There is a growing trend in activism that overestimates the power of aggressive tactics. Liam Glen writes on the pitfalls of food-based protest.
Throwing food at politicians that one does not like is an ancient practice. The earliest known case was in the 60s CE, when unhappy citizens threw turnips at the future Roman emperor Vespasian. In 1917, two brothers lobbed eggs at Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes to protest his support of conscription. In 2019, teenager Will Connolly repeated the act on Australian MP Fraser Anning, who had blamed the Christchurch mosque shootings on Islamic extremism.
But food-throwers received a new weapon of choice in May when Islamaphobic street activist Tommy Robinson started harassing Danyaal Mahmud, who happened to be holding a milkshake at the time. Frustrated, Mahmud threw it at Robinson.
It became an instant trend for left-wing protesters. Prominent victims include Nigel Farage and Matt Gaetz. As of this writing, there is a chance that someone will attempt to douse Donald Trump, but I do not expect it to get past the Secret Service.
Those on the right see these attacks as the first step in a campaign of political violence. As Farage ally Raheem Kassam warns in his the title of one article, “Today a Milkshake, Tomorrow A Brick.”
Everyone else, meanwhile, has reacted with either bemusement or half-hearted condemnation. While throwing milkshakes as people is not exactly a nonviolent tactic – no one wants to live in a world where people can do it with impunity – it can hardly be called violent either.
Security consultant Dan Kaszeta, for example, notes that acts of protest like food-throwing almost never come with the intent of causing serious harm.
Some cases of “milkshaking” may be isolated protests. Others, however, do play into a wider strategy.
Matt Ford’s defense of the practice in The New Republic portrays it as a tool to humiliate and intimidate the far right. Notably, he puts it in the same category as actual acts of violence, such as the punching of white nationalist Richard Spencer in 2017.
Ford believes that these instances are part of the reason why there has not been another far-right gathering like Charlottesville. The fascists are too afraid of retaliation to take to the streets.
Much has already been written on the ethics of this type of political violence. For their part, defenders of extreme anti-fascist tactics claim that the far-right is so dangerous that it must be stopped by any means necessary.
After all, as reported by the Anti-Defamation League, the vast majority of extremist-related killings in the US come from the far-right.
How Not to Fight the Right
In general, I object to the notion that violence is the most effective way to fight fascists. But for now I will focus on the way that this narrative conflates fascists and mainstream right-wing politicians.
Those on the far left will say that there is no moral difference between them. This is another topic on which many others have already written, so instead I will point out an important practical difference: mainstream conservatives are popular, while neo-Nazis are not.
Self-proclaimed fascists and white nationalists like those who marched in Charlottesville are an extreme minority. The rest of the population would prefer for them to forsake their ideology or, failing that, to go crawl back into the holes from whence they came.
In theory, one could use violence as a tool to stop them from organizing and causing harm.
Meanwhile, figures like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump may not be beloved by a majority of the people, but they do have the confidence of a large fraction of the population.
Yelling at people wearing MAGA hats will not change the administration’s policies. Throwing milkshakes will not stop Brexit. Any act of physical violence would only turn public opinion in the other direction.
In a normal article, this would be the part where I extol the virtues of civil discourse. But I will admit that it is not always so simple.
or example, I could respectfully disagree with someone about tax rates or budgetary deficits, or even something like the Brexit or the Russia investigation.But moral issues like abortion, LGBT rights, race, and immigration understandably get more heated.
Civil discourse is also difficult with those who do not want to engage in it. If I was a Muslim, I would not waste my time attempting a polite conversation with Tommy Robinson, a violent felon whose public statements include “Islam is not a religion of peace. Islam is fascist and it’s violent and we’ve had enough.”
It has become common for some activists to say “it’s not my job to educate you” in response to ignorance about their cause. Indeed, not everyone is obligated to educate. But if attitudes are to change, then someone has to do it.
When, for instance, a plurality of Americans believe that Islam conflicts with democracy, long-term activism and education is the only way to change minds. There will always be bigots like Tommy Robinson in the world, but the goal should be to ensure that they are an insignificant minority.
However, that does not mean that direct action is always bad. Nonviolent social change often involves disruption – protests, strikes, and cacerolazos.
Schoolchildren in the US learn about how Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence put him in opposition with black nationalists like Malcolm X. But it is less often that they learn about how some of MILK’s greatest opponents were moderate civil rights supporters who viewed him as too radical and instead preferred gradual change.
When taking up a particularly important cause – like opposing the Trump administration’s family separation policy – a disruptive response can be justified. But this should never involve violence.
Most importantly, violence by definition involves harming people. And whatever justification that one has for why that harm is deserved is probably not as strong as it at first appears.
It is also a bad strategy. Resistance campaigns against oppressive governments are twice as successful when they are nonviolent. It is much easier to win the hearts and minds of the people than to outmatch the regime’s guns and troops.
This is even truer in democracies, where hearts and minds are the key movers of change. Milkshaking is not equivalent to physical violence. The hyperbolic reactions of its victims only reveals their own thin-skinned nature.
But it is also not constructive. It accomplishes nothing except giving the assailant a fleeting sense of satisfaction. And it is fair to point out that the media reaction would probably be very different if politicians on the left and center were being targeted.
Milkshaking is one way to show discontent, but effective action requires more creativity and greater restraint.