Activism, Politics

When Two Tribes Go To War

I found the theatrics almost comical at the Freedom Rally at the University of Washington on February 10, but I couldn’t ignore the disturbing breakdown of the social bonds that normally allow us to explore a controversy rather than create one. Our official motto is “lux sit” (“let there be light”) and, back in 2016, our university president Ana Mari Cauce wrote, “Let us strive to create light, not just heat, even when our dialogues are heated and positions passionately held.”  Unfortunately, we failed.

Our university gained notoriety in January of 2017 when the UW College Republicans invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak and a melee between protestors and counter-protestors got out of hand, leaving one person shot and several others injured. The university was understandably concerned about potential problems when the College Republicans invited a group called Patriot Prayer to speak at a rally on Red Square (so named, as legend has it, primarily for the red brick tile but also perhaps a nod to political leanings on campus).

In the days leading up to the event, the university issued unusually strong warnings to all UW community members to avoid Red Square after the UWPD obtained credible information that outside groups intended to instigate violence. A number of events planned for that day, including some in celebration of Black History Month, were canceled. The university also decided to charge the student group a $17,000 security fee. That fee was temporarily suspended by a federal judge on first amendment grounds, although the final decision is still pending.

The outcome for Milo last year was predictable because he is a provocateur who, by his own admission, makes outrageous statements to upset people. But I couldn’t tell at first why Patriot Prayer would generate so much hostility. They do not have a public web page and they do not list any principles or issues on their Facebook page. Their leader Joey Gibson makes many statements, but it is not clear whether he is speaking as an individual or describing the goals of the group. Their most common themes are a desire for smaller government, support for Donald Trump, and fighting for free speech.

Their raison d’être seems to be making large crowds of people angry. When you watch video footage of what they say and how they interact with audience members they seem to be spoiling for a fight, although they intentionally practice a variation of nonviolent protest that they attribute to the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They are more famous for being considered infamous than for any actual claims or deeds.

That didn’t stop the opposition from deciding what Patriot Prayer stands for. The most common and most inaccurate complaint was that they are racist and affiliated with white nationalists.  “Say it loud, say it clear, racists are not welcome here,” the protesting crowd chanted along with, “Racists, bigots, antigay, Nazi bigots go away.” A protestor interviewed by KOMO-4 News opined that the “Make America Great Again” hats worn by Patriot Prayer really mean “Make America White Again” and accused the rally organisers and attendees of racial ‘dog whistling.’

Nothing that was said at the rally indicated racism or support for white nationalists. One of the most moving speeches came from a young woman who lives near Seattle who said, “I’m a black woman, I’m bisexual, I’m a supporter.” She went on: “I realized that I actually share more in common with Trump than I do with Hillary Clinton and Obama,” noting that, “we have a lot of the same values,” including support for a southern border wall, a policy of ‘America first,’ support for America’s troops, and support for law enforcement. She mocked the “fascists on the other side of the fence” for calling them bigots and claimed that Antifa had beaten up two people “just for wearing an American flag.”

Patriot Prayer, meanwhile, had their own cartoonish characterization of the other side. Joey Gibson described UW as “a campus that is filled with wannabe Communists; that is filled with professors that is constantly trying to preach Communism and Marxist ideology, and yet deny it at the same time.” One protestor was holding up a Soviet flag, but Gibson came closer to the mark when he described the campus as being filled with Bernie supporters who are flirting with socialism. Most of the chants from protestors were about racism and immigration, although there was the occasional economic themed chant, as in, “Tax the rich! Feed the poor! Send the bigots out the door!”

If I were keeping score, I would give a win to the protestors for bringing out ten times as many supporters as the rally supporters generated. But, in terms of inspirational rhetoric, the win goes to Patriot Prayer for a series of speakers who gave passionate defenses of freedom and the power that individuals have when they are free of government. The protestors offered a Soviet flag, several people burned sage, an American flag was torn and torched, and a crowd of people chanted simplistic slogans that staked out political territory without providing any rationale for their views.

The substantial police presence (dozens of officers) prevented violence for the most part, but also virtually guaranteed that there would be no possibility of dialogue as the rally participants were fenced into a small area. I barely got into that area because the police weren’t allowing people to enter unless some member of the group vouched for you. The police barricade served as a symbolic reminder of the gulf between the two opposing sides, but I noticed three other examples of a broader fraying of social connection: distrust of government, an assumption of hypocrisy by both sides on the part of their opponents, and a commitment to increased conflict in the future.

Patriot Prayer had the usual anti-government rhetoric one would expect from a right-wing libertarian group, denouncing liberals who overtax, over-regulate, and indoctrinate the young in state-supported schools. A few of their members talked about the wider patriot movement (rancher Clive Bundy’s 2014 standoff with the government and the 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon). The protestors talked mostly about Trump and Pence and their use of power to pursue policies that they perceive to be fascist, particularly with respect to immigration. I was handed a flyer distributed by a group called Refuse Fascism that read, “This Nightmare Must End: The Trump/Pence Regime Must Go! In The Name of Humanity We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!”

Meaningful dialogue requires at least a modicum of respect, so it was disheartening to see both sides accusing the other of saying one thing but meaning something else. Patriot Prayer denounced racism but the protestors claimed that they were racists no matter what they said. The protestors were mostly anti-Trump progressives with a hint of a socialist agenda, and yet Joey Gibson described them as Communists infused with Marxist ideology who “deny it at the same time” and denounced Seattle for various sins including electing a Communist to its city council (presumably a reference to Kshama Sawant who is a socialist).

Most disturbing was the hint of more conflict to come. Joey Gibson said, “I’ve been pretty nice to liberals…[but] my patience is running thin.” He promised a “huge announcement” at an upcoming event and described the rally supporters as being at “ground zero, behind enemy lines.” He added that, “All of the hate you get is because you’re doing something right for the man above.” In other words, this conflict has become more than just a discussion of political ideologies – it is now a crusade.

On the other side, dozens of students covered their mouths with bandanas to indicate solidarity with Antifa. Even before the rally took place, the College Republicans encountered this sense of rage when a young woman shouted at them as they put up posters for the event. The short video of the confrontation posted on the College Republicans’ Facebook page is worth watching, but the most ominous remark was, “The people who come out in masks with bats, they’re people like me who’re tired of being hurt their whole fucking lives by white men.”

On the plus side, the turnout was small on both sides, so the rally does not indicate large numbers involved in cultural conflict at UW, and the police managed to avoid significant violence with just five people detained when they got into a tussle. On the minus side, we as a university failed to engender a useful exchange of ideas. Perhaps that was inevitable with both sides interested more in political theater than in a serious discussion of issues. Nevertheless, the intensity of the two sides does not bode well for the future. I saw no light, only darkness, and no sign that any coming together is likely to happen any time soon.

 

Stuart Reges is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Washington where he manages the introductory computer science classes at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

Filed under: Activism, Politics

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Stuart Reges is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Washington where he manages the introductory computer science classes at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

13 Comments

  1. Joseph E. Davis says

    I like the fairness in the way this is written. So unusual.

  2. Alex says

    Republican and Democrats are at the hands of their own monsters.

    Monster: figuratively “repulsive character, object of dread”. From root of monere “to admonish, warn, advice” suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.”

    Clinton and Trump are two monsters, in the literal sense of it. Not the kind that eats babies, but amoral individuals that years of partisanship, and ideological absolutism have created. There’s nothing they won’t do to meet an end.

    “One makes war to win, not because it’s just” (Michel Foucault, commenting on Chomsky disagreements with PoMo’s goals)

    A monster is “us”, a warning of us, a deformed vision of us, but us nonetheless. The reasons why those events have been treated as counter-cyclic, epiphenomena, solvable through dialog is beyond me. There’s no turning back to ‘the way before’. A society with slightly different institutions may or may not emerge, but the idea that the way it was ‘before’ is what’s needed is just plain farce.

    I’m still puzzled, what will it take for the BretWeinstein, Jonathan Haidt, Harris to figure this out? I’m especially troubled by Bret Weinstein’s reaction, considering his background. If a species claims a territory, using any means necessary, and the other side is only asking for peaceful dialog, what in the world would you expect to happen?

    The article is great at laying out facts, but the author needs far more serious work to find any useful meaning from them. Tocqueville & Washington would be a good start.

  3. Laura says

    I’m not sure whether both sides are equally at fault for creating an environment that makes dialogue impossible. A few simple questions will illuminate my point. Who came with their faces hidden? Who brought bats to use as a weapon? Who threatened to disrupt the event before it had even started? Why was a police presence necessary? I could go on, but by now you should get where I’m going. Personally, I’d feel more comfortable talking to the black bisexual woman than the covered antifa dude with a bat.

    • Well, Reges is still employed at UW and even with all of his both sides are at fault equivocation and ritualistic damning of Republicans and all who would sail in her, he’s still talking heresy.

  4. While I agree that mindless demonization of one’s opponents is harmful to meaningful dialogue, I must also reluctantly agree that there is a war being waged, and one side has the decided advantage, owns all the weapons, owns the mindless, and started it.

    Truth is knowable, if tedious to discover, and even when known does not guarantee victory over its enemies. It’s a sad and thankless task to continually stand athwart history and shout, “Stop! This is madness!” but there is a dark tendency to ameliorate Socialism as a harmless political marijuana, and scoff at it being the gateway drug to Communism.

    While we’re all being ever-so-reasonable and hoping for Light, we really and truly do have a duty to denounce the darkness. Even if it makes us uncool. You cannot have it both ways. Either Socialism and Communism has killed and continues to kill millions, or one is deluded by overmuch education.

  5. Andy Ngo says

    Fascinating. Thank you for writing this first-hand account.

  6. ian charboneau says

    “The protestors were mostly anti-Trump progressives with a hint of a socialist agenda,”
    This is a bizarre statement, the campus left is openly communist

    and the belief that socialism leads anywhere but communism seems like a deluded fantasy with every bit of evidence pointed the other way

  7. ga gamba says

    What appears to be an even-handed account of the day’s events is actually clever subterfuge. The intent is create a distinction between so-called productive discourse and discourse that is not, and to imply that because nothing meaningful was accomplished such types of speech provide nothing but disheartening failure. This piece is a veiled criticism of free speech. The First Amendment makes no such distinction, allowing the many forms of speech including mocking, ridicule, parody, cursing, mindless sloganeering, etc. It doesn’t not allow incitement of imminent violence – actual violence, not the make-believe “violence” of words.

    Meaningful dialogue requires at least a modicum of respect, so it was disheartening to see both sides accusing the other of saying one thing but meaning something else. (Bold text mine.)

    We see such a gambit used by those opposed to free speech. They state their opponents “don’t have the facts”, aren’t genuinely interested in “a productive dialogue”, are “irresponsible”, yada yada. “We cherish free speech”, they proclaim, “but those other guys fail to adequately capture the complexity of the nature of the issues at stake. We can’t have that here in the space of seriousness.” What kind of double talk is this? Isn’t speech the tool that allows people to capture the complexity of the nature of the issues at stake? How will those ignorant plebs have their Road to Damascus moment when speech is restricted? “Sorry, no education here at the educational institution.” Good grief!

    Not all conflict is reconcilable. Impasses exist. Speech many not always find an answer, but even in this failure the right to it fundamental. Establishing a kind of speech pecking order of meaningful and unmeaningful is pernicious.

    Their raison d’être seems to be making large crowds of people angry. When you watch video footage of what they say and how they interact with audience members they seem to be spoiling for a fight, although they intentionally practice a variation of nonviolent protest that they attribute to the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

    No, people choose to become angry and they also choose what to do with it. I know, astonishing!

    Now, if a person has trouble with his/her emotional maturity, s/he may do many things, for example not attend a rally where what the person deems to be emotively triggering language is used. I suspect many are like junkies, attending these events to get an emotional high and then later going online to regale their public of their trauma to seek comfort and praise.

    The university also decided to charge the student group a $17,000 security fee. That fee was temporarily suspended by a federal judge on first amendment grounds, although the final decision is still pending.

    Oh, so now people have to pay money, above and beyond the tax paid already, to exercise their Constitutionally protected rights? Who doesn’t appreciate the irony of progressives who bitterly complain about the wealthy’s speech privileges using their institutional power to establish rules further privileging the rich? When one has to pay extra your rights are no longer guaranteed; they’re up for sale.

    Both state and federal courts have ruled numerous times in favour of students’ speech rights, so the precedent wasn’t set a fortnight ago. Often courts fine the violators, yet the uni admin keep employing this tactic. Why? No consequences experienced by the perpetrators. The taxpayers are stuck with the fines and the uni admin go on their merry ways. Legislators need to deal with such cavalier disregard of the First Amendment by enacting laws docking uni admins’ pay for the fines and legal fees. They’ll wake up real quick when it’s their wallet being emptied. Judges ought to toss admin into jail for a week or two for contempt of court. To pay for additional policing arrest those who breach the law, charge rather than release them, and, if found guilty, fine them. To deal with private unis who may violate speech, the federal and state governments should withhold money funding research until unequivocal policies are written and enforcement demonstrated – as a template use Obama’s Dear Colleagues letter that compelled Title IX enforcement.

    • Ga Gamba

      University administration is responsible for… a LOT of things related to the current political situation… much has been written about these things. What they are ultimately responsible for is the safety of the campus. The fact is that these events have a great potential for chaos. Chaos that can turn into bodily harm that would be ‘on their watch’. You cannot fault them for having to provide an appropriate security detail based on the event.

      • ga gamba says

        What they are ultimately responsible for is the safety of the campus.

        Yes, and they then charge some students more to be protected. Is such a two-tier system permissible? Talk about victim blaming.

        The chaos you mention has been created in large part by the schools’ inaction and often its tacit support of those who are perpetrating it. They may protest peacefully. When they cross the line to violence the uni must sanction by filing criminal complaints and expelling. Repeat this a few times and the protesters will learn there are consequences for their violence and will modify their behaviour. “But they’re young!” Yes, young adults. If someone hasn’t learnt by the age of 18 how to behave properly then sterner measures need to be taken, such as prosecutions.

        You cannot fault them for having to provide an appropriate security detail based on the event.

        I haven’t faulted them for providing security. I fault them for levying additional and oppressively expensive fees on certain students to provide security whilst handling the perps with kid gloves. I also fault them for wasting the taxpayers’ money hiring lawyers and paying fines in no-win cases – the courts have been clear and consistent. The students have already paid their fees and are also taxpayers. The social contract is we pay into the system prior so it’s available when needed.

        Uni admins use this gambit as a way to squash these events. The courts have seen right through this ruse and have fined schools for doing so. Yet, the admins keep employing it because the fine is paid by others – taxpayers. Once they experience consequences personally they’ll modify their actions. Those who perpetrate violence ought to pay for the supplemental police service their own threats and actions demand. Fine them heavily to build up a pool of funds to pay for future overtime.

  8. fneamtu says

    Here’s the thing:

    The ‘progressives’ GO TO libertarian (or alt right, or conservative) rallies to disrupt it and be violent.

    The reverse is not true.

    To overlook this major dynamic is to fundamentally misapprehend the conflict here.

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