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Liberal responses to the anti-Lockdown protest: Why we need more than a binary political vision

May 21, 2020

We celebrate the abolition of slavery, the welfare state and women’s right to vote as if these were wrestled away from the hands of dictators whose interests lay in bygone ideologies. This is despite the obvious fact that it was the fight against liberal elites which led to these achievements, against liberals did direct interests. – From the book: Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream

Over the past several weeks, I have been writing about the groups that have organized the anti-lockdown protests in Lansing and in Grand Rapids. During those weeks I have also been trying to pay attention to the responses that people are offering on social media about these protests and the people involved.

Some responses are understandable, where people have expressed anger and frustration against those protesting Gov. Whitmer’s decision to have the Stay-at Home orders. I too have been disturbed by some of the comments from protesters and the signs they have made. I agree that the Stay-at Home orders have been important to try to protect lives and flatten the curve.

However, it has been instructive to see how people, who would generally refer to themselves as liberals, have responded to the anti-lockdown protesters. Many of the responses demonstrate a very binary worldview. What I mean by a binary response is that people are either against what the Governor has done or supportive of what she has done. At some level I get this, but by just saying you “support that woman from Michigan,” doesn’t really mean much in the end.

For example, one response I saw was a suggestion that the National Guard be called to the State Capitol to arrest the anti-lockdown protesters, particularly those with guns. This of course did not happen, but it said to me that the person making the suggestion was unaware of the history of the National Guard being called in to deal with domestic conflicts. The majority of examples of the National Guard coming into communities was to respond to black resistance to police brutality, to housing injustice or to larger urban renewal policies, often resulting in displacement of black residents. Calling in the National Guard to deal with white, armed protesters would only further legitimize their existence.

A second example of a liberal response to the anti-lockdown protesters was a response to the Sheriff who spoke at the Grand Rapids rally earlier this week, who was calling for law enforcement officials to defy Whitmer’s Stay-at-Home order, because it was against the US Constitution. One liberal response was that law enforcement should also defy orders to put children in cages. Now, I would support cops not complying with orders to put children in cages, but the reality is that law enforcement agencies have been fully cooperative with ICE efforts to arrest, detain and deport undocumented immigrants. The primary function of law enforcement agencies is to maintain the status quo, to maintain business as usual, and to protect systems of power. Their function is not now, nor has it ever been to really protect people, especially black people, indigenous people, queer and trans people or even white people, particularly those who are resisting the status quo.

In the recently published book, Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, the authors make an important point:

The far-right is used as a decoy, diverting our attention away from new political imaginaries: our only choice is between an increasingly resented status quo and the far right.

Liberal democracies have become consumed by a fight for survival against a threat they have themselves nurtured, to divert attention away from their inability to respond to the inequalities and growing number of historical crises fuelled by capitalism and its innate conflict with liberal-democratic ideals of liberty and equality.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the far right, whether they are armed protesters, the Acton Institute or the members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure – all of which are calling for a re-opening of the state’s economy – should be ignored. However, if all we are doing is to simply react to the far right by saying that they are idiots, then we just end up feeling good about ourselves. What I believe the excerpt above is saying to us is that; 1) we often use the far right as a diversion to maintain business as usual; and 2) we fail to craft a vision and agenda that truly practices collective liberation, resulting in economic justice and racial equity.

As I said before, in general I have been in support of the Stay-at-Home orders from Gov. Whitmer, but that doesn’t mean that I give blind support. The movement for de-carceration has pushed the Governor to release people from jails and prisons during the COVID-19 crisis, yet that has not happened. The housing justice movement has forced the Governor to pass eviction moratoriums, but housing inequities are still a major problem across the state. Gov. Whitmer ran on a campaign promise to shut down the Enbridge operated Line 5. Not only has Line 5 not been shut down, Enbridge is currently moving forward with plans to construct a oil line tunnel under the Straights of Mackinac.

This is why I think it is critical to stand outside of the binary positions of “standing with that woman from Michigan” and “lock her up.” Our political vision has to be more robust, more radical and more imaginative. Do we want to live in a state that encourages and allows cops to kill black people? Do we want to live in a state where corporations can profit from bottling water? Do we want to live in a state where Immigration and Customs Enforcement can destroy the lives of immigrant families? If your answer is NO, then we can’t just be content with mediocre politics and policies. We can’t be content with business as usual or with just getting back to normal after the pandemic.

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