July 1, 2020
One week ago on Wednesday, while visiting relatives in the Washington area, I decided to drive downtown and see the Black Lives Matter protests for myself. Little did I know that there had been some violent clashes on Tuesday, as a group of people tried to pull down the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. That morning, police extended the barrier of security fences, so that now you can't even get within one block of Lafayette Park. That explained my puzzlement as to why most of the office buildings in that neighborhood had boarded up all the windows on the first floor.
Fortunately, the situation in Washington never got as bad as in Seattle, where days of rioting led to the establishment of an "autonomous zone" from which the police were denied access until today. It was an anarchist's dream come true. After weeks of indecision, city leaders in Seattle gave orders to remove the insurrectionists from their enclave. Here in Virginia, the state capital of Richmond has been under siege by rioters who have toppled Confederate monuments while the city government just fiddled. (Today the new state law allowing for removal of such statues went into effect, and they wasted no time.) Such acquiescence is mob violence is an absolute disgrace, but that's a topic for another day.
My other main sightseeing objective that day was to see the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial up close for the first time, but all the parking near the mall was closed in preparation for the July 4 celebrations. As we were driving along Independence Avenue, we encountered a caravan of vehicles carrying signs in support of immigrant rights. A truck full of protesters had a sign along the side with the iconic graffiti art of George Floyd, the black man who died in May after the police officer in Minneapolis (Derek Chauvin) pinned his neck to the street for over eight minutes. Future historians may regard that one episode as the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, unleashing a tidal wave of pent-up grievances among black people. The sign quoted Martin Luther King: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," highlighting the solidarity between the immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter movements. That protest caravan failed to get much press coverage, however.
The three of us entered the newly named "Black Lives Matter Plaza," which consists of the two blocks of 16th Street NW between K Street and H Street. The street has the words "Black Lives Matter" painted in huge yellow letters on the asphalt, and the sidewalks are lined with T-shirt vendors. I was merely a curious impartial observer, and didn't express any support or opposition to what was going on. There was no anger or hostility expressed by any of the hundred or so protesters that I saw. Likewise, the police were restrained and professional in enforcing the closed portion of 16th Street. Some of the signs held up by protesters were either harsh or rude, but that's fairly normal. After a while, we headed back home.
It was exactly one month ago (June 1) that orders were given to clear protesters who had been occupying Lafayette Park from the vicinity of St. John's Episcopal Church so that President Trump could have a brief photo op in which he ostentatiously held up a Bible in front of the church. What was the point he was trying to make? The infamous show of shallow religiosity elicited sharp rebukes from the parish priests, from Bishop of the Diocese of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde, and even from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. If the President thought that little stunt would boost his popularity, he seems to have been greatly mistaken. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, later expressed regret for accompanying Trump on the stroll, as did Secretary of Defense Mike Esper. Even though President Trump actively courts the votes of Christian conservatives, as exemplified by his speech at Liberty University during the spring of 2016, he has generally refrained from overtly cloaking himself in religious symbols. For what it's worth, I was surprised to learn a year or so ago that President Trump considers himself a member of the Presbyterian Church.
As a rhetorical slogan, "Black Lives Matter" is brilliantly effective. The problem is that BLM is both an affirmation of a simple principle (with which almost everyone agrees) and a political movement tied to certain organizers (with which many people disagree). If you oppose the BLM movement, do you think that black lives do not matter? Of course not. But under our contemporary conditions bordering on hysteria, anyone who speaks out against BLM risks sharp hostility and/or ostracism.
In some ways like the Tea Party movement, which spawned a variety of organizations and associated websites, it is hard to pin down the identity of "Black Lives Matter." The most prominent website seems to be blacklivesmatter.com, through which donations are handled by actblue.com, which is a fundraising subunit of the Democratic Party; hat tip to Stacey Morris. The movement got started in 2013 after George Zimmerman, the self-styled neighborhood watch guy who killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, was acquitted of murder charges. As more such incidents took place in the years that followed, the movement gained strength. Quoting from that BLM website, here are the names and descritptions of the three co-founders:
The common thread uniting these leaders is a left-wing ideology that prioritizes forging political alliances with other causes such as LGBTQ, rather than pursuing reforms in police departments which are the crux of the problem that led to the current crisis. Indeed, Patrisse Khan-Cullors acknowledged that she and her comrades are "trained Marxists." (See the interview on youtube.com.) I also found blacklivesmatter.org, but that website has no clear organizational identity, just a series of video clips and a fund-raising portal.
I'm a person who has long been firmly committed to resisting the forces of polarization in this country, and I am leery of any peer pressure to join a putative "social justice" cause. Do I support vigorous reforms of police forces across the country and serious dialogue about racial issues? Absolutely, yes. Am I going to become "woke" about racism in America as portrayed by leftists and join their glorious March of Progress? No, thank you. For me, the golden standard is whether a given political leader or group serves to promote greater national unity and reconciliation, or brings about more divisiveness. Those who agitate on behalf of perceived grievances invariably do the latter. For me, failure to unequivocally condemn rampant street violence as utterly unjustified is a sign of moral bankruptcy, and the current situation puts moderate Democrats (especially Joe Biden) and civil rights leaders in a very tight spot. I am extremely skeptical of any movement with ties to extremist ideologies, and based on what I know, I fear that Black Lives Matter is liable to do more harm than good.
Black Lives Matter seems to have a parallel ideology to the 1619 Project, which got underway nearly a year ago in the New York Times Magazine as a scholarly and activist push to reshape how American history is taught and understood. That project will be the subject of a future blog post.