Analysis: Protests, the Israel-Hamas war, and the 2024 vote

Photo: @AvivaKlompas on Twitter

Protest is rarely pretty and often puts protestors at odds with those on the sidelines. Such has been the case throughout American history. 

While protests inspired or directed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were civil disobedience-focused, there were also “race riots” in many cities, including Philadelphia, during that same period that ended in looting and fires. Malcolm X famously said civil rights would be won, “by any means necessary.”

During the Vietnam war, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in November 1969 was a peaceful protest of a half million people, but in other protests blood was splashed and arrests were made. In Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a gay student, and some friends held a demonstration against the use of napalm in Vietnam by saying a dog would be set on fire with napalm. Kuromiya would go on to be a global AIDS activist.

Also in 1968, a series of protests against the U. S, involvement in the Vietnam War took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. The clashes lasted a week and Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley put 12,000 police on the streets to quell the protests in the worst optics imaginable. Then in May, 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were killed and nine others wounded when the National Guard opened fire on a student protest. 

AIDS protests often resulted in arrests in civil disobedience actions. Stop the Church was a demonstration organized by members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) on December 10, 1989, that disrupted a Mass being said by Cardinal John O’Connor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. At that protest 111 were arrested, including 53 inside the church.

Most recently, the 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd resulted in rioting nationwide, including in Philadelphia where police cars were set on fire, stores looted, and many arrests made.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 8, following the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas in Israel that left some 1,200 Israelis dead, protests have been constant throughout Philadelphia, the nation and the world. While there have been some pro-Israel protests, notably in Washington, D.C., most have been pro-Palestinian against the escalating violence in Gaza as Israel attempts to rout Hamas. To date, some 15,000 Gazan civilians have been killed in IDF air strikes.

While many of the pro-Palestinian protests have been peaceful, a Palestinian American college professor was charged with involuntary manslaughter and battery in the death of a Jewish protester during demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas war in Los Angeles Nov. 6. Arrests have been made in many recent protests, like at the White House, when red paint was splashed on the gates outside, and at the New York Public Library, where red paint was used to deface the building. A protest in Philadelphia at 30th Street Station resulted in dozens of arrests, and one at Grand Central Station in New York led to over 200 protesters arrested. 

A pro-Palestinian protest outside the DNC in Washington, D.C. at which Democratic representatives including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries were inside turned into a melee that many likened to January 6 and others to that 1968 clash in Chicago. U.S. Capitol Police said about 150 people were “illegally and violently protesting,” but while several police were injured, there were few arrests. 

On Tuesday, a group of pro-Palestinian protestors chanted “Biden, Biden you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” outside the funeral service for Rosalynn Carter, prompting comparisons by many with the notorious anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church group which for years protested at funerals, including for Matthew Shepard and for U.S. servicemembers.

Noted trans activist Charlotte Clymer wrote on Twitter/X, “This is not about Palestinian liberation. Protesting at the funeral of a beloved former First Lady is purely activist narcissism, a pathetic attempt to be edgy.”

In the history of protests, optics have mattered. They can turn the tide one way or another. One optic that President Biden has found inescapable is his hug of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the tarmac in Israel immediately following the Oct. 7 attacks. Biden has become a lightning rod for protesters with many Muslim Americans asserting they will not vote for him next year.

In a tightly figured race between Biden and likely GOP candidate Donald Trump, lines are being drawn. On Nov. 25, MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan wrote on Twitter/X of his friends and family that “Not a single one says they will vote for Biden again, having voted for him in 2020. Every single one says it’s because of Gaza. Dems need to understand that the anger is very real.”

He added, “And yes, of course Trump would be worse than Biden for Muslims, but people are angry and people are hurting and people want to politically punish Biden for supporting what’s happening in Gaza and this is the only way they know how in a two party presidential system.”

Hasan’s comments sparked days of outrage on Twitter/X with Black voters and other Democrats citing how wrong a take this was, how short-sighted and how Muslims themselves would be harmed by taking such a stance. The rage was palpable.

While protests themselves can lead to the end of wars, as happened with Vietnam, optics often adhere. No one ever asks the better question “How exactly will my not voting for Biden — or any other leader — punish this wealthy white man in power?” Biden will still be fine if he’s voted out. His straight, white, wealthy family will also be fine. Who won’t be fine if voters choose Trump or third party candidates who are inevitably Trump proxy votes are LGBTQ people, disabled people and poor people, immigrants, BIPOC, Muslims, and Jews. The environment won’t be fine. Reproductive rights will erode further. The U.S. future as a democracy will spiral. 

This is not to suggest that people shouldn’t be angry. Not every protest can be quiet civil disobedience, and anger is certainly an appropriate response to what’s happened in Gaza, to 15,000 Gazans killed in two months time, 40% of them children. Be rageful. Some — notably LGBTQ people — have actually been angry for a very long while, well before this. But the queer and trans community has gone largely ignored, even as people were being harmed and even killed.

LGBTQ people couldn’t even prompt Democrats to save the House in November. Nor could they save bills that would have secured equality for queer and trans people. And now the House is led by an anti-LGBTQ activist theocrat Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson.

So there’s a lot of rage to go around. Be rageful. Channel rage. But it’s essential that people know who it is they are actually channeling that rage toward. If it’s Biden, why protest at Rosalynn Carter’s funeral when she and her husband were decades-long supporters of Palestinians and a two-state solution?

In 2016, people who claimed Hillary Clinton was a tool of Wall Street voted for a billionaire rapist racist solely to punish Hillary. It’s clear that when you burn down the political house, wealthy people will always have another house. Marginalized people will not. That’s historical reality.

Yet another aspect of this debate — which is still fluid 11 months out till the election — is that a majority of those who are taking the stance of Mehdi Hasan feel under threat as Muslims or Palestinians. The real issue is not the inadequacy of asserting that one will somehow punish the person in power by not voting for them, but who will actually be punished because of that vote. It is also true that berating people in pain may not be the best ploy to securing votes. 

And why is it always incumbent upon the marginalized to secure the vote for the majority? White men, for example, have not voted majority Democratic since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1965. White women have edged over 50% only a handful of times. In 2016, when 94% of Black women voters chose Hillary Clinton, only 47% of white women voters chose her. The majority, which included millions of Democrats, chose Trump.

Black voters and LGBTQ voters have long argued that their votes have been taken for granted with little recompense for voting Democratic so reliably. And when Democratic candidates lose due to white voters not voting Democratic, it is voters of color and queer voters who are blamed.

Thus the current debate over Muslim votes is a canard: as fewer than 2% of the U.S. population, their votes are critical, but hardly monolithic. What about all those white voters? Who’s making demands of them?

The Israel-Hamas war will play an integral part in the 2024 election, but making threatening demands of Muslim and Palestinian voters now, at the height of the conflict, is akin to slapping a child for crying whilst saying “Keep crying and I’ll give you something to cry about!” 

The onus must shift to the majority: to secure votes for Biden, white voters should be the focus. The 50% of white women who still are voting GOP. The 68% of white men voting GOP. Just as the optics of protests could be losing those protestors’ support, so too is the argument against those people’s understandable and undeniable outrage.

History is an explainer here. Heed it.

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