(The following is largely excerpted from my book Burglar for Peace: Lessons Learned in the Catholic Left’s Resistance to the Vietnam War, coming out this June.)
Since Trump took office three years ago at least 18 states have seen the introduction of legislation by right-wing climate deniers tied to the fossil fuel industry to criminalize organized protests against new gas or oil pipelines. Other movements have also experienced repressive action by local, state and federal governments. It is an issue that we must take seriously.
My first years of progressive activism and organizing took place during the presidency of Richard Nixon, without doubt one of, if not the, most repressive Presidential administrations we have experienced in the US in the modern era. It was under Nixon that the Republican Party with its “southern strategy” began its move toward becoming the kind of regressive entity that allowed pathological liar, racist and sexual predator Donald Trump to be elected President in November of 2016.
During Nixon’s first term, from 1969 to 1973, he oversaw the use of government agencies to attempt to destroy groups like the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement, including armed attacks by police leading to deaths. Newly-enacted conspiracy laws were used to indict leaders of the peace movement and other movements. An entirely illegal and clandestine apparatus was created to sabotage the campaigns of his political opponents in the Democratic Party, leading to the midnight break-in at the Watergate Hotel which eventually led to the exposure of this apparatus and Nixon’s forced resignation from office in 1974.
I personally experienced this repressive apparatus primarily via my inclusion as a defendant in the Harrisburg 8/7 case.
I learned several things during those Nixon years about how to deal with government repression.
One critical lesson is the disparity between how government deals with people of color, Black, Latinx, First Nation and Asian/Pacific Islander, compared with people of European descent, white people. The historical realities of military aggression, broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, assumed white dominance and institutionalized racism continue to have their negative, discriminatory impacts.
Among these impacts is a willingness by some police to carelessly shoot and brutalize young black and other men of color for no justifiable reason, which has given rise to the deeply important Movement for Black Lives.
Another impact is the unequal treatment meted out within the legal system, from police to prosecutors to prison personnel, when it comes to people of color as compared to white people. For example, people of color arrested as part of a nonviolent civil disobedience action can be subject to stronger charges or additional hardship while in police custody or behind bars as compared to whites.
Those of us of European descent must be conscious of these realities and act accordingly, ready to speak up and challenge unequal, discriminatory or explicitly white supremacist words and actions wherever they happen. This is also our responsibility when it comes to discriminatory words and actions toward immigrants, lgbtq people, women, or any other group.
Another lesson as far as dealing with government repression is not to let it paralyze or divide organizations or movements.
This is one of the objectives of unjust governments trying to repress those who challenge its policies and practices. The efforts to criminalize demonstrations against new fossil infrastructure, for example, are all about discouraging people from taking part. But if we intelligently speak out against the proposed legislation and accurately portray those supporting it as un-American, anti-democratic, pro-pollution and climate deniers, their efforts can end us strengthening our base of support.
Another method of repression is to send government infiltrators into our meetings who are trained to look for differences within a group or movement and make efforts to deepen and harden them. That is one of the reasons why we need to be about the development of a movement culture which is respectful and healthy. Within such a cultural environment, it is much harder for people trying to create divisions to succeed.
It’s similar in regards to agent provocateurs, people who try to get others to engage in violent speech or action toward police or others representing government.
Anger against injustice and oppression is not just legitimate; it is a necessary component of successfully building a movement for real change. But anger needs to be used in a disciplined way. Those who are quick to call cops “pigs” or throw bricks or in other ways prone to display anger negatively are either government agents attempting to discredit the movement or are people who need an intervention. They need to be taken aside and spoken with in a direct, to-the-point and loving way about the counter-productiveness of what they are doing. Some will keep doing so, but some will change, if not right away over time.
We need to accept that government surveillance is a given if we are serious about challenging the oppressive system and fundamentally changing it, if we are about revolutionary change. We should be on the alert for such people. When legitimate suspicions are aroused, we should do research and, if it seems necessary, directly confront the person or persons in question.
There are other affirmative steps we can take to prevent government disruption of our actions. For example, if we are organizing a nonviolent direct action that includes the element of surprise, we need to take whatever steps are necessary for the action to happen, like encrypted email, use of secure forms of communication, and consciously limiting what is said or written about it beforehand to only what is absolutely necessary.
Ultimately, what I have learned is that government repression can have a disruptive impact on our work, for sure, but we can also turn a negative into a positive. To the extent to which we can creatively, intelligently and fearlessly expose the truth of what we are about as we respond to what they are doing to us, to that extent will we strengthen and build our movement.
Ted Glick is the author of the forthcoming Burglar for Peace (see above) and an activist, organizer and writer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.