In Defense of Disruption

“The Guy Trump is Paying Legal Fees For”

Five days ago, during a corporate cable news “town hall” in Columbus, Ohio, Bernie Sanders had an interesting moment when CNN’s Jack Tapper asked him about Donald Trump’s call for “Bernie [to] keep your people in line.”

“The Donald” was referring to the role that younger white, Black, and Latino activists (including some Sanders supporters) played in using peaceful mass protest to force Trump to shut down his racist and nativist presidential campaign’s ill-advised attempt to hold a giant rally on the largely Black and Latino Near West Side of Chicago.

The best parts of Sanders’ response to Tapper came when he reflected on the vicious, fascist-lite candidate that U.S. corporate media has shamefully allowed to become a top presidential contender:

“Some of you may have read just a few hours ago that Mr. Trump said that he is prepared to pay for the legal costs of an individual who sucker punched somebody at a recent [Trump campaign] event. He’s going to pay the legal fees of somebody who committed a terrible act of violence. What that means is that Donald Trump is literally inciting violence with his supporters. He is saying that if you go out and beat somebody up, that is OK. ‘I’ll pay the legal fees.’ That is an outrage…You heard this one individual who sucker-punched somebody, and if he is quoted correctly, what he said, well, you know, why did you punch him up?  ‘Well, he might be a terrorist, and next time I might have to kill him’…this is the guy that Trump is going to be paying legal fees for?…‘You go beating up somebody, it’s OK, we’ll pay the legal fees?’…Trump has to get on the TV and tell his supporters that violence in the political process in America is not acceptable, end of discussion.”

Sanders was correct. Good for Bernie (Did Trump do what Bernie recommended? Of course not).

Pathological Liars

Another part of Sanders’ response to Tapper on Trump was not so great:

“I hesitate to say this, I really don’t like to disparage public officials, but Donald Trump is a pathological liar… (Applause)…We have never – our campaign does not believe, and never will, encourage anybody to disrupt anything. We have millions of supporters; people do what they do. People have the right to protest. I happen to not believe that people should disrupt anybody’s meetings…”

One problem with this statement is that Trump is not now and never has been “a public official.” I chalk that mistake up as a mere verbal slip. Bernie surely meant to say “public figure.”

Another and bigger problem with Sanders’ comment here is that pretty much all of the members of the U.S. political class including top Republicans and Democrats are pathological liars. They pretend to be things they aren’t. They pose as populists and/or progressives when they are corporate and imperial elitists. The claim to be popular leaders concerned for ordinary working- and middle-class people and (sometimes) the poor and jobless when they are tools and servants of, and cloaks for, the ruling financial corporatocracy.

The sincerely (I think) liberal Sanders is hardly above deception. He campaigned in Burlington, Vermont as an opponent of big real estate developers and then flip-flopped on them once he got into the city’s mayoral office. He has masqueraded as a “democratic socialist,” a political “independent” until the current presidential primary (when he claimed to “go into” his longstanding de facto party the Democrats), and an opponent of the military-industrial-complex. He is none of those things, as any serious investigation of his record shows.

A People’s History of Disruption

Related to that deception, another and I think even bigger problem with Sanders’ response to Tapper was his disavowal of the desirability of “anybody” and “people” ever “disrupt[ing] anything” and “anybody’s meetings.”

Such repudiation of direct popular and citizen action is very revealing comment on the part of a so-called “revolutionary” of the Left. It flies in the face of American people’s history.

So much for the Boston Tea Party.

So much for the mass abolitionist actions that sought prevent the return of escaped slaves to southern plantations in Boston and other northern cities during the 1850s.

So much for Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. So much for the Underground Railroad.

So much for the Great New England Shoemakers strike of 1860 (supported by presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln), the Great Labor Upheaval of 1877, the remarkable Eight Hours Movement and strikes of 1886, the Pullman Strike, the Homestead Strike, the Lawrence Strike, the great 1922 National Railway Shopmen’s Strike, the Left-led labor upheaval of 1934, the Flint sit-down strike and the broader U.S. sit-down strike wave of 1936-37, and countless other labor actions in U.S. history.

So much for workers shutting down the killing floors in an Iowa, Nebraska, or North Carolina meatpacking plant to protest the abusiveness of a foreman or manager and/or the dangerously excessive pace of production.

So much for shop-floor actions conducted precisely and expensively (for capital) to disrupt the continuous flow of production on behalf of working people.

So much for the highly popular December 2008 Chicago Republic Door and Window plant occupation and the remarkable 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike against Rahm Emmanuel’s school closing and privatization agenda and the related standardized testing mania.

So much for Rosa Parks’ and the young minister Dr. Martin Luther King’s disruption of regular bus service in Montgomery, Alabama.

So much for the great disruptive Civil Rights lunch counter actions and Freedom Rides and the Memphis garbage workers strike on the eve of Dr. King’s fateful, final visit to that city.

So much for the 1967 March on the Pentagon and the Vietnam War resisters who destroyed draft records.

So much for the New Left and Black Power activists who sat in and took over university offices to protest academia’s service to Big Business, militarism, and racial inequality during the Vietnam era.

So much for the mass antiwar movement that converged on the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.

So much for the Stonewall riots.

So much for Occupy Wall Street’s march in Times Square and the Occupy Movement’s many disorderly actions in New York City and across the country in the fall and early winter of 2011.

So much for the great Black disruptive Ferguson (Mike Brown), Baltimore (Freddie Gray), and New York City (Eric Garner) protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

So much for the disruptive Fight for Fifteen movement.

So much for the great marches against George W. Bush’s criminal invasion of Iraq.

So much for the great Wisconsin rebellion (later to be absurdly channeled into a doomed major-party electoral-politics recall campaign) on behalf of worker and union rights in the late winter and early spring of 2011.

So much for the young Black activists who brilliantly disrupted Christmas shopping on Michigan Avenue to protest Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s cover up of an egregiously racist police shooting.

So much for the great anti-WTO marches in Seattle in the fall of 1999 and subsequent actions to disrupt the life and planet-disrupting meetings of the savagely neoliberal-capitalist World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

So much for the giant march against U.S. led Western militarism in Chicago in May of 2012.

So much for the many peace activists who have been arrested over the years for disrupting war production and preparations.

When “the Machine Becomes So Odious…”

So much Dr. King, who called in the winter of 1967 for “massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system…The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King said in a lecture broadcast into the United States by the Canadian national radio. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” King added. “The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth” and it “will not abate until [there is a] just distribution of the fruits of the earth,” King said. Such a revolution would require “more than a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches” King proclaimed. “There must,” he said, “be a force that interrupts [that society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” to “dislocate the functioning of a society,” King said.

And so much for Mario Savio’s famous speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement – the one in which he said the following:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!…That doesn’t mean that you have to break anything. One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not [letting] anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine! And it will stop!!”

Has the American capitalist machine become odious enough for regular and mass direct action on behalf of “just distribution” when – as Sanders has noted again and again on the campaign trail – the top U.S. 1 percent possess more wealth than the bottom U.S. bottom 90 percent and the Walton family Wal-Mart heirs have together more net worth than the bottom U.S. 40 percent?

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Return to Iowa for a Different Kind of Politics?

But then, “odious” is an understatement these days, a time when the planet-melting, carbon-addicted capitalist machine puts a decent future and indeed human survival at ever more grave and imminent risk. “Poisonous,” “cancerous,” and “exterminist” is more like it.

Disrupt meetings and other things? Absolutely. What was wrong with disrupting Trump’s planned white-nationalist rally in multiracial Chicago? Why shouldn’t young and other activists interfere with a gathering called to celebrate and advance an openly nativist, racist, and neo-fascistic, hyper-masculinist woman-hating[1] presidential candidate– a candidate who mocks the scientifically proven existential threat of climate change (“I am not a believer…I believe there is weather”).[2]

How about disrupting and hopefully blocking the construction of the eco-cidal Bakken pipeline that the Iowa Utilities Board has recently approved to move planet-cooking and hydraulically fractured (“fracked”), water-wasting and water-polluting (fracked) oil across seventeen Iowa countries from North to South Dakota and on to Illinois, the Gulf of Mexico, and the world market? Would any of those who came from out of state to Iowa to support Bernie’s “pathologically polite” (Matt Taibbi) and electoral, so-called revolution last January and February care to return for more serious and direct action – disruptive action – to save planetary ecology and Midwestern water supplies and safety? Won’t you please come back to Iowa for a different and more useful kind of grassroots politics than backing a candidate seeking the presidential nomination of the corporate and imperial Democratic Party?

Any serious Left progressive should consult the sage wisdom of the late radical historian Howard Zinn’s elementary maxim: “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens.”

Does Sanders know this, or is he really just all about major party electoral sheep-dogging – the better phrase might be Judas-Goating – the wonderful and largely youthful, populist and democratic-socialist energy out there in the country these days (no surprise given the horrific performance of U.S.-led global capitalism on numerous levels) into the narrow electoral and Empire-friendly channels of “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (the Democrats, as described by former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips)?

Some Local Bernie History

Who knows what goes on Bernie’s head at the end of the day but, as a left writer and student from Los Angeles recently wrote me, Sanders’ statement against popular disruption is “pretty consistent with his record. Arresting protesters who opposed his support for the [Clinton administration’s criminal] Kosovo bombing. Arresting protesters for blocking a GE plant when he was the mayor of Burlington.”

Don’t believe that stuff happened? Look at this report by journalist Tim Mak at the liberal online newspaper The Daily Beast (no “radical Left” outlet) last month:

“Sen. Bernie Sanders has railed against big defense corporations at rallies, but he has a more complex history with the military-industrial complex. Most notably, he’s supported a $1.2 trillion stealth fighter that’s considered by many to be one of the bigger boondoggles in Pentagon history.”

“Sanders has made his opposition to Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness a cornerstone of his campaign. But he hasn’t exactly been antiwar all his career. When it has come time to choose between defense jobs and a dovish defense policy, Sanders has consistently chosen to stand with the arms-makers rather than the peaceniks—leading to tension with some of the most adamant adherents of progressive ideology.”

“In 1985, for example, protesters massed at the General Electric plant in Burlington, Vermont, where Sanders was serving as mayor. They were protesting the fact that the plant was manufacturing Gatling guns to fight socialists in Central America.”

“Jim Condon, now a Democratic state legislator in Vermont, was news director of a local radio station at the time and describes himself as an ‘old acquaintance’ of the senator.”

‘There were protesters who were unhappy that General Electric was manufacturing Gatling guns at the plant, and so they would lock themselves to the gates and engage in civil disobedience. And so the mayor, Bernie, finally got cops to go in and arrest the protesters,’ Condon told The Daily Beast. ‘The GE plant was one of the largest providers of jobs in the city. So it was economically important that the plant stay open and people who worked there went to work.’”

Look here for a real-time account of “Bernie the Bomber’s” terrible support of the U.S.-led NATO blitzing of Serbia – over and against the opposition of Burlington peace activists – in March and April of 1999.

For what it’s worth, if history matters, Sanders sent in the state-capitalist gendarmes to protest the leading military-industrial contractor General Electric’s property and profit rights at the leftmost point in his political career, before he went to Harvard’s Kennedy School and formalized his longstanding stealth alliance with the Democrats.

We need a revolution, alright. And, to use one of Bernie’s favorite phrase, Guess What? Bernie was never going to lead one. You can take that to the bank, and then shut it down.

Speaking of Disruption…

Looking for something that deserves – well, begs for – disruption and shutting down? Now that Sanders’ concession speech to the noxious neoliberal corporatist and arch-imperialist Queen of Chaos Hillary Clinton is a matter of when and not if, the “hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup) is setting the nation up for a general election contest “between the two most hated people in America” (Diana Johnstone) – between two craven capitalist major party candidates who are loathed by the populace. Shall “we the people” really stand by dutifully while this nauseating, authoritarian farce is foisted upon us and sold as “democracy” and as “politics,” the only politics that matters? Seriously? No, we should disrupt, disturb, interrupt, and “dislocate” (King, 1967) the Hell out of this endless, rolling, citizen-mocking, and populace-marginalizing travesty and electoral “extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky) with its fake-democratic, mass-marketed conventions, debates, and rallies. We should do so in the spirit of Samuel Adams, Mario Savio, Frederick Douglass, Mother Jones, Dr. King, and (among many other people’s history heroines and heroes) generations of working class “sparkplug militants” who disrupted the continuous flow of production to create the labor movement that brought millions of workers into “the middle class” in whose name Sanders so politely and conservatively speaks.


1 Take a look at a recent Republican television ad titled “Real Quotes from Donald Trump About Women.” The ad shows women reading some of his worst shots at other women. “Bimbo,” reads one women. “Dog,” reads another. “Fat pig,” reads a third woman. Other outrageously sexist Trump statements follow, including, believe it or not, this one: “Women, you have to treat them like shit.”It is disgraceful beyond words that the dominant corporate-managed U.S. media politics culture has allowed the insipid misogynist Donald Trump to emerge as a viable presidential candidate. Such a media and politics culture deserves immediate disruption and ultimate closure through mass citizen action.

2 As Chicago activists Andy Thayer and Roger Fraser explain in a recent CounterPunch commentary: “The people of Chicago are reviving an old tradition. Young people here, particularly blacks and Latinos, have re-learned a lesson about how real change is made and they are teaching the rest of us: We have power in the streets that we don’t possess in the electoral arena. We can fight and we can win. And using this approach, on Friday night in the course of a few hours, several thousand Chicagoans did more to stop Trump bigotry than months of media blather and politicians’ handwringing. The protesters’ boldness has roots in recent struggles against our infamously vicious, pro-1% mayor. Shutting down half of the city’s mental health clinics, attacking teachers and public education while diverting funds to charter schools, giving millions of tax dollars to wealthy real estate developers while illegally harassing the homeless and starving public services, particularly the schools, of funding.”

“The protesters’ boldness has roots in recent struggles against our infamously vicious, pro-1% mayor. Shutting down half of the city’s mental health clinics, attacking teachers and public education while diverting funds to charter schools, giving millions of tax dollars to wealthy real estate developers while illegally harassing the homeless and starving public services, particularly the schools, of funding….But it was the cover-up of a police dashcam video showing a cop murdering 18-year-old Laquan McDonald, while several others casually looked on, that caused the protests to reach a qualitatively higher level. Gone was any fealty to Chicago’s notorious anti-protester laws, bad to begin with, but made much worse in the run-up to the 2012 NATO conference in the city. Activists in other cities with such seemingly unmovable laws, please take note.”

“For weeks, Chicagoans poured into the streets — sans permits — blocking the city’s busiest thoroughfares during rush hour and shutting down Michigan Avenue’s posh boutiques and high-end stores on the most profitable shopping days of the holiday season…. The militancy rid the city of a hated police superintendent; it gave the sitting mayor unprecedented low approval ratings; and it has forced the county’s supinely pro-cop state’s attorney into a fight for her political life.”

The state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, lost her job two days ago, on the same day that Hillary Clinton sealed the deal with a five-state sweep rooted partly in Sanders’ failure to seriously contest and win the allegiance of Black voters.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).