When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned of a French Revolution taking place in the Democratic Party, liberals either mocked him or insisted that the French Revolution was good because it toppled a monarchy. Yet Graham’s warning came amid nationwide riots following the death of George Floyd — riots with more than one echo of Jacobin lawlessness. On Sunday, instigators camped out in front of the home of Jeff Bezos with that quintessential symbol of the French Revolution — the guillotine.
Drew Hernandez, host of the web show “Lives Matter,” shared horrifying footage of a guillotine in front of Bezos’s house in Washington, D.C. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and the world’s richest person, now owns The Washington Post.
A sign in front of the guillotine read, “Support our poor communities, not our wealthy men.”
DC protesters have set up a “guillotine” in protest of Jeff Bezos in front of his complex in DC pic.twitter.com/VZ0AWTJqaV
— Drew Hernandez (@livesmattershow) June 28, 2020
“When they become threatened, and we have no voice, the knives come out,” one masked rioter declared before the guillotine. Spectators applauded loudly.
DC protester says: “when they become threatened, and we have no voice, the knives come out.” In front of a guillotine set up in front of Jeff Bezos complex in DC pic.twitter.com/synjRwgD1H
— Drew Hernandez (@livesmattershow) June 28, 2020
A flyer for the event, apparently distributed by a group called “Abolish the Present. Reconstruct our Future,” called for a “March on Jeff Bezos’ House” on Sunday.
“Amazon works directly with police to surveil us, stoking racist fears in the name of profit. Doubling down on their union busting and mistreatment of workers, Amazon fired and racially slandered our labor organizer Chris Smalls. Join us to tell Jeff Bezos enough is enough!” the flyer reads. “END THE ABUSE AND PROFITEERING. ABOLISH THE POLICE, THE PRISONS, AND AMAZON.”
— abolish the present / reconstruct our future (@AbolishTheNow) June 27, 2020
Chris Smalls, the Amazon employee referenced in the flyer, helped lead a strike at a New York Amazon fulfillment center in March. He had previously been in close contact with a man who tested positive for the coronavirus, so Amazon ordered him to enter quarantine for 14 days with pay, but he left quarantine to lead the strike, potentially exposing workers. After Amazon fired him, he claimed the termination was unlawful.
This guillotine event followed a recent internet debate over the French Revolution, during which some leftist journalists — including an editor at The New York Times — initially defended the French Revolution as a sort of democratic change, removing a king to establish a republic.
While the French Revolution did involve a popular uprising that toppled a monarchy, it also devolved into a Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794) under the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre. After the revolutionaries used a guillotine to behead King Louis XVI in 1793, the squabbling factions began executing nobles, priests, and eventually revolutionaries who disagreed with them. Robespierre himself infamously found his own head chopped off after he led this terror in the name of republican “virtue.”
Under Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, France renamed the months of the year, swapped the 7-day week for a 10-day week, and murdered hundreds of priests in an attempt to wipe out Catholic Christianity in France and replace it with the Cult of the Supreme Being. Ironically, the revolutionaries cut off the heads of statues of kings in the Notre Dame Cathedral, thinking they were the kings of France — when they were really the biblical kings of Judah.
Ultimately, the French Revolution failed. Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, conquered large swaths of Europe, and then lost the definitive Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The victorious allies installed a new king, Louis XVIII.
The Reign of Terror, best symbolized by the guillotine, has gone down in history as the central proof of the maxim that revolutions devour their own. This period of the French Revolution convinced many of the folly of revolution in general, and it terrified the rest of Europe. Other European leaders sought to hamstring France after the Napoleonic Wars in part to prevent anything like this from happening again. (Interestingly, some leaders of the Paris Commune, of which Seattle’s
CHAZ/CHOP/Antifastan may be a distant echo, tried to emulate the Reign of Terror.)
The protests over the horrific police killing of George Floyd devolved into looting, vandalism, and arson across America that feature distant echoes of the Reign of Terror. While perpetrated in the name of protecting black lives, these riots have destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 20 Americans, most of them black, have died in the riots.
The riots have also hypercharged a symbolic and personal cancel culture reminiscent of the Reign of Terror. Like the revolutionaries who beheaded statues of the Kings of Judah, modern iconoclasts who started by attacking Confederate statues have moved on to vandalizing and toppling statues of Union generals along with national heroes like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. They even vandalized statues of Mahatma Gandhi and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black Union volunteers.
On a more personal level, people have found themselves fired for expressing wrongthink — or standing too close to the vicinity of wrongthink. A church lost its lease because the pastor “liked” supposedly offensive tweets. A professional soccer player was fired over his wife’s tweet. New York Times op-ed editor James Bennet resigned amid backlash for publishing an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), condemning the riots while supporting peaceful protesters.
While these echoes of the Reign of Terror are extremely worrisome, it seems downright astonishing that protesters would use a guillotine as a symbol during the riots. Even Robespierre would likely agree that at this early stage, a guillotine might be a bit too on-the-nose.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.