“I tell thee,” said [Madame Defarge], extending her right hand, for emphasis, “that although it is a long time on the road, it is on the road and coming. I tell thee it never retreats, and never stops. I tell thee it is always advancing. Look around and consider the lives of all the world that we know, consider the faces of all the world that we know, consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself with more and more of certainty every hour. Can such things last? Bah! I mock you.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The American Revolution, we learn in school, was a good revolution. The French Revolution was bad. The Russian Revolution—yikes! Most Americans never learn about any other revolutions: the Haitian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, or the myriad other uprisings throughout the once-colonized world. If we are told anything about “revolution” in a general sense, we learn that it’s somewhat equivalent to a wildfire: beneficial—if tightly managed and directed—for clearing out a society’s choking overgrowth; but it has a tendency to escape the control of sensible people and become a wild mob leaping over the countryside, destroying valuable people and good property without reason or limit.
There’s a right way to do a protest, we are told, and a wrong way. The “right” way is increasingly narrow: You must not use violence, not ever, including destroying corporate property, which appears to be the worst kind of violence. You must be peaceful no matter what happens, even if the police attack first, and if they did attack first you must consider what you did to provoke them. You aren’t even you; you are agents provocateurs, unserious anarchists bent on mindless destruction, or Russian or Nazi infiltrators. This is not to say that there are zero agents provocateurs among today’s protesters, or unserious anarchists, or disguised white supremacists (although there is no evidence yet, sorry MSNBC, of the Russian Menace.) The important thing is that there is such a thing as a “good” protest, and “good” protestors who would never destroy property, never loot, never fight back. Out-of-context quotes by Martin Luther King are employed to make this clear. His famous statement: “riots are the language of the unheard” ironically continues to go unheard.
Many people, and this magazine, have pointed out that the lead-up to the American Revolution and the war itself was rather violent, and famously involved destruction of private property. The sort of conservatives who armed themselves with AR-15s to bravely intimidate Subway workers in the middle of a pandemic like to talk a big game about freedom and liberty, evoking the specter of the American Revolution, but generally opposed the protests over the murder of George Floyd as soon as private property was destroyed. This may seem like an obvious hypocrisy, but it misunderstands the nature of the American Revolution itself. Despite the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the curiously slavery-opposing slaveowners featured in the Hamilton musical, the War of Independence was really about allowing land-owning white men the political and economic liberty they believed that they—and only they—deserved.
The American Revolution gets to be “the good revolution” because of who it benefited. It was also successful, largely because its political demands were modest. It trimmed the overgrowth of oppressive state authority and kept the fire of revolution in check. The rich white masters stayed basically the same, if they disdained aristocratic titles. For Natives and enslaved people, those most in need of political and economic rights, an already bad situation got even worse.
The French Revolution, on the other hand, devolved into the Terror for any number of historical reasons, but chief among them was the unresolvable tension inherent in the question of where liberty ended. Was the revolution supposed to be a bourgeois reform for lawyers, or a full reinvention of society that included economic freedom and equal rights for all, including women? Was it fundamentally impossible to have a political revolution in the center of an empire that relied on slavery and the brutal extraction of resources in its periphery? The French Revolution is sometimes divided into the “good” revolution of 1789 that resulted in a constitutional monarchy, followed by the “bad” revolution that came afterward as the full demands of the street remained unmet. How much revolution can be considered “enough”?
The amount of revolution that is “enough” these days appears to be “as much as you want as long as it’s totally fictional.” A decent amount of popular media centers around revolution or resistance to villains, prompting viral tweets with questionable claims such as “You don’t raise a generation on Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games then tell them not to resist when their people are being oppressed and killed.” The link between SFF stories of rebellion and actual acts of revolution against state oppression seems somewhat tentative at best, but this hasn’t stopped impatient (and now deleted) demands for companies like Lucasfilm to tweet “Black Lives Matter” as if this would be some kind of revolutionary act. For much of the so-called #Resistance, particularly the celebrity kind, the resistance against Trump has been purely gestural: a matter of consuming the right media, tweeting about how bad Trump’s tweets are, and now, in the face of violent protest, falsely blaming outside agitators or calling for people to “vote” for the same Democratic leadership that’s currently ordering their police forces to violently assault protesters.
Donald Sutherland, who played the villain in the Hunger Games series, said he hoped the story, “could energize the youth of the United States and politicize them—revolutionize them, maybe.” He added, “It didn’t…but it had a shot.’” Hunger Games, like most stories of revolution, ends just after the rebels win, without showing much of what the new world looks like. The recent Star Wars sequel trilogy opted to rehash the original story’s evil-Empire-versus-noble-revolutionaries dynamic rather than imagine what kind of new problems a liberated galaxy might face. This may be a feature of Disney’s usual corporate uncreativity, but it might also be a sign of something more. Maybe revolutionary struggle can be co-opted and romanticized on film, but the aftermath is too scary, or unimaginable, for wealthy studio executives to contemplate, no matter how “liberal” they think they are.
What is happening across the country is maybe not yet a revolution, but it could be. Glimpses of a better world are already visible. In Minneapolis, goods from the looted Target were set up at mutual aid stations for locals in desperate need after two months of coronavirus-induced unemployment and decades of social neglect. In Louisville, protesters set up a water and milk station before police seized and destroyed it. In New York, protesters looked after a young woman after the police slammed her to the ground so hard she had a seizure. This last event happened in the same city in which the police went on strike in 2019 and crime went down. It’s increasingly easy to imagine a world without police or prisons, and prison abolition is looking more and more pragmatic. Mutual aid networks are already proving that so much of what we consider essential—including private property—is already obsolete.
The fear of “violent protests” comes from imagining something like the popular understanding of the French Revolution: that in the course of seeking revolutionary change, the wild mob will always rage out of control and start killing indiscriminately. This fear is based on, I think, a kind of innate understanding that for every action there is a reaction, and there’s a limit to how far people can be pushed before they push back. And I think that rich people—even pleasant, fluffy, #Resistance liberal rich people—are aware that this pushback might not just result in the loss of small charitable donations to bail funds, but possibly the eventual loss of all their class privileges. There’s a risk that revolution might take place not in the historical past, and not in a galaxy far far away, but right here and now.
Of course, this protest movement could always be short-term, and easily crushed. It could end up being just the beginning of a revolution that takes many years to complete. But one thing is certain: This is different, this is new. It was different and new the moment the protesters in Minneapolis frightened the cops into leaving the third precinct and burned it down. It won’t end even if all four officers who killed George Floyd are charged with murder, as they should be. It won’t end even if they are convicted, which they almost certainly won’t be. The regular state murder, harassment, and immiseration of Black people, combined with the racially unequal devastation of the coronavirus, and the economic shock of over 40 million unemployed have led to this outburst of fury in almost every major metropolitan area across the country. It’s not going to vanish if protesters are sufficiently docile or enough white liberals vow to “do better” in some nebulous, immaterial way. Real, material, revolutionary change is needed, and the world that it will result in is unknowable and probably quite difficult to implement. That’s the real challenge of revolution. But you can’t get to the new without setting fire to the old, and you can’t stop a revolution by screaming “fire is dangerous!” at the people who are literally being choked to death in the street.