Over the past couple of years there has been a trend where climate activists deface valuable art in order to “raise awareness” about the perceived catastrophic threat of global warming. It’s a crime against culture and private property which has discredited their cause and doesn’t seem to have won anyone at all to their side.
However, there is a bigger problem. Several other events seem to have discredited the premise of protest itself. Much of the public has developed a narrow view that protest needs to be “right” on an issue to be legitimate, as well as being done in their own “approved” way. The truth is it is easier to identify a problem than to understand its causes or solutions, so it is to be expected that a protest movement won’t get everything right. Further, for protest to be effective it generally involves some activities that would not be allowed if the protesters were not in sufficient numbers or lacked public support, and any large enough group inevitably has some bad actors and crackpots. The right to assembly is an important feature of free government, and free government must always balance liberty and restraint. This means both the government and the public should respond to protests with wisdom and moderation. Some key episodes from the last few years show that the government and public have failed on both counts.
In late Spring 2020, as America was a tinderbox from two months of unprecedented oppression and scolding, George Floyd was killed during an encounter with the police. Mass protests erupted under the banner of Black Lives Matter. I don’t need to remind you of the discourse at the time, but the most notable was that after we had been told we were “grandma killers” if we protested our oppression, the luminaries who make up our “public health” establishment decided that “racism is a public health crisis” and that some protests don’t spread COVID. Then, we suffered more as the nation saw a CNN reporter standing in front of a building set on fire by rioters and called the protest “fiery but mostly peaceful.”
One could write a book about what was wrong with these protests and the corresponding media coverage, and I’m sure someone has. However, the core issue identified a major problem in our society: there are unacceptable levels of violent crime in our inner cities and the historically bad relationship between those communities and the police makes it a hard problem to solve. Further, in examining the protests and the government and media response, quite a lot of people woke up to both COVID insanity and the insanity of identity politics of the far left. In this instance, the government’s failure to deal with the bad actors radicalized the other part of the public against the protests. Still, by causing the public to think about a variety of important issues, the protests were probably a net positive for the body politic, if not in the way the protesters hoped.
At the beginning of 2021, we of course had January 6, which was Pearl Harbor plus the Kennedy Assassination times 9/11, if the media and Joe Biden Administration are to be believed. Say what you will about the beliefs of the J. 6ers, but our ridiculous election system where votes come from all sorts of different places and seem to tally at random at least creates an appearance of impropriety. They bring in experts to try to explain why this is “normal,” but it shouldn’t require an expert to explain why the results don’t make sense—the process and results should make sense.
Instead of dealing with the problem, the Biden Administration went to great lengths to harass and prosecute people who were there, as the media spread lies about Donald Trump inciting the protests and the protesters murdering cops. Far from being an “unprecedented attack on democracy,” the reality, contra-Democrats, is that rioting at legislatures is historically common. Further, the U.S. Senate is the body of men, not the building: they could meet at the Airport Hilton and would still be the Senate. There was absolutely no risk of the government being overthrown. In these situations the proper response is to punish the worst actors, pardon the rest, respond to reasonable demands, ignore unreasonable demands, and then everyone moves on with their lives. Instead of acknowledging that the public has lost faith in elections (and of course, Democrats also deny elections where their side loses) and that we need to agree on a better way to conduct this important exercise, the heavy-handed response from the Biden Administration has made many all the more convinced that the election was stolen. We may still lose the country over the bad response to this episode, but Democrats seem to take a lot of joy in calling the people involved terrorists, so I guess at least they get something from it.
Lastly, we have had the recent occurrence in Panama where a retired lawyer—an American dual citizen—got out of his car and shot two protesters who were blocking a road. This didn’t happen in America, but Americans certainly commented on it. The Anglophone media initially referred to them as “climate protesters,” which made everyone think they were just some blue haired weirdos “raising awareness” about a global issue. In reality, Panama has had enormous protests about a copper mine, which brings up all sorts of issues not only about the environment, but about sovereignty, corruption, and what kind of economic future they want their country to have. The victims were public school teachers, who were more like striking workers than “activists.”
Many American conservatives expressed absolute rage at the premise of a protest ever blocking roads. Some libertarians even joined in, which is funny given that libertarians famously hate the roads, and of course know that they are not private property. It was impossible to talk sense to anyone obsessed with the “get out of the road!” aspect of the situation. What other activities that slow traffic justify getting out of your car and start shooting? Bike races? Farmers? Construction flaggers? Children crossing the street to go to school? Though in reality hypocrisy would probably carry them through, one wonders if such people can ever be allies in the fight for freedom, since they seem to believe that no cause ever justifies disrupting traffic or damaging the economy. I don’t even want to know what response one would get playing the Boston Tea Party card on this topic—that certainly disrupted commerce and harmed the economy.
All three protests described above arose from legitimate grievances. Though protests never go perfectly, they release important humors within a state and show the feelings of the public. Any large body of protesters should have their concerns considered in a country where the people are meant to be sovereign. It is an absurd standard that protests should always have to “follow all the rules,” especially as people are normally protesting against the rules, in one way or another. It was certainly a violation of both private property rights and the law for civil rights protesters to do sit-ins that occupied “Whites Only” businesses, and at the time they faced all of the same criticisms.
Those protests have simply attained a sort of mythical status where they are seen as being done “right” because they are in the past and already won. People always say they would have been on the right side of yesterday’s battles. Those of us who love liberty, or claim to, should probably leave some room for protesters expressing their political rights, lest we end up on the wrong side of today’s battles. It’s unpopular to talk about the “cost of freedom,” as the government used such words to justify our kids pointlessly dying in the Middle East. But some things really are the cost of freedom, and sometimes being annoyed by protests is one of them.