White nationalists will wrap themselves in free speech — trying to deny them permits is useless. Instead, what’s needed is vigorous counterprotest.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year ripped away the last shred of plausible deniability about the white supremacist fascism of the so-called alt-right. A neo-Nazi plowed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-fascist counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring others. A young black man was beaten bloody by racists with metal poles in a parking lot near a police station. White supremacists marched Klan-like, with burning torches and Nazi salutes, around a Confederate statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee while chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” It was a gruesome pastiche of 19th-century American and 20th-century European race hate, newly emboldened under Donald Trump. The president later declared that there were some “very fine people on both sides” — a remark that winked at the side with swastikas and “Sieg Heils.”
The false victimhood of Kessler’s aims were on full display: “We’re not able to peacefully assemble. We’re not able to speak.”
The tragic events of that day make it all the more vile that the white nationalist organizer of “Unite the Right,” Jason Kessler, is planning an event to mark the deadly demonstration. The approval for the “anniversary” rally outside the White House was granted by the National Park Service. The application offered plans for an estimated 400 demonstrators in Washington’s Lafayette Park who would be “protesting civil rights abuse in Charlottesville, Va / white civil rights.” Kessler initially applied to hold “Unite the Right 2” in Charlottesville, and is now suing the city because it denied him a permit due to safety concerns. The lawsuit seeks to allow the demonstration to go ahead in Charlottesville, as well as in Washington, D.C., on August 12 — exactly a year after Heyer’s brutal death. The false victimhood of Kessler’s aims were on full display as news of approval for him to both assemble and speak in Washington came in: He told a local CBS affiliate, “We’re not able to peacefully assemble. We’re not able to speak.”
Even if “Unite the Right 2″ attendees do no more than chant and hold posters, their rally will still be a violent act; there’s an inherent violence to the genocidal ideology of white supremacy. The ideology’s emboldening under Trump has already provoked violent consequences: More than 60 people were killed or injured in “alt-right” violence last year alone, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center; white supremacists and other far-right extremists were responsible for 59 percent of all extremist-related fatalities in the United States in 2017. To allow “Unite the Right” to march under the banner of “civil rights” and “free speech” would be an unconscionable sanctioning of racist violence. However, the answer — from a practical as well as ideological standpoint — will not come from appealing to the National Park Service, the city, or any governmental body to have the demonstration banned.
Kessler and his fellow white supremacists have a constitutional right to publicly spew hate. In a 1969 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Ku Klux Klan member’s right to call publicly for “revengeance” (sic) against Jews and black people. In 1977, the court sided with a neo-Nazi group in its attempt to march through the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. A conservative court led by John Roberts in the Trump era is not about to overturn decades of American free speech for fascist absolutism. The government has upheld the speech rights of white nationalists with ardor. And yet for others, freedom of speech and association is increasingly under threat. Black Lives Matter activists are labeled “Black Identity Extremists” and tracked. The government swept up anti-fascist J20 protesters and threw the book at them. Palestinian rights activists could be labeled anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel under a newly proposed law.
A common misconception about the anti-fascist “no-platforming” position is that it amounts to a desire for First Amendment-violating censorship — a misconception that plays into current far-right myths of threatened rights for whites. But most “no-platformers,” myself included, know better than to call upon the government or the courts, especially under this white supremacist administration, to ban white supremacist events. Anti-fascist activists have no interest in bolstering the state’s censorial oversight, and even less faith that any such censorship would ever be applied to white supremacists.
And the criminalization of certain hate speech can do little to hold back the tides of rising nationalism. In statutes that make speech in Germany no less free than ours, for example, the display or reproduction of Hitler-era symbols, like the swastika or the Nazi salute, is banned. The legal concept of “Volksverhetzung” — “incitement of the masses” — criminalizes Holocaust denial and an array of hate speech. But the racist thugs of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West; the far-right nationalists of Alternative for Germany (who hold seats in parliament); and even explicit neo-Nazis all hold rallies and make speeches regularly and legally, replacing verboten imagery and content with veiled symbolism.
“I can still hear the screams. I can still see the flying bodies when I close my eyes, and the mangled limbs, and Heather Heyer’s turquoise blouse.”
Kim Kelly, a writer and anarchist organizer in New York (and a personal friend) was present at the Charlottesville rally alongside a number of other anti-fascist activists from the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council. “Had I not instinctively leaped out of the way when that Dodge Charger came barreling toward — and then through — the crowd of anti-fascist protesters on August 12, 2017, I would not be here today,” she told me. “As it stands now, I can still hear the screams. I can still see the flying bodies when I close my eyes, and the mangled limbs, and Heather Heyer’s turquoise blouse.” Kelly, who plans to return to Charlottesville this year “on a mission of remembrance, solidarity, and healing” told me, “I’m still amazed at the fact that these weak-willed, mealy-mouthed troglodytes are being given the opportunity to celebrate their direct role in the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of dozens of others.”
The suggestion that white nationalists should either be ignored or civilly debated misunderstands that white supremacist fascism is not a reasoned, developed political position, but a perverted desire for dominance. It simply can’t be reasoned away. The role of a successful anti-fascist counterprotest is to create stakes for the fascists: They will be exposed publicly, heckled, and confronted. But in the lead up to “Unite the Right 2,” we will no doubt see calls for respectful counterprotest, a demand for that old canard of “civility,” and renewed hysteria over the threat of antifa. On his application to the National Park Service, Kessler — who in a deleted tweet last year called Heyer a “fat, disgusting Communist” and called her death “payback time” — wrote that “members of Antifa affiliated groups will try to disrupt.”
While many in the mainstream press pronounce disgust with Trump, they parrot his “both sides” attitude. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, in the month that followed the events in Charlottesville, America’s top six broadsheet newspapers altogether ran 28 opinion pieces condemning anti-fascist action, but only 27 condemning neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Trump’s failure to disavow them. These are the commentators who would sooner decry anti-fascists than the fascists they oppose, who would no doubt also prefer to see Sarah Huckabee Sanders served with “civility” in a restaurant after defending the caging of immigrant babies in camps. They are who Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderate” in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” And it is precisely in the name of justice, without which there can be no peace, that calls for civility and order in the face of white supremacist terror must be ignored.
To allow neo-Nazis to rally en masse without vigorous counterprotest and intervention would not only be an affront to Heyer’s memory, but an abrogation in the struggle for justice. “It is easy to criticize militant action when you never leave the house or think that ‘resistance’ means sending a tweet or donating to a Democrat,” said Kelly, the organizer. “We were there. They weren’t.”