Radicalism and protest movements

tsj column writers - power and politicsIf one watches TV, it is impossible to avoid coverage of streets saturated with people: marches, arrests, interstates shut down. Some opponents have been critical of these protests, saying the protesters should “get jobs” and “stop defending thugs.” Decrying the protest tactics is the antithesis of what makes this country great and lacks historical knowledge. Those who make such comments should be ashamed.

All individuals in civil rights movements start out as agitators. They are the ones that say something is wrong with the way America is. They attack the status quo and, dare say, America in some respects is doing the wrong thing. At the time they are almost always attacked as radicals, yet are almost always vindicated by history. They question the authority of government and make no exceptions, including the police and military.

Our country was founded on radical protest and systematically breaking the law. Our founders refused to accept America as a colony. They deliberately agitated the British enforcers of the law. They took it a step further, destroying property and eventually starting a war. Around a third of the country sided with the British and decried what are now our Founding Fathers as radicals.

Later radical abolitionists did all they could to free slaves in the South. They knowingly broke the law and their refusal to accept slavery led to the Civil War and the lancing of America’s original sin: slavery.

The movement for women’s suffrage started with mass arrests at the White House and the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was derided as radical by the body politic and even some feminists of the time. It led to hunger strikes and forced feedings in prisons. The women’s suffrage movement was vindicated by history in 1919 when women were granted the right to vote.

The civil rights movement deliberately agitated racists by violating the law, eating in whites-only parts of diners and being arrested en masse. More militant parts of the movement espoused black power. After years of struggling against Jim Crow laws in the South, these agitators got tangible results: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Like those before them, they were condemned and labeled as radicals.

When Occupy Wall Street surfaced in 2011, Newt Gingrich stated the protesters should “Get a job right after they take a bath.” By any measure, Gingrich has been proven a fool for his assessment. The central cause of Occupy Wall Street, namely wealth inequality, has now become a leading political issue with 70 percent of Americans identifying it as a problem in 2014 exit polls. It propelled an obscure Yale law professor to become the ideological leader of the Democratic Party.

So, I offer to you a radical notion. Radicalism itself is not a bad thing if done for the right reasons. In 1964, Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater stated “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The protesters don Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol, just as our forebears used a tea party, early feminists used Rosie the Riveter and the civil rights movement had a fist in the air. They should be celebrated, not condemned.

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