More than a year after Charlottesville, some of the alt-right’s stances — in one form or another — have entered into the mainstream conservative platform. As this has happened I have become more and more convinced that debating these extremists is not the solution. In fact, I argued for not allowing alt-right speakers from university campuses in an article soon after Charlottesville happened. So when anti-racist organizers shut down Unite the Right II in Washington D.C., I became even more certain of my position.
Among the bigger influencers of public discourse are politicians in power or those running for office. But they are not the only ones. Corporations, activists, citizens and non-citizens alike can also influence what is and is not acceptable in the public sphere. However, sometimes even fringe groups, who are normally not listened to, are able to do this too, including by hijacking a certain party or group that already shares some of their beliefs and pushing them further to the right. So when Donald Trump started his campaign by saying that “Mexicans are rapists” and then won the 2016 presidential race, the realm of acceptable discourse shifted; these views are no longer underrepresented, let alone “marginalized”. This is not to say that Trump is a part of the alt-right or has alt-right policies, but it is to say that he has made the political landscape more alt-right friendly. Considering the sheer magnitude of Trump’s racism, his appointment of white supremacist Steve Bannon as a White House advisor and the Muslim ban, one can easily see that alt-right ideology has entered mainstream political discourse.
But instead of fighting this trend in an organized manner, such as shutting alt-right rallies down, a lot of liberal students and professors have concerned themselves with having debates with bigots who parade as intellectuals. Rather than fighting for Richard Spencer’s or Jason Kesler’s right to speak on university campuses, people who claim to be committed to fighting racism, sexism and other -isms should be working to dismantle such systems of oppression, not giving the proponents of those systems legitimacy via university campuses. Not only do these views currently have a lot of institutional power in the form of the US presidency and other significant branches of government, but in a lot of ways are at the foundation on which the US was built. What was the genocide of Native Americans or the enslavement of millions of black people if not the institutional ideology of white supremacy? What was segregation and Jim Crow if not white supremacy? What is racial profiling and mass incarceration of mostly black and brown people if not white supremacy?
Of course, we live in a very different social and political world now, but that doesn’t mean that certain damaging ideologies have disappeared. They have just changed their shape. And even though things are better now, that does not mean that we should let discourses of racial supremacy re-enter the field of acceptability for the sake of some abstract notion of free speech. To me, wanting to give far-right speakers University sanctioned platforms makes us complicit in bringing these ideologies into the realm of the acceptable.
Still, politicians and university professors do not hold all of the power and are not the only ones who can challenge the new rise of white supremacy. The street is also a political space. The street provides a unique space where the Left and those with anti-racist values can undermine the far-right in a time when the former has very little institutional power. Anti-racist groups could still mobilize enough private citizens to counter the people ready to showcase explicit and violent white supremacy — people who are by no means the majority. If the Left is able to shut these rallies down, then a precedent can be set in other spaces such as academia and electoral races about what is unacceptable discourse. Judging from this year’s Unite the Right turnout in D.C. it seems that academia and politicians have a lot to learn from the strategies that anti-racist citizens, activists and journalists used over the past year.
Last year, hundreds of white men yelled Nazi salutes such as “Blood and Soil” in public without hiding under masks or hoods because they felt that their ideology had not only entered the realm of acceptability, but also power. President Trump failed to denounce the violence at Charlottesville by famously saying that there was “violence on many sides” and “very fine people on both sides” while having made a slew of political decisions that could be viewed as parallel to white supremacy at the very least. Trump may not have explicitly advocated for an ethno state, but he implemented the Muslim ban and still pledges to build a wall at the US-Mexico border — both are policies designed to keep brown immigrants out of white America. Encouraged by these kinds of actions, Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and their followers simply expressed the next logical step: overt white supremacy.
Of course, the fact that Unite the Right II failed does not mean that white supremacy has been defeated, but it does mean that a certain kind of visible and organized white supremacy has ceased to be acceptable. Even though they lacked institutional power, private citizens’ and journalists’ actions have been instrumental in the containment of this movement, at least in terms of its public performance of overt white supremacy. To understand how things went down in D.C. better, I talked to my friend Annina Chaesson, who attended the counter demonstration on the 12th of August and also wrote an article on the topic. From talking to her and following what has been happening during the past year, I have been able to identify the three main tactics that kept the alt-right crowd so small at D.C. These are: 1) revealing the identities of white nationalists by journalists, 2) not providing special metro transportation for the participants, and 3) mass mobilization of counter protesters.
Unless we happen to personally know white supremacists or we have access to a media platform, most of us cannot really participate in the first strategy for containing this movement. Thankfully, some journalists are doing the hard work of figuring out who these white supremacists are, which organizations they are a part of, and then, of course, presenting them to the public. Reporter A.C. Thompson did this exact work over the past year and then documented it through the help of FRONTLINE and ProPublica in a documentary called Documenting Hate: Charlottesville . In the documentary, Thompson shows how he tracked down specific protesters who were present in Charlottesville last year and later exposed them as members of white supremacist groups by publishing articles about them. Pretty much all of the white supremacists that he exposed ended up losing their jobs.
This strategy is effective because other members of white supremacist groups can see what the consequences of their beliefs and actions are. Last year, so many people openly held Tiki torches and yelled “Jews will not replace us” because they did not feel like there would be consequences.Over the last year, thanks to journalists like Thompson and ordinary citizens sharing articles like his, a lot of white supremacists saw their lives disrupted, such as Robert Rundo of the “Rise Above Movement”, who had an FBI investigation started about him after Thompson published a story about him and his movement. This meant that others with those views and memberships in neo-Nazi/far-right organizations could suffer the same fate. It is no surprise that some Unite the Right protesters didn’t even want to show their faces to reporters or give concrete statements, fearing that their identities could be revealed later. Two protesters even hid their faces behind American flags as a reporter asked them questions; the symbolism could not have been better.
Even though most of us cannot do what Thompson did, a lot of people resisted this violent movement in their own ways. About 10 days before the Unite the Right rally was to take place, it was reported that the D.C. metro was considering providing a separate train line for the alt-right protesters in order to “keep everybody safe.” The plan also included a police escort to the rally, meaning the state was going to provide expensive protection for people to express violent white nationalist views. When learning of the consideration for this special state protection, the Amalgated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 issued a statement in which they said that union members will not participate in giving special accommodation to the far-right protesters. “More than 80% of Local 689’s membership is people of color, the very people that the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups have killed, harassed, and violated,” said the ATU. This is a great example of what collective action can do to hinder white supremacist efforts. Even though the alt-right protesters still received a massive police escort, ATU’s refusal to accommodate people whose beliefs are a danger to a majority of their members’ lives likely played a significant role in making them feel unwelcome and perhaps unsafe, contributing to a lower number of participants.
Finally, a strategy that is always important with movements like these is mass mobilization of anti-racist protesters. Last year at Charlottesville, the two blocks of protesters were of similar sizes. However, this year it was reported that there were only a few dozen alt-right protesters but two thousand counter-protesters. The point of counter-demonstrations is usually to block the routes of the initially registered demo. Blocking is only successful if the number of counter protesters is big enough and if the police don’t help the initial demos too much.
Outnumbering white supremacists also gives rise to a humiliation factor. When alt-right protesters are so outnumbered, this discourages them from going to other rallies, which stifles their capacity to assemble large demonstrations in public spaces. Perhaps our goal should be to eventually change these people’s minds, but for now we need to make sure that organizing is very hard for them so that further tragedies like that which Heather Heyer and her family suffered can be prevented.
Annina noted: “The counter demo was organized by a broad coalition and was spearheaded by Black Lives Matter and the antifa/abolitionist block. A wide range of community organizations — socialist, queer and feminist organizations — were also involved. Over 2000 counter-protesters showed up as opposed to just over 20 Nazis, and I’d call that a success! The counter-demonstration succeeded in what it hoped to achieve: Scare away the Nazis from the streets of D.C. This was thanks to months and months of organizing work from the coalition. I only hope we can continue to ride this wave!”
We still haven’t won, obviously, but I too would call this a significant victory. As we take a moment to celebrate it, it is also important to recognize and examine the strategies that got us here. It wasn’t debating the alt-right; it was shutting them down. Instead of trying to accommodate this dangerous movement, university students and professors should start thinking about how they help resist forces that threaten the most vulnerable members of our society as well as the very principles that our society has been built on. The road ahead is no doubt a difficult one as white supremacy has to be fought on so many fronts — from bigoted discourse coming from politicians to racist immigration laws to the prison industrial complex to economic policies that keep communities of color poor. We haven’t quite figured out the most effective strategies for tackling these pervasive problems, but I think we now know how to face future rallies like Unite the Right. So instead of debating the alt-right, I once again urge that we must do everything we can to shut them down.
Elena Gagovska is a student at Bard College Berlin. This essay originally appeared on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog.