The Atlantic

In recent weeks, the nation has been treated to an unsettling sight: angry men with assault rifles protesting various state lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These demonstrations reached an ugly peak in Michigan last month—though they may yet worsen as the pandemic persists—when armed protesters rushed into the capitol building, and put on a chilling display of fury and intimidation. They claimed to be exercising their democratic rights of free speech and gun ownership. But there is something profoundly undemocratic about this form of demonstration.

Michigan lawmakers were understandably shaken when the armed throng surged into the capitol atrium; some donned bulletproof vests. The protesters screamed in the faces of stoic policemen who refused them entry to the Senate gallery. Many demonstrators sported fatigues and tactical gear, and also dark face masks—not so much out of public-health concern, mind you, though that was surely a handy excuse to seem even more menacing.

One immediately wonders: Why the guns? Are they necessary for this protest—any protest? A cursory glance at modern history reveals that some of the most effective demonstrations were strictly nonviolent. What did the lockdown protesters hope to add to their message with ominous assault rifles that they could not otherwise convey? Were they unsure that onlookers would appreciate the intensity of their anger?

Looking at these images, my reaction is not fear but its opposite: an overwhelming sense of the protesters’ impotence. That they carried guns suggests they were less than confident in the manifest justice of their cause or the seriousness of their passion, which they needed to amplify. It also indicates a kind of desperation and ignorance—they either don’t know about the tradition and practice of civic protest, or decided to largely abandon it. In any case, they could not have reasonably expected a democratic response to their show of force.

The governor could not submit to their demands—though President Donald Trump urged otherwise, and called the protesters “good people,” despite their intimidation (and assorted racist paraphernalia): To negotiate with these demonstrators would set an awful precedent. It would suggest that anyone can make public-policy demands at the end of a gun barrel—though the point of democracy is precisely to dispense with violence in policy negotiations. In that respect, many were right to dub the armed protesters “terrorists.” Though they might object to the title, the protesters certainly seemed to relish the intimidation they caused—they wanted to issue a threat of violence, and, indeed, armed insurrection.

The protesters complained of government tyranny—as they saw it, the governor was making univocal decisions contrary to the public interest. But real tyrants do not tolerate protest, much less armed protest. Under real tyranny, you don’t march around with your assault rifles, yelling into policemen’s faces. That is a death wish—the height of stupidity.

Under real tyranny, you don’t reveal your weapons at all—and you don’t identify yourself as a threat. A real tyrant will dispatch armed threats out of hand. That the protesters were so brazen suggests they knew full well that they live in no tyranny. They were respected, and left unharmed, because we have the rule of law. Put otherwise: These men could angrily shake their weapons in the air, and play the role of armed insurrectionists—costumes and all—because their government actually protects them.

This is the great irony, of course—that these men are enjoying a surfeit of justice, though they refuse to recognize it. It is impossible to imagine people of a different skin color angrily marching with military-style weapons and being treated with similar generosity by law enforcement. As Representative Rashida Tlaib noted on Twitter, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff.”

Unfortunately, while these armed protesters benefited from the rule of law, they unwittingly undermined it. For their demonstration certainly looked lawless—or made the rule of law seem absent, or tenuous at best. Rule of law is largely a matter of faith, and it requires the broader population to buy in. When some do not, or when some doubt that the rule of law still pertains, and they act as if it did not, this risks undermining it for everyone else—who then gird themselves for looming chaos.

In our current context, this means that the sight of angry—unhinged—individuals in our midst may inspire others to be similarly armed and on edge. This is a possibly disastrous development as tensions rise in the protracted fight against the pandemic, and economic catastrophe lingers, upending the lives of millions.

Furthermore, armed protests are inimical to the traditions of free speech and assembly. When you see protesters in military garb brandishing assault rifles, it does not inspire you to debate them—nor is it intended to. The protesters’ military demeanor is not meant to invite discussion; it’s meant to end it. Guns communicate—of themselves. In this case, they say that the time for debate, as well as any sort of nicety, is just about over, and others need to shut up and listen while the people with the guns talk, or issue demands.

Assembly under these conditions cannot and will not be tolerated for long. Governments are often eager to place limitations on public protest, to make it rare and less disruptive. Armed protest provides the perfect excuse to curtail and restrict assembly. Especially if, God forbid, one such protest were to erupt in violence. We enjoy the right of assembly, and we—all of us—can make proper use of it, only so long as it is peaceful.

Whether they admit it or not, when these men carry military-style guns in protest, they send the message that they have occupied the public sphere, and that others are not really welcome. The public sphere is less public in that regard—and these protesters are fed up with a diversity of viewpoints. Armed protesters don’t want to deliberate or debate, or even tolerate the opposition. When they appear, democracy ends.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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