Two Sides in the Debate: Racist Demonstrations

If we understand Donald Trump’s statement that there are two sides in the confrontation/demonstration in Charlottesville as a claim that there are two legitimate, morally serious, positions being presented in a debate about multiculturalism, then it is ignorant, disturbing, and harmful. 

But if instead we understand his statement as a claim that under the First Amendment Nazis and anti-Nazis have an equal right to present their positions to the public - and an equal obligation not to use force to silence the other side - then he is not wrong. 

US law treats the neo-Nazi advocacy of racial oppression as one side in a public debate. The American courts have said that hate groups have a right to demonstrate in public spaces as long as their speech does not incite immediate violence. Others may demonstrate their opposition to the Nazi position, but if these counter-protestors physically interfere with the Nazi marchers they will be acting unlawfully -- and interfering with the free speech rights of others. Indeed, hate mongers have found it strategically useful to present themselves as defenders of free speech. The shift from advocate of hate to defender of free speech fits well with the hate-monger’s self-understanding as victim of state oppression and defender of Western values against multiculturalism – even if it does not fit with other elements of their incoherent worldview.

In RAV v. City of St. Paul (1992), a case involving two young men who erected a burning cross on the front lawn of a black family that had moved into an historically ‘white neighbourhood’, the United States Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance that prohibited the erection of racist symbols, such as burning crosses and swastikas, on public property.

The state courts had determined that the ordinance applied only to ‘fighting words’ (speech that is likely to provoke a breach of the public peace), which fell outside the protection of the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court, however, held that the ban, even if limited to ‘fighting words’, violated the First Amendment because it was not ‘content neutral’. The ordinance prohibited racist speech (symbols) but not anti-racist speech and, according to Justice Scalia, the municipality “has no such authority to licence one side of a debate to fight free style, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules”.

The Court’s insistence on the need for fairness and balance in a ‘discourse’ involving threats and degrading insults seems misplaced. Racist speech is not simply a position in a debate on a public issue. The neo-Nazi marchers and the cross burners are not seeking to persuade their immediate audience, Jews and African-Americans, to reconsider their position – something that Justice Scalia’s boxing metaphor serves to obscure by conflating discursive and physical ‘engagement’. Nor are anti-racism and racism simply two sides – two perspectives – on the issue, each the mirror of the other. Anti-racist words and symbols are not imbued with the same violent history as the burning cross or the swastika. They are not part of a systemic practice of exclusion and oppression. Their meaning and impact are entirely different.

A burning cross, planted on the front lawn of the home of the first black family to move into a previously all-white neighbourhood, is experienced as threatening because it evokes the history of Klan violence against blacks. Similarly, a march with swastikas is experienced as threatening because it evokes the history of Nazi persecution of Jews. Those who march wearing Nazi uniforms or who burn crosses, say to their audience, ‘we want to do you harm, to murder you’. The broader context of racist violence provides a basis for distinguishing unacceptable threats – such as a burning cross -- from the ‘rough and tumble’ of public debate, which is sometimes unpleasant and impolite – such as the harsh anti-racist speech imagined by Justice Scalia in RAV. This background makes the threat real or tangible to the audience. If a racist ‘threat’ were truly an isolated act, and not part of a practice of racist abuse and violence, then it might be thought to cause nothing more than hurt feelings – or personal offence – and might be protected as part of the rough and tumble of discourse. But such threats are not isolated acts. 

Fortunately, hate speech is prohibited in Canada. The scope of the criminal ban, though, is fairly narrow and leaves considerable room for ‘white pride’ and other racist demonstrations. The desire to confront racist demonstrators is entirely understandable – but runs the risk of turning opposition to white supremacy into a competing position – or worse into Donald Trump’s “alt-left”, that is said to include both good and bad elements. This is what the more sophisticated neo-Nazis seek – to gain attention, to be seen as more important than they are, and to present themselves as front line fighters in a civilizational clash.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre has good advice for those who wish to demonstrate against Nazis and other racists: 

 “Do not attend a hate rally. As much as you might like to physically show your opposition to hate, confrontations serve only the perpetrators. They also burden law enforcement with protecting hatemongers from otherwise law-abiding citizens. If an event featuring a hate group, avowed separatist or extremist is coming to your college campus, hold a unity rally on a different part of campus. Invite campus clubs, sororities, fraternities and athletic organizations to support your efforts. Every act of hatred should be met with an act of love and unity. Many communities facing a hate group rally have held alternative events at the same hour, some distance away, emphasizing strength in community and diversity. They have included forums, parades, and unity fairs featuring speakers, food, music, exhibits, and entertainment. These events give people a safe outlet for the frustration and anger they want to vent.

A town in Germany has come up with the most creative response. The following is from a report in the Guardian in 2014:

“For decades, far-right extremists have marched through Wunsiedel in Bavaria every year, to the despair of those who live there. This year, the organisers of Rechts gegen Recht (Right against Right) took a different approach. Without the marchers’ knowledge, local residents and businesses sponsored the 250 participants of the march on 15 November in what was dubbed Germany’s ‘most involuntary walkathon’. For every metre they walked, €10 went to a programme called EXIT Deutschland, which helps people escape extremist groups. Campaigners hung humorous posters to make the march look more like a sporting event, with slogans such as ‘If only the Führer knew!’ and ‘Mein Mampf’ (my munch) next to a table laden with bananas. They even hung a sign at the end, thanking the marchers for their ‘donations’.”