When a Punch Isn’t Enough: How to Prepare for Nazis, White Supremacists, and the Alt-Right in Your Town
In January 2017, Breitbart’s Dangerous Faggot Tour came to the University of California, Davis, with its headliner, Milo Yiannopoulos, and a sideshow, the infamous “Pharma Bro” (and now jailbird), Martin Shkreli.
Davis—a small college town outside of the capital city, Sacramento—rarely makes national headlines, but with high-strung tensions and an expected confrontation, media outlets showed up on the UC Davis campus. They got what they came for: images of protesters and Milo fans shouting at each other; one person arrested; and Shkreli hit in the face with something alleged to be dog poop. Breitbart circulated rumors that the protests had turned violent and that protesters were armed with hammers and had broken windows, rumors that were immediately picked up and amplified on social media. Reporters on the scene and UC Davis countered that no such violence occurred, but many either missed the correction or disbelieved it.
Lost in the media furor was the concerned and thoughtful response of the campus and town communities in advance, during, and after the event, including petitions, open letters, articles, and offers of protection to marginalized students targeted in Yiannopoulos’ previous speeches, particularly LGBTQIA students after a non-binary trans student at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, was mis-gendered and mocked during Yiannopoulos’ presentation there. (The student watched this from the audience, terrified of being outed, and was so enraged by incident and the university’s subsequent tepid defense of her that she withdrew from UW.) On the night of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled talk, student groups scheduled two alternative events: “Change the Conversation,” a dialogue with MTV’s “Decoded” star, Franchesca Ramsey, and trans activist, Cece McDonald, and a presentation from the Dog Whistle Project on coded racist messaging and how to counter it.
The efforts of these multiple groups never entered the national discussion, preempted by 30-second video clips of the protests. While many in Davis tried to highlight the ways that Yiannopoulos’ events threatened marginalized communities, Breitbart skillfully steered the conversation to the question of free speech, a strategy of weaponizing the First Amendment that underpins the media brand as well as continues longstanding right-wing attacks on mainstream media and, especially, institutions of higher education.
In the months since the UC Davis protests, the right wing has staged several more battles: Seattle, Berkeley, Charlottesville, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Berkeley again. As I write, neo-Nazi Ken doll Richard Spencer is holding an event at University of Florida in Gainesville, where student protesters are drowning him out by chanting, “Go home, Spencer.” While the right wing inevitably expresses outrage at the “intolerance” of the left in protesting and working to shut down their platforms, leftist protesters seem most at risk for bodily harm at these events. In Seattle, a Milo supporter, Elizabeth Hokoana, shot a protester, Josh Dukes, in the stomach. The bloodiest right-wing event this year was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer and wounding others, and where six men viciously beat DeAndre Harris in a parking lot next to a police station. After Spencer’s rally at UF yesterday, three men in a car taunted a group of anti-Spencer protesters at a bus stop with Nazi chants. The car pulled away when a protester hit the car with a baton, then stopped, and one of the men came out of the car and shot at the protester.
The fact that right-wing groups continued to organize gatherings after Heyer’s death proves they have no intention of retiring this provocative strategy. Concerned citizens opposed to hate groups must therefore understand and prepare for them. Activists need to be creative in organizing broad-based and inclusive protests. Although this is hardly a definitive to-do list, I hope this collection of tactics can serve as a starting point for deflating the power of the right wing, ensuring that communities under threat have some protection, and helping protesters to effectively communicate their message.
What do we know about the right-wing strategy of holding rallies?
1.They weaponize “free speech,” and the law is usually on their side. Right wing organizations love to hold rallies at Berkeley because it is the site of the Free Speech movement, which allows them to argue that the left is being hypocritical by denying their bigot-du-jour a stage and a megaphone to spread their hateful message. It also allows them to elide the difference between giving a voice to marginalized communities that are often unheard and permitting full-throated statements of prejudice that have not been “polite” to say in recent years (for good reason).
While non-lawyers often think that such speech must surely cross the line from protected speech to incitement, the standard for proving incitement is quite high, and the consequences for public institutions that curtail freedom of speech is likewise high. While a trans student, for example, could claim harassment and intimidation due to gender under Title IX, the consequences for violating Title IX are much less severe than for violating the First Amendment.
Finally, many on the left are reluctant to curb even hateful speech because any new restrictions could be used against marginalized communities to further silence them. The ACLU is particularly wary in this regard. While I believe that the virulent, hateful speech of right-wing provocateurs is threatening and traumatizing to marginalized communities, the left needs to be cautious and strategic around free speech rights in order not to boomerang on those same communities.
2. Provocation is a strategy. Your College Republicans group on campus has likely been trained by a conservative group affiliated with the GOP to video student protests in order to cast them as violent and out of control. Such footage allows conservatives to immediately seize control of the narrative, as negative news of violence travels quickly and widely while corrections disseminate more slowly. By portraying student protesters as violent, they gain general sympathy as “victims” of an attack. Antifa and other anti-right wing activists have noticed that individual demonstrators will often approach and attempt to “bait” protesters while another person—perhaps unnoticed in the distance—videos or live-streams the encounter. Organizers need to be wary of this play.
3. Colleges and universities are favorite targets. The right wing has been laying siege to higher education since the red scare of the 1950s and the student movements of the 1960s. Right-wing speaker tours are just one front in the campaign to delegitimize universities, which are seen as vectors of leftist ideology. On the one hand, right wing groups demand that professional provocateurs (many of whom already have access to broad audiences through television, radio shows, websites, social media, etc.) be allowed to spout vile ideas without interruption from protesters; on the other, they seek to intimidate, threaten, silence, and fire “liberal” professors (often women and people of color)—a far more consequential suppression of free speech. While right-wing think tanks and funders (such as the Koch brothers and the Mercer family) develop long-range strategies to assail higher education, students at these institutions constantly turn over, making consistent and long-term pushback against this campaign challenging. Opposition to right-wing speakers must take this larger context into account.
4. The right wing controls its own narrative. The right has been fomenting distrust of the mainstream media for decades while simultaneously cultivating its own media environment. Many in right-wing movements get their information solely from their own sources. When a singular, high-profile event like a campus talk happens, right-wing media is essentially able to push out instant “talking points” that are often echoed through the social media feeds of their audiences (and bots).
Protesters will therefore be at a disadvantage in trying to coordinate and amplify their message on the day of the event. This makes advance planning essential.
What are some of the best ways to oppose them?
I’m not going to advocate punching Nazis, but I’m not going to condemn people who do, either. The right wing has shown that its members are not adverse to using violence—many of them embrace it. Many peaceful anti-white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, including clergy, expressed relief and gratitude that antifa protected them from right-wing aggression.
Bearing in mind that right-wing activists include inciting protesters and catching them being “violent” as a major goal of these events, however, it’s vital to use a variety of tactics and find ways to counter—or preempt—the right-wing narrative while also endeavoring to keep communities under threat safe from wound-up fascists.
1. Make them look ridiculous. Yes, they’re a genuine threat. Nevertheless, there’s something also funny and sad about their fear and paranoia about people they don’t know. Black people! Immigrants! Men with beards and turbans that they think are Muslims but aren’t! Transmen in bathrooms! It’s as if Queens or West Hollywood is their worst nightmare (which could make a great haunted house for white supremacists). Take a leaf from the book of Matt Buck, playing ominous music on his Souzaphone next to a white supremacist march. Brilliant. (Bagpipes also work.)
2. Make them fund their enemies. Ask protesters to sponsor a Nazi. Assign every right-winger who shows up a protester who has committed to contribute to an organization on their behalf, such as Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, the National Immigrant Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center — any cause that they despise and that fights their twisted ideology. (This is a great way to involve people who cannot physically show up due to ability, safety, or other barriers.) If there’s a march, mark off distances in $5 or $10 increments. The more of them there are and the farther they march, the more money flows to their opposition. Let the right-wingers know who they’re fundraising for! Keep a tally of how many dollars raised!
3. Document who shows up. They may legally have a right to spew their noxious views, hold an event, or march with the proper permits, but that doesn’t mean they are protected from the natural consequences of advocating for hatred and prejudice under the guise of “defending free speech.” If they’re proud enough to march in the streets shouting “Blood and soil!”, they should be proud enough to admit they did so to their employers, like this guy and this guy.
4. Share your safety concerns. Especially if you are white, write or call your mayor, your chief of police, and your district attorney, and tell them you expect them to be proactive about keeping your town and/or campus safe from fascists, who have a documented record of being violent. Tell them to be attentive to community centers that may be targeted after the event, such as synagogues, mosques, Sikh temples, African American churches, LGBTQIA centers, and neighborhoods with immigrants. If your fellow residents and neighbors are harmed by hate-mongers, you will hold them responsible and expect prosecution. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper to voice your opposition to out-of-town bigots coming to disrupt your city by generating fear and a threat of violence. Insist that your city, the hosting venue, and/or organizer(s) ban all weapons from the event. No one needs a rifle to exercise their freedom of speech. (More ways to be a white ally? Do this.)
5. Be like Boston. At the “Boston Free Speech” rally, protesters showed up in far greater numbers than attendants. Black Lives Matter Boston kept the peace, which included disciplining protesters who lost their tempers. They reminded protesters that if they initiated any violence whatsoever, black and brown people at the protest would suffer most. Rally attendees were so disheartened by their tiny numbers and the lack of exciting violence porn to post to their media outlets that they ended the event early.
(NOTE: Consider local gun laws when you think about how close to get to white supremacists. Militias will open carry if allowed, and many white supremacists will have concealed carry permits.)
6. Don’t underestimate the power of silence. I don’t mean remaining silent and passive in the face of the right; I mean showing up and having an organized, disciplined, silent march or demonstration. Illustrate how some people in society get to exercise their free speech loudly and obnoxiously while others are silenced.
7. Upstage them. Overshadow the right-wingers with a more newsworthy event. Hold a larger event with the biggest headliners you can find and promote the hell out of it. Many local notables will be happy to participate. Make it fun! Flashy! Leftist humor is so much funnier than right-wing humor, and no one can compete with people of color and the LGBTQIA community when it comes to a dance party.
8. ORGANIZE your solidarity AHEAD. Which constituents are most threatened? Who will be targeted? Immigrants? Trans folk? African Americans? Religious minorities? Find out how you can support them right away. Know what organizations serve these communities and look for information ahead of the event about what assistance they need to protect their people. Reach out and let them know you are available to help. If you belong to a community organization, a student group, a faith community, etc., prepare statements of solidarity. If a right-wing speaker attacks these communities, be poised to call them out immediately and have talking points ready about how these communities—your neighbors—contribute so much more to your city and America than these vile out-of-town hate-mongers. And who asked these despicable people to come anyway? What’s the agenda of the event sponsors? Make sure your chief of police is prepared to enforce hate crime laws, document hate crimes, and make that information available to the public.
9. Have a media strategy. Remember that the right wing is already a step ahead with media? Think about how you will try to make up that gap. Use your local advantage by getting your narrative out in local and social media before the event. Anyone who has a compelling, personal story about how a right-wing speaker will directly affect them should write an op-ed and have talking points ready. Agree on a hashtag for the opposition. Don’t be shy about approaching reporters on the scene, but be clear about your message, such as “hate has no place in our community.”
10. Think safety. Learn about safety protocols for demonstrations. Hold a street medic training. Find out who in your community are certified legal observers.
The Nazis succeeded with the complicity of the German people. Therefore, it’s incumbent on every single American who disagrees with this poison to refuse to comply. We must instead come together and actively oppose it — overtly, resolutely, and relentlessly. They will only win if we let them. Don’t let them.
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