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Protests and Power

A parable about the rule of law.
June 3, 2020
Protests and Power
Smoke rises near a demonstrator holding a sign and facing a row of police near the 5th police precinct during a demonstration to call for justice for George Floyd, a black man who died while in custody of the Minneapolis police, on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. - Clashes broke out and major cities imposed curfews as America began another night of unrest Saturday with angry demonstrators ignoring warnings from President Donald Trump that his government would stop violent protests over police brutality "cold." (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

1. Embrace the Darkness

Warning: We’re going to get pretty dark today.

I want to start with a random Facebook video that was sent to me by a reader yesterday. It’s from a protest in Charleston on Sunday and it’s one of those feel-good scenes that we’re all kind of grasping for. The video is here, where a group of protesters is standing across a grassy space from a bunch of cops with batons.

One of the protesters, a young black guy, is kneeling and he starts preaching directly to the cops, most of whom appear to be white. It’s a long video, so in case you don’t want to watch the whole thing, I’m going to transcribe it for you in its entirety. Because every word is worth hearing:

We are all people. All of you are my family. All of you are my family. I love each and every one of you. I cry at night because I feel your pain. I feel the pain. I feel the pain of black people. I feel the pain of white people. I feel the pain of innocent cops. I feel the pain.

We’re all scared. Black, white, cop—doesn’t matter. We’re living in fear. We’ve got to stop living in fear. I am not your enemy. You are not my enemy. We have to share this land no matter what. At the end of the day, we have to share this land, no matter what.

I’m here for you. I’m here with you. I’m not angry at any of you. I love all of you all.


I don’t care if you’re dark skinned, I don’t care if you’re light skinned, I don’t care if you’re white.

You are my family and I love you and I respect you.

And I want to understand you all. I want to understand every one of you.

I would love to come to your house. I would love to meet your kids. I would love to meet your family. I would love to see the best side of everybody here.

This is not the best side of everybody here. But I would love to see the best side of everybody here.

You can change your whole perspective of how you view someone. Because of their size. Because of their life. Someone might have a bad day and you think they’re a bad person—no, no, no. We all got bad days. We all got bad days.

We’ve got to stop judging people only on our bad days, because we all have them to some degree.

How are you on your good days? Do you want to make a stand? Do you want to make a change? Because if we charge you and you charge us, what is that really doing?

It’s a beautiful, inspired moment and the guy is speaking from his soul. You can hear his voice trembling with emotion.

When you think about protests and civil society and how we change the world together, for the good of everyone, this is what we’re talking about.

And at the end of this moment, a cop strides across the grass, singles this guy out, reaches out to him.

And arrests him.

So yes, please, let’s condemn the looters and the violence. It’s all very bad. It’s criminal. It helps no one and hurts a lot of people.

But let’s also please understand that there are cases like the above where law enforcement is so broken that it cannot even reasonably manage the best, most loving form of peaceful protest—let alone a pointed, though constitutionally protected, one.

Here’s the coda to the story: The guy’s name is Givionne Jordan. The cops arrested him on the pretext of “disobeying a lawful order.” He was the only one of this group of protesters who was arrested. He spent the night in jail.

“Disobeying a lawful order” is legal speak for “the police felt like arresting you and what are you going to do about it?”

Which brings us to Matt Levine.

Levine writes about financial stuff for Bloomberg. He is, pound for pound, the best daily writer in America on any subject. I reference his work here often.

Yesterday Levine opened his newsletter with a discussion of the rule of law that might fracture your spirit:

theme of this column over the past few years has been legal realism, the idea that “law,” really, is just what officials do about disputes. Rules, the written laws, the constitution, are all “law” only insofar as they predict or explain the actions of public officials, or persuade those officials to do things. “That is all their importance, except as pretty playthings,” as the great legal realist Karl Llewellyn put it. If this column sometimes seems cynical, it is mostly Karl Llewellyn’s fault. It seems to me that one central argument of the past few days has been about whether people with power should have to follow rules at all. America has good rules about freedom of speech and assembly and religion; it has a president who violently dispersed a peaceful protest and drove priests from their church so that he could pose for photographs outside of it. America has good rules against unreasonable searches and seizures, about the right to a trial by jury and due process of law; it has a long history of police killing black people with impunity.

A message of the protests is that the police should have to follow the same rules as everybody else, that when they break the law they should face consequences. A message of the response to the protests is: No, they shouldn’t. Is the law what it says? Or is it the raw fact of what the people with the guns and the tear gas do? I think I know the answer and it makes me sad.

“Pretty playthings.”

Sit with that for a moment.

If you subscribe to this view, there are only two possible responses.

You can become a nihilist.

Or you can organize.

One of these paths is easy. The other is insanely hard. And neither is very satisfying in dealing with the world as it exists.

2. The Verdict of History

We’re not done with the darkness. Sorry.

Anne Applebaum has a great piece in the Atlantic making the argument that history will judge people complicit in this administration’s actions very badly.

You should read it. It’s great. I want to believe that she’s right.

I do not think she is.

I would argue that Applebaum makes a category error in her analysis. She walks through 20th-century history looking at fallen autocratic regimes and supposes what will happen to Trumpist collaborators once Trump falls from power.

The error Applebaum makes is that she views Trump’s hold on power to be the power of the presidency.

I would argue that Trump’s tenure as president is an accident that is incidental to his real seat of power: ownership of the Republican party.

I’ve written about this before.

At some point Trump will leave the White House. But there is no reason to believe he will relinquish his hold on the GOP and every reason to expect that he will continue to grasp it more tightly. A national political party is, after all, a valuable thing.

In a time where political parties are motivated by ideology, they can be responsive to market forces. If they do A and win elections, they will keep doing A. If they do B and lose elections, they will stop doing B.

But the Republican party is not configured around ideology. It is configured around grievance. And grievances can be pressed whether you are winning or losing. If anything, losing makes grievances more satisfying, because the holder can reap the added emotional payoff of martyrdom.

Even if Donald Trump loses to Joe Biden by 12 points, it will not diminish—not one bit—his standing within the world of Republican party politics. The price of admission for anyone looking to run for office in the party will be testifying to Trump’s greatness and the unfairness of his loss.

Anyone who deviates from that line will not be welcomed by the party’s voters.

Those apostates who defied Trumpism from the start and warned that it would lead to ruin will never be told, “Hey, yeah. Turns out you were right.”

They will not be welcomed back into the fold.

They will remain persona non grata not because they were wrong about Trump, but because they were right.

As for the party itself, it might be possible to build on top of Trumpism. You could see how a particularly clever operator might try to wrest control of the party from the Trump family while praising Trump and swearing fealty to him. He might then try to make something new. (Though without ever disparaging or disavowing the old.)

But in order for history to judge collaborators harshly, the regime with which they collaborated must first disappear. Because if it persists, then there is no way to achieve the level of consensus required to issue a verdict against the past.

The way our political system is organized, the Republican party is unlikely to disappear. It will endure. It will continue to win some elections and lose others.

And so history will view the Republicans who collaborated with Trump as nothing worse than garden-variety partisans.

The only people who will pay a political price are those who opposed him from within the party.

3. Boogaloo

At this point, let’s just go full-Lovecraft and do darkness all the way down:

These exchanges offer a window into an extremely online update of the militia movement, which is gearing up for the northern summer. The “Boogaloo Bois” expect, even hope, that the warmer weather will bring armed confrontations with law enforcement, and will build momentum towards a new civil war in the United States.

Mostly, they’re not even hiding it. And for the last several months, their platform of choice has been Facebook.

Like many other novel extremist movements, the loose network of pro-gun shitposters trace their origins to 4chan. What coherence the movement has comes from their reverence for their newly-minted martyrs and a constellation of in-jokes and memes

Above all, though, the movement has gained momentum over the last two years by organising on the world’s most popular social network. At the time of writing, that network’s parent company had added just over $150 billion to its market cap since Boogaloo-friendly anti-lockdown protests began organizing there in mid April. The valuation of the company at $662.8 billion on May 26th beat out it’s previous high of $620.8 billion, set on the same day, January 20th, that the Boogaloo movement made its high profile public debut at Second Amendment protests in Virginia.

For now, Facebook chooses to allow the Boogaloo movement to flourish on their platform.

Open source materials suggest that, for now, the apocalyptic, anti-government politics of the “Boogaloo Bois” are not monolithically racist/neo-Nazi. As we have observed, some members rail against police shootings of African Americans, and praise black nationalist self defense groups.

But the materials also demonstrate that however irony-drenched it may appear to be, this is a movement actively preparing for armed confrontation with law enforcement, and anyone else who would restrict their expansive understanding of the right to bear arms. In a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, they could well contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.