Charlottesville and a newly prominent far right have ignited debates about violence, speech, and the right way to protest against neo-Nazis.
From the alt-right gathering in Charlottesville. Photo by Jessica Lehrman.
After a week in which Donald Trump blamed "many sides" for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then days later described some of the white supremacists as "innocent," many Americans feel the need to pick which of those many sides they're on. Members of various councils that advise the president have been quitting en masse. Republican politicians have been criticizing Trump directly and indirectly. Uncowed, the alt-right—an amorphous movement that includes many white supremacists—is planning future rallies. The Ku Klux Klan announced a march in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday.
Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which traditionally defends groups' and individuals' constitutional rights regardless of ideology, seems roiled by events. On Thursday, the ACLU announced that it wouldn't defend groups that insist on marching with loaded guns. A day before, the ACLU's California chapters denounced white supremacy, saying in a statement, "If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution."
The ACLU's decision is indicative of a wider conversation happening across the country. The debate over how to treat hate speech in America is more relevant than it's possibly ever been. The prospect of actual neo-Nazis marching through a major city's street once seemed like a hypothetical—a test case about how even loathsome people have First Amendment rights to assemble. Now it feels like almost an inevitability. If one of these far-right mobs is headed to your city, you're probably wondering what you can do to voice your disgust without exacerbating a scene already filled fraught with the potential for violence and danger.
Although antifa—which is short for anti-fascists—have been around since the 1920s in Europe, the majority of the American public didn't become aware of their existence here until this year, when their clashes with white nationalists and neo-Nazis have regularly made the news. And as right-wing extremists have become emboldened in the Trump era, questions about political violence that have long been debated in some leftist circles have become mainstream—in simple terms, is it OK to punch Nazis?
Antony McAleer says that if violence were the answer, the alt-right movement would have ended in Berkeley or Oregon, sites of notable recent conflicts between the left and the right. McAleer is a former recruiter for the White Aryan Resistance in Vancouver, and says that as tempting as it may be to hit someone like white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in the face, the kind of people he used to run with thrived off of media attention and violence. Hitting them plays right into their hands, and potentially fuels the widely denounced "both sides" narrative now being pushed by the president in press conferences.
"I learned this lesson in high school," he said. "If I could get my teacher to lose their temper with me, I had power over them, because I was able to hijack their emotional state. When you get someone to lose their shit over what you're doing and provoke them, it's a feeling of power."
A woman called Red, who got involved with Antifa International in 2011 as Occupy Wall Street was falling apart, says that the threat of violence rather than overt violence itself is a great deterrent. Suiting up in all black and wielding a giant flagpole is apparently enough to scare fascists away in most cases.
"They can play a victim narrative, but in the end, what works against Nazis is a strong front," she says. "And I'm not saying necessarily violence, because a lot of antifa action that never gets covered by the media is just people standing in the street looking scary. The Nazis don't go to the media and say, 'We were gonna break all the windows in this Jewish neighborhood but then antifa got there first.'"
Then there are groups like the ACLU, who say that the best way to counter bad speech is with more speech—as long as it doesn't occur at the same time.
"It's our view on people power that we should try to mobilize people the day after," Faiz Shakir, the national policy director at the ACLU, told me. "If someone does a hateful rally, we want them to be like Westboro Baptist Church, where they hold a rally of 15 people. Like, hey, knock yourself out. We're not gonna support you to do crowd-building. We don't want to lend a hand to make the crowd look better than it was and help foment a confrontation that gives them what they're looking for."
Billie Murray is a Villanova professor who's been focusing on how people should respond to Nazis for her entire career. The academic, who studies community responses to hate speech, says that the events in Charlottesville throw almost all conventional wisdom out the window. She doesn't buy that "more speech" argument.
Historically, she says, the best response to a white power rally has been to quarantine it and choke it of the attention. After all, attention is the oxygen fringe groups need to survive. But that method only works when the group is small and disorganized. The internet has changed white supremacists' and neo-Nazis' ability to organize, and the current administration has emboldened them to to make their views public in a moment that's completely unprecedented.
Now, Murray says, drastic measures must be taken to stop the far right from metastasizing—even if that means altering the First Amendment.
Any time she's mentioned banning hate speech, like many European countries do, she's been trolled. Restrictions on free speech are regarded as anathema to lots of Americans, including powerful advocacy groups like the ACLU. But now, she says we're at a unique moment in American history. Although even as recently as last week she never would have predicted that the United States might consider banning hate speech, she says that if there was ever a moment that people might get on board, this is it.
"If you're really interested in free speech, think about who's free speech is being curtailed by an armed person in the street," Murray says. "The people who are scared to go [outside.] They're not being allowed to participate in their democracy."
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