SYNDICATED COLUMN: Want Real Political Change? Hit the Streets — And Don’t Promise to be Nonviolent

Image result for medieval revolt

Tired of Trump? Congress can impeach him. But they won’t do anything unless you actually do something.

Doing something does not mean signing an online petition. Donating to Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution is nice, but your cash can’t depose the oligarchs. Doing something does not mean voting Democratic; both parties are beholden to corporations who demand business as usual. It doesn’t even mean supporting progressive Democrats in primaries against incumbent corporate Democrats; incumbents almost always win.

Doing something effective requires you to become a clear and present danger to the system and the people who run it.

Doing something that might change the fundamental nature of the system requires you to risk prison, injury and death.

Doing something demands that you operate outside the system.

It means taking it to the streets.

By itself, filling the streets with people and signs and chants isn’t enough. Tame street protests are doomed to failure. If you file for a parade permit or let the police pen you up in a ridiculous “free speech zone” or promise that you’ll be nonviolent no matter what, your street protest will be drowned out by the clinking of glasses and the popping of champagne corks in the salons of the ruling classes. It won’t matter whether you go home quietly or leave screaming in a paddy wagon.

Many Congressional Republicans still support the president. They’ll only change their minds if they face irresistible political pressure. Others would be open to supporting Trump’s removal if a groundswell of public opinion provided them with the requisite political cover.

The vast majority of Americans think Trump is doing a lousy job — and that includes many people who voted for him. Forty percent favor impeachment — and that number will continue to grow as he deports children and recklessly ramps up the risk of nuclear war. That’s tens of millions of Americans.

But those tens of millions are powerless. They’re sitting on their butts, waiting for someone else to do something.

The urban protests of the 1960s and 1970s were unsettling and frequently disintegrated into disturbing acts of violence, as seen during the running street battles between activists and the Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the shootings of students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State. Since the late 1970s the streets have been calm, except for such episodes of periodic political violence as the 1992 L.A. riots and the Battle of Seattle over globalization in 1999. In recent years lefties expressed pride in the fact that large protest demonstrations like the 2002-03 marches against the invasion of Iraq, the anti-Trump Women’s March and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement were so studiously nonviolent that organizers deployed “peace police” to separate potential troublemakers from the cops.

It is no coincidence that the American Left hasn’t won a major policy victory, or that no Democratic president has proposed a major anti-poverty program, since the 1970s. Without pressure from the Left, the country has steadily moved right.

“We could have large-scale marches for every year of Trump’s presidency. It would do nothing!” says Micah White, best known for his role in OWS. Street protests have been ritualized, stripped of their drama, and thus defanged.

The Left has embraced a cartoonish militant pacifism that goes far beyond Gandhi (who wasn’t really against violence). Violence hasn’t disappeared. Now the authorities have a monopoly on violence. They operate with impunity against dispossessed people. The authorities have militarized local police forces. They’ve murdered countless people of color, spied on our emails and phone calls, and even declared the right to use drones to blow up U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

Street marches in the U.S. have become empty exercises, unguided support groups to make leftists feel better about themselves because they’re not alone. But that’s not how they started.

Historically, street protests were scary. They were carried out by angry mobs. There weren’t any speeches. These were riots. Drunken people ran around breaking and stealing things. The chaos ended in one of three ways: the rioters got tired and went home, the lord of the ancient and medieval city where the riot occurred had his soldiers kill the rioters, or the ruler so feared the complete destruction of his fiefdom — and for his own life — that he gave in to the rioters’ demands.

What makes violence, or more precisely the willingness to be violent, a useful tactic is that it isn’t necessary to kill anyone or break anything every time you want something. You don’t need actual violence to exert pressure against your enemy — you need the credible threat of violence. What makes that threat credible is the memory of a fairly recent act of actual violence. France and the U.S. both have nukes, for example. But only the U.S. has ever been crazy enough to use them. Which country scares other countries more?

Between 1811 and 1816 the Luddites broke into English mills and workshops to break the machines that were killing their jobs and slashing their pay. After that, terrified factory owners took the Luddites seriously. Luddites sometimes extracted concessions by sending a threatening letter signed “with Ned Ludd’s compliments.”

Consider the countervailing example of the Unite The Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. There weren’t that many racist attendees — fewer than a thousand. But they showed up with weapons, including assault rifles. One murdered a woman with his car and injured others. That violence gives the next alt-right rally a credible threat of violence and guarantees that the event will be taken seriously by the authorities and thoroughly covered by the news media.

I am not suggesting that progressives show up to their next anti-Trump march toting AR-15s, or that leftists should kill or injure anyone. That’s not who we are or what we’re about. We oppose Trump and the capitalist system precisely because they are violent and we loathe violence.

My message is more subtle: march peacefully. But don’t follow the rules. Don’t apply for parade permits. Don’t stay on the sidewalks when the police tell you to. And don’t promise not to break anything.

Be wild.

Power never yields unless it’s scared.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • Sad but true.

    I am a pacifist, but not necessarily non-violent. In a F2F confrontation I’m unlikely to throw the first punch – but fairly likely to throw the last one. I have a lot of respect for the Shaolin Monks of yore, true pacifists who just happened to be awesome warriors. They primarily fought defensively (“always” if you believe their version. 😉

    If we do turn to violence, then *please* let it be against the oppressors. Break the windows of Monsanto, not the Mom & Pop Shop on the corner. Burning down the ghetto does call attention to the Plight of the Poor [TM] but it primarily hurts the poor.

    Burning down Rodeo Drive would definitely send fear into the hearts of the very wealthy. Those shops well insured; the Mom & Pop Shop, not so much. Likewise Wall Street. Of course those places are much better defended than the ghetto – which is part & parcel of the oppression.

    The Reign of Terror was effective at overturning society, but many innocents lost their heads. The Koch Bros are most assuredly oppressors. Paris Hilton is a leech, true – but is she an oppressor?

    I don’t pretend to have the answers, but the questions are worth discussing.

    • I suggested to an insurance agent who seemed genuinely concerned about joblessness in the last Great Recession (as if it ever ended for so many) that a good way to get money down into the hands of people without jobs would be Entrepreneurial Disaster Capitalism.

      Breaking and then repairing rich people’s insured stuff (Conspicuous Consumption) would be self-help.

  • I tire of hearing that Occupy Wall Street was a failure; the failure was of Mr. and Ms. America to heed the call.

    Most Americans want to be served justice rather than aggressively pursue it.

    I give a big F U to assholes who try to blame the occupiers for the blamers’ own personal failure to join and extend what OWS began.

    “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequent of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was affected, from 1760 to 1775.” —John Adams to Jefferson, 1815

    I don’t respect the founders anymore than I respect Trump or Obama.

    I don’t put Bernie Sanders on a pedestal either.

    I DO respect the PEOPLE who supported OWS and then Sanders, starting with THEIR opposition to the 20 trillion dollar gift given to the Wall Street criminals, and then on to THEIR opposition to the foreign and domestic assassination of US citizens by militarized police, and on further.

    I had my life interrupted by Johnson’s lies about the Gulf of Tonkin. I listened to president after president praise veterans for their service.

    But I never heard any politician apologize for the lies they repeatedly tell to young people that there is never any option but war.

    Praise from liars is nothing until the liars first apologize for their lies and their consequences, and with more vigor than they lied with.

    And so the wind over their lips will effectively say nothing to me forever.

    • > I tire of hearing that Occupy Wall Street was a failure … assholes who try to blame the occupiers for the blamers’ own personal failure.

      Nice. Me, too (I marched locally, didn’t break anything) – You’re absolutely right that it wasn’t as powerful as it could have been because of the lack of participation. OTOH, it did add “the One Percent” to our national discourse. It didn’t overturn the plutocracy, but it did raise awareness – so that is a baby step in the right direction. Small beer, but beer nonetheless.

      I think it was you (Glenn) who pointed outs that we don’t really have a national identity. We’ve got a whole lot of regional, religious and/or reactionary identities. That makes us hard to organize.

      In the case of the French Revolution, the rabble did have a national identity. But they had one thing you haven’t got* – a clear dividing line between The People and The Aristocracy. There were no gray areas, even a down-on-his-luck Aristocrat was still an Aristocrat.

      But thanks to the American Pipe Dream, that dividing line has been blurred. Do we really hate the guy we grew up with who was a little more successful than we were? Do we apply Dr. Guillotine’s Patented Headache remedy or not?

      *”But they had one thing you haven’t got” – The Wizard of Oz (sorry)

      (not really)

  • “Doing something demands that you operate outside the system.”
    Does moving to Mexico count?

    • “For Seneca, the Stoic sage should withdraw from public efforts when unheeded and the state is corrupt beyond repair. It is wiser to wait for [the state’s] self-destruction.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

      I modified with brackets in the hope of clarification. If by this change the meaning is other than he intended, I like it better this way anyway.

  • Great article, as usual Ted. I wholeheartedly agree with the premise. Power and oppression are rarely relinquished without a threat and struggle. The problem right now that prevents this is humans’ capacity to roll with the punches. Like a frog in a pot of water that is slowly raised to a boil, people tend to rationalize and brush off small increases in their misery and just sit there until it is too late. They worry about losing the little that they have and fear dramatic action could jeopardize everything they have. It is sort of like how some people can ignore Human Caused Climate Change. The effects are so small on a human scale that the inconvenience of dealing with it is more of a problem. Unless a lot of the population simultaneously sees a huge negative effect on their lives from global warming or Trump or whatever, we are happy being the frog in the boiling water, adjusting the the increasingly difficult environment. In the late 1960s, it was a combination of civil rights issues finally coming to a head and others being drafted into an unpopular war (both existential threats to lives) that led to the violence. You won’t see major and sustained violence from the Left on the streets unless Trump makes a major power grab or over reach.

  • Want Real Political Change? Hit the Streets — And Don’t Promise to be Nonviolent When I read the title above, Ted, I hoped for an interesting article, but I must confess that the next three sentences – Tired of Trump? Congress can impeach him. But they won’t do anything unless you actually do something. – were a severe disappointment. Would removing Mr Trump from office – which presumably would lead to Michael Richard Pence becoming US president – translate into «Real Political Change» ? Would Mr Pence stop US programmes like the extremely destabilising upgrade to the US nuclear missile arsenal, which after a decision by dear Mr Obama will proceed for the next 30 years at a cost of over a million million (10¹²) USD, is presently being implemented, and instead spend that money on, e g, poverty alleviation, which indeed would constitute real political change ?…

    After all, Mr Trump hardly seems to be in control of US policy where it really matters and where the interests of those who run the country are engaged – his inability to carry out one of the more important planks in his electoral platform, i e, improving US – Russian relations, more than suffices, to my mind, to demonstrate that fact….

    Perhaps I’m too pessimistic, but I seem to recall that those running street battles between activists and the Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention didn’t lead to real political change – at least not if one demands more of such change than a US president Lyndon Baines Johnson giving way to a US president Richard Milhous Nixon….

    I fear we’re screwed, no matter if we take to the streets without guaranteeing that no violence will occur or not….


    • @ mhenriday –
      “Perhaps I’m too pessimistic….”
      Perhaps I’m too optimistic. I find myself at this stage of my life hoping that Number 45’s question (paraphrased: “Why do we have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them?”) will come to fruition, that every nation that possesses such weapons will deploy them, and that the solution to all of mankind’s problems will finally be realized with its annihilation.

      • Somebody forgot to take their soma this morning!

      • Medical professionals advise me to avoid it:
        “Soma can cause side effects that may impair your thinking or reactions. Be careful if you drive or do anything that requires you to be awake and alert. Avoid drinking alcohol. It can increase drowsiness and dizziness caused by carisoprodol.”

  • The government has guns and a willingness to use them. Instead go after the ones responsible for Trump, our print and broadcast news media. Journalists and camera crews constantly looking over their shoulders for that flying brick when they start to lie might start reporting the facts not republican prompt.

    • @ Mr.Mike —

      On the other hand, Mike, if Trump’s followers weren’t already predisposed to kiss his ass and follow this Pied Piper, they would laugh and walk away. What triggered them to follow him and his ideology in the first place? I don’t think it was the media, but I can’t quite put my (middle) finger on it. Why any sane person might be inclined to watch Fox News and internalize their misinformation escapes me. (Watching to inform oneself of the enemy’s position is another matter.)

  • Ted asks “Tired of Trump?”

    Oh, hell no – he’s doing the country a world of good. He’s distilled the worst-of-the-worst of the GOP base; in so doing he drove a wedge into the Party of Wedge Issues. He gleefully lifted up the rock to expose the slimy things underneath. Before Trumpf, the immoderates on the right could pretend those slimy things didn’t exist. Nevermore!

    He committed the Unforgivable Sin of talking to Democrats! He’s energized the left to a degree where they sometimes protest on sunny Saturday afternoons (so long as there isn’t a game on.) Is there no end to this man’s perfidy?!

    This is a very slippery slope on the way to making things not quite as bad as they were before. There will be some pain points along the way but they will be offset by the sheer entertainment value. Let us hit the streets brothers!

    … I’m behind you all the way!

  • When the threat of violence or actual violence is there, my experience is that the target gets more resolute not less resolute. Think of September 11, Kim Jong-un, the Israelis, the Palestinians, Al Qaeda, ISIL, Syria, etc. The folks who stick to non-violence do so, not because they are weak, but because they want to be more effective. The goal is to make your elected representatives fear for their re-election, not their lives. Business owners be made to fear fear for their profits (not their lives), etc.

    • «When the threat of violence or actual violence is there, my experience is that the target gets more resolute not less resolute.» A valid point, Lee, but on the other hand, the threat the US poses to, e g, the DPRK is one of total annihilation («no option is off the table»), which is of a rather different order than that marchers pose to political operatives (I refrain from referring to the latter as «representatives», as most often they seem to represent other interests entirely than those of their so-called «constituents»). Perhaps Ted’s suggestion to refrain from following rules designed to render protests nugatory has something going for it….


  • As always “progressives” give thee WORST advice. Bad enough they handed the government over too people who want to destroy it, they’re now advocating you hand those people the excuse they need to do so.

    New rule: If you actually ywant to make progress, ask a “progressive” what to do. And then do the exact opposite.