. In a courtroom in Brunswick, Georgia, three white men who armed themselves and chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, have claimed self-defense in their trial. The laws in Georgia and Wisconsin differ, as do the facts in each case, and the judges and juries are independent. But activists on the right and left are watching, and will find patterns and take signals from the decisions.

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