The intolerable events in Charlottesville bring new urgency to an old debate: Should we allow neo-Nazis a public platform? Every aspect of the Unite the Right rally—not only its bloody denouement—stands as grounds for a resounding “no.” With torches, swastikas, metal poles crashing into a black man’s skull, and a Dodge Charger plowing into defenseless bodies, the far right has made undeniable what was already clear: They are enemies, not political interlocutors. This makes it all the more crucial to delineate what we do or do not mean when we demand an end to according space for speech and assembly to far-right racists.
In the last year of Trump-emboldened white nationalism, the debate, largely shaped by the far right, has rested on a fulcrum of First Amendment rights. The right of anyone to speak publicly, the neo-fascists say, is the very freedom that actual fascism would see decimated. And it is a line that has found a comfortable home with the liberal commentariat. This view finds its best iteration in that old quote so regularly misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (It was actually written by British Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)
And it was on these grounds that the ACLU defended the Unite the Right rally’s right to demonstrate at Emancipation Park on Saturday—work for which the ur-liberal organization has received censure from anti-racist activists, especially in the wake of Saturday’s terror attack. In turn, liberal commentators have jumped to the defense of the civil-liberties group and the need to defend robust constitutional rights.
Much of the anger at the ACLU stems from an understandable desire that this champion of liberal and righteous causes not give time nor resources to hatemongers. Which is to misunderstand that defending neo-Nazi speech is profoundly liberal work, however unrighteous. In defending the civil liberties of neo-Nazi organizers, the ACLU was just doing what they say they do. The mistake is to conflate the defense of liberties with the struggle for social justice. They are not the same thing, and we stymie our efforts to crush the racist far right—which we must—if we remain confined to a rights discourse.
In The Intercept on Monday, Glenn Greenwald made a reasonable point in defense of the ACLU, that “the least effective tactic [in response to an event like Charlottesville] is to try to empower the state to suppress the expression of their views.” What Greenwald left conspicuously absent, however, is that most anti-fascist “no platformers” are asking for no such thing.
We could argue for a reconfiguration of constitutional rights such that they are denied to intolerable speech, beyond the already existing statutes against incitement. An expansion of hate-speech statutes aiming to render illegal events like Unite the Right would not entail an immediate spiral into authoritarian censorship—Germany, France, and Hungary, for example, all have laws against certain Nazistic displays; in Germany, swastikas are illegal. These countries are no less “free” than America by virtue of this. But all three countries also have flourishing neo-Nazi scenes who don’t struggle (much like the American alt-right) to operate with veiled symbolism and euphemism when traditional symbols and affiliations are banned. The curtailing of existing rights is unlikely to be an effective bulwark against neo-Nazi, fascist organizing.
This is more than a question of effectiveness, however. If we reduce the question of whether to give neo-Nazis a platform to the question of whether they should have a right to a platform, we invoke the state as giver or denier of this right. And I agree with Greenwald et al. here that this is a slippery slope to avoid, especially under Trump.
But the anti-fascist project is not one of asking for better statutes or a reconfiguration of rights. Nor is it a project of asking social-media leviathans to have further oversight over content. My allies who traveled to Charlottesville to confront the Unite the Right, who shut down Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, and who punched Richard Spencer in DC are not asking Donald Trump, nor Jeff Sessions, nor any police department to take action against the white supremacy that undergirds their authority. Firstly, because such energy might as well be spent praying to gods that don’t exist. But above all because the history of anti-fascism (antifa) is not one of presuming the good faith of state power. It is not one of asking. It is a history of direct and confrontational intervention—the sort of which is itself often not protected by a rights framework. There is no right to punch Richard Spencer.
It is thus a profound misunderstanding of the antifa position (in which I include myself) to suggest we are in the business of seeing rights curtailed. We are, to take some liberties with the words of Inglourious Basterds’ inimitable Lt. Aldo Raine, in the fightin’-Nazis business. Antifa is a promise to neo-Nazis and their bedfellows that we will confront them in the streets; we will expose them online and inform their place of employ. We are not asking venues to deny space to far-right events; we are vowing that all far-right events will be bombarded and besieged.
This position has provoked paranoiac reactions from liberal centrists, citing low-level property damage and a few neo-Nazi black eyes as a rise in leftist terror. One of the major critiques of antifa is tactical, claiming that physical confrontation can backfire by alienating moderates and centrists and provoking only further violence from the right. The intra-left argument about radical counter-violence, which arises over protest tactics outside of the antifa debate, will not be resolved in these brief paragraphs. Suffice it to say that the neo-Nazi skinhead communities of the 1980s did not chase themselves out of the punk scene and into obscurity—they were fought.
As I have previously noted in this publication, the history of anti-fascism in 20th-century Europe is largely one of fighting squads, like the international militant brigades fighting Franco in Spain, the Red Front-Fighters’ League in Germany who were fighting Nazis since the party’s formation in the 1920s, the print workers who fought ultra-nationalists in Austria, and the 43 Group in England fighting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In every iteration these mobilizations entailed physical combat. The failure of early-20th-century fighters to keep fascist regimes at bay speaks more to the paucity of numbers than the problem of their tactics. That is a lesson we can learn: Gather in greater and greater numbers.
The status quo is not in the habit of shifting unless those who maintain it are under threat. The neo-Nazis of the now are not the disenfranchised and disaffected, they are not the outlying fringe—they are the tip of the iceberg of white supremacy that has been the American status quo long before Trump’s ascendancy. White supremacy has never receded, because it was asked politely. The onus is on centrists and liberals to examine their own values if they would rather decry the counter-violence of those willing to put their bodies on the line against neo-Nazis than embrace a diversity of tactics in the face of the intractable problem of racism in America.
One hopes that seeing Donald Trump deploy the same putrid two-sidesism after Charlottesville will give liberals pause for thought on the dangers of such false equivalence. After Charlottesville—and this does feel like a turning point about which we will say “before” and “after”—we can either wait for the right words from politicians and the right answers from institutions. Or we can take it upon ourselves to confront this hate where it lives, works, organizes, and assembles. This is not a question of rights, it’s a question of justice.
On Sunday, Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler attempted to give a press conference to “tell the story of what really happened.” He began by blaming “anti-white hate” for the atrocities of the previous day, but was soon forced off stage by a crowd of baying protesters, who ran after the white nationalist (who was duly protected by police). Panicked, he ran into a flower bed, eyes wide, head darting nervously. For anti-fascists, this was brief solace in an otherwise awful weekend. And, for our renewed vow after Charlottesville to Make Nazis Afraid Again, it was a promising start.