On Civility and a Firebombing in North Carolina

Yesterday, someone firebombed the local campaign office of the North Carolina GOP in Orange County, leaving behind graffiti reading “Nazi Republicans get out of town or else” and a swastika spray-painted on an adjacent building. While Donald Trump was quick to blame “animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina” for the episode, a loose online network of liberals and progressives led by my friend David Weinberger, a research fellow at the Berkman Center, threw together a GoFundMe page to help pay for reopening the office.

In a brief call to action, he wrote, “Until an investigation is undertaken, we cannot know who did this or why. No matter the result, this is not how Americans resolve their differences. We talk, we argue, sometimes we march, and most of all we vote. We do not resort to violence by individuals or by mobs. So, let’s all pitch in, no matter what your party affiliation, and get that office open again quickly.”

Helped by supportive tweets from online influencers like Zeynep Tufekci, Ana Marie Cox, and Anil Dash, the GoFundMe campaign quickly met its funding goal. Today’s news in North Carolina about the unsolved bombing also includes prominent mention of the fact that people from the other side of the red-blue divide have rallied to demonstrate their opposition to political violence by donating $13,000 to help reopen the office.

Sadly, no good deed goes unpunished. A lot of progressives apparently were outraged by the idea that some of their peers were giving money to the state GOP. “Where is this democratic emergency funding when black people are having their vote suppressed?” asked @soit_goes on Twitter. “Where is the ‘compassion’ the dems are showing the GOP in N Carolina when its time to stand with transgender people being discriminated?”

After hearing a lot of this kind of pushback online and in private, Anil Dash this morning announced that he was withdrawing his donation. “It doesn’t make sense to oppose political violence by support those attacking civil rights,” he tweeted, apologizing. “Those who corrected me were mostly younger folks & those who’ve maintained moral clarity in making decisions,” he added.

I have infinite respect for Anil, who works tirelessly for all kinds of important causes. But in this case, I think he and the people he is listening to are making a basic mistake. The people who donated to David’s GoFundMe page were not asked to do so by the North Carolina GOP. They were not endorsing any of its positions; they were instead affirming the idea that the way we resolve political differences in America is through nonviolent means like talking, arguing, marching, and voting. And right now, with political tensions over the election already spilling over into violence, it’s vital to defend that principle. If you oppose fascism, you oppose the use of political violence to suppress other views in every context. As Zeynep Tufekci tweeted, “I live in NC as an immigrant and refugee advocate. Gestures against political violence needed most to protect the most vulnerable.”

Yes, it is also true that there are many subtle forms of personal and political violence embedded in the status quo, and the North Carolina GOP’s support for voter suppression laws, cuts in women’s health funding and discrimination against transgender people are just three examples of why people of good will should oppose its political efforts. But this is not a zero-sum choice. 

We are all being rubbed raw by the ugly rhetoric of this election. The old guardrails of American democracy that kept presidential candidates from open declarations of racism and sexism and incitements to violence have been blown apart by Donald Trump’s incendiary campaign. He’s drastically undermining the most basic elements of civic discourse—the idea that facts matter and that one can be held accountable to the record of one’s past statements. Stopping Trump is essential. But not through violence.