What just happened?
What’s still happening?
The events of the past few weeks have been exhilarating for some, disorienting for others, and distasteful for still others. Either way, it’s clear that something has happened in the country that has brought about a shocking amount of change in an equally shockingly short period of time.
Some of that change has come lawlessly—the crowds of protesters who have toppled statues in Richmond and elsewhere. Some of it has come lawfully—other localities (including Roanoke) have set in motion the removal of Confederate monuments, NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag, and the Franklin County School Board has banned the rebel flag as part of its dress code.
The latter is particularly emblematic of the change that has swept the country. In January, after a contentious debate, the Franklin School Board deadlocked 4-4 on whether to ban the flag. Last week, it abruptly changed course and voted 6-0 with two abstentions to do so. There was no intervening election, but something certainly happened between January and June. The videotaped death of an African-American man in Minneapolis under the knee of a white police officer was obviously the catalyst, but we’ve had other horrible things happen without bringing about this level of change.
Some have asked what’s different this time, other than centuries of grievances finally achieving a critical mass? Here’s a different question: What should we call this? To call this “civil unrest” may describe the looting in some cities, but doesn’t adequately capture the larger movement that, among other things, has brought about bipartisan calls for police reform—even if there’s still disagreement over what “defund the police” really means.
Here’s one way to describe what we’re witnessing: The United States is having a “color revolution.” The phrase refers to a long series of popular uprisings around the world that have often been described with a particular color or some other symbol—from the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 to the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-2005 to the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 to the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in 2010 to the Lotus Revolution in Egypt in 2011.
The first upheaval that was given a “color” name was in The Philippines in 1986 following a disputed presidential election. Longtime President Ferdinand Marcos—who had been ruling as a dictator—declared he had won. Independent observers cried fraud and declared that Corazon Aquino had probably won. We’re abbreviating a lot of complicated history, but people took to the streets and by the time it was over, Marcos had fled the country. That was considered a marvel because who knew that simply by protesting people could bloodlessly dislodge a totalitarian regime? Those protests became known as the “Yellow Revolution” because the Philippine opposition movement had first been galvanized by the 1983 assassination of Aquino’s husband, Benigno Aquino—and demonstrators had worn yellow ribbons to signify their opposition to the regime. (The ribbons, in turn, came from the famous Tony Orlando song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”)
Those were heady days for believing that mass protests alone could bring down repressive governments. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Iron Curtain along with it. The events in Czechoslovakia—today two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—became known as the Velvet Revolution. It’s worth noting how all that happened: Riot police suppressed a student demonstration in Prague. It did not have the desired result. Instead of squelching the protests, they spread. Less than a month later, communists had been driven from power. Perhaps there’s a lesson here about how not to deal with protests? The dissident Czech economist Rita Klímová coined the phrase “Velvet Revolution” to describe the events because this was a revolution that had happened so softly.
Other “color” revolutions—which, in truth, are usually named after things rather than colors—haven’t always been so peaceful, or so successful. Iran crushed the so-called Green Revolution that tried to protest the disputed 2009 presidential election. From 2011 to 2013, protesters in Russia wore white ribbons and their movement became known as the Snow Revolution—but Vladimir Putin remains in power. Belarus likewise ground down the 2006 Jeans Revolution or Denim Revolution whose name came from the blue denim that became the symbol of anti-government protesters. President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed the movement by saying: “All these colored revolutions are pure and simple banditry.” …
The one thing they have in common is that all these disparate movements involved mass protests against authoritarian regimes. That raises a question: Is the United States an authoritarian regime? No, but the Confederate symbols being toppled represent one.
The Confederacy was free enough for certain types of people, but definitely not for others. We know that already, but here’s what is less appreciated: Virginia wasn’t really a democracy until fairly recently. After Reconstruction, there was a brief period when Virginia traveled a more progressive path—building black schools, appointing blacks to state office, passing significant civil rights laws for that era. Then in the 1880s came a backlash and the conservative Democrats who came to power set about repealing as many of those laws as possible—and passing Jim Crow laws to replace them. That’s also when Southern whites reasserted their dominance in other ways—by putting up Confederate monuments to more visually say who was really in charge.
They did more than just put up statues, too. In 1902, Virginia instituted a new constitution for the express purpose of disenfranchising not just as many blacks as possible, but also poor whites—particularly in Southwest Virginia where those voters had the audacity to vote for Republicans.
Here’s how severe that disenfranchisement was—from 1900 to 1904, the number of Virginia voters was cut by more than half. Not until 1969, when Republican Linwood Holton won the governorship, was that old order defeated. So yes, for much of Virginia’s history, Virginia was an authoritarian regime, just organized differently from the ones we usually hear about.
So when protesters today haul down those statues, what we’re seeing is vandalism—but also our own version of a color revolution.