The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.
The point, to reiterate, was that lots of academic & private polling research, plus my own movement experience, confirms the idea that nonviolent protests move public opinion in a progressive direction, while violent demonstrations nudge it toward the reactionary right, often with tragic and lasting outcomes.
I didn’t expect to have corroboration so soon. But by sundown there was a raft of it, starting with a brand new Reuters/Ipsos poll with all the data one might need.
First, the new poll. The big number in it was the trend in public support for the latest round of protests. Here’s the summary:
The poll follows a series of late-night clashes between protesters and federal police in Portland, Oregon, where demonstrators have held nightly anti-racism rallies. Trump sent federal police into the city despite the mayor’s objections to deal with what he called “anarchists and agitators,” and he has sent others to Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque.
According to the poll, 52% of American adults say they are sympathetic to those who are still gathering to protest the police treatment of minorities, especially African Americans,about 12 percentage points lower than a similar poll that ran in mid-June.[Emphasis added.]
Twelve per cent. That’s a big drop. And 52 percent is perilously close (within any reasonable margin for error) to tipping over into majority public dislike of the protests.
And there’s another drop to take note of: The percentage of those who are unhappy with Trump’s response to the recent protests has dropped from 58 per cent to 54. Ipsos puts this another way:
. . . [A] majority of Americans remain unhappy with the way [Trump] has responded. The poll showed 54% of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, which is only a slight improvement from a similar poll that ran in mid-June when 58% disapproved.
Another way to slice it is that Trump appears to be reclaiming some Republicans whose support he was losing as the early rounds of protests crested. There the increase Ipsos found, is substantial:
The rise in support comes primarily from Republicans who have backed the president in greater numbers as the protests rage across the country: 78% said they approved of Trump’s response to the demonstrations in the latest poll, up from 67% in mid-June. Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats say they do not like the way Trump is dealing with the protests, and that has not changed over since June.
It’s not time to panic. But what’s important here is the trend, and it’s in the direction of Trump’s strategy: paint the protests as domestic terrorism, fan the flames of hysteria, turn up the media echo chamber volume to full blast, and build the image as the savior of [racist white] suburbia.
Trump: it’s ridiculous, they [Biden & Democrats] want to abolish, and really hurt the suburbs, because under their plan, they will, under a plan that’s very much agreed to by them, they want to make it worse, they don’t mind if low income housing is built in a neighborhood, in a beautiful suburb of Iowa, but a beautiful suburb anywhere in the country, they want low, and this has been going on for years, Obama made it much worse, and now they want Cory Booker to run that program, Cory Booker of New Jersey to run that program, and make it many times worse than it is right now. People have gone to the suburbs, they want the beautiful homes, they don’t have to have a low income housing development built in their community, which is going to reduce, which has reduced the prices of their homes, and also increased crime substantially. [Emphasis added.]
As one analyst said, this effusion turns his racist dog whistles into train whistles. I would add, foghorns.
The Iowa rant, if typically rambling, was not at all incoherent: it aims to reassemble and harden the racist suburban base Trump plundered in 2016. And I hate to say it, but the poll suggests he’s making some headway with that. And do I think protesters need to take this into account? You bet.
One other meaningful tidbit from this busy day; The Minneapolis police department said they’re closing in on a suspect who was the “umbrella Man” who broke windows in protests there on May 27, clearly “lighting the match” of fiery protests later. The New York Times has an affidavit police filed for a search warrant:
“Erika Christensen, an arson investigator with the Minneapolis police, wrote in the affidavit that the vandalism ‘created an atmosphere of hostility and tension’ two days after Mr. Floyd’s death. It unleashed a chain reaction of arson and looting in the Twin Cities, she wrote, after protests had been relatively peaceful.
‘In a short time after the front windows are broken out in The AutoZone, looting started, the affidavit said, noting that the AutoZone store burned down later that day. ‘This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city.’”
They allege that the suspect is associated with white supremacy groups and racist prison gangs. The Washington Post had a video clip of the suspect, showing other protesters pleading with him to stop, unsuccessfully.
Unless the Minneapolis cops are completely wrong, this disclosure cements the case that Umbrella Man was no more than a provocateur, who fully achieved his goal of undermining peaceful protests and touching off violence.
And if that happened in Minneapolis, my sense is that it has happened elsewhere. The conclusion that strict nonviolent tactics is the best defense against such subversion is plain.
Is help on the way? There’s an outfit in DC called the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and it has published the title & an abstract of a new monograph which addresses this head on: “Agents Provocateurs, Violent Flanks, and Nonviolent Movements: A Historical and Strategic Perspective.” The abstract sounds totally on point:
“When the adversary of a civil resistance movement sends infiltrators to join the movement, what do these covert operators do, and what impact do they have? Furthermore, how can civil resistance organizers respond creatively and strategically?”
Yes how? In Minneapolis, the video shows two other protesters appealing to Umbrella Man to stop breaking windows. He ignored them, kept swinging the sledgehammer, then walked away. Peaceful protesters need help on this.
Unfortunately only the paper’s title & abstract are online; the actual paper is “forthcoming.” Better get the lead out, folks: it’s burn-the-midnight-courthouse—err, oil time.
Nevertheless. Most of the protests have been peaceful, and many have been quite imaginative. Such creativity is an important tactical resource. (Looking at you, Wall of Moms.)
One of the less useful of the recent media tempests involved a report about the fate of David Shor, a somewhat lefty data analyst.
Shor had tweeted a summary of a paper by Princeton scholar Omar Wasow. Wasow argued that his research on 12 years of Black-led protests, particularly in election years, moved public opinion in a progressive direction, whereas those marked by violence to property and persons moved the needle toward support for reactionaries, helping bring Nixon, Reagan et al to power. In his own words:
Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, Congressional speech and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share among whites increase 1.3-1.6%.
Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968 . . . I find violent protests likely caused a 1.6-7.9% shift among whites towards Republicans and tipped the election.
Shor’s tweet provoked a storm of online denunciation of its purported racism, and in a few days Shor was fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a Chicago-based “data science software and consultancy company,“ for somewhat lefty clients.
I mention it not to rehash the cliched debate about cancel culture. Instead, I want to say a few things about Omar Wasow’s overall thesis, that violence in protests helps reactionary politics, while nonviolent direct action boosts progressives.
First, I strongly agree with Wasow’s main point. My conviction is not based on academic research, though; it comes out of fifty-plus years of surviving the ’60s and their aftermath, under the heels of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes, and the Orange Menace.
Oh—and second, if it’s not permitted for a lefty progressive to say such a thing, so shoot me. Though that would be a waste of ammunition, given my age and retired status.
Third, and most important, there are others who also agree with Wasow, and are acting vigorously on that conviction, but with very different and anti-progressive ends in view. Also with far more clout than I’ll ever have.
A vivid glimpse of that reality is what moved me to write this post. It came in the latest edition of “The Righting,” an email newsletter that brings “Top news headlines from the Far Right for the rest of us.”
The rightwing media this letter aggregates rant about many issues and topics.
Yet the current issue is essentially focused on just one: how violent protests are terrorism unleashed, that are burning up the cities, threatening the country. They must be stopped, and only harsh repression by their preferred leader can save us.
Looking this over, and remembering the Shor & Wasow hoo-haw, it suddenly hit me: the far right totally believes both of them: they’re convinced violent protests can move the needle.
And they’re desperate to move the needle. All the credible polls are showing Trump lagging Biden, many by huge numbers. Some foolish pundits are already announcing that it’s all over, and trotting out their pet names for a Biden cabinet.
But it’s not over yet. And every urban nightscape that is lit up with flames and resounds with gunfire presents a chance for them to stop the Trumpist slide. Maybe their only chance. Will the violent protests give it to them?
Americans are not overall a radical, or even radical-leaning people. They want some peace, quiet, a real crusade against the pandemic, a way for families out of the new depression, open and SAFE schools, and action on police misconduct and the racism behind it.
Violence in the cities threatens the positive momentum that has been built up on all these matters since George Floyd’s murder. And putting up with or excusing it is no better. Here I am following the words and example of those who have been most honored this month: C. T. Vivian, John Lewis, and both Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.
This appeal is particularly aimed at “my people,” the liberal Quakers and those of similar outlook, who have largely stuck with this heritage during my lifetime, I know it’s tempting to rationalize or give into the rage that’s loose. The sight of unidentified federal stormtroopers snatching mostly peaceful protesters off the streets is enough to send most of us over the edge.
But resist that impulse, Friends. As the old freedom song says, “keep your eyes on the prize.” Advocate for, plan, and carry out protests and actions that are strictly nonviolent.
It’s not only safer. It’s both strategically and tactically smarter. And the stakes could hardly be higher. If Americans become desperate for safety, many can be persuaded they will only get that from the right, and they can and will turn that way — it’s happened often before.
The far right knows this. So they are all out for the opposite to happen. Don’t fall into the trap.
Yesterday I published what I thought was a mildly-worded post stating my preference for not renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
In saying that, I was following what I believed was the stated view of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose passing is being marked across the country this week — just as I had actually marched behind him across the Pettus Bridge on the historic march to Montgomery in 1965.
But to judge by some of the comments the post evoked, saying this was tantamount to admitting that I had really been an undercover Ku Klux Klansman & hardcore white supremacist back then and all along.
Unless, many said, I demanded that the bridge be renamed for Lewis, right now, I was unmasking myself as a stone racist and a supporter of every evil up to and including the Nazi holocaust.
Good grief. Shaking my head, I asked, almost in despair: “WWJD”??
[NOTE: See also this UPDATE to this post, here.}
I feel torn about renaming the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. On the one hand, Pettus was all those odious things: traitor, KKK leader, etc., etc.
On the other hand, John Lewis & many others shed their blood under that sign, and seared its letters onto the conscience of the world. They made it a sacred place of pilgrimage on the long road to justice.
History is like that: sometimes ironic, paradoxical— thank God.
So I say leave it be, as a sign that sometimes much unexpected good can come out of much unrequited evil.
Whenever I imagine how Pettus would react to the Bridge’s renown among those who rolled back the slavery & oppression he upheld, it brings a smile that’s rare in these haunted days.
I know the decision will be made by others, mostly younger. But I still carry my memories of standing with Lewis and others when the “Bloody Sunday” March was announced, then crossing the Pettus bridge behind Lewis, more than once. (I was lucky; the clubs & gas were in abeyance for these treks; but the armed federal troops guarding us were very real.)
It’s something to study & debate peaceably. There are many other places & memorials that could be named for John Lewis. Yet things change. I’ll accept the verdict. There are bigger fish to fry.
SAYMA’s Representative Meeting gathered on Zoom the evening of July 20, and lasted amost four hours. More than forty persons were on the line. It was not an easy session.
The main agenda items were a summary review of the 2019-2020 budget, and the initial reading of the 2020-2021 proposed budget (their fiscal year begins in October). SAYMA budgets are typically presented at one business session (usually at their yearly meeting, canceled for 2020), then acted on by a later session.
While the budget was the stated main item, the elephant in the room was the URJ Committee and its Clerk, Sharon Smith, and her demand for $20,000 of SAYMA’s funds for next year. This “elephant” appeared in comments about how URJ’s reporting on how it spent funds granted this past year lacked adequate accountability and raised “integrity issues” for the body. Indeed, these concerns are broadly shared enough that some meetings (e.g., Celo and Chattanooga, here) and individuals have called for an end to any funding for URJ and its replacement after careful and searching SAYMA-wide discernment.
So the elephant made itself known frequently, but without any clear resolution.
The proposed budget includes a $2500 allocation for URJ, quite a comedown from Smith’s $20,000 demand, but still $2500 more than than some preferred. That figure was not discussed, however.
What was discussed, at length, was a proposal not in the budget, but put forth by the new Finance Committee Clerk, Geeta McGahey.
McGahey wanted to add $500 as initial funding for a new Committee on “Conflict Transformation,” which would hire a facilitator from the Friends Center for Racial Justice, a project based in Ithaca, New York. The new Committee, she explained, would begin consultations in SAYMA aimed at “transforming” the ongoing conflict over URJ and Smith.
In yesterday’s post, we revisited a letter from the late Friend Alan Robinson on making some sense of the controversy over SAYMA paying Sharon Smith for her “ministry” on racism among Quakers. He proposed applying the test in Jesus’ parable (in Luke 6:43-45) about judging trees by their fruits.
One of the “trees” targeted by Smith in her harangues about SAYMA was the plan by some of its meetings to host a workshop on Native American concerns. Smith denounced the idea and the invited group in lurid terms. The sponsors later replied. This correspondence circulated on the net and is brought together and excerpted here as a case study for judging these “trees” and their fruits.
The operative query they can help readers weigh is: should SAYMA be paying for this behavior? That’s on on the agenda for the representative session on July 20.
On Thu, Mar 5, 2020 at 10:46 AM Sharon Smith fired the first rhetorical shot:
Friends in Asheville, Swannanoa Valley and Celo NC, are up to no good. They are moving ahead with a plan to pay Paula Palmer to do her workshop on “How to be in Right Relationship with Indigenous People” against my objections as a Saponi Matriarch. . . .
This is by no means OK, my Friends. Because, as a Saponi matriarch, it is unfortunately my responsibility to organize a contingent of NC Natives to shut this workshop down. . . .
This is a warning. IF you will not organize among yourselves to stop Paula Palmer from doing her workshop in SAYMA Meetings, it will cause a similar diplomatic disaster as what happened in New England with FGC.
Don’t say I did not give you an opportunity prevent such a thing from happening. Don’t say you did not know better, either.
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed and reported on the breakup of five U.S. Yearly Meetings.
This “assignment” was at best unpleasant, and often disheartening. After the fifth schism, I had hoped the ugly epidemic was over.
But now there’s a possible Number Six. A showdown for it is coming on July 20.
The previous five were all pastoral-evangelical YMs, and the matter of welcoming/affirming LGBT persons was the tripwire issue in most. But there were others too: the place and work of Jesus; interpretation and authority of the Bible; church governance (more plainly, who’s the boss), etc.
It’s early for grand interpretations, but in my view, what I refer to as the Separation Generation looks to be as extensive and consequential as that of the Hicksites-Orthodox fracture in 1827.
So– the City of Charleston South Carolina wasted no time. After the City Council voted unanimously on June 23, 2020 to take down its landmark monument to John C. Calhoun, a crew swung into action, starting at near midnight.
It was no small task to pluck the figure from its 100-foot pedestal. It took the workers until late the next day to bring Calhoun floating back down to earth, and ship him off to a future of obscurity.