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Taking a page from history in today’s civil unrest

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

For nearly 60 years, when the flames of unrest burned, Gene Boutilier was there.

The 82-year old veteran activist and retired minister has since the early 1960s worked for peaceful resistance. He marched many times alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez, to name just a few.

He’s spent a lifetime in community development, community organizing, anti-poverty work, and the support of labor rights. This calling has positioned him particularly well to offer insight into the widespread uprisings that have followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been charged with second degree murder. The three other former officers also present at the killing are set to be charged with aiding and abetting murder.

“As a consumer of the news I have been very grateful and I think we should send appreciation to those responsible media outlets that have made a distinction between the large group of nonviolent protesters seeking racial justice, and the violent actors seeking chaos,” Mr. Boutilier said on Tuesday.

He singled out CNN and MSNBC for their coverage. “But I’m especially proud of the PBS NewsHour and their staff for keeping their eye on the big picture and not being over-excited about flash and bang, but instead showing just enough of the disruption and then putting it in perspective with wise, balanced journalism.”

Mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times have reported on assertions from both sides of the political divide that outside forces are at work attempting to undermine the protests.

“It makes it discouraging, but we have to soldier on and continue to make the witnesses, the prophetic protesting, keep it nonviolent even when there are provocateurs, as there have been—this is nothing new—in our work over the decades to try to make this a better country,” Mr. Boutilier said.

Throughout his career, going back to the boycotts with the farm workers movement, the 1968 peace demonstrations and Poor People’s Campaign, he has consistently witnessed attempts by infiltrators to hijack protests for agendas inconsistent with the cause at hand.

His disdain for the “agent provocateurs” and right wing extremists he says are currently working to hijack demonstrations across the country is clear.

“There are such things as law enforcement personnel with a loyalty not to their badge and their elected leaders, but to right wing groups that are encouraging them to go rogue as a strategy for disruption and chaos,” he said. “There are people that believe chaos and perhaps some kind of civil war will achieve their goals. And some of those people infiltrate our movements, our labor unions, our civil rights groups, our Black Lives Matter groups, and so on. Some of them infiltrate police and sheriff’s departments. We have to have policies to out them and arrest them, and help protect our democracy by marginalizing them and not letting them get mainstream.”

That outside groups would seek to do damage to a cause is as old as politics and, in his experience, many have been motivated by racism. “I’m talking primarily about white supremacist groups,” he said. “In years past it was Ku Klux Klan.”

Fighting back—nonviolently of course—is complicated.

“The thing is to try to keep pushing for media accountability,” Mr. Boutilier said. “They have a duty to distinguish between those who are there for methods A, and those that are there for methods B or C, which might mean they’re right wing provocateurs whose goal is to destroy ethnic cooperation, destroy democracy. You have to stand up against them.”

And though he’s been discouraged by those seeking to disrupt the protests, and by the opportunistic looting that has taken place, he remains an evangelical supporter of the righteousness of the enterprise.

“That does not mean being quiet,” he said. “It does not mean giving up on demonstrations because they might get hijacked. You have to do it anyway.”

Following the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, many US cities, including Washington DC, erupted in rioting and chaos. Though FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover commanded him to have law enforcement personnel shoot the looters, Mayor Walter Washington and a delegation of mixed race clergy instead walked the streets, talking to people.

“That helps,” Mr. Boutilier said. “The examples of police standing with and demonstrating an allegiance to the cause of the nonviolent participants was very, very good in trying to discredit those who were attacking the police.”

The US Press Freedom Tracker said that as of Wednesday there had been 233 press freedom incidents since May 28. This number included 41 journalists arrested or detained, 153 assaults (125 by police) and 39 incidents of reporters having their equipment or newsrooms damaged while covering protests.

It’s certainly nothing new for journalists, but in light of the president’s repeated assertions that the media is “the enemy of the people,” the marked uptick is chilling.

“It’s far from the first time in my lifetime,” Mr. Boutilier said. “It’s not okay. We have shield laws and protections for journalists. We have policies that have been in place for many years for journalists to access crime scenes, to access police lines, because of the absolute necessity in a democracy of an informed public. It’s a precious right that we have to protect. And this is a time when journalism really, really matters.”

Dr. King famously paraphrased 19th century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker in 1964 when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In this time of extreme division, civil unrest, the first citywide curfews in New York City since World War II, and a pandemic on top of all that, Mr. Boutilier somehow finds similar optimism.

“It’s very disheartening,” he said. “But I have both a Christian faith and a commitment to community organizing that says we’ll keep at it. And I have a deep, deep belief that in the very long run, love conquers hate, and peace conquers violence. But, boy, it’s a long time coming, and we have to keep fighting. It’s never finished.”

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