Last week a Donald Trump rally in San Jose, California, descended into all-too-familiar chaos, as fights broke out between Trump haters, Trump lovers, and the police. Protesters punched rally attendees, snatched and burned pro-Trump gear, and pelted one Trump supporter with eggs. Naturally, this brawling was condemned by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, among others from across the political spectrum. But in some left-wing corners, it revived an old debate: When, if ever, is political violence acceptable?
In the past year, this question has come up in response to the looting during the April 2015 demonstrations in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, as well as the shutting down of a Trump event by mass protest in Chicago this March—a mostly peaceful event that was nonetheless criticized for trampling on the rights of Trump supporters to assemble. After the former, Salon published an essay arguing that "when we see police cars being smashed and corporate property being destroyed, we should see reasonable responses to generations of extreme state violence"; after the latter, left-wing outlets like Jacobin argued that "Trump rallies… are venues of hate where dissenters are attacked (by Trump supporters and staffers alike), where violence is condoned, and where Trump spews toxic bigotry… The protesters who nonviolently shut down Donald Trump should be heralded as guardians of democracy."
The San Jose protests were far more chaotic and seemingly less defensible than the Chicago action. Still, not everyone was aghast at the broken eggs. "It's never a shame to storm the barricades set up around a fascist," tweeted Vox editor Emmett Rensin on Thursday, a statement that resulted in his suspension from the website.
There is a long history of violence mixing into American politics. Particularly on the left, there's a lot of self-consciousness about the descent from verbal sparring to fisticuffs: Is a molotov cocktail ever morally justified? Beyond that, does aggressive protest alienate everyday citizens and hurt your cause in the long run? And if you're working against police brutality or political movements that you think resemble literal fascism, how do you stop yourself from fighting fire with fire?
To suss out these questions, VICE contacted Mark Rudd, a founding member of the infamous left-wing group the Weather Underground. The WU was an offshoot of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that advocated the violent overthrow of the US government; the group went about that by bombing government buildings and banks. (They were careful not to target civilians, and the only people killed by their actions were three group members who died in an accidental explosion in New York City.) Rudd spent seven years hiding from the authorities before turning himself in and now publicly regrets the bombings his organization was responsible for. Here's our email exchange, lightly edited for clarity:
VICE: There has been a lot of talk about how Trump is a uniquely awful candidate in American history, how he is a fascist and a potentially world-destroying event waiting to happen. Does that remind you of what people were saying in the days of Johnson and Nixon? Is political rhetoric usually this apocalyptic?
Mark Rudd: As long as I can remember, I've heard liberals say some variation of "If Nixon (or Reagan or Bush or Trump) is elected, I'm moving to Canada." Nobody ever does. Reagan was openly racist, anti-student, anti-communist, and the country more or less survived, though our politics shifted far right from 1981 on, including that of the Democratic Party. That's Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council legacy. In a way, the last thirty-five years has been apocalyptic, with the financialization of the economy, the growth of inequality, the decline of unions, the neoliberal "reforms" of government such as privatization and curtailing welfare, the drug war and mass incarceration, the constant wars, global warming. Since it was slow coming, the country got used to this mess.
Is violence for political ends ever justified?
Ever is a big time frame, covering lots of circumstances. If we're talking about politics in this country, the question I first ask is, how are we going to build a mass movement for social change? Given that Americans have been taught that all non-state violence is either mentally ill or criminal, it's hard to argue that it helps build the mass movement we need. Nonviolence claims the higher moral position, and therefore isn't as susceptible to charges of "terrorism." My general take is that anyone advocating political violence is either very stupid or a cop (or both). Retrospectively, I was very stupid.
"There has always been a small fringe group of young people—often white ideological anarchists—who claim the 'right to self-defense,' by which they seem to mean throwing stuff at cops."
Do you think there's any danger in the current political climate of any group—from the right or the left—adopting Weather Underground–like tactics?
Many on the right have demonstrated or otherwise indicated a willingness to "pick up the gun." I'm positive this will happen as the left-right division intensifies. The large majority of leftists have learned the negative lesson of the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s, that violence only gets you isolated politically and attacked by the government. A few months ago, our local PBS station screened the recent documentary on the Black Panther Party at a theater in downtown Albuquerque. About two hundred people attended, at least half of whom were young (i.e., not gray-haired veterans of the 60s). In a spirited discussion afterward, not one single person in the audience mentioned the Panthers' use of guns, very prominent in the documentary, as any sort of political model. Violence is an obsolete relic on the left. Nonviolent strategy, though little understood and analyzed, is almost universally accepted as the only practical course, as well as being moral and ethical.
"Anyone advocating political violence is either very stupid or a cop (or both)."
However, there has always been a small fringe group of young people—often white ideological anarchists—who claim the "right to self-defense," by which they seem to mean throwing stuff at cops. They always talk, as we did, about solidarity with non-white people who are forced into picking up the gun. I suspect their unconscious motive is to prove how radical they are. I know that by personal experience.
Do you agree with people who say that violent protest always ends up hurting the cause by alienating the general population?
Obviously they're right. The goal of the Weather Underground, for example, was a mass revolutionary movement. Our organization and support over the years got smaller and smaller. We should have been out organizing, which incidentally, we were much better at than pretending to be urban guerrillas, which we were quite terrible at. One of our first actions was to accidentally blow up three of our own people.
The Black Panther Party was another matter, gaining large African American support at first. But when the government's repression hit that support evaporated, in large part because people didn't want to die. It's no accident that Huey Newton titled his autobiography Revolutionary Suicide. Newton actually recognized the problem when he got out of prison in 1970 and ordered the party to put away its guns. Only by then it was too late, the government attack was underway, and also the party split between the Oakland office and the crazies in NY, followers of [Eldridge] Cleaver. They later became the ill-fated Black Liberation Army.
"Imagine what we could accomplish if we had a real socialist movement, not just a single courageous, tireless old guy running for the presidency."
If I were a young person who came to you and said, "I want to devote my life to stopping Trump, I'll move around the country, I'll knock on doors, I'll even commit crimes," what sort of action would you advise me to take?
Learn how the successful mass movements of the twentieth century were organized: strategy, goals, tactics, leadership above all, study the classical civil rights movement 1945 to 1965. Build mass organizations among young people for specific changes, like ending police racism, ending the drug war and mass incarceration, getting living wages for all workers, stopping the use of fossil fuels. At the same time, organize a mass democratic socialist movement to eventually gain political power through the only possible means, elections. But the latter has to begin at the lowest level: school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures. That's what the right did.
I suspect the left is allergic to power since it's inevitably nasty, so it's shunned the levers of power. If we don't take power, the right will. Bernie's candidacy absolutely shook the Democratic Party to its neoliberal roots. Imagine what we could accomplish if we had a real socialist movement, not just a single courageous, tireless old guy running for the presidency. We could turn the Democratic Party into a party of the people.
Do you keep up on what the current generation of left-wing activists is doing? Are there any groups or individuals that especially impress you?
Black Lives Matter, the movement against student debt, the movement against the drug war and mass incarceration, the Dreamers' movement among student undocumented immigrants, the various groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club attempting to stop global climate change and build a sustainable energy economy, the movement of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans against the war, to name a few issue areas.
There are at least two generations of young organizers, post-Seattle WTO demonstration of 1999 and post-Occupy of 2011, that are thinking hard about questions of strategy, goals, tactics, organization, leadership. Read any of the work of Astra Taylor, Yotam Marom and Wildfire, Joshua Kahn Russell, Jonathan Smucker. The website and book Beautiful Trouble gives you a good insight into this strategic thinking and teaching.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.