My lifelong embrace of civil rights — and the utilization of protest as a means to justify those ends — began when at the age of 15, I organized and led a march of roughly 50 like-minded kids around my age through the downtown streets of Wichita Falls, Texas. In protesting the three racially segregated movie theaters of my hometown, I was officially baptized into the civil rights movement and felt compelled to keep my mouth open.
During my college days, I became even more active by joining the SCLC, the Southern Christina Leadership Conference. After college and seminary, the late Rev. John Nettles of Alabama and I were asked to become the two youngest board members of the SCLC. During my time in that nonviolent organization, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King and four other Southern clergymen, I gained immeasurable insight from some of the giants of the 20th century civil rights movement. I shall never forget, in a sermon at one particular SCLC convention, Dr. Joseph Lowery quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” I embraced those words immediately and completely.
However, I also learned that we must carefully choose our calls to protest. While we are obligated to root out moral decay wherever it may be, we are not required to attend every tumult to which we are invited. All of this is to say that I believe deeply and irreversibly in not only the right but the awesome power of nonviolent protest — when that power is used strategically.
The talk of a counterprotest to the constitutionally protected but wrongheaded, democracy-damaging demonstration in Washington, D.C., this Saturday should be abandoned. Although it is quite bizarre and vexing that some of our citizens are actually attempting to lionize those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, protesting the protesters, in this instance, will only amplify their infamy. Those supporting the Jan. 6 domestic terrorists, as unpatriotic as it is, must be afforded a law-abiding and unimpeded demonstration of who they really are.
While a counterprotest is also a constitutionally protected right, it risks igniting conflict that would only shine more light on those who wish to lead our nation into the darkness of undemocratic governance. There is absolutely no reason to invite additional drama into a city filled with drama kings and queens.
To me, and just about every member of Congress, Jan. 6 was horrifying. It was a harrowing experience that I hope no American will ever be forced to witness again. In fact, it was the first time in my life that I actually wondered — silently, of course — about the dissipation of our democracy. Those who tore into our Capitol to overturn the will of the American people should not be lifted up in any way. Rather, they should be shunned.
Democrats and Republicans would be dragged through mud
There could be no greater pleasure for the insurrectionists in their unseemly effort to confuse the American public than to have Democrats and Republicans of good will muddied along with them. Their planned demonstration, aimed at immortalizing villains who sought to vanquish American democracy, will go down in history as wrong — and no bold but anemic attempt at rewriting history through this pitiful protest will make it right. There is no need for demonstrators to seek to expose that which is fake, so let’s allow the ralliers the uninterrupted privilege of exposing themselves.
Although the overwhelming majority of us are repulsed by Americans praising what the FBI has labeled domestic terrorism against the citadel of our democracy, we must not allow their dark and drab view of the American republic to quench our thirst for national unity. Their glorification of political violence and disdain for democracy should not be put on the same pedestal as the democratic values and civil rights we seek to solidify.
The goal of strengthening our democracy can be stymied only if some kind of skirmish between competing demonstrators occurs. Afterward, the interpretation of who did what and the equivocation of “both sides” will dominate the news cycle. For this reason, I ask the Americans who want to demonstrate their support for American democracy not to play into the hands of these grifters and attention-seekers. Besides, it is perhaps more painful to be ignored than to be hated.
The Jan. 6 insurrectionists failed in their attempt to illegally reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election. Now, their supporters return to make a cameo appearance in the American story — this time, hoping counterdemonstrators will unwittingly become their props in a scene sure to make American democracy look weak. Notwithstanding, the much-discussed counterdemonstration to their September revenge rally will simply become fuel for further divisions in a nation already torn and tattered by the lingering leviathan lie.
Emanuel Cleaver II represents Missouri’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.