Since November 8th, I’ve rallied on the Rhode Island State House five times and through the streets of Providence twice. I’ve demonstrated with women’s rights advocates, high school students, Democrats, the Working Families Party, socialists, anarchists, Black Lives Matter, the IWW, Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, Resist Hate RI, and other important political and community groups. I’ve heard members of these groups speak through megaphones and microphones to thousands of Rhode Islanders, inspiring those who listened to vow to stand against the Trump administration in a myriad of ways. And I’ve witnessed those thousands mobilize into direct actions that have tangible results.
One thing in common with all of those groups, even with frictions that arise from different arguments on “how” to protest, is that they all stand in direct opposition to the fascistic policies that Donald Trump has espoused and implemented. There’s a common goal here: to defend human rights and constitutional freedoms, and to fight back against the divisive far-right politics that Trump, his advisors, and his supporters seek to bring to power. Our goal is unequivocal: to obstruct the Trump administration however and whenever possible.
However, the issue of “how” to protest “properly” has arisen among these different groups and factions of the oppositional left. Some liberal Democrats who believe solely in peaceful, nonviolent protest have derided those further to the left who take a more confrontational stance, particularly with regards to the J20 disruptions during Trump’s inauguration. After alt-right leader Richard Spencer was struck by an anti-fascist protestor during an interview in Washington, D.C., there have been philosophical arguments about whether or not it’s right to “punch a Nazi.” Those who make protest signs with “vulgar” or “profane” language have been told by some fellow protestors that their word choices are distasteful or wrong. Those who engage in targeted property damage have been called “idiots” and the protestor who punched Spencer has been called a “thug,” without respect for the serious philosophical considerations that such protestors consider, and without knowledge of the proof that such confrontational approaches to protest have been effective against nationalist and fascistic movements throughout history.
Such infighting is unnecessary and counterproductive. The truth is that all of the above-mentioned tactics and methods of protest work, even if some are confrontational or distasteful to some. The point of protest is to disrupt the daily order so that awareness is raised for a cause, and so that action is taken for that cause. Protest among a diversity of political groups, like we’ve seen in Rhode Island, is an excellent opportunity to form alliances and bring new activists into the fold, and now that millions of Americans are resisting the Trump agenda, the cause is universal among those who choose to protest.
During the twentieth-century history of resistance to authoritarian rule, from World War II anti-fascist movements to the Civil Rights Era in the United States, protestors from across a wide variety of political views and strategies have united to overcome the odds that seemed to peril their cause. Historically, they formally or tacitly agreed to not denigrate or dismiss another’s reason or strategy for protest and direct action because such dismissal results in division and fracture. Because they eschewed division, most of their tactics worked. And because they chose to listen and seek to understand one another despite disagreement, they largely succeeded in their endeavors.
First amendment rights are universal; to disrespect a fellow protestor for the manner in which they exercise those rights is divisive. Shutting down highways and TSA checkpoints may be inconvenient or dramatic for some, but there is sound reasoning behind those protest choices as they serve to disrupt and remind the populace at large of the dire circumstances that less privileged and oft-oppressed people face daily. Punching Nazis and breaking windows is illegal, but perhaps not immoral–but those actions are calculated and reasoned choices, and it is wise to understand why some individuals take such actions without seeking to chastise or disavow them.
Right now, those who oppose Trump cannot afford to be divided. The resistance is diverse and broad, and the diversity of ideas that it produces with regards to methods of protest should be embraced, encouraged, and respected. Understanding and learning from the various groups and individuals that have rallied on the State House and that form our resistance are crucial to maintaining a unified path forward. Most importantly, it is wise to offer respect, as all individuals and groups that oppose Trump today will benefit from strong alliances with fellow protestors and activists. You don’t have to choose one kind of protest or the other–you can participate in any or all with whichever methods you see fit and whatever tactics suit your beliefs. However, you should respect and support fellow anti-Trump protestors for the sake of building strong alliances and finding common ground to rely on in the future.