From the anti-Vietnam war movement to Black Lives Matter – the recycled myth of the badly-behaved protesters

Since the anti-Vietnam war protests, including the civil rights movement, right down to today’s Black Lives Matter rallies, there has been a common theme advocated by the conservative Right – the disrespectful, badly behaved protester. The latter stereotype has been deployed not only to counter the protest movements, but to delegitimise the ideas and actions of the protesters, reinforce a conservative reaction, and distract popular outrage into unnecessary channels.

Let’s examine all of this more closely.

Civil rights protesters, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, faced the lawless violence of the police and state authorities. African Americans breaking the segregation laws were met not with polite requests to cease and desist, but with unrestrained racist violence by police, often accompanied by white vigilantes – the latter normally under the protection of the authorities. Dr King was always a nonviolent protester – and he was shot dead.

Racist militia groups, motivated by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, committed pogroms and atrocities against the black American community. They were the auxiliary arm of the US authorities as they tried to clamp down civil rights protesters. Ismail Muhammad, writing in The New Republic, explains that:

The Civil Rights movement made outright, avowed beliefs in white supremacy socially unacceptable. But racist mob violence has a long and robust history in the U.S., both before the 1960s and after. It forms a part of America’s political sediment, a foundation upon which our contemporary politics are built. 

The civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s were dismissed by their opponents as paid dupes of a shadowy (sometimes Communist) presence – the Jews. The claim that Jews – in the shape of a vast, financially powerful, veiled malevolence – was circulated by white nationalist and racist organisations to discredit the real issues of racism and segregation raised by the civil rights protesters.

While American Jews participated strongly in civil rights actions, the falsehood that Jews manipulated or controlled the protest movement serves to undermine the agency of black Americans to organise themselves around important sociopolitical issues.

Portraying the African Americans as naive pawns of a vast Jewish conspiracy has its echoes today. The claim that billionaire George Soros is funding today’s Black Lives Matter protesters is a recycled, slanderously false rendition of the old ‘Jewish conspiracy’ trope. Soros, of Jewish origin, has long been a target of conspiracist falsehoods promoted by extreme right wing and racist organisations.

Today’s BLM protests are dismissed by the conservative punditocracy as a cunning manipulated tactic of the (usually foreign) Jewish billionaire. Soros has been demonised as a destabilising and malign influence, responsible for ‘paying protesters’ on multiple occasions. Attacking Soros as an underhanded influencer of the malignant kind is the perfect gateway to anti-Semitic vitriol. The Soros-funded protester is the latest incarnation of the historic anti-Semitic shadow – the international Jew.

US President Donald Trump has done his level-best to attack BLM as a product of ‘dark forces’ and professional agitators, but he is hardly alone, and certainly not the first to do so. Blaming social unrest on outsiders, or regarding them as the dupes of malevolent and underhanded figures, has a long anti-Semitic pedigree. Instead of having a national conversation about the difficult economic and political issues of our times, we are taken down a well-worn path of bigotry.

The myth of the disrespectful protester gained new currency in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war. Defeated by the Vietnamese, the US authorities were looking for reasons to explain their defeat. From the 1980s, and in particular from the 1991 Gulf War, the story of the disrespected Vietnam veteran began circulating as a conservative response to the mass social movements of the 60s and 70s.

One of the most famous claims from the anti-Vietnam war era is the myth of the ‘spitting protester‘. Driven by disrespect, throngs of hippie-antiwar activists allegedly gathered at airports to confront returning Vietnam veterans with gobs of saliva-spit and insults of ‘baby killers’. The pathos of these stories is undeniable – but there is not a single piece of corroborating evidence to verify these stories.

Jerry Lembkce, a Vietnam veteran and sociology professor, undertook an extensive investigation into these stories of badly behaved, disrespectful antiwar protesters and found no evidence that back up the claims. However, the mythology of the war-at-home-after-the-war Vietnam veteran has achieved a cultural norm status. In fact, the antiwar protests included, among others, numerous Vietnam veterans.

Returning soldiers were welcomed by antiwar groups, and participated in organising activities. Vietnam veterans formed their own antiwar associations as well. However, none of this stopped Hollywood from churning out movies depicting the badly mistreated veteran, where patriotism became synonymous with pro-war. This claim gained national prominence in the ensuing years.

Today, cynical concerns about COVID-19 clusters are being perversely used to deny anti-racism protests – even though not a single COVID-19 case has been traced to any BLM or anti-racism rallies. The concerns for a potential surge in coronavirus cases were not used to stop the reopening of businesses, workplaces, shopping centres and other areas of close social contact.

Before we deploy the tired old cliche of badly behaved (or paid) protesters, let’s actually have a discussion about the economic and racial disparities that generate social upheaval.

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