Demonstrating against something or somebody isn’t as American as apple pie. It’s much more American than a mere pastry.
After all, a person can’t eat apple pie all the time — although I’d like to try that for a week or two sometime. When it comes to griping about something or somebody, though, Americans can, and usually are more or less set in complaining mode.
Just consider our history: The colonists, especially in New England, had all sorts of complaints about British rule, and they often voiced them with public action. Consider the Boston crowd threw stuff at a British sentry to protest against, as you would expect, taxes. This was illogical, since the poor sentry had not enacted the taxes and had zero power to do anything about them, but such mobs often go after the wrong target and end up hurting innocent people.
Anyway, the persecution of the sentry escalated, leading the commander of the British troops to send a squad of soldiers out to protect him. They, in turn, began to fear for their own safety, so they fired into the crowd, killing five Americans.
As you probably remember if you were paying attention in history class, one thing led to another, and pretty soon mobs were tossing barrels of tea into the harbor, publishing fiery pamphlets and taking other actions to protest British governance. Eventually they made the ultimate demonstration of protest — a resolution by the Congress that we call the Declaration of Independence. That kicked off a war that had Americans fighting on both sides and included an incident known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre, an attack on farmers who supported the Declaration. A group of pro-British colonists joined by some Indians and escaped slaves were responsible for the bloodshed.
The war ended with the Americans free of British taxes, but that didn’t end the protesting. In fact, even before the Constitution was written, a guy named Daniel Shays led a rebellion against the new Massachusetts government in protest of — you guessed it — taxes.
That was followed by decades of sometimes violent conflict over slavery, protests of working conditions by laborers, complaints by farmers against railroads and the gold standard and corporations upset by Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting. People demonstrated against U.S. entry into World War I, and after the war, there was more labor unrest as well as protest by anarchists and Communists. During World War II, internees at Heart Mountain protested being drafted while their families were interned and since that war we have experienced demonstrations and protests both for and against racial segregation, nuclear power, war and environmental action.
So it really shouldn’t have surprised people to see a motley crew of protesters marching down the street to oppose the removal of memorials to Confederate heroes and flags in the name of remembering our history, putting an end to Latino and/or Muslim immigration, promoting white supremacy or advocating fascism. Nor should anyone be surprised that there was a counter-demonstration against the march which ended up causing violent confrontations between the two sides. Worse, we should not have been surprised that one demonstrator upped the ante by deliberately running over a counter-demonstrator and killing her.
Now, I’ve always questioned the usefulness of marching or shouting matches that lead to noses being punched, drivers turning their vehicles into weapons or individuals attempting to reenact the climax of the movie “High Noon” using live ammunition. But the First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble and say what you think. And when people do those things in support of a controversial subject, bad things sometimes happen. It would be nice if the Constitution’s writers had mandated that all such speech and assembly be conducted under Robert’s Rules of Order, enforced by a big tough but fair sergeant-at-arms with the power to enforce civility, but they didn’t. And even if they had, it probably wouldn’t have helped, since Americans have an unfortunate habit of calling just about anything that they feel doesn’t benefit them a war on them.
In the case of the events in Virginia, though, had I been there, I would have abandoned my distaste for marches and loud demonstrations and joined the protest against the planned march. While I firmly believe the marchers had the right to march, I believe they were marching in support of beliefs and principles that are contrary to the principles my country stands for. Americans definitely need to speak out against those principles as loudly as we are able.
I’m sure this will anger some, but to me, the theme of the march was transparent. It was spearheaded by the so-called alt-right, a group that advocates for white supremacy, and it was impossible to ignore the many Nazi swastikas that were prominently displayed by some of the marchers. That black twisted cross that once flew over human extermination camps is an egregious symbol of racial, ethnic and religious bigotry, and under that banner, the world endured a vicious war that killed millions. The use of that symbol tells me that those who carried it have no concern for your rights or mine, and would destroy the many freedoms we enjoy as Americans.
There were other instances of violence that day, and it’s possible that some of the counter-demonstrators were guilty of instigating violence. Such actions would be unacceptable. But it would also be unacceptable for those of us who reject tyranny based on race, religion, ethnic origin or any other excuse, to allow a demonstration in such tyranny go unchallenged.
Those who support American ideals have an obligation to make that challenge. It’s the American way.