In Minneapolis, rioters protesting the killing of George Floyd damaged more than 570 buildings and burned 67 businesses to the ground, many of them minority-owned. In my city of Denver, rioters targeted a pedestrian mall near the state capitol, as well as museums and the public library, smashing windows, defacing statues, and spray-painting graffiti.
I’m old enough to remember similar scenes from my former city, Chicago. A band of young radicals known as the Weathermen joined with Black Panthers and anti-war groups in 1969 to sponsor “Days of Rage” in downtown Chicago. They blew up a statue, smashed cars and windows in a posh Gold Coast neighborhood, and made it to the Drake Hotel, where a massive police force pushed them back.
After the Black Panthers disassociated themselves from such anarchism, the movement divided and the Weathermen went underground. Over the next few years they set off bombs in such places as the U.S. Capitol building, the Pentagon, and the Department of State. Several leaders died in clashes with police and in a bomb-making accident, and some survivors are still serving out life sentences in prison.
The saga of the Weathermen offers a cautionary tale. George Floyd’s death was an outrageous injustice, one that rightly calls for anger and protest. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I have learned to use my anger for good…It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.”
The Weathermen, too, staged their Days of Rage as a protest, against the injustices of racism, inequality, and the Vietnam war. But protests that begin with a noble cause may even produce the opposite of their intended effect, because of the chaos that ensues. And as history records, no government from the right or from the left will long tolerate anarchy.
Is there any hope for our divided nation? Now that iniquity has been exposed, must we return to adversarial politics and slogans screamed at each other across barricades? If not, how can we make progress in tackling injustice?
In a recent article in Time magazine, author and activist Van Jones, a CNN contributor, presents a formula for working with “the other side.” A self-described leftist, he was dismayed by Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Nevertheless, he decided that simply opposing Trump would not solve the underlying social problems that helped fuel his election. “Should I stop trying to alleviate suffering in both red counties and blue cities to focus instead on discrediting [Trump]?” he asked.
Jones chose one issue, criminal justice, and worked with such unlikely allies as Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers to craft a landmark bill on prison and sentencing reform. The President himself rallied Republican support for the bill. In the process, Jones learned several key principles, which I’ve adapted:
1) Pay less attention to the politics at the top and more attention to the pain at the bottom. Jones deliberately chose a hard problem, one that nobody has been able to solve. Addiction, racism, mental health, homelessness—these are intractable problems with no easy solution. Only the best people on either side will touch them, he found, so you’ll start out with great partners to work with.
2) Separate battleground issues from common-ground issues. Dag Hammarskjöld, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations during the tensest days of the Cold War, explained that in dealing with adversaries he would begin by searching for the smallest point of common ground. Van Jones discovered he could work with libertarians and conservatives on criminal justice issues, which everyone agreed was a problem, while avoiding a fight with them on battleground issues such as climate change or tax policy.
(After listening to an interview with Jones, I did a quick scan of the Gospels. I wish I had been present at some of the private conversations among Jesus’ disciples. For example, Simon the Zealot had advocated violent rebellion against Roman occupiers, while Matthew had collaborated with those very occupiers by collecting taxes on their behalf. Somehow Jesus kept twelve disparate followers focused on issues they shared in common.)
3) Strive for long-term results, not complete agreement. “Don’t convert,” says Jones; “Cooperate!” Politics can be messy, and rarely satisfies all parties. Although committed to emancipation, Abraham Lincoln tackled the issue of slavery in gradual stages, first proposing compromises that were more acceptable to his adversaries. Working with Congress, Lyndon Johnson won key votes for Civil Rights legislation by flattery, intimidation, cajoling, and the promise of government contracts.
In the early years after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement fixated on overturning the ruling and getting a complete ban on abortions. When that proved impossible, they found other methods, such as counseling centers and restrictions on late-term abortions. The annual number of abortions has since been halved.
4) Treat adversaries with respect. Try to appeal to their best instincts, urging them to honor their own principles rather than scolding them for failing to meet yours.
I cringe every time I hear President Trump use words like thugs, deranged, human scum, and enemies of the people to describe his opponents. Not only does he demean the office of the president, he also greatly decreases the likelihood of working with those opponents in the future.
We are living in troubled times, with an economy ravaged by a virus, and protests reminding us daily of a racial divide. Our nation desperately needs to come together. In a statement issued in response to the George Floyd protests, former President George W. Bush said, “The heroes of America—from Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King, Jr.—are heroes of unity. Their calling has never been for the fainthearted. They often revealed the nation’s disturbing bigotry and exploitation—stains on our character sometimes difficult for the American majority to examine. We can only see the reality of America’s need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed, and disenfranchised.”
“Daddy changed the world!” said George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter in a video that went viral. Whether that proves true remains to be seen. Floyd’s death did, however, open the world’s eyes to how far we fall short of the American ideal that all people are created equal with rights endowed by God.
Former President Bush concluded his statement by saying, “We love our neighbors as ourselves when we treat them as equals, in both protection and compassion. There is a better way—the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.”
Truthfully, I don’t have that same confidence…yet. But I’m praying for it, and committed to working toward it.