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Running Riot

The false binary in our reaction to violent protest

The first time I got angry at a protestor was on the streets of Berkeley. It was day two of the 2014 protests following the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island not to prosecute the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was my second protest ever.

It began as is the general way for protests at UC Berkeley: A group met in Sproul Plaza, on the southern end of the campus, until the mass grew enough to spill onto Telegraph Avenue. And when the drivers gave way to this outpouring of pedestrians, we started to march. We wound through the streets, chanting up to apartments, feeling the power of an unsanctioned group in motion. It was in the midst of this throng that I saw two men wearing black masks run into an alley. They grabbed a dumpster, rolled it out into the middle of the road, further blocking the passage of traffic, and took off.

“In the middle of the goddamn road!” I thought. “How could these assholes diminish a peaceful protest by doing something so horrific!”

“Cool,” muttered a friend.

He didn’t say this in a fired-up “Let’s show ’em!” way, or even as that surfer bro exclamation that’s the cousin of “righteous.” It was calm, shorthand for “Here is a thing that happened, now our lives continue.” So they did. A little later while, someone broke the window of a Chase bank, someone else shattered the front door of a RadioShack, people streamed onto the highway and stopped traffic for miles and miles. And when I saw those short-lived disruptions of normal society, I didn’t mind at all.

The central danger of the Women’s March on Washington[*] was that it had the potential to set up an illusion of what a protest must be.

No one can deny that this method of weeks-long, painstaking organization, sanctioned and planned in partnership with city officials, certainly has its place in protest. While the event itself allowed for a broad section of the angered and distraught to feel not alone—with many marching for the first time—the imagery that accompanied the occasion was inspiring to many more. But protests can take as many sizes and shapes as there are powers to protest against—marches, mindful consumption, employment choices, reproductive strikes, raising a family in a socially conscious way, even choosing to get off to “ethical porn.” There can also be those that aren’t entirely peaceful.

The “without a hitch” aesthetic of the Women’s March meant that, sooner or later, new marchers would be struck with a type of cognitive dissonance.

The “without a hitch” aesthetic of the Women’s March and the number of freshly politicized demonstrators meant that, sooner or later, new marchers would be struck with a type of cognitive dissonance when a protest didn’t live up to these standards. The first opportunity for discomfort was at city airports following Trump’s bumbling implementation of the de-facto Muslim Ban; those rallies were more emotionally charged, but perhaps the striplit airport arrivals areas were too bright for acts of destruction. It took the hate-monger Milo Yiannopoulos coming to the UC Berkeley campus at night to see how “unpeaceful” aesthetics could get before turning off sympathizers at home.

I attended the Milo protest for about an hour. While the atmosphere didn’t have the family-friendly vibe of the Women’s March, I have no problem describing it as “peaceful.” Sure, there was a fire in the middle of the plaza, but no one was in harm’s way, and it offered nice warmth on a chilly evening. Police read “the riot act” through a loudspeaker, and there was a hell of a lot of cussing, but unless your only protest experience is the Women’s March, this is pretty standard operating procedure.

I was shocked when I saw the reaction to it. “Riots,” declared one headline. “Violence,” said a whole bunch of others.

When I got home, I tried to fill in the blanks. I saw photos of broken ATM machines and smashed windows, and I shrugged. I watched a short video of a Milo fan getting pepper-sprayed by an unidentified assailant, and I winced, but then quickly moved on. To me, these events were either such outliers that they weren’t worth addressing—akin to condemning a stadium of Eagles fans because a fight broke out in Section 107—or else concerned property damage so insignificant that I couldn’t muster a reaction.

But to many “left-leaning” folks, including many who marched that Saturday after the inauguration, this coverage was the harbinger of the end of our morality, despite the reality that what brought us out in the first place was fighting for our morality. It was evidence we had turned into them. It was the left wing going Too Far.

It’s this reaction—by those otherwise sympathetic to the views of the protesters—I want to address, because it’s particularly dangerous, as it’s divisive, and therefore defeating. 

In Psychology 101 you learn of those “false binary” or “false dichotomy” situations that crop up where two viewpoints are so powerful they tend to pull all other options into their orbit. If you’re not capitalist, you’re socialist. In Chicago if you’re not a White Sox fan, you’re a Cubs fan. You’re either with us, or you’re against us. Or, to use an example that upended plenty of Thanksgiving dinner tables, if you think Hillary sucks, you love Trump.

But as the modifier in “false binary” suggests, these black-or-white decisions aren’t real. There’s always another option present. When you see a broken window during a protest, you don’t have to “completely condone” the action if you don’t “admonish it entirely,” or vice versa. Rather, there’s an entire spectrum of responses available, and one of the most underutilized is right in the center: “Cool.”

Or, in longer-form: “I don’t necessarily need to have an opinion on every little thing that scrolls past my timeline, including this one.”

If, however, that broken window or that video of a fire sends a visceral reaction to your core, I encourage you to consider the following questions before allowing a strong opinion to coalesce.

Are you upset at protesters in the street, or the noise generated by the police helicopters? Are you upset at a broken window, and if so, does the company have insurance to cover the replacement? Are you upset with something being burned, or the visceral image of the burning as presented by the news camera? Will you be able to stand next to someone also protesting religious discrimination—or the repeal of Roe v. Wade, or scrubbing of environmental regulations—if they break a bank’s ATM? Are you as upset with watching a person with despicable views getting pepper-sprayed as you are when you see fellow protestors pepper-sprayed by police?

And while you think on those, I suggest you keep marching.


[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article used the names “Million Women March” and “Women’s March” interchangeably. We understand the first name was rejected by organizers, and apologize for the error.