Every bullet, head-stomp, and crosshair-map is another gift. Let media rationalize with false equivalencies while they may, for a new era of nonviolent activism and resistance beckons. Exposing the reactionaries of our time will require courage, commitment, and unwavering devotion to the truth. During 2010, I documented a series of progressive actions that leave me convinced this is more than possible, that in fact a historical cycle is emerging and points the way forward through the tide of tea.
Much more after a video and the jump...
For me, the nadir of American political discourse came in April as I watched the Tea Party Express perform underneath a full-scale mock-up of the Space Shuttle. Mark Williams, who would later resign from TPE in disgrace after posting a racist 'letter' from former slaves to Abraham Lincoln at his website, proclaimed the tea party "a human rights movement." Speakers repeated the ridiculous claim that two million people had attended the September 12, 2009 tea party in Washington, DC. Focusing the crowd on midterm elections, presenters called on them to "flip this house;" then Victoria Jackson came onstage for a ukulele-driven clown show.
All of this was punctuated by calls to sign petitions against Obamacare. Coming on the heels of a season in which progressive action had lagged behind, caught flat-footed by gun-toting tea party organizing, it was a surreal and dispiriting experience. I recognized the lineage of what I was seeing: Cleon Skousen's 5000-Year Leap shared a table with Williams' book, which was drawn from his years as a hate radio talker. The signs -- ranging from a John Galt references to pious jingoism to outright paranoid fantasia -- had the familiar density and incoherence of anti-busing rallies in the 1970s. Those rallies also featured tricorner hats.
But the most telling presence that day was the National Rifle Association booth. The gun-bearing demonstrators at town halls in the summer of 2009 confirmed this movement as an armed resistance; an explosion of eliminationist rhetoric from politicians and activists inflamed the reactionary mob. The shooting in Arizona yesterday that killed John Roll, Arizona's chief federal judge, and wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords was probably inevitable in an environment where Rand Paul and Allen West pay no price for violence and intimidation by their supporters.
Something did start to change last year, however. The month of May saw spontaneous protests against BP, with worldwide attention to coordinated actions in June that took place in dozens of American cities. Curious to see progressive organizing in action after attending so many tea party events, I attended the BP protest in Birmingham and was not disappointed. The temperature was 95 degrees Fahrenheit -- a sticky, Alabama heat that did not discourage the diverse attendees. It was very different from the tea party rallies I had covered. The signs all bore correct spelling; everyone talked about real problems instead of imaginary ones. While the people who spoke into my camera were not afraid to call the president to task, they saw BP, and not just a president or a government, as power to be confronted.
While tea parties make a great noise about freedom and individual liberty, what I had seen under the Space Shuttle was the worship of power. Glenn Beck's rally on the mall last year is another example: by extolling the monuments around him with pious reverence, Beck spoke to an audience for whom religion and politics are decidedly not separate. How much the better, then, that 'social justice' Christianity is so common at progressive events -- for example, all the crosses in hand at September's Appalachia Rising (covered here). Witnessing an act of mass civil disobedience for the first time, it dawned on me that I had never seen or even heard of a tea party that ended in arrests.
Appalachia Rising, on the other hand, was led by some of the most courageous people one could ever hope to meet. Mountaintop removal activists are subject to threats, intimidation, and even violence by coal's powerful defenders. Don Blankenship amped their rage in 2009 with the "Friends of America" rally headlined by Ted Nugent, perhaps the most easily-identified gun enthusiast on the planet. Activists who get arrested in West Virginia can see six-figure bail while those who assault them are ordered into anger management. Call Bob Kincaid some night and ask him whether Judy Bonds, who died last week, was a profile in courage. At least once in every show he will remind listeners that the people of Coal River Mountain Watch, Bonds' seminal organization, are the bravest people he knows.
November brought another opportunity at the School of the Americas Watch. While attendance was down this year from previous ones, the nation's longest-running peace action ended in spectacular fashion as only (!) two people attempted to jump the fence into Ft. Benning -- and Columbus police arrested twenty-two people, including an RT America news crew, as they left the free speech zone. This resulted in a jailhouse solidarity two hours later. Some two hundred people, mostly young, walked ten blocks to the Muscogee County jail to stand across the street clapping, singing, and banging on a drum until ordered to disperse. After spending the entire day observed and fenced on all sides, they were followed back to the convention center by a helicopter.
December saw Veterans For Peace leading an antiwar protest in front of the White House. This time, a crowd of about three hundred people endured a frozen Thermopylae of sorts, assembling in Lafayette Park just as an inch of swirling snow began to fall. One hundred and thirty five of them chose to stand in the arrest zone in a "first stand" against permanent war. Watching Chris Hedges deliver a brilliant oration on the necessity of nonviolent resistance, it occurred to me that all three of these civil disobedience actions had involved poetry. Aside from occasional awkward lyrics, poetry is distinctly absent from tea parties. I still have the faded Red Sox hat that protected my camera from rain and snow; if anyone can find me the Pulitzer prizewinning tea party poet laureate, I will eat it.
Courageous, creative nonviolence is already happening. To be sure, it isn't clear that disparate forces can find common cause: Veterans For Peace recognizes that sixty green jobs cost as much as one soldier's deployment to Afghanistan. Can they make common cause with unions? Appalachia Rising would like to talk about green jobs, too. But what of the civil rights organizations? It is by no means certain that these groups can coalesce, but I've never been more sure of the timing. From this moment forward, every gun incident or assault or imprecation by the tea party makes them look like the bad guy. The iron is hot; progressives ought to strike it.
Writing at the New York Times today, Matt Bai falsely equates an unfortunate phrase in one Daily Kos diary to Sarah Palin's target-map: "the question," he suggests, "is whether Saturday’s shooting marks the logical end point of such a moment — or rather the beginning of a terrifying new one." But that is not the question. By returning hate with love, can a new movement change the landscape of American politics -- and put the lie to media blather about "both sides"? That's a far better question, and one to which I hope the answer is yes, we can.