Confrontation Works

Two New Orleans activists, Freedom Riders Julia Aaron, left, and David Dennis sit on board a bus as they and 25 others on the bus are escorted by two armed Mississippi National Guardsmen on their way from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss.

Robert Kennedy was accustomed to a degree of deference in any setting. Heir to a fortune, brother of the President, and US Attorney General, he walked into his father’s Manhattan apartment to meet with civil rights workers in May of 1963 expecting to control the tone and content of the conversation.

Kennedy had introduced himself to author James Baldwin the day before with a request that Baldwin assemble a group of thinkers to explain the worrying rise of extremism in the black community. The Administration felt it was moving as fast as reasonably possible on civil rights issues, but that advocates were making dangerously unrealistic demands. On short notice, Baldwin was forced to reach beyond the ranks of seasoned civil rights leaders experienced in managing the sensitivities of white politicians, including instead a collection of hardened frontline volunteers. The President’s brother was about to get an unforgettable education.

At first, civil rights figures assembled for the meeting listened patiently as Kennedy chided them over the rise of black nationalism and their impatience in seeking change. He warned that Black Muslims, in particular, were threatening to cause serious trouble. A young CORE volunteer, Jerome Smith, had heard enough, interrupting the Attorney General to explain, “You don’t know what trouble is.”

Smith had volunteered for the most dangerous round of Freedom Rides through Mississippi. He served time in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. He had been beaten repeatedly, but stayed on in the most violent sections of Mississippi organizing protests for the desegregation of bus facilities. As Smith unloaded on the President’s brother, explaining that he’d never consider fighting for the United States and that he was ready to use violence in defense of his rights, the rest of the workers in the room enthusiastically backed his stance. Kennedy reddened in umbrage while Baldwin scrambled to hold the meeting together. As the rancor deepened, playwright Lorraine Hansberry led the civil rights workers in a walkout, leaving the Attorney General in an empty apartment with Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and attorney Clarence Jones.

Baldwin and Belafonte initially saw the meeting as a disaster, with good reason. Kennedy went straight to the FBI to get files on the civil rights workers. He relented to J. Edgar Hoover’s long-standing request to initiate a wiretap on Clarence Jones, a line of intelligence that would eventually uncover sordid details of Dr. King’s private life. When Belafonte related the details of the “disaster” to King he replied, “Maybe it’s just what Bobby needed to hear.” King was right.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger documented the longer term impact of the confrontation on Kennedy’s politics. Having finally seen a glimpse of the black experience in America, his tone in Administration meetings began to shift. The younger Kennedy had treated the Civil Rights movement as a political nuisance to be managed in order to protect his brother. Almost immediately after this meeting, RFK began pushing officials into action on long-stalled desegregation projects and chiding white liberals for their naiveté.

Barely a month after Jerome Smith confronted the Attorney General, Kennedy would repeat Smith’s tirade almost verbatim in Congressional testimony supporting the Civil Rights Act, “How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, ‘When war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you’re a citizen of Mississippi—and we can’t help you’?”

James Baldwin and Robert Kennedy would never mend their personal rift, but Bobby was on his way to becoming the leading white advocate for civil rights in the US. Confrontation has its costs, but it works.

Gay rights advocates worried in the 90’s that the push by some activists for marriage equality would derail the entire movement. Passage of a constitutional amendment striking down same-sex marriage in Hawaii in 1998 seemed to validate their concern. Fifteen years and many bitter battles later, marriage equality was federal law everywhere in the US.

From Jim Crow to the cigarette industry, activists have torn down seemingly invulnerable centers of power by being strategically and persistently unreasonable. Now, the same unruly, uncompromising forces are battering away at inequities in the health industry and the abuses of the gun lobby. Confrontation works. The loudest, most insistent voices get heard, especially in times of chaos.

There is a time for all things under the sun. There is a time for reason, calculation and compromise. There is a time for making unreasonable demands and setting fires. No single method or ethic always prevails, no single form of power rules them all. We live in an in-between era, a time of transition between orders. The shape of the emerging order would not be defined by the political middle, even if a coherent middle existed. Our power vacuum will be filled by those with energy and determination to move fast and break things, for good or ill.

For those pining to restore a pre-Trumpian order, a world whose Mitt Romneys and Joe Bidens share cordial dinners together behind a theatrical facade of faux partisan rivalry, my advice is to go home and wait this out. Too many of our most consequential problems have ripened too close together in time. We are going to wade through a series of angry, winner-take-all political conflicts before we get to play at civility again. The shape of that reconstructed world remains undetermined. Good, principled people can determine its form if they are willful enough to fight for it, otherwise they will be pushed to the margins. If confrontation and conflict make you uncomfortable, it would be a good idea to retreat into daytime TV for a couple of years. Neither side needs you right now.

Jerome Smith is still alive. So are most of the men who beat him and imprisoned him, and they still vote. Smith did his part, but this fight isn’t over. Confrontation works. Embrace it, and buckle up.

29 Comments

    1. Gallagher’s thoughts certainly have merit, but I do not believe that these reforms would make much difference. I believe the most serious problem in the House has been the excessive power that the 30-40 members of the Freedom Caucus have had under Republican leadership. That group is incredibly unified and determines a position, then does not debate that position or compromise. Once they have determined a position, they are able to use the Hastert Rule to essentially dictate the position of the Speaker and in some cases dictate who is selected as the Speaker. The Speaker is then forced to write a bill using selected committee chairs, that will be able to attract enough support from non-Freedom Caucus Republican members to pass while still conforming to the criteria the Freedom Caucus has dictated and satisfying the Hastert Rule. The Freedom Caucus virtually never writes a bill themselves, rather it is delegated to the Speaker. The Hastert Rule gives them sufficient power to do this. Furthermore, their position is reinforced by the ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ through the use of Gerrymandering and the threat of being primaried.

      I note that Gallagher has only served two terms. The dysfunction in the House has been present since the 112th Congress began in 2011. The House functioned quite well in the 111th Congress, the last time the Democrats were in the majority and the most productive Congress in many years.

      The Senate continued to function reasonably well through the 113th Congress, which ended in December 2014 when the Republicans took control, though they used every tactic possible to block legislation and particularly to block judicial nominations. During the 112th Congress the Senate hammered out a comprehensive immigration bill, which was blocked in the House by the desires of the Freedom Caucus. The dysfunction in the Senate, I believe is largely due to McConnell. He is a power freak, and uses the huge sums of money contributed to his PACs from the ultra-conservative groups, many of which are allied with the Koch Brothers, to keep the Republican Senators under his iron fisted control.

      Representative Gallagher has only been in Congress for 4 years, all under Republican control and he happens to be a conservative member from Wisconsin’s 8th CD which was Gerrymandered for the 2012 elections along with the rest of Wisconsin. Though he may have some good ideas, they are not the root cause of the problem and he has no incentive to examine the structural issues directly benefiting Republicans. We will wait and see how the House functions under Democratic leadership. Some of the proposals that have been made may well help. I think simply reducing the leverage the Freedom Caucus has by not having control of the Speakership will help a great deal.

    2. I liked Gallagher’s three points for changing the legislative process. They are needed in addition to electing people who will support and adhere to a more open, interactive process of discussing and debating ideas and bills. I agree that the Hastert Rule defeats the opportunity to accomplish this and that the Freedom Caucus has utilized their voting block and this rule to control the process on issues important to them. Obviously, changing how states set up their voting districts will allow voters to change the people who are elected. Chicken and egg? Possibly, but there is so much that needs to be changed to ensure the democratic process is ensured that no one or three things will be sufficient. The power of the electorate has been hammered by voter suppression of all kinds, capped by gerrymandered districts. Despite record turnout in many states, there was little chance for Democrats to win as many House seats as their numbers indicated. In the Senate, voter suppression did the job. America appears to be “woke” to the nasty tricks Republicans are playing to hang on by any means to their power. It’s going to take time, persistance, and some brave outliers to make this happen.

      1. Thanks for your replies. Sounds like a “meh” from tmerrit and a moderate thumbs up from Mary. I agree, no single or three procedural changes could fix the whole mess, but perhaps there is something in his article that wouldn’t just be Dem unilateral disarmament. The Hastert Rule isn’t a rule, and I’m having trouble imagining any way to get votes against the politically calculating will of whoever happens to be Speaker. I suspect we’re stuck with that one.

  1. This WaPo piece reaches back in recent history to remind us of the danger twisted men have had and can again if we are not vigilant. The Jonesville and Waco tragedies were both led by men who are scarily reminiscent of trump and The idolatry of his base. They are different types of followers- but just as fixated in their blind allegiance.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/40-years-ago-this-journalist-survived-the-jonestown-massacre-he-warns-it-could-happen-again/2018/11/16/bae22596-e9aa-11e8-b8dc-66cca409c180_story.html

  2. A rant, but also a question based on non-zero possibility: Civil war.

    Assume a series of dominos falling:
    1. The puppet tyrant is found obviously complicit of working directly with the russians on the election. Naturally, his cult, fueled by fox propaganda, believes none of it.
    2. The Senate, the DOJ, and SCOTUS protect him, leaving the House powerless.
    3. Emboldened by that protection, the attack on democratic institutions accelerates, particularly in the areas of law enforcement groups (DOJ, FBI, courts), civil rights, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and especially, the free press.
    4. The economic decisions of 2017-2018 come home to roost and there is a massive economic crash in 2019, early 2020.
    5. Faced with massively unpopular polling data, but still holding 38-40% due to his cult, the puppet tyrant in summer 2020 declares that hacking and interference by the Dem’s and “outside forces” has made a fair election impossible, and he is declaring a national emergency and “delaying” the 2020 election until “we can sort this out”.

    Then what happens?

    Legally, no state can secede. But is the scenario of the Pacific states taking Nevada with them and forming a country, as well as a North-East bloc forming, just a thought from an lunatic?

    1. Dins,

      Have you read the Ecotopia book series by Ernest Callenbach? They were published in the mid-1970’s and describe a scenario where the three Pacific Coast states (West of the Cascade Crest) secede and form a sustainable culture. Very interesting read. I read them initially in the late 70’s and then reread them following the election of Trump. Sometimes I wonder if the U.S is sustainable as a unified federation. But somehow we manage – another existential crisis may be required.

      Mary, as a vet myself, I am not surprised that significant number are running for office as liberal Democrats. The R’s have been abusing the military unmercifully for years. Current service members are not encouraged to follow current events or to think independently. They are mainly to preoccupied with other things as most younger people are. Also, the culture is to obey orders without question. Nevertheless, to be an effective service member in today’s highly technical military a certain amount of intelligence is required. After discharge that intelligence begins to manifest itself. That happened to myself when I came back from Vietnam and started at university. I realized there was a big discrepancy between the reality in-country and the government propaganda. That may be happening with these veterans.

      1. Which raises the interesting question- how can current military command follow the irrational orders by this president? In the event that Dins is correct in his assumptions and trump refuses to accept defeat, or court order, or impeachment- will our military establishment back country first? (I love the fact that auto correct doesn’t default to a capital “T” …. at least not on my phone!)

      2. The military commanders have been able to circumvent orders to a certain degree. Trump does not give detailed well thought out orders – his orders are verbal and off the cuff. That gives the commanders lots of discretion. Witness what has happened to the deployment of active duty soldiers to the Southern border. Trump portrayed and continues to portray it as if the military is actually manning the border and patrolling it and as if there were up to 15,000 personnel – that is a division. That is not what is happening; the personnel are providing logistical support. For example, he talked of the concertina wire that has been placed. The military only placed the wire. They are not patrolling it except from the air, nor are they manning weapons. If they spot suspicious activity, the border patrol is notified. Also there are only approximately 5-6K personnel, brigade sized, not a division. Most of those are far from the border. The deployment was originally portrayed as a major operation with an operation name. Now it is simply border support. That is one example; there are many others. This is typical of how the commanders are able to circumvent orders without directly disobeying them. It is wasteful monetarily but serves Trump’s political ends.

        This operation is not like the DMZ in Korea or the border between East and West Germany during the Cold War.

      3. TMerritt – You and Clint may be interested in this. T is making a full out pitch to the military establishment…why? Votes? Future needs? Not sure, but I’m sure most in the military would prefer he put his directives behind resolving the technology glitches that are impacting VA benefits such as housing and tuition rather than privatization of the VA.

        https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-administration-plots-costly-private-care-expansion-for-veterans?utm_campaign=weekly-newsletter&utm_source=pardot&utm_medium=email

      4. Also in answer to your question, whether the military will put country first? YES! The officers and men are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. There are subtle differences between the oaths for the enlisted personnel and for officers. They are posted below. Believe me, the officers and personnel generally take these oaths seriously. They are expected to only follow legally constituted orders.

        The wordings of the current oath of enlistment and oath for commissioned officers are as follows:

        For Enlisted Personnel:

        “I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

        For officers:

        “I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”

        You will note that the enlisted personnel oath requires that the orders be in accordance with regulations and the UCMJ, even though they might come from the President AND that they also be from the officers appointed over the person.

        This is the subtle difference between the U.S. military and that of some other nations and it has been true, since the Revolution. Obviously, sometimes in actuality, people fall short, such as at Abu Ghraib or My Lai, but in general the military operates within these parameters.

      5. T wants to portray this a helping Vets, but in reality it is a gift to the private medical care establishment. The VA does some things very well, particularly those areas dealing with disabled veterans and those suffering from PTSD. In the private sector many of them would drop through the cracks, and the private sector does not have the experience or knowledge to handle some of those situations. Granted there are delays and frustrations, but in general the VA functions reasonably well.

        I personally use both the VA and Medicare advantage. For hearing aids, I have been using the VA, as there is no cost, except for the copay. Hearing aids are not covered by medicare. For other routine care I use the private sector. However, I do not have a specific audiologist and I get a different one. every visit. Consequently I have to largely self direct. I am able to do so, because of my knowledge and research. I do have specialized requirements with my birding activities. Also the VA clinic is only 15 minutes away by auto. By bus it is longer, but reasonable.

        In the private sector, with Medicare Plus, I do also have to be very aware, but I do get to select my care team. Having to be knowledgeable is essential, regardless. We have lots of experience with that, with my partner’s knowledge, and experience having been a nurse. That has been very useful in this case during the past year We have lots of choices, living in a major metro.

        However, for many vets who live in rural areas, the distance can be a major issue. The private care expansion, was designed to supplement the VA and to provide timely care. That is appropriate and the D House, should be able to frustrate the R’s plans.

      6. Another thought – Trump apparently does not appreciate the difference between Constitutional loyalty and Presidential loyalty. He seems to expect all people under him to be personally loyal, as he is the President. Their oath of office is similar to the military oaths shown above in that it requires loyalty to the Constitution and the office of the Presidency, not the person who is the President. A couple of examples:

        In the case of the Attorney General, Trump expects the Attorney General to protect the President and by extension Trump. Whereas, in actuality the Attorney General is sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, i.e. he has Constitutional loyalty primarily and by extension the Office of the President in so far as that is consistent with the Constitution and the laws of the U.S. For that reason I respect Sessions for having recused himself from the Russian Investigation, though I disagree intensely with his policies. Trump thinks that RFK protected JFK. RFK may have been personally loyal to his brother, but he was primarily loyal to the Constitution and by extension the Office of the Presidency. There have been no serious allegations there was a conflict between the two, and there should not have been. To my knowledge, JFK also gave his primary loyalty to the Constitution. So in this case the RFK’s loyalties to the Constitution, the Presidency and personal loyalty to his brother were compatible. Some on the far right (FAUX News?) may promulgate conspiracies differently, but there is no verification.

        Secondly, in the case of Comey, Trump expected personal loyalty. Rather Comey gave his loyalty to the Constitution and extension, the Presidency, not personal loyalty to Trump. For that, he was fired.

        It is indeed a sad comment on the character of Trump and how demeaning he is to the Office of the Presidency, that there appears to be a conflict between loyalty to the Constitution including the Presidency and the person who is the President. But that is a crucial distinction – the Presidency cannot be confused with the person, who occupies the office. Trump apparently does not appreciate the difference.

        Even Britain, which has a monarch, and uses the term “His (or Her) Majesty” provides for the differentiation. Use of the word “Majesty”, rather than the name of the current monarch makes that distinction. In other words, the loyalty is to the monarchy, not the person.

  3. Good post. Sometimes I think people equate loudness with toughness. I don’t think we win by trading insults and shouting over the other side. I think we win from persistence. It looks like Stacey Abrams is going to sue over voter fraud. She’s not going away.

  4. You inexorably approach my views on the subject.

    The real question is whether the left have enough people willing to fight at the level of the fascists. When you jump into a street fight, you better have some experienced killers with you, and at this point, I just don’t see the Dem’s having those people.

    1. Dem street fighters aren’t vocal like the KKK, Neo Nazis, Proud Boys, NRA, Aryan Nation etc. etc. They are much like my favorite breed of dog, the Dobermann. They don’t make a lot of noise, but when they hit you, you stay hit. Folks would be surprised the number of trained vets that are Dem/Liberals.

      1. I’m glad to hear some of our military vets are Dem/liberals. It seems that active duty soldiers lean conservative….jobs at risk? Frankly, if I had been assigned to throw spitballs in the Rio Grande Valley in wait of a caravan of mostly women and children who are far away and dwindling in numbers, missing my “real” work and giving up Thanksgiving, I’d be pissed. Yet, I wonder how many of these soldiers will hold T accountable?

      2. Great article Clint! I didn’t know about this organization. I hope veterans are supporting this woman and her work. I’m thrilled to see so many vets running – from both parties. These men and women know BS when they see it and hear it. There are exceptions of course but service in behalf of one’s country typically teaches valuable lessons.

    2. “You inexorably approach my views on the subject.”

      Chris: “People need to stand up to bullies.”
      Dins: “Exactly, take a gun to school and shoot all those kids that did you wrong.”

      That may not be the way you intend it, but it’s the way your statements come across.

    1. I’d say the gals have already brought change judging from how many women are going to Congress and how many red seats have been flipped all over America. I’ve been saying it for almost a year now: women are going to be the ones who are going to make change happen. They have the most to gain and they are concerned about their families and their own rights. All the stats I’ve read on this election show that Republican women have not fared nearly as well as Democratic women. The work that I’ve witnessed women performing who have never before been engaged in political activism in any way, is simply awesome. They are fired up and they are pissed. What a great combination to move mountains. Now, if we can just clone Stacey Abrams….

      1. Truly sorry about that Stephen. It appears to me that the Republicans in Florida have been mounting a determined total war to force FL back to the fold of the deep South states, by suppressing votes and doing everything in their power to stop the Democrats. They seem to be following the path of North Carolina. I had hoped that both Gillum and Nelson would win. DeSantis sounds like he is a closet member of the KKK and Scott is another Trumpite.

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