What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander -- Marcus Terentius Varro
I will freely admit to a deep ambivalence about the recent disruption of the Bernie Sanders campaign gathering by members of the organization Black Lives Matter (BLM) at Westlake. On the one hand, recent police shootings and brutalizations in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, etc., and issues like the militarization of police departments, endemic and institutionalized racism in the law enforcement subculture, and – until recently with the advent of ubiquitous video coverage from cell phones and lapel-worn cameras – the lack of visibility, etc., demonstrate to even the most conservative observer that, in too many cases, the police function toward minority communities, not as a “protect-and-serve” cadre, but as … let’s speak frankly … an occupying paramilitary force. So the urgency and passion shown by BLM is understandable. My concern, and the reason I blow hot and cold on the issue, is because disturbances like the one at the Westlake / Bernie Sanders meeting set a dangerous precedent that must not be allowed to continue.
One can argue that the “crashing” of the Sanders rally was a much-needed "thanks-I-needed-that" slap in the face, not only to the community as a whole, but to the progressive community in particular, which has its own skeletons in the closet vis a vis racism, paternalism toward minority communities, and a kind of insularity born of the very white privilege progressives profess to reject. But if one is going to allow organizations like Black Lives Matter to engage in street theater in pursuit of such consciousness-raising activities, then on what basis would one propose to prohibit organizations with different and opposing ideologies and values to do the same?
If it is acceptable for Black Lives Matter to disrupt a Bernie Sanders rally, then on what basis would one oppose, say, the disruption of a Black Lives Matter rally in, say, Ferguson or Baltimore or New York by people who support the police in general … or who at least support specific, discrete police actions in, e.g., the shooting of Michael Brown? (If you think this is a purely fictitious and fanciful possibility, then you have obviously not read, e.g., “The Ferguson Fraud”, Rich Lowry’s November, 2014, piece in Politico, reprinted from The National Review.) Ditto expressions of support for Officer Darren Wilson. And, remember: we are still talking only about the Ferguson shooting. Whether we are discussing Darren Wilson or George Zimmer or Daniel Pantaleo (who used what turned out to be a fatal choke hold to subdue Eric Garner last December in New York), there is substantial support for the actions of police in each of the cases in question – nowhere near universal or unanimous support, but enough to generate what one might call a potential “Blue Lives Also Matter” ("BLAM") movement to oppose BLM. Once the precedent has been set of allowing campaign rallies and political meetings, lawfully convened within the limits of the reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions that apply to all such gatherings, how would one justify prohibiting one group from disrupting the meetings of the other?
If you believe the disruption of the Bernie Sanders rally was justified, or even if you are willing to passively condone it, then you assume the responsibility of answering several salient questions. Specifically …
o On what basis do we decide which meetings are "legitimately interrupt-able" and who the "interrupters" may legitimately be? And who is "we" in the question above? You? Me? The “Skeptics Collection” blog? (No thanks!) Everyone who agrees with us? And who says?
Of course, all these questions assume that the content of the speech in question is such as would be protected by the “abridgement” clause of the First Amendment, anyway – as was certainly the case with everything said, or that was intended to be said, at the Bernie Sanders rally. No divulging of state secrets. No incitement to violence. No “hate speech”. Etc., etc., etc. To rephrase the question: if you are going to allow some meetings / rallies to be interrupted but not others, how do you determine the difference without crossing over into the forbidden territory of viewpoint discrimination? How do you decide which groups get disrupted and which do not on any basis other than that you just don’t like, or your advocacy group doesn’t like, what the offending group is saying? So, e.g., if you are pro-choice, your group can meet and march and speak and rally, but it is quite acceptable for your group, or a like-minded group, to disrupt the meetings and marchings and rallies of the pro-life group across town. And – of course – all in the name of urgency … whose mantle can cover a multitude of sins and justify virtually anything.
o Regardless of how we separate “interruptable” from “non-interruptable” meetings, what process do we follow to implement the consequent actions?
In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, the answer was very simple: you send in a cadre of brown-shirts to bust some heads. The problem is, every group of any appreciable size had such cadres of people: the Christian Democrats, the National Socialists, the Communists, etc., etc., etc. Of course, we would not do that in the States. Germany in the 1920s had been a unified country for less than 50 years … and even then “unified” should be put in double quotes. The US has a 200-plus year tradition of constitutionally sanctioned dissent – though interrupted for five years by the bloodiest war the Nation ever fought. But notwithstanding, we would not bust heads. (However remember: these words are being written by someone whose head was literally busted by Chicago cops during the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.) In any case, if we set the precedent of allowing “due process” and issues of “time, place, and manner” to be determined “in the streets”, then the only way to implement those decisions is by violence of some type, be it physical or verbal. Either that, or we, especially progressives, succumb to a kind of sub rosa practice of Michael Gerson's "soft bigotry of low expectations" when the issue being contended about has, as in the case of BLM at the Sanders rally, a strong racial component.
o Finally … in the case of the groups that are judged to be "interrupt-able", how is one to justify the consequent censorship?
There are cases, of course, where censorship is justified, and where the censored expressions are not, and should not be, protected, e.g., vetting embedded journalists' reports prior to broadcast to ensure, e.g., the confidentiality of troop movements and positions, etc. But it is obvious that Sanders' intended remarks were not of such a nature. Furthermore, Sanders was not only censored, but was subjected to prior restraint, perhaps the most problematical form of censorship: prohibiting speech in advance of its occurrence. Again, yes, there are isolated cases where even this is justified, as in the previous example. But allowing a group of private citizens to impose their own idiosyncratic and impromptu de facto gag order makes the precedent set at Westlake even more dangerous. What was done in the case of Bernie Sanders was no less outrageous than what is done routinely to dissidents in North Korea and the People's Republic of China, yet some progressives defend the former even as they criticize the latter.
All the above having been said, however, there does remain the all-important distinction between justifications and reasons. There is no justification for what happened at the Sanders rally at Westlake. But that is only half the story. The other half of the story -- in many critical ways, the more important half -- pertains, not to justifications, but to reasons. In the form of palm-sized mini-cams, cell phones, and lapel cameras, technology has evolved to the point where we can peer behind the "blue wall" and get a first-hand look at the reality of police-minority relations. What we see is nothing short of alarming. Up until the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, we seem to have been in much the same position as a family of co-dependents who selectively ignore the warnings of the kids about black eyes and bruises on their mother's face. Even the occasional broken bone. Because we had no countervailing, least of all real-time, images, we allowed ourselves to be lulled to complacency into believing that mottos like "Protect and Serve" applied to police relations with minority communities just as it did to police relations with white communities inside our gated suburbs. The reality was that there was a second gated community -- the law-enforcement community -- that was no less exclusive and no less isolated -- if anything, more so -- and inside the gates of that community, "the community of the Badge", a whole culture had been all this time evolving and metastasizing that, founded on an a priori presupposition of "us-versus-them" adversariality, nurtured reciprocal violence and disruption as a consequence of alienation and desperation. More or less by default, and despite being far too polite to say so right out loud, we suburbanites tacitly expected the police to do the 21st-century version of the job the overseers of the old antebellum plantations did for their masters: keep the underclass quiet. Or perhaps we knew, but did not choose to know, did not choose to consciously know. Until Ferguson ... until Baltimore ... until New York ... when technology and the internet made it impossible to not know.
I still maintain that there were no justifications for what happened at the Sanders rally. What happened breathed the poisoned atmosphere of mob law and 1920s Germany. What happened was censorship, even prior restraint. There are no justifications.
But make no mistake: there are reasons. We ignore this distinction at our peril.
James R. Cowles