Work Within the System for Change

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

By David L. Phillips

Demonstrators in Portland are exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and assembly. They have an unquestionable right to protest. At this stage, however, confrontation risks a crackdown that Trump would use to his advantage. Demonstrators should stand down; develop a reform agenda for change; and focus on systemic change.
The dangerous polemic in Portland is reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Then student leaders came to a fork in the road: Stay in the Square and risk a brutal crackdown or try to reform the system from within.  
Former Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, tried to liberalize China, before his death in April 1989. His passing triggered a popular movement against China’s one-party political system, which was corrupt and ill-prepared to meet economic and other challenges. 
The pro-democracy movement was led by students and workers, seeking accountability and due process. They demanded greater political participation and basic human rights -- freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of assembly. They formed a committee, which issued “Seven Demands” of the government: 
  1. Affirm Hu Yaobang's views on democracy and freedom as correct.
  2. Admit that the campaign against bourgeois liberalization was wrong.
  3. Publish financial information on state leaders and their family members.
  4. Stop press censorship and allow private, independent media.
  5. Increase funding for education and raise the salaries for scholars and professors. 
  6. End restrictions on demonstrations in Beijing.
  7. Provide objective coverage of students in official media. 
Hu’s successor, Zhao Ziyang, heralded the patriotism of the protesters. However, hardliners demanded action against them and condemned Zhao’s weakness. Zhao addressed the crowd in Tiananmen Square with a bullhorn, imploring them to think about their futures and asking them to disband.  
Students faced a dilemma. They were wary of a violent crackdown, but did not want to succumb to an unjust government. The more belligerent the authorities, the more students were resolved to stay in the Square.
The State Council declared martial law on May 20, 1989, and mobilized 250,000 troops. Security forces did not identify themselves and spoke a different dialect of Mandarin. Protesters pleaded with the soldiers, but their exhortations fell on deaf ears.
Troops approached Tiananmen Square along Chang’an Avenue in the early morning hours of June 4, killing approximately 1,000 people. The crackdown emboldened hardline leaders to use the State’s overwhelming power to further restrict human rights. Since 1989, successive Chinese leaders have employed increasingly draconian security measures to suppress democracy and target minorities. Thirty-one years after Tiananmen, reform is further away than ever.
The Portland protesters face a similar dilemma. Should they stay on the streets and confront Trump’s unmarked security forces? Or should they rely on elections to advance their reform agenda?
Trump is trying to provoke a confrontation. He wants violence, so mid-America will be scared into voting for him. 
For sure, protesters are rightly enraged about racism, police brutality, and Trump’s inept handling of the COVID crisis . They have been beaten and doused with pepper spray. Many have been rounded up and detained without due process. Instead of being conciliatory, the police are increasingly confrontational. Their mere presence fuels violence.
Sitting around the dinner table, I asked my teenage daughters for their opinion about the situation. 
I started the discussion by suggesting that a physical confrontation would drive voters to Trump and set-back chances for change. I suggested that it would be better for protesters to channel their anger into mobilizing for the November election. 
My daughters disagreed. They argued that going home would be a victory for authoritarianism. It would embolden Trump to crack down on people in other cities. 
We identified three choices: (1) resist, (2) retreat, or (3) engage in dialogue. Of these, my daughters endorsed dialogue to de-escalate the situation.
They hope that dialogue would lead to an agreement for Trump’s national police to vacate the streets. At the same time, protesters would withdraw from a two block radius of federal properties, thereby obviating Trump’s claim that the national police were deployed to protect federal property.  
After both sides had taken a step back, protesters would establish a committee to draw up a list of demands. Then members of the committee would meet local and state officials. If local authorities failed to enact reform after a reasonable period, non-violent peaceful protests would resume.
I pointed out that a facilitator might be necessary in such a highly polarized environment. Perhaps the facilitator could be a Member of Congress or a respected former official like Colin Powell? 
We agreed that a conciliatory step-by-step approach made a lot of sense. My daughters expressed hope the current conflict could be diffused. They understand that reform is a process not a revolutionary event. Protesters have a better chance to overcome injustice if they are strategic, patient, yet persistent. 
The discussion ended with an agreement that voting Trump out of office would be the best way to make America great.  
David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University.