Pollak: In a Free Society, ‘Peaceful Protest’ Should Strive to Be Lawful, Too

Peaceful protest Los Angeles (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty)
Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

LOS ANGELES — Black Lives Matter protesters and local authorities are congratulating each other because Tuesday and Wednesday’s protests across L.A. have been “peaceful.”

By that, they mean that there were few violent clashes between protesters and police officers, who “took a knee” or raised their fists in solidarity with the cause.

Many of the demonstrators were appeased by these supposedly extraordinary gestures and went home; those who did not were arrested after the curfew.

But what everyone — most of all, the journalists covering these events — seems to have forgotten is that there is a distinction between “peaceful” and “lawful” protest.

The First Amendment gives us the right to assemble and protest. However, we live in a community, which means that other people, who may not share our views or wish to assemble with us, have the same rights. That is why local governments typically require demonstrations to apply for official permission.

The process of obtaining a permit to hold a large and potentially disruptive demonstration is designed to ensure public safety and to protect everyone’s rights. You cannot merely show up repeatedly with hundreds of people, block roads, and say you are being “peaceful.”

There are ambulances on those roads. There are people trying to get to work, or to get home to children. There may even be activists trying to attend a demonstration so they can hold their own “peaceful protest.”

And as we have seen, “peaceful” but unlawful protests can divert the attention of police away from looters, or provide cover for provocateurs who use the crowds to launch violent attacks on law enforcement and even on journalists.

There are times in our history when authorities have, for unjust reasons, denied permits to legitimate public protest. That is where non-violent civil disobedience is appropriate and just.

The iconic civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965 was an unlawful protest, mounted in defiance of state authorities who had beaten non-violent demonstrators in an earlier protest, shooting and killing Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26.

The protesters were entirely peaceful; the only violence came from the police. Future Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) led the demonstrators and suffered a fractured skull as he was beaten by state troopers.

Today, however, we are not living in the Jim Crow South. President Trump himself has supported the cause for which the protestors say they are protesting.

Moreover, the George Floyd protests have hardly been non-violent. Some “protesters” have attacked police and innocent people. Some protests have been accompanied by opportunistic groups of Antifa thugs and determined looters, vandals, and arsonists.

Rather than working with local government or police, demonstrators have imposed their will on entire cities.

While local officials took heart Tuesday that large demonstrations in Los Angeles were “peaceful,” as opposed to the looting and antisemitic pogroms that took place over the weekend (don’t Jewish lives matter?), the entire city had been boarded up and almost the entire population was under house arrest at 6:00 p.m. In Santa Monica, the scene of horrific destruction on Sunday, the curfew was 2:00 p.m.

Everyone else had their rights violated for the protesters’ “rights.”

If your “rights” mean taking everyone else’s rights away, that is not “peaceful protest.” And to compare mob behavior to the civil rights movement is to dishonor its legacy.

Throughout the past week, we have heard politicians and the media cite Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s quip that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” as if he condoned rioting. He did not, and the quote is both selective and misleading.

When he spoke those words, in 1968, Dr. King was explaining riots, but he was not encouraging them.

In fact, moments before, Dr. King declared:

I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results.

There is clearly something wrong with our education system, and something deficient in our popular culture, because in transmitting the lessons of the civil rights struggle to a new generation of Americans, we have emphasized rioting over organizing, confrontation over persuasion.

Dr. King’s method, when he was successful, was to emphasize values Americans had in common. Truly “peaceful protest” must recognize that other people have equal rights under the law.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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