Nicholas Buccola Original

An Echo Through Time: ‘Private Property, Get Out!’

Demanding protesters avoid treading on private property has a long, racist history in this country.

By Nicholas Buccola / Original to Scheerpost

“Private property, get out! Private Property, get out!” Mark McCloskey shouted again and again, as he brandished his rifle while his wife, Patricia, pointed her small handgun – finger on the trigger – at Black Lives Matter protesters marching down the street next to their home in St. Louis recently.

The McCloskeys were just sitting down to dinner, al fresco, when they heard the marchers making their way onto Portland Place, a private street in their gated community. What a damper this must have put on what promised to be such a lovely evening. One can imagine the din of Tucker Carlson’s homespun wisdom on their kitchen television while the couple prepared their meal, Mark with his highball and Patricia sipping her Chardonnay. Perhaps that second glass was a mistake.

Not a real movie.

The protesters encountered the gun-wielding McCloskeys en route to the home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who had created a firestorm by airing the names and addresses of several protesters who called on her to defund the police. The mayor had apologized for the ploy, which I am sure seemed clever when she and her aides cooked it up.

Well, needless to say, the march did not go as planned and it is a minor miracle that there was no blood spilled on Portland Place that night. The details of the incident itself are important – e.g., getting to the bottom of just what happened to that gate that promised to keep Portland Place protected from the outside world – and will be litigated in the Court of Public Opinion and perhaps courts of law, too. But my interest here is to put Mr. McCloskey’s comments – “Private property, get out!” and his subsequent defense of his position – into a little bit of historical context.  

Mr. McCloskey has been doing the media rounds in order to justify his decision to take to the streets in his pink Polo – never had he been so disappointed to find his camo shirt in the dirty clothes pile! – with a weapon that looked a bit like the machine guns I recall from the action movies I watched as a kid. Portland Place, he has said repeatedly, is a private road. “Being inside that gate,” he explained, “is like being in my living room.” The marchers should not be seen as mere passersby. They were, in effect, attempting to curl up on his couch to watch Tucker Carlson with him. By encroaching on private property, he said, the marchers ceased to be “protesters” and became a “terrorist mob” of “Marxist revolutionaries.”

“Being inside that gate . . . is like being in my living room.”

Mark McCloskey, gun wielder

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain is reported to have said, “but it often rhymes.” This bon mot has been on my mind as I have been thinking about the McCloskeys apparent willingness to kill in defense not of their castle, but the street next to their castle.

Sixty years ago, sit-in protesters sat down at department store lunch counters where they were not welcome because of the color of their skin. These sit-in protesters dared to encroach on private property in the name of the idea that Black lives matter and, as the civil rights icon Ella Baker reminds us, what they sought was “bigger than a hamburger.” These young people encroached on that private property to assert their freedom and dignity.

Perhaps more importantly, Baker explained, these young people were doing something that went beyond their personal interests; they were concerned about the “moral implications of racial discrimination” for the entire “Human Race.” The sit-in protesters were met by threats, violence – and shouts of “Private property, get out!”

Sixty years ago, the sit-in protesters were accused of being manipulated by Marxist revolutionaries and other “outside agitators.” In an essay called “The Burning Issue in the South,” Martin Luther King Jr. laid waste to this red herring. These students, King explained, did not need to be instigated by any Trotsky wannabes; they “were anchored to lunch counter seats by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.”

The same is true of BLM protesters today. Sure, ideologues of all stripes attempt to utilize “political chaos,” to borrow the language of the late Sheldon Wolin, to fashion a new “political cosmos,” but that should not lead us to take our eye off of the core of what is happening here: Activists are calling for economic, political, and social changes that will alter the balance of power in their city. Why? Because like every other American city, St. Louis is marked by dramatic racial inequality on every level.

African Americans control, on average, approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white Americans. Racial inequality contributes to an educational system in which access, quality, and opportunity are distributed unjustly. African Americans are disproportionately stopped, questioned, harassed, and attacked by law enforcement. African Americans are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. And so, BLM protesters need not have relied on The Communist Manifesto to demand that Mayor Krewson and other city officials rethink the city’s budgetary priorities. They need only to think, as King put it six decades ago, about the “accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.”

Now, even if we concede for the sake of argument that the segregationists in the 1960s and the McCloskeys today have some solid legal ground to stand on, that ground lays atop moral quicksand. Much like Mr. McCloskey’s claim that the street next to his house was equivalent to his living room, segregationists were fond of claiming that lunch counters were the equivalent of the marriage beds of their daughters (see, e.g., every segregationist ever).

The reality is that the street next to McCloskey’s home is no more his living room than the lunch counter is the marriage bed of the segregationist’s daughter. It is also worth asking, as W.E.B. DuBois did almost a century ago, “Who in hell wants to marry your daughters?” and if romance is to be found at the lunch counter, daddy better get over it. I suppose the equivalent here might be, who in hell wants to hang out with the McCloskeys? I think I’ll pass. They don’t seem to play well with others. 

It is tempting to dismiss the McCloskeys as simply taking things a step too far in their quest to get one of those coveted keynote speaking spots at the Republican National Convention, but I think we ought to take them seriously. Look into the crazed eyes of Patricia McCloskey with her finger on that trigger and you will see the apotheosis of making America great again.

Nicholas Buccola
Nicholas Buccola

Nicholas Buccola is the author of The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in AmericaHe is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College.

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