There is much to say about the amazing new political reality in which we find ourselves. For now, I want to talk about taking politics to a local level, something progressives (a “popular front” term encompassing liberals and leftists alike) are not used to. It’s something I’ve been learning to do for the past few weeks. As part of that, I’ve been involved in attempts to make the Congressional Representative for my district (District 1 in New York), Lee Zeldin, more responsive to our interests.
The impetus for this is a strategy developed and advanced by a group of former Congressional staffers for a progressive audience. Called Indivisible, it emphasizes what members of Congress respond to and the need for progressives to fight like the Tea Party. So, on January 28th, I participated in a protest action with the aim of informing Zeldin that his constituents feel he is not communicative enough with and responsive enough to them. We had to stage this outside the entrance of a restaurant on the night when Zeldin was to be honored by the Rotary Club with a “Man of the Year” award because his personal appearances in the district are so rare.
It’s indicative of what we’re up against in the way his office has characterized the event to the press:
“As for the protesters at the Rotary Club dinner, it is greatly unfortunate that they chose reprehensible tactics to harass attendees, including banging on the sides of the cars driving by and jumping in front of cars to stop them. Requiring a police presence just to get cars through into the venue does not reflect well or help their cause,” [Zeldin’s communications director Jennifer] DiSiena said.
These are, to be clear, lies and convenient half-truths. I was there and I never saw any banging on cars. The police did have to remind us once or twice to keep to the sides of the road, but this is basically over-enthusiasm to get our message heard. Some may have leaned or stepped forward to make sure their signs were seen, but no one “jumped in front of” any cars. Now, there were a lot of people there. It’s possible that things like this happened out of my sight. We’ll store this possibility away for later once we have a fuller understanding of the meaning and purpose of this kind of claim.
In a separate communication to one of the organizers of the event, one of Zeldin’s executive assistants, Nicole Paciello, explained why it is that Zeldin had cancelled a public appearance that he’d previously promised to appear at to speak with constituents:
This meeting was co-opted, renamed and rebranded by a group of liberal activists who were already holding strategy meetings to turn it into a disruptive show for their own political theater. It is greatly unfortunate that this great event, which the Congressman has attended before, was hijacked…
This is perhaps the most significant thing to come out of Zeldin’s office about the possibilities for progressive local political action. As I mentioned, the Indivisible movement is an effort to get progressives to fight like the Tea Party. How can we characterize the Tea Party movement? Were they “conservative activists” who “held strategy meetings” and created “political theater” at the functions of members of Congress? Yes, but whatever else you want to say about them, they were simultaneously concerned constituents exercising their Constitutional rights to confront their Congressional representatives.
Here, Zeldin’s office pretends that these are mutually exclusive. This characterization demonizes his own constituents as some kind of shadowy political cabal with no legitimate grievances and a desire to create spectacles for no productive end. Perhaps he would be better served by considering why his constituents are so displeased with him.
Clearly, delegitimization by several means, such as slander and othering, are what we can expect. Since that is Zeldin’s unmistakable defensive method, I think we need to consider how such tactics work and develop a more productive understanding of protests and the things that happen there.
The claim of “banging on” and “jumping in front of” cars is part of a larger rhetoric of political violence. (It is telling that they had to reach for really low-grade misbehavior like this.) Its method is to taint any protest with the sin of violent behavior. This, to be clear, is how it works regardless of anyone’s intent. We can see this in the reactions to protests of professional bigot-troll Milo Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement at Berkeley. The focus of the rhetoric is on the violence, not the cause, not the overall protest, not the object of the protest.
This takes different forms depending on who deploys it. Those hostile to the cause nakedly conflate the whole of the protest with those parts of it that were violent. This is a very old tactic:
Look for the word nonviolent to appear in scare-quotes, for calls for the whole protest to account for the violent part, for claims of the hypocrisy of any and all nonviolent protesters on account of only some of them. But this is not limited to opponents of the cause. Those who are either neutral or even sympathetic pick this rhetoric up and run with it. They express a moralistic concern: that while they can see the protesters’ point of view, this violence is never justified.
Whether sympathetic or not, wittingly or not, reproducing this rhetoric has one actual function: to delegitimize all protest. The fact is that these acts of violence are likely to happen. You will often find that in situations where large numbers of people are agitated enough to protest en masse, some of them will be agitated enough to commit violent acts. (And even if they don’t, political opponents and agents of the government can and do provoke violence to provide a pretext for crackdowns.) This is why I say that the function of this rhetoric is overall delegitimization. You often just can’t have one without the other, and those who aren’t violent do not actually have to answer for those that are. Yet this rhetoric puts them on the defensive.
You’ll note that I have not made any token distancing condemnations of the “of course this is awful, but…” sort. That’s precisely because I refuse to be put on the defensive and thereby become complicit the attempt to slander my own political actions. I will be frank as well that I do not believe in blanket condemnation of political violence. In tactical discussions with my fellow activists, I might discuss it critically, but I will not legitimize an opportunistic rhetoric of guilt by association. My aim is not to defend anyone’s actions from detractors (whether those acting in bad faith or those with genuine concern). Rather, I am on the offense against this kind of dirty rhetorical trick. When Republican governments are gearing up to crack down on protest actions, there is nowhere else that this delegitimization goes besides suppression of all active political dissent.
If you are an opponent of my causes: I see you and I see what you are doing. You’re not fooling this one. If you are not, and especially if you feel somewhat sympathetic to them, please think a little more carefully about who actually benefits from your expressions of concern and calls for the moderates to condemn the extremists. We are in for a long hard road politically, and I can already see the effort to delegitimize myself and my political actions at the local level. Don’t help those who want to silence me.
Update: I recently found an excellent example of why this matters. “Michigan Republican suggests ‘another Kent State’ for liberal protesters.” Please do not enable people like this by adopting their framing of protest actions.
Update (2/9/17): Supposedly, Protesters Force[d] Zeldin to Change Office Policy. I have to say I like the implication of the URL more than the current headline. Not really clear to me that given the possibility of having to face his constituents, changing his office policy was his only option. However, I want to call attention to a sharp observation from one commenter about a similar statement from an Arizona Representative: “‘(The forum) is about trapping people in a political ambush for political theater,’ this is the exact quote from Zeldin[‘]s office as well. The Conservative Obstructionists were given a script to repeat when anyone wants to meet with them.” It’s not quite an exact quote, but it uses the same scare-term, “political theater.” Seems like a consistent line and strategy has formed.