I’m less worried about Trump being president than I am about the fact that, on any given day, 35%-40% of Americans support him. And while not all of these Americans are active, overt, white supremacists, sexists, xenophobes, etc., they don’t seem bothered by the presence in their midst of those who are. And they will be with us after Trump and company are gone.
And as disturbing as this may be, we should not find it surprising. After all, this nation was founded upon, and continues to exist as, a nation where those enjoying white male privilege refuse to give it up without a fight. There are, of course, real neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis in America today. Those swastika waving protesters in Charlottesville, and those chanting, “Jews will not replace us”, are examples of the real thing. And it’s important to make this distinction, and to realize that they are growing in number.
It’s equally important to properly access just how far along this new neo-Fascist movement has gotten so far. Some on the left these days, who should know better, are so angry that they argue, and act as though they truly believe, we are already at the very edge of being a Fascist country. And on the other hand, there are those on the left who should know better who also truly believe, and act, as though this new neo-Fascist scare has been over-blown, and that these hateful bigots are mainly just a bunch of ideological misfits, not to be taken too seriously.
We are not at the point of America becoming a Fascist nation, but we sure as hell should take very serious those growing number of Fascists and their fellow travelers.
Both are very wrong. We are not at the point of America becoming a Fascist nation, but we sure as hell should take very serious those growing number of Fascists and their fellow travelers who, if not taken serious, can well take us much further down the road to Fascism, if not to Fascism, itself.
The reason for the rise in what we will call, generically, “hate groups,” here, and for that matter abroad, is obvious. It is the result of a worldwide crisis for the capitalists and, in this country, the election of Donald Trump as President. Trump’s bigoted snake-oil appeal to that large section of Americans who have essentially been abandoned by both capitalist parties in America, has resulted in the more open expression and semi-legitimization of a great deal of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. That is, that which was once unacceptably racist or misogynist, is now, for a significant segment of the population, just “another opinion”, just “another point-of-view”. Then, too, there is the matter of immigration, and the massive world refugee crisis, the Internet and Alt-News, and Fox News, and an ever-expanding network of hate group web sites, all of which have helped the hate-group movement grow in this troubled environment.
The question of whether the First Amendment should protect neo-Nazis or other hate groups is not a new question. Now, I am an absolutist where speech and the First Amendment are concerned. My principle motivation for this belief is not a desire to provide protection to hate groups or so-called “hate speech,” but to protect those who in this society are inevitably the ruling classes’ first targets for censorship. In short, I know that in this Country, if the Nazis can gather and freely spew their hatred, the chances of antiwar protesters, civil rights protesters, women’s rights protesters, and immigrant rights protesters being censored when they gather in public protest, is greatly reduced. And as for the argument, “but you can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, so why, for example, should you be allowed to call all black people sub-human in America, which can also lead to a reaction from the public that could result in great bodily harm”? “Why?” Because the public square, the public street corner, is not an enclosed space; and, so, while one can ignore and move away from “hateful fighting words” in the public square, one can’t be expected to ignore a scream of “fire” in a crowded theater and safely navigate through the panic it might cause when people start pushing and shoving their way to the exit.
A very troubling consequence of the rise of these hate groups is that research and public opinion polls show that among millennials (ages 18-34), 40% believe government should be allowed to regulate certain types of offensive speech. And polls now report that 66% of Democratic college students and 47% of Republican college students think that it can be ok for a college administration to withdraw a speaker’s invitation to come to the campus and speak. And no less a constitutional scholar and advocate for the First Amendment than Erwin Chermerinsky, the new Dean of the University of California at Berkeley Law School, thinks there may be a limit to how much money a college has to spend for public safety in order to allow very controversial speakers to give a talk on their campus. I find all of this truly troubling.
From my perspective, another troubling development is that the ACLU has now decided not to represent groups that, in open carry states, plan on holding a protest where some protesters will be carrying guns. As a long time ACLU member, myself, I am saddened by this decision. After all, as Norman Siegel, former New York ACLU Director said, in a letter signed by a number of long-time ACLU members, “refusing to represent armed groups as free speech clients would have meant turning down, say, the Black Panthers.” I agree completely. Also, groups opposing hate-groups might, in open carry states, also start bringing guns to their rallies. I would prefer neither side did this, but, as the letter from Siegel and others notes, “making presumptions about a group that carries arms may be used to invent rationales for declining to represent certain clients”.
The question that I would most like to spend my time addressing today is how we who oppose these hate groups should respond when hate groups plan a march or rally, or one of their members is scheduled to speak in a public forum. Here, again, I am an absolutist. That is, no matter what, I do not believe hate groups should ever be ignored. Generally, but not always, we who are opposed to such groups have some advance notice that the group plans on assembling, or that a far-right speaker is going to speak. That is what started happening in Los Angeles not long ago. And every time we learned of such a planned hate-group gathering we organized our own forces to show up at the same place and time. And on virtually every occasion we ended up out numbering the hate-group crowd by at least 100 to 1. The result? Basically, these hate groups haven’t been gathering on the public streets of Los Angeles any longer.
Of course, while they might have abandoned L.A. for the moment, these hate groups have not dissolved. They have regrouped and have now adopted the strategy of targeting smaller towns and communities. But the way to respond is no different. Starting back in July, a neo-Nazi group decided to target the Committee for Racial Justice at the very progressive and activist church in Santa Monica, known as the Church in Ocean Park. A handful of neo-Nazis and white supremacists charged into the meeting hall in the Virginia Avenue Park, in Santa Monica, where the Committee met, and shouted racist slogans and completely disrupted the meeting.
The same thing happened again in August. So, prior to the September meeting of the Committee, I trained 60 members of the Church in how to organize against and, on the day of the protests, defend against such attacks. I also called my friends at Clergy and Laity United for Justice and Peace, and asked them to recruit clergy members to come to the September meeting. I also asked various progressive groups I work with through the Lawyers Guild, to send their members to the park and meeting place on the day of the Committee’s September meeting. And we publicly criticized the Santa Monica City Council and Mayor for not, previously, having taken any action in defense of this Church group.
On the day of the September meeting of the Committee for Racial Justice, the meeting room in the Park was filled to its 120 person capacity. At least 15 members of the clergy, of all faiths, attended. So did several City Council members and the Mayor. And outside, in the Park surrounding the building, more than 300 anti-Nazi protesters showed up. The result? Only one clearly mentally ill guy showed up and ranted racist crap for a while. But no Nazi’s. Later, we learned a few had driven by and, apparently seeing the large crowd in opposition, kept right on driving.
That leaves at least one more important issue. What if 100 or more hate group members do hold a rally and several hundred, or more, anti-hate group members show up to counter-protest? How should we, the counter-hate protesters, behave in the face of angry and often violent behavior from the hate-group members? Well, I am not a complete pacifist, so if physically attacked, I would normally defend myself as well as I could. But at such dual protests, there will almost certainly be police present. And it is their job to defend protesters on both sides.
So my advice to we, the counter-hate protesters, is to not engage, at all, with the hate-group protesters, no matter how infuriating their rhetoric or actions. Just outnumber them and out shout them and win the battle of ideas with our slogans and our rally speeches. Oh, I suppose the day could come when we are so close to becoming a Fascistic nation, that it comes down to pitch battles in the streets. But we are nowhere near that point. And so long as we so greatly outnumber them; so long as the police continue to do their job; then it is critical to the success of our counter-hate movement that we be vigilant and militant in our opposition, but peaceful in our behavior, less we be equated in the public’s mind with those we are opposing.
One last point. I know our country has moved dangerously down the road of hatred and division, of exclusion and fear of the “other”; down the road of unthinking and uncompromising tribalism. And I know where, if we don’t change direction, that road leads. We’ve been down that road before, but in the past we always ultimately won the day.
And so if we again today do what we know needs doing; if we never stop fighting this new movement of hate and division out of fear or fatigue; and, if we remember the lessons of history, then I truly believe that our Nation will awake from the nightmare of bigotry and hatred that haunts us again today. Yes, I truly believe we can, and will, again win the fight for the political soul of our Country.
Executive Director, National Lawyers Guild, L.A.