When Hate Groups Come to Town
By Howard Ehrlich
What should you do when hate groups stage a demonstration, especially when groups come to town specifically to demonstrate? The answer to this forces us to wrestle with the meaning of violence. It forces us to consider how we go about building an egalitarian society. It impels us to take a stand, even though we can’t fully resolve the issues. There is no packaged response.
Let me make my personal position clear. I believe in self-defense. I also believe that hate groups in their propaganda are attempting to dehumanize me – and that is the most violent thing possible. They are calling, at times, for my expulsion or for my extermination. Therefore, I would be morally justified in taking any action to protect myself against their violence or threat of violence. There are circumstances in which I would exert force in response, but how I would do so depends upon the aggressors, the specific form of aggression and the time and place.
That said, I will almost always choose a nonviolent response. Philosophically, I believe in both nonviolence and self-defense. As a political actor, I work to achieve a nonviolent society. I hesitate at the idea of a society without violence (which may reflect how indoctrinated I have become in this violent country), but I maintain that we can build a society in which violent acts are rare. Further, violence will never work as a means of achieving nonviolence. To act in a violent manner is to go off track. So how do we oppose hate group demonstrations and still stay on track? Ignoring the hate groups is not an option.
We, the opposition, need to begin with three questions: Who are these people and these groups? Why are they staging this demonstration here and now? What do they hope to accomplish? Knowing who these groups are will help us expose them in our teaching, our leaflets, our media contacts and our general organizing. Many of their ideas are so repellent and so bizarre that they appear at times as self-parody and not worth serious attention, but it is critical that community people know who they are dealing with and what their objectives are.
As part of the organizing/educating process, we need to be able to explain to the community why these hate groups are here. Generally speaking, they pick their target community either because of some recent ethnoviolent events or because the community is experiencing some degree of economic hard times. These events provide them with the opportunity to offer an explanation (for example, whites are under attack, immigrants are taking the jobs, and Jews are controlling the markets).
What these groups hope to accomplish is quite straightforward. First, demonstrations help maintain the morale of the demonstrators. Second, to the degree that they create a spectacle, they communicate a sense of their own power and usually some of their ideas. Third, being debated, heckled or assaulted helps legitimize them to themselves, but more importantly, to some community people. Fourth, it expands the public agenda such that ideas once considered extreme are now considered moderate by comparison. Finally, like any social movement, they are out to recruit new members. Picking up one or two people from a demonstration is a mark of success.
The first role of the opposition is to block or neutralize these goals. There are many options open. If you want to drown them out, beat them down, draw blood and run them out of town, maybe your rage for social justice is out of control. You will have allowed them to set the time and place, create a spectacle, come off as deprived of their first amendment rights and likely garner more extensive media coverage than they would have otherwise. That coverage will almost invariably paint both you and the hate groups with same brush: anti-democratic extremists. You will have squandered a “teachable moment,” that point in time, that set of social and personal circumstances, that lead people to ask for an explanation. “What is this? What’s really going on here?” At this point, people are ready to listen. At this point, we have to be ready to talk.
This is how we need to prepare ourselves. To begin with, we need to do hard research on who these groups are and what their programs are. We need to place them in the context of all the other racist, neo-nazi groups and ideologies so that people can see the character of the threat they represent. We need to be prepared to explain the social conditions that brought them to rally here and now. This is our lesson plan.
This is the time to actually build a community-wide antiracist, antifascist coalition. It doesn’t have to be and probably shouldn’t be thought of as anything more than a single action coalition brought together for the primary purpose of raising political and social justice issues. The job of the coalition is to foster a community consciousness of race and ethnic relations and the groups espousing racism. This means you get started long before the hate groups actually rally.
The form of the coalition and the kind of educational program undertaken will likely be specific to the community. It should reach the schools, religious groups and local community associations. The active presence of an opposition and counter demonstration is primary. A counter demonstration is important, but it has to be one that “fits” within the subculture of the local community. Ideally, it should cut across age and gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status and – within limits – political identification. To paraphrase an older organizing manual, “a coalition is not a dinner party.”
Coalitions tend to attract groups who want to use the coalition for their own ends as well as difficult people and those isolates in search of a political home. Coalition politics also have a tendency to drift to common denominators so as not to alienate its diverse membership. This combination of diversity and drift can be deadly. It calls often for a delicate balancing act, although I think it is important for engaged anarchists to keep their politics up front.
In terms of tactics, a festival in a location not too close to the hate group rally would be outstanding. You could even consider a parade marching to and from the festival to nearby the hate group rally. No contact. No verbal exchanges. Use your creativity. Maybe the parade could hand out song sheets and sing old civil rights songs as they go by. My counter demonstration will be fun– a hate free zone, a celebration of life. There will be speakers, of course, and music and guerrilla theater. Maybe we will have buttons or ribbons, but definitely we will have flyers, leaflets and coverage by the alternative media. This is our demonstration, we set the agenda.
In my model of organizing, we would schedule a follow-up meeting of the organizers and participants where people would get together to evaluate what happened and consider whether they may want to do something further. Seize the time.
After everyone goes home, the police pick up their barricades and the street cleaners restore the area, the news media take over. To the average journalist, racism, discrimination, hate speech, police relations and the like are not news – a rock through a store window or a skinhead getting punched out is news. So it’s up to the organizers not only to get to the media with the “big picture,” but also to help them understand who the activists are and what motivated them. With good fortune, their stories could focus on our creativity, the character of our opposition and the issues of ethnocentrism and ethnoviolence.
Howard J. Ehrlich is the editor of Social Anarchism and coordinates The Prejudice Institute.