Saturday, January 16, 2021

#16 / Protesters Are Like Your Children

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. has written a column in The Wall Street Journal about the profoundly upsetting mob action that occurred in Washington, D.C. on January 6th. He tells his readers, whom I believe he knows are upset, disheartened, and outraged - as I certainly am - "Don't Expect Police to Shoot at Crowds." That's the title of Jenkins' column. The police didn't shoot at the crowd on January 6th, of course, and perhaps had the police shot at the crowd, the actual invasion of the Capitol Building would have been prevented. Or maybe not. 

I am having a bit of a hard time figuring out exactly what to think about what happened on January 6th - and even more important, to decide, with any sense of certainty, what I think should happen now. I wouldn't be surprised if readers have similar feelings. I seem to be thinking lots of different things, simultaneously, and they don't add up to any easy to define and consistent judgment about either the past or the future. I am trying to work that out.

I do hold the president responsible for what occurred on January 6th, because he encouraged a huge crowd to move towards the Capitol, and his directions did not suggest any limit or restraint with respect to the kind of action that he wanted his supporters to take. He didn't actually say, "go kill Mike Pence," but he didn't tell the crowd that they needed to go "in peace," either. He only said that after five people had died and those who actually invaded the Capitol Building had failed to carry out what seems clearly to have been their objective - stopping the certification of the Electoral College ballots that officially gave Joe Biden the election.

I suspect that what happened after Trump sent his huge crowd on its way to the Capitol was not just a spontaneous occurrence. I suspect there was a plan, and I also suspect that the president and his close associates were involved in the planning. I tend to believe, in other words, that what happened on January 6th was an "inside job," as some news reports are now claiming. Anyone who schemed or worked to bring down our democratic government should be tried, and should be punished if found guilty. And some are guilty of exactly that - at least, that is my deep suspicion. That includes, perhaps, the president himself.

But what other persons should be held responsible in this drama? Anyone who actually planned or acted directly to prevent the transfer of power according to the Constitution should be tried and punished, if found guilty of doing that. I find no big problem there. But were Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who led the fight against the certification of the Electoral College ballots, part of a coup attempt? And what about those Republicans in the Senate and the House who voted against certification of the ballots? Were they, too, part of a coup attempt? That is certainly one possibility, I suppose, but maybe these elected officials were acting, in a typical fashion, as self-interested and self-aggrandizing politicians often do. In other words, maybe they were acting not that much differently from the way most politicians act from time to time. Maybe we ought to let the normal electoral process deal with those elected officials, even though their actions indisputably contributed to the incredibly dangerous events of January 6th.

Those who broke into the building and caused damage, if they can be identified, are clearly guilty of various criminal acts. But what about the rest of the demonstrators? How do we think about them? There were thousands of demonstrators in Washington, D.C. that day, though an accurate crowd size estimate is difficult. The picture above shows men and women who came to demonstrate and protest in Washington, part of the huge crowd that surged to the Capitol with the president's encouragement. Were the people pictured here part of an "insurrection?" They didn't bring weapons, and they didn't actually enter the Capitol Building. They are, in fact, a church group from Martin County, Kentucky.

Virgil Ferguson, one of the members of that church group, was distraught at what happened: 


"We thought we would come and just show our support by helping Trump and then later on, it just went, after he got through his speech, it just went down from there," Ferguson said.

What do we think of, and how do we treat people like those in the Kentucky church group? Here is how Jenkins approaches this issue, in his Wall Street Journal column, comparing what happened on January 6th to events at the 2017 Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville:

In the end, most of the invaders of the Capitol behaved more like tourists than insurrectionists, allowing themselves to be herded out when police had assembled a superior force. It could have been much worse but wasn’t because sense was prevalent on both sides. 
A careful postmortem in Charlottesville showed that protesters are like your children: Each one is different. Political activists, gawkers and journalists show up as well as hatemongers of every description, drawn by a hope of mayhem and not overly observant of partisan narratives adopted for the convenience of the media (emphasis added).
Evan Osnos was on the ground with the demonstrators, or protesters, or insurrectionists (you pick the label that you like most), and here is an excerpt from his write-up in the New Yorker. His column is titled, "Mob Rule in the Capitol." 


As another puff of tear gas wafted over the melee with police, Sharon Krahn, a grandmother from Dallas, looked on approvingly. “Our congressmen should be shitting their pants. They need to fear, because they’re too posh,” she said.“Their jobs are too cush, and their personal gain has taken priority over their sense of duty. Maybe they all started off with a good heart, you know, but power corrupts. Our government is proof positive of that.” 
She wore a plaid scarf and a gray wool hat, studded with sequins. I asked if the violence in front of us was going too far. “Whose house is this? This is the house of ‘We the People.’ If you do a bad job, your boss tells you about it,” Krahn said. She nodded toward the Senate, where the elected officials had already evacuated to safety: “We’re not happy with the job you’ve done.” She drew a distinction between the scene in front of her and the domain of enemies she called “Antifa and B.L.M.,” who, she said, have “no true aim except destruction and anarchy.”
What should we think about misguided churchgoers who came to Washington, D.C. to support their president, believing that there was fraud in the election that left him defeated? And what about non-church members who showed up for the same reason? And what about that "Kick Ass Grandma" who talked to Osnos? Aren't they, in fact, a lot like me (and maybe a lot like you, depending on how you are)? I have been to a lot of protests, and I have been just as mad as that grandmother - though our political views don't match. I actually like the idea of church groups engaging in political demonstrations - and "disruptive" demonstrations, too. Demonstrations about global warming, for instance; or against nuclear weaponry. 

I really liked what Jenkins said: "Protesters are like your children. Every one is different." Looking ahead, maybe we need to respond as if these protesters were members of the family. After all, they sort of are, unless we want to concede that there isn't any common cause between citizens who disagree, even profoundly disagree, on political issues. 

We do love our children, don't we, even when they act in ways we don't approve? Don't we have to love (or at least tolerate) those who get engaged and who demonstrate for their political positions, even if we disagree with those positions, and even if their manner of demonstrating is not to our liking? After all, we all want that kind of treatment for ourselves, and for our own causes. Black Lives Matter demonstrators went marching right through the rich white sections of town, in demonstrations that happened early in 2020. I was so happy to see them do it! Lots of people didn't like it, though!

Those who came to Washington, D.C. on January 6th, to support President Trump, absolutely contributed to what seems to have been a fairly serious effort to topple democratic government in the United States. But I can't really fault them for coming out to demonstrate (even though I think that their support for the president's false claims about the election was terribly and tragically misguided). The demonstrators who came to the Capitol, and other people like them, are properly upset with the United States government. The "Kick Ass Granny" is right on target, too, when she says that too many Members of Congress put personal gain ahead of good public policy. And she's right that the Capitol is our house, not the property of those politicians whom we send there.

We are not going to save our democracy by turning the United States Capitol into a building defended by wire fences and guns - currently the approach being taken to provide security for the Inauguration of President-Elect Biden on January 20th. In order for our democracy to endure, we are going to have to remember that most of the protesters who showed up in Washington, D.C. on January 6th are "different," just like our children are. Differences admitted, they are still part of the "family." Let's not forget that. 

In his column, Jenkins makes this important observation: 

Let's focus on a general trope among the Trump opposition: Because I dislike X about Trump, therefore his supporters like X.

When talking to Trump voters or surveying them, the evidence overwhelmingly shows they disliked X too. They disliked most of what non-Trump voters disliked but they voted for him anyway for reasons critics were too lazy and self-satisfied to recognize.

In other words, as I read Jenkins, there is likely to be some significant common ground between those who are still supporting President Trump and those who don't, never have, and never will. Let's think about the implications of that. 

As I have already said, I think we need criminally to prosecute and punish anyone who can be proved to have planned and/or acted to overthrow democratic government in the United States. That might even include President Trump. For those who can be shown to have violated laws, as they invaded the Capitol, existing criminal penalties are appropriate. For those politicians who played such an ignominious role in helping to make possible the events of January 6th, those Senators and House Members who acted like blatant untruths needed to be taken seriously, I suggest we let the normal political process take care of them. 

But the biggest group is the most important. I am talking about those demonstrators who came to Washington, D.C. to support the president, but who didn't invade the Capitol Building themselves. This group includes "Kick Ass Grannies," church group members, and others. We might also include those who didn't come to Washington personally, but who sympathized with and agreed with those who did. That is a very large share of voters who are registered as Republicans, as I understand recent polling. A column in my hometown newspaper, this morning, written by one of those Trump-supporting voters who didn't actually go to Washington on January 6th, but who sympathizes with and identifies with those who did, suggests some sort of effort at reconciliation might be worthwhile. 

I think those of us who are upset, disheartened, and outraged by what happened on January 6th, need to start talking to our Trump-supporting fellow citizens. 

Let's listen to what they have to say. Let's see what we can work out. I don't think that there is really any other good choice. 

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