By John Frederick Kaufman
Reports from the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia last Saturday make clear that the “Unite the Right” marchers, many of whom sported and voiced the hallmarks of white supremacy, had come prepared (in some cases armed with semi-automatic firearms) to instigate violence in the quiet college town. But the Charlottesville police report that 80% of all protestors that day were armed. If true, this suggests that many of the counter-protestors were willing to meet violence with violence, or at least intimidation with intimidation. This seems particularly true of so-called “antifa” or anti-fascist groups. Here’s part of a report from the NY Times:
“Groups that identify as anti-fascist — also known as antifa (pronounced an-TEE-fa) — have been physically confronting neo-Nazis, white supremacists and, in some cases, speakers who merely challenge the boundaries of political correctness on college campuses across the country.”
Such brute-force counter-protesting, it seems to me, plays right into the hands of the various fascist, white supremacist groups and is, in fact, counter-productive. Trying to counter such overt racial, etc. hatred and violence with violence of one’s own is not an effective strategy: it provides an excuse for a “both sides are hateful and violent” argument (which President Trump initially exploited) that only fuels more hate and violence. Of course, questions of personal self-defense are valid, and better policing was certainly needed in Charlottesville. But much of the violent response on the part of the counter-protestors seemed to be a giving in to undisciplined rage.
Scholar and activist Cornell West appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss his experience at the violent protest in Charlottesville. West was of the opinion that the anti-fascists and anarchists were a positive presence:
“The antifascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that . . . The white supremacy was so intense. I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life. We stood there, and nine units went by, and looking right in our eyes. And they’re cussing me out, and so forth and so on. They’re lucky I didn’t lose my holy ghost, to tell you the truth, because I wanted to start swinging myself. I’m a Christian, but not a pacifist, you know. But I held back.”
I would argue that West’s instinct not to start swinging, to hold back and restrain himself in the face of such provoking hatred was the better response and in keeping with the nonviolent protests of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement led most prominently by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I realize this is easy for me to say; in practice, practicing such nonviolent resistance is no doubt extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, it has been done successfully in American history.It is helpful to remember that civil rights for African-Americans and other minority Americans were won through a conscious, well-disciplined choice of nonviolent direct action even in the face of concerted, egregious police brutality in some Southern towns and cities. It was precisely Christian pacifism and the nonviolent tradition of India’s Mahatma Gandhi which grounded the movement for civil rights. As King said, “I am convinced that for practical as well as moral reasons, nonviolence offers the only road to freedom for my people.”
Nonviolence is also the only sustainable, moral road to the protection of democratic free speech, the preservation of civil rights and liberties and the defeat of all forms of bigotry. Liberals, all of whom I assume are anti-fascist, will not prevail by shouting down and pummeling racist speakers, engaging in provoked riots, or trying to be intimidating by brandishing weapons. To be truly anti-fascist means not adopting the threatening, brutal tactics of hate groups; it means respectfully speaking out to change hateful minds and hearts, to respect the First Amendment and liberal principles by protesting peacefully at all times.
P.S.– (8/16) Yesterday President Trump backtracked on his previous condemnation of hate groups alone for causing the violence in Charlottesville. Instead, Trump returned to the false equivalence of “blame on both sides” and pointed to what he called the “alt-left.” Peter Beinart, contributing editor at The Atlantic and a professor at CUNY, has written well on the problem of left-wing violence and in this piece– “What Trump Gets Wrong About Antifa”–explains why Trump (and some other conservatives) miss the point:
“Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.”