Photo by Elvert Barnes, Flickr CC

“They use their media to assassinate real news…all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding, until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness.”

Last month, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch spoke these words in a new video campaign targeting progressive political protesters. The ad features black and white media footage of protest signs with the words “RESIST” and shows protesters looting, breaking windows, and starting fires in the street. Loesch and the NRA have since received widespread criticism for the advertisement’s seemingly pro-violence rhetoric, even evoking a video response from BlackLivesMatter. While the NRA maintains that the advertisement is not intended to encourage violence against progressive political protest, the black and white imagery depicting protesters as criminals is eerily reminiscent of political campaigns (e.g. the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s) that used political action as a call for criminalization and law and order.

In times of spiraling economic instability, political divisiveness, and social inequality — such as the Great Depression or the Civil Rights Movement, the result is often public unrest and widespread protest. In order to quell state criticisms, elite political actors on both sides of the political spectrum develop campaigns that heighten public anxiety of crime by conflating political dissent with criminal activity. President Nixon, for example, ran on a campaign of “law and order” and called himself part of the “silent majority” on this issue. Regardless of actual fluctuations in crime rates, the public often accepts these messages of criminalization and tough on crime policies. This law and order rhetoric then legitimizes police and military aggressive surveillance – and at times, physical confrontation – against protesters.
We can link the current tide of mass incarceration to these types of campaigns in the 1960s and ’70s. Though the Johnson administration is lauded for taking important legislative steps in welfare reform, Elizabeth Hinton’s recent work argues that the administration simultaneously developed legislation, like the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA), that expanded police control through federal funding and toughened criminal sanctions amid a time of sit-ins, boycotts, and marches by (young) black advocates against Jim Crow practices. The Johnson administration helped create the “War on Crime,” and their political rhetoric rested upon the notions of black urban pathology and individual (as opposed to structural) economic failure.