Half a century after civil rights leaders affected change through peaceful protests, a new generation of protesters is questioning whether violence is an appropriate response to what many consider hateful rhetoric spread alongside President Donald Trump’s rise to power.
For decades, anarchist protesters have shattered windows and set fires at a contingent of larger demonstrations in the East Bay. But the destruction came into the spotlight earlier this month when protesters at UC Berkeley used “any means necessary” to disrupt the scheduled speech of right-wing provocateur and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
Protesters dubbed the demonstration a success. “A few broken windows is nothing compared to the lives that are at stake,” protest organizer Yvette Felarca of By Any Means Necessary later told KTVU as justification for the property damage.
The chaos, which included fireworks, a bonfire and shattered glass, played into a larger narrative in conservative media of “left-wing violence” in the wake of the presidential election. One protester slugged Richard Spencer, a leader of the so-called “alt-right” white nationalist movement, in the head on Inauguration Day during a stand-up interview in Washington, D.C.
The viral video set off a discussion on social media about the ethics of punching a Nazi, since Spencer has been likened to one (in November, the Atlantic published video of Spencer saluting a crowd in Washington, D.C., with “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!)
Responding to shifting protest tactics, the old guard of change advised the youths of today — particularly people under the age of 30 — to remain peaceful.
Clarence Jones, the former advisor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said during a Black History Month event in San Francisco last week with the Rev. Jesse Jackson that young people are “questioning the current appropriateness, the current efficacy, of nonviolence.”
“It worked then but it doesn’t work now cause the new kind of circumstances,” Jones said, referring to current thought on protesting the alt-right and Trump. “You can only be nonviolent up to a point, and then you gotta show this man what you mean.”
But Jackson, a civil rights leader and political activist, argued that nonviolence is the most practical — and also “morally direct” — form of protest.
“Massive, nonviolent resistance works,” Jackson said. “Marching is a weapon. Litigation, legislation, education, registration, fighting physically — all of these are weapons. But use a weapon that works.”
Some students at UC Berkeley believe the destructive tactics from last week worked. On Feb. 7, Berkeley student newspaper The Daily Californian ran a series of opinion pieces in support of “violence as self-defense.”
“My campus did nothing to stand between my undocumented community and the hateful hands of radicalized white men,” wrote Juan Prieto, a UC Berkeley student. “A peaceful protest was not going to cancel that event.”
“Only the destruction of glass and shooting of fireworks did that,” Prieto wrote.
Jason McDaniel, a professor of politics at San Francisco State University, sided with Jackson in an interview Thursday.
“[Trump] is unprecedented in many ways in terms of his incompetence and cruelty,” McDaniel said. “But he’s not immune to some of the political pressures that we know about in these countries.”
McDaniel pointed to more recent events than Rosa Parks sitting on a bus or the Selma to Montgomery marches as successful demonstrations that did not require violence or destruction.
The massive occupation of airports across the country at the end of January put pressure on local and state authorities to oppose Trump’s travel ban, affecting the ability of Customs and Border Protection officers to do their jobs.
And on Jan. 20, the massive Women’s Marches drew crowds estimated to be larger than the Inauguration itself in cities across the nation, bringing together wide swaths of people who opposed the president’s views on women’s issues.
“At the end of the day you must be driven by hope and love, not by cynicism and despair,” Jackson said.
“We’re going to survive this period, too.”