When Hong Kong students named their recent demonstrations for democratic elections “Occupy,” they reminded me not only of the Americans demonstrating for economic justice in 2012 but also of Beijing protesters who carried a “Goddess of Democracy” modeled on our Statue of Liberty across Tienanmen Square in 1989. Now that Texas and the conservative majority of the John Roberts Supreme Court are implementing a Voter I.D. law to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of citizens who’ve voted legitimately in the past, Americans have an opportunity to return the Chinese demonstrators’ compliment: on November 4th, they can turn Houston and other cities into Hong Kong by showing up peacefully and en masse at the polls.
Not only would a huge turnout impress admirers of American democracy from abroad, as Florida voters did by waiting out uncooperative election officials in long lines in 2012; Texas voters may get a reception from state and local police at least as respectful and forbearing as the one that Hong Kong demonstrators got from Chinese police for a few weeks this month. Americans trying to vote won’t need officers or anyone else brandishing bullets instead of ballots.
They certainly won’t need vigilante “patriots” like those who sauntered recently into restaurants in Texas such Chili’s, Chipotle, and Jack in the Box, with assault rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders, to dramatize their rights under the state’s “open carry” laws.
Fortunately, Texas prohibits carrying loaded weapons into polling places on election days. And it hasn’t copied Utah, which permits possession and use of firearms on campuses. That right to carry loaded weapons into public meetings recently helped vigilantes stop a critic of violent video games from giving a lecture at Utah State University when they threatened “the deadliest school shooting in American history,” as one of several e-mail messages to the university put it.
The swaggering young men who entered those Texas restaurants and the over-grown young men who’ve stopped conversations by intimidation need to be shown that legitimate power and authority in a democracy or republic grow only from people acting in concert voluntarily, after they’ve expressed their opinions openly enough to feel they’ve had a voice in making public decisions that they’ll abide by, even if they lose.
People can’t do that by shooting at or intimidating one another. Stopping the public conversation in China, Russia, Iraq, or anywhere else separates words from deeds, making the words empty, the deeds brutal, and everyone unfree.
That was the warning issued by thinkers as divergent as Charles Murray, George Packer, Amity Shlaes, and me at a conference at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center this month called, “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?”
They certainly are, and we can reclaim them by emulating Hong Kong demonstrators’ brave, resilient efforts to re-join words to deeds by exercising legitimate democratic power. The Hong Kong protesters may be no more successful this time than their counterparts were in Tienanmen Square, but in the long run they’ll prove the falsity of Mao Tse Tung’s dictum that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Unarmed African-Americans proved it in the 1960s, by bringing down what even Justice Clarence Thomas – who has supported both “Voter I.D.” laws and loose gun laws — called the “totalitarian” system of segregation in our southern states. They succeeded thanks partly to armed federal marshals and troops. But wholly unarmed peoples without national governments behind them have brought down imperialist, Communist, and autocratic regimes in British India, Soviet Eastern Europe, and many other countries.
On November 4, long lines of unarmed Texas voters can salute American democracy’s counterparts and admirers abroad simply by showing up in huge numbers at the polls.
They may even teach other Texans a thing or two about freedom.