Skip to content

The Whimper of Democracy

When repression happens here
Police in riot gear, Inauguration Day.

Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20 left a few lingering images in the public imagination: a procession surrounded by empty bleachers; a remarkably smaller crowd on the National Mall than the one that showed up for Obama in 2009; George W. Bush struggling to grasp how ponchos work. The forty-fifth president’s inaugural address struck an ominous tone, painting a bleak picture of “American carnage” and “populist” anger while dredging up jingoistic slogans with a very murky history. Many observers found this grim rhetorical swerve unnerving—particularly on an occasion traditionally reserved for reverent invocations of hope and optimism. Instead, the tone of Trump’s inaugural address hinted that dark reckonings were ahead. In the shadows of this morbid spectacle, though, just a stone’s throw away, the darkness had already mobilized.

Maybe you’ve heard about the “Disrupt J20” protesters—and maybe you haven’t. They’ve received some media attention, but for the average citizen-reader they’ve largely been a blip on already overstuffed news feeds. Depending on your preferred news source, they first came into the limelight as either “violent” Inauguration Day rioters or victims of police abuse when authorities broke up their anti-fascist and anti-capitalist demonstration in Washington D.C. Without issuing an order for the crowd to disperse, the cops attacked protesters with batons, pepper spray, tear gas, and “sting-ball” grenades. Perhaps most distressing, the police employed the indiscriminate mass-arrest tactic called “kettling,” which involved surrounding an entire block of demonstrators (and anyone else in the same vicinity) at the corner of L and 12th Street with a human shield, cordoning off exit points, and detaining those caught in the middle for hours before arresting them.

Peter Newsham, interim police chief for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), claimed that he was “very, very pleased” with how officers handled the protests, and Sgt. Matthew Mahl, chairman of the police union, maintained that officers were not required to issue a call for dispersal as soon as they saw individual demonstrators allegedly committing crimes. The crimes alleged by the government include assaulting six police officers, setting a limousine on fire, vandalizing vehicles and storefronts (most notably a Starbucks and Bank of America). Police claim the property damages tallied more than $100,000. These events may be alarming but are by no means extraordinary. Rowdy sports fans and even pumpkin festival-goers have done far more damage for far dumber reasons. But we haven’t gotten to the disturbing part yet.

Two hundred thirty. That’s how many of the kettled bunch were initially charged with felony rioting, including journalists and legal protest observers (one of our own contributors at The Baffler, Aaron Cantú, is among the journalists being charged). Everyone’s phones, cameras, and other electronic devices were seized.

Two hundred twelve. That’s how many of the defendants have since racked up additional felony charges, including: inciting or urging to riot, conspiracy to riot, and five counts of destruction of property. One hundred of them are being charged with misdemeanor assault on an officer.

The point of the collective charges is that, by being at the demonstration and getting swept up, you are a criminal rioter.

You might think those numbers don’t add up. And you’d be right. As is almost always the case with such demonstrations, the bulk of the criminal offenses appear to have been committed by a small handful of individuals, one of whom has already pled guilty. But that’s not the point. There is a serious danger in reducing the details of this case to identifying the guilty parties and parsing out the innocent, law-abiding folk. Because that is not what the state is trying to do. The unambiguous point of the collective charges is to enforce the draconian narrative that, just by being at the demonstration, everyone who was swept up is a criminal rioter. The state has proven that it is less interested in charging individual vandals for criminal offenses than in criminalizing dissenters as a whole—and, frankly, that should worry the hell out of every citizen. That all who were rounded up, including protesters, bystanders, and even journalists covering the demonstration, are looking down the barrel of possible seventy-five-year prison sentences and tens of thousands of dollars in fines for exercising their First Amendment rights is a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Mass arrests are not uncommon at protests that spark vandalism, and individuals found to be liable for destructive acts likewise can expect to face serious charges. What is happening to the J20 protesters, though, is far from normal. Felony riot charges are rare. Felony riot charges brought against more than two hundred people are practically unheard of. After thirteen years of representing protesters, D.C. attorney Jeffrey Light remarked, “I have never seen felony rioting charges in Washington, D.C. . . . This is unusual. It is rare to use that charge.” Light has filed a class-action suit against the MPD, the U.S. Park Police, and Chief Newsham for unlawful use of force and for unconstitutionally arresting “an undifferentiated group of protesters.”

There’s something chilling and truly sinister in the highly selective and opportunistic use of the Federal Riot Statute to crush a collective expression of opposition to the current administration and the repressive capitalist regime it serves. The ACLU, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the National Lawyers Guild have condemned the charges, stressing that they set a terrifying precedent for handling dissent in the age of Trump. And indeed, within a few months of these landmark arrests, Attorney General Jeff Sessions proved their fears justified by directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible in all cases.

None of this bodes well for the future of political demonstrations in Trump’s America. By bringing charges against nearly all those who were detained, prosecutors are effectively kettling innocent citizens for a second time and treating them as criminals for crimes they didn’t commit. Their vicious rationale, which has only been reaffirmed in the additional charges filed, is that anyone in the vicinity of violent demonstrators is a political conspirator and enemy of the state.

But as unsettling as this new turn in mass detention and prosecution may be, the harsh fact is that this is not a Trump-exclusive innovation; it’s crucial to zoom out and understand these charges in their historical context as an “upgrade” of an already ruthless police state. Surely we haven’t forgotten the militarized forces that descended on Ferguson protesters in 2014 after a grand jury’s decision not to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson for slaying Michael Brown? Surely we couldn’t possibly overlook the newly uncovered reports showing that, in order to smash the peaceful NoDAPL protests in North Dakota, local and federal police violently collaborated with private security forces that compared the protesters to a “jihadist insurgency”?

The vicious crackdown on J20 demonstrators is in keeping with a highly developed political apparatus singularly committed to neutralizing dissent. On the one hand, the routine use of blunt force to quell citizen uprisings has allowed the state to successfully define “acceptable” protest on its own narrow terms, reducing it down to the point of harmless spectacle, a polite expression of dissatisfaction that need not be addressed by those in power. On the other hand, of course, blunt force works to exterminate any demonstration that poses a legitimate threat to the will of government or private industry—as the J20 protesters are now experiencing firsthand.

The intended effects of the J20 ordeal are crystal clear: potential protesters around the country are now going to think twice before exercising their civil right to demonstrate. When it comes to the state, we tend to associate the denial of one’s right to free speech in terms of active, even physical, force. It’s a clear violation of constitutional protections on speech for the state to reach out and silence peaceably dissenting citizens. Now, however, we’re seeing what might be termed a softer brand of state repression—but one that is no less chilling for the forces of dissent.

This kind of repression is more sinister because it ropes you into participating in your own silencing.

Indeed, this kind of repression is perhaps more sinister because it ropes you into participating in your own silencing. You become the policeman in your own head. When considering whether to attend a demonstration, the powerful internal suggestion is that, even if you do everything “right”—even if you are being peaceful but just happen to be in the same vicinity as someone who isn’t—you could get caught up in a costly legal battle and face serious fines, even jail time. Your entire life could be turned upside down. You might be left alone. But it’s impossible to know—and the only way to be sure is to stay home. You still have the “freedom” to choose, but fully exercising that freedom amounts to playing Russian roulette with an entity all too eager to take that freedom away if you get caught standing near a smashed window. So, really, how much freedom do you have?

Time and again, defenders of Trump have repeated the claim that Trump is in no way implicated in the violence his supporters commit in his name or with his encouragement. Not all Trump voters are like this—you can’t blame another person or a group of people for the vicious actions someone else commits. The complete and precise opposite of this logic is playing out right now for the J20 protesters—as it has played out for minorities throughout our history.

The fate of the J20 protesters has more staggering consequences for American democracy than most people recognize. But the cordon sanitaire that has blocked the demonstrators’ plight from serious public attention is itself a clear indication that most of the damage has already been done. This is less a story about a democracy under siege than a democracy that has already passed away—not with a bang, but with a slow, unheeded whimper.

We could speculate on the reasons the story of the J20 protesters hasn’t received sustained mainstream coverage or public interest. The simplest explanation is that they’ve become collateral media casualties of the Trump saturation effect, slipping into the national memory hole while the Trump administration, in its trademark ADD fashion, provides a never-ending shit-stream of farcical bumbles, infuriating policy shifts, and perplexing details about an unfolding scandal that may very well merit impeachment. You couldn’t get away from all the breaking news about the Trump team if you tried. Trump truly has brought the reality-show reconfiguration of our politics to its apex—everyone is tuning in, and no one knows what’s going to happen next.

From one angle, it’s easy to understand why the Trump administration has dominated the news cycle; the stories coming out every day are jam packed with the juices we savor most in our entertainment regime: scandal, drama, conflict, unpredictability, etc. From another, more telling angle, though, the almost exclusive media focus on Trump and his cabinet continually reaffirms where and how we understand power in American politics. When it comes to taking full measure of the welfare of our “democracy,” we’re accustomed to looking to the upper echelons of elected officialdom. This, we’ve long been conditioned to believe, is where the real business of democracy happens. We largely accept that our small role involves marshaling the minimal quotient of civic energy to ratify these arrangements on biannual (at best) election days; the rest of the time we go back to being pure spectators.

As soon as people become convinced that the dream has been attained, democracy is already dead.

But this is not the only way to do and see politics. The history of American democracy, the history of substantive political change that has made life better for the masses in these United States, has overwhelmingly come from below—from the streets, the grassroots, from union meetings and town halls, from myriad forms of applied pressure coming from the ground up. At some point, though, the history of American democracy became just that: history. Political struggle from below still happens, of course, but it goes without saying these days that this is not an issue of democracy as such. Such struggles are perceived more along the lines of “special interests.” Democracy allows for them, the story goes, but democracy itself is not seen as subject.

Nothing in our history suggests that democracy has ever been a given. From the beginning, democracy has always been a deep-in-the-gut sense of what we don’t yet have. From throwing off the yoke of British imperialism to those historic efforts to win the expansion of the franchise, from establishing basic civil rights, to the ongoing fight to dismantle the practices that have allowed the wealthy and powerful to determine almost every facet of the electoral system, it has always been a fight. But we have seemingly regressed into a dangerous state of treating democracy as a birthright fait accompli.

Democracy only exists as a collective dream—a dream that, by definition, can never reach a state of complete realization. As soon as people become convinced that the dream has been attained, democracy is already dead. What takes its place is a profound form of anti-democratic paranoia, a marrow-level dread turned against any groups that are perceived as trying to take it away. The repression of these groups is then given tacit or explicit support by the very people who believe they are “protecting” themselves by doing so. American “democracy” becomes a bizarre form of psychosis. It becomes the celebration of a reality that exists most purely in the form of existential fiction, and all matters of democracy are viewed through a purely existential lens. It is the thing you have, the thing you are, the history you embody just by living in it now. It is not the J20 protesters or the NoDAPL protesters or the citizens of Flint or any other “elements” who exist on the margins of the already-achieved democratic project.

All of this bears stressing at the present moment, when the forces charged with “maintaining” our formal democracy are fundamentally incapable of doing so without defining that work against different existential threats. On the right, the GOP is trudging behind Trump in his dangerously childish wars against perceived “enemies’ of the American people, including the free press. On the Democratic left, the all-insinuating, all-corrupting force that has hollowed out our system of democratic representation is Vladimir Putin’s army of computer hackers, moles, and party apparatchiks.

Lost in all this fervid speculation is the genuinely parlous state of our substantive democratic freedoms, as the overlooked prosecution of the J20 protesters makes all too abundantly clear. The Russia subversion scenario engages people’s deepest fears that a foreign agent is trying to “hijack” and “steal” our democracy. But if the fate of these inauguration protesters is not exceptional news—if the defendants’ cases are shrugged off or, worse, viewed as just desserts for rabble-rousers who are presumed “guilty”—and if the general thinking is that protesters are “losers” who should “get a job”—then external threats are far from our main worry. If the criminalizing of dissent is understood as a special-interest matter concerning some radical whatevers on the margins of democracy, but not democracy as such—if it’s common wisdom that the state’s retaliatory practices are fine because you would never be affected by them if you protested because you’d only do it “politely,” but you probably would never protest anyway—then what exactly are we worried that the Russians might be trying to steal? 

For more information on the J20 protesters: