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It’s a question that enrages conservatives and discomfits liberals: Is there utility to violence? More specifically, did violence have any impact on the surprise announcement last week of homicide charges brought against the six Baltimore cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray?

In wondering if on rare occasions violence can be useful, I’m transgressing an unwritten rule. Among conservatives, I risk appearing to defend criminals. Among liberals, I risk giving fodder to conservatives who are (always already) poised to attack grassroots challenges to state power.

But instead of counteracting the inevitable backlash, liberals tend to repudiate violence entirely, as if all violence were the same — all senseless, random, worthy of condemnation, and never to be confused with legitimate political protest. In this sense, President Barack Obama last week was a textbook liberal in forcefully commenting on the Baltimore riots:

“There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing … they need to be treated as criminals.”

It was a shrewd parsing. In attempting to separate criminality from the constitutional guarantee of the right to petition the government, Obama made room for local activist claims of widespread abuse of police power, especially the practice of “bouncing” or “nickel rides.”

Baltimore police are said to retaliate against suspects who flee, or otherwise inconvenience them, by handcuffing and then “bouncing” them in the back of police vans. The practice can cause serious injury. It is the most likely explanation for the severing of Freddie Gray’s spine.

Such police aggression is rooted in the so-called zero-tolerance policies of the 1990s. These were based on the theory that tolerance of petty crimes, such as public drunkenness, had the effect of establishing norms of criminality. That is, tolerance of little things like broken windows prefaced larger, more serious crimes.

The theory that rationalized this escalation of police power — called the “broken windows theory” — was advanced in 1982 by conservative scholars George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson. Their thinking was based on psychology more than empirical data. Social scientists have since seen crime rates fall for two decades, with little or no consensus among researchers on the role of zero-tolerance on that decline.

Wilson continued in 1994 when he wrote an article called “Just Take Away Their Guns.” In it, he advised police to maximize the court precedent of “reasonable suspicion” to stop and frisk anyone believed to be carrying an illegal weapon. Wilson’s larger point is by now familiar: Don’t punish law-abiding citizens with gun-control legislation. Punish criminals instead.

“Young black and Hispanic men will probably be stopped more often than older white Anglo males or women of any race,” Wilson wrote in The New York Times Magazine. “But if we are serious … we must get illegal guns off the street.”

Let’s put this in the context of the “senseless” and “counterproductive” violence of Baltimore. Not all violence is the same. There is the legitimate kind. As a nation-state, we authorize police officers to use violence when necessary. (Indeed, we don’t typically call it “violence;” we tend to use the softer “force.”) Put another way, the state has a monopoly on violence. Those who defy that monopoly commit the other kind of violence, the illegitimate kind. This we attribute to criminals, to offenders of the state.

But there may be a middle ground between legitimate and illegitimate violence, and that middle ground might be called political violence: violence that’s illegitimate but rooted in the legitimate desire to petition the state for redress of grievances. In this case, these are grievances among minority residents of Baltimore that go back to the 1990s when the city was swept up in a nationwide movement to “reasonably suspect” most young black men of being criminals.

For several days in a row, the city of Baltimore saw peaceful protests, thousands strong, over the death of Freddie Gray, but the state — meaning the city, state, and national governments — was mostly indifferent. That indifference ended when someone decided to burn a building to the ground. Though it’s impossible to say the riots influenced Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to prosecute, it’s also unlikely that they didn’t, given how rare it is to see prosecutors bring homicide charges against cops.

President Obama is right. Those people are arsonists, looters, and petty thieves. They should and probably will be held accountable. But he’s wrong in saying the violence was senseless or counterproductive. Violence has always played a role in American history, in frightening established powers to reform a legal and political system that isn’t working.

Republican president Herbert Hoover once said America learned from the depravities of the 19th century. “Social injustice is the destruction of justice,” he wrote. But that lesson came after long periods of political violence, after the victim of injustice “throws bricks at our social edifice.”

John Stoehr (@johnastoehr) is managing editor of The Washington SpectatorFollow him on Twitter and Medium.

Photo: An injured police officer is carried away by his fellow officers on Westbury Avenue in Baltimore during riots on Monday, April 27, 2015. (Erica Green/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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