Does the Rittenhouse Verdict Change the Lessons of the American Resistance?

The outcome of the Kyle Rittenhouse case provides an important moment for reflection about the role of protest in American democracy and the risk protesters face when they participate in activism.

While protests on the Left have remained predominantly peaceful over the past five years, the dangers to protesters have spread silently.  I wrote about the implications of the Rittenhouse case on protest in America and what are the lessons from the Rittenhouse verdict to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who jointed the Resistance for Slate (which, of course, came out the afternoon before Thanksgiving).

My piece focuses on some comments made by Representative Swalwell about how to interpret the verdict as a call to mobilize. The comments conflate different forms of protest: those that are confrontational by design and coordinated by people who have limited access to power (if any) versus those that are intentionally peaceful and aim to send a political message through media coverage to representatives, as well as building up solidarity that channels concern into other political work (which was the bread and butter of the American Resistance during the 4 years of the Trump Administration).

Although both types of protest take place in the streets, one works within the system and the other creates pressure from outside of it– pressure that threatens the system’s very existence.

With the current risks to protesters, what is the future of protest in America?  History tells us there are two options. 

The first option is to double down on the work of the Resistance and follow the original advice of Rep. Swalwell.  If enough activists mobilize to work for electoral change, it would matter more than ever before. With more Democrats in office, they might finally deliver the democratic reforms that are so badly needed.

Given recent trends and the fact that the party in the White House rarely retains the majority in the House of Representatives, though, it is hard to imagine that the Democrats could win enough seats in the mid-term elections to secure the necessary political power (especially as Republicans have been quickly gerrymandering districts across the country).  

The other more dangerous option is to get back in the streets and follow the example of the Civil Rights Movement and fight for our civil rights that are very much at risk.  Those rights that were hard won by the sweat, tears, and blood of activists who risked violence and death to stand up for what they believed.  With the Rittenhouse verdict empowering vigilantes and states efforts to repress civic participation, the risks to protesters are clear.  But there is growing evidence that only insurgent tactics can fulfill the promise of America.