Top Banner Image

On the Uses and Misuses of Crowds

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a learned, buoyant man, sustained all his life by a network of family and friends, nevertheless took the grimmest view of that biped who conjugated verbs.  Left to themselves, human beings would produce the “the war of every man, against every man.”  For without the law, it was unsafe to assume that anyone else out there in the world was restrained by moral inhibitions.

But it does happen at times that the writers most critical of the human condition catch the edge of an unlovely truth.  Hobbes conceded that it would be legitimate for subjects or citizens to petition magistrates or judges, “yet if a thousand men come to present it, it is a tumultuous assembly, because there needs but one or two for that purpose. When an unusual number of men, assemble against a man they accuse; the assembly is an unlawful tumult.”  It had the makings, he said, of a “sedition.”

We have become quite accustomed over the years to marches on Washington, directed to various causes, drawing on the capital of the brave marches for Civil Rights in the South.  And the streets of Paris are filled often with massive crowds protesting everything from higher taxes to raises in the age of retirement.

We’ve assumed that this was all part of the “freedom of speech.” And yet Hobbes caught the sense of where a petition or protest turns into something else.  And there is a certain irony in the fact that his sense of things here was shared by the late Justice Hugo Black, who was near an “absolutist” in the protection of “speech” as any judge might be.  He was opposed even to the laws on libel.  But when it came to a massive crowd assembled outside a courthouse, Black drew the sharpest line.

*

In Cox v. Louisiana (1965) the Court found a technical ground for springing a group of civil rights demonstrators; but the judges were adamant in their opposition to demonstrations in front of courthouses.  “The ample evidence,” said Justice Black was “that this group planned the march on the courthouse and carried it out for the express purpose of influencing the courthouse officials in the performance of their official duties.”

Even for a group that elicited their sympathies, the justices saw in this move the dangers of “intimidation.”

But in that case, why is it any better to assemble a massive crowd outside a legislative chamber?   As James Madison asked in Federalist #10, “what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens?”

Does the demonstration in the street not carry the premise that the massiveness of the crowd offers evidence of popular support – and that widespread support confirms the justice of the cause?  And would that not simply be a way of concealing to ourselves that we have prettified a version of the Rule of the Strong, or Might Makes Right?

**

Major cities in the country have been thrown into turmoil over the last two months by mobs claiming the name of “protesters.”  But surely they are not protesting any decision taken in Minneapolis to prosecute Derek Chauvin and other officers for the killing of George Floyd.

As we know by now, the number of unarmed black people killed by the police – nine in 2019 – was but one-tenth of a percent of all African Americans killed in homicides in 2019, mostly at the hands of young black males.

And those deaths at the hands of black people, are dwarfed by the numbers of black abortions, exceeding live births at times, in New York and Chicago.  But these are not the Black Lives that count in the moral doctrine offered us now by Black Lives Matter.

And yet that is the incoherence, the lie, that some of our most prestigious colleges and churches are willing to broadcast to the world as their own as they hoist the banner of Black Lives Matter over their buildings and websites.

Clearly, the dynamic at work has moved beyond “protest” to pillage and destruction for their own sake.  The liberal line has been to support “protest” while decrying violence; but that line has disappeared.

***

One reporter on Fox News last week got things right by accident when he reported a “protestor” using a crow bar to break down a door in Seattle, and another one spraying graffiti on a building.   The bent towards violence has become absorbed now in the defining premise that these are “peaceful protests.”

In the past, local authorities were able to recognize the violent premises at work in certain crowds.  They would try at least to stop the Ku Klux Klan from carrying out a provocative march in Harlem, or some self-styled Nazis trying to march through a Jewish community in Skokie, Illinois.

With that common sense of the past, they would act now, mercifully, to bar any further demonstrations, any further inflaming of the community, until peace is restored.    But now the authorities in these cities seem to have lost their nerve.  Or they have lost entirely that common sense of the past, which gave mayors and governors the wit to see where a so-called “peaceful protest” has turned into nothing less than a “seditious” assault on the community and its laws.

 

*Ku Klux Klan march, Washington, 1925 [British Pathé]

**Nazi march, Chicago, 1977 [Chicago Tribune]

***BLM march, Washington, 2020 [Deutsche Welle]

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.



RECENT COLUMNS

Archives