To engage or not to engage: how to resist alt-right white supremacist rallies
As the alt-right, white supremacist, neo-Nazis continue their roadshow throughout the country, there have been many discussions around how to best respond. While we all strive to dismantle white supremacy, there seems to be ongoing debate around tactics and strategies.
I had the privilege of attending a planning meeting hosted by Mayor Ed Lee at City Hall yesterday afternoon, joined by other city government officials including the Chief of Police Bill Scott and San Francisco Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis. The conference room was filled with community organizers and leaders: there were leaders from the faith community, nonprofit organizations, education institutions, protest / rally organizers, bringing a wide range of perspectives and voices to the table.
In this post, I intend to provide you with a comparative summary of those perspectives, as well as my own commentary and recommendations.
First, some basic background information to catch you up:
- The rally is being hosted by an alt-right group called Patriot Prayer
- Patriot Prayer is known for inciting violence at their previous events, which many recognize as an effective PR and recruitment tactic for the alt-right, neo-Nazi movement
- Patriot Prayer seeks to obtain a federal permit on federal land, which supersedes the state or city jurisdiction
- On federal land, you are legally allowed to carry concealed weapons, which poses a greater threat of violence
Now onto the perspectives.
Perspective #1: Do not engage, protest peacefully elsewhere (SF City’s official stance).
Mayor Lee, Police Chief Scott, and HRC Director Davis made their collective stance clear in their opening statements: do not engage with the alt-right, do not dignify them with your presence. Instead, attend peaceful counter rallies the day before (Fri, 8/25) and the day of (Sat, 8/26). The city’s #1 priority is public safety, and they are increasing security measures all over town.
This approach makes sense if you think about the goal of the city government: minimize risk, ensure public safety, reduce costs.
This seems to be the most popular perspective among liberal intellectuals and progressive elites, who believe counter-protesting at the alt-right rally is giving the neo-Nazis exactly what they want: confrontation. The alt-right is seeking attention through sensationalized media coverage while framing the left as “anti-free-speech snowflakes.” So why give them what they want? Let’s just ignore them and make them feel insignificant.
My take: I like this option because it reduces the chance of possible casualties on our side (yes, we’re taking sides, people) — it would be naive to say there will be no violence given what we’ve seen in Charlottesville and Berkeley, and I’d just hate to see folks get hurt. I also like the idea of a bunch of neo-Nazis showing up all pumped with their tucked away weapons, only to find our beloved Karl the Fog and a bunch of dog shit at the park. My concern about this approach is this: this works only if enough people choose to not show up at Crissy Field. If there’s critical mass of folks that do decide to show up, the threat of violence still exists.
Perspective #2: Engage. Confront hate face-to-face. F*ck the Nazis.
This perspective was held by Rev. Townsend (VP of San Francisco NAACP) among other leaders, who noted that throughout history, what forced change to happen was the courage shown by brave front-line fighters who stood up to oppressors face-to-face. He cited MLK Jr. and Birmingham, and noted there are young people who are ready to fight, who will be at the direct counter-protest, whether others join or not. He also reminded us that as much as this is a recruitment strategy for the alt-right, it can serve the same purpose for the left — we can inspire other passionate folks to join the movement against white supremacy. HRC Director Sheryl Davis chimed in, stating while she agrees with Rev. Townsend’s overall sentiment, she also wants to acknowledge the risk of police arrests for our young people of color participating in violent protests. “We have to be real,” said Davis, calling attention to the fact that we may be exposing our young people of color, knowing they are likely to be profiled and arrested at a higher rate.
Others community leaders validated they know people who will be at the counter-protest. Which begs the question, are we leaving our bravest folks high and dry?
My take: I am conflicted. Do I think this is the only way we can win? No. However, history tells us we got to where we are today because we had both MLK and Malcom X. Rosa Parks and Black Panthers. People who are going to Crissy Field, apparently a lot of young people, are literally risking their lives to confront white supremacists. Even if we disagree with this tactic, is it time for us to have their back? Like, is this one of those “ugh, FINE, I’ll go with you and have your back, but we’re going to talk about this after” moment? And no, I don’t think people who are going to Crissy Field are less strategic minded — I think these folks are fierce AF. I think they believe this is what solidarity looks like, and this is how history gets written. I don’t think they’re “dumb for giving them what they want.” I think they believe in their heart that alt-right extremists cannot be defeated with intellectual debates, political correctness, or campaign strategies. And I’m starting to think, in weird ass times like today, where you see decades old, toxic, oppressive violence being normalized as “extreme, but still a legitimate point of view,” perhaps just the right prescription to wake people up is a big ol’ slap in the face. Sometimes, you’ve got to fight hate with the equivalent amount of passion, uproar, and fearlessness.
As much as I’d love to see thousands of people gathered in Civic Center holding a peaceful protest, I’d love it even MORE if we could turn up 40,000 people at Crissy Field to drown out the alt-right’s noise, and immobilize them by our sheer volume. Now that would be epic.
Perspective #3: Pretend everything is fine and talk about music and dancing.
Uh, yes, this was a real comment. Two hippie white women got up and said we should not talk about politics and just laugh. They’re organizing a peace event where there will be bands and speakers, who have been instructed explicitly to not be political. Just focus on good music, food, and dancing.
My take: Somebody please hand them a Pepsi. Pepsi, please come collect your people. No, you cannot have a rally against white supremacists and not get political. This is simply insulting and offensive to the actual pain and material harm caused by the alt-right, that is being felt by communities of color and the Jewish community. Folks, please remember that you can center your protest around peace and joy and be politically conscious.
Perspective #4: All tactics are necessary. Make room for everyone.
Feng Kung, the lead organizer of Jobs with Justice SF and the co-founder of Bay Resistance, made a moving remark, explaining why they are choosing to go to Crissy Field. Kung is going to Crissy field not because they want to be violent (“No, I have a little boy that I want to come home to”), but because they believe in standing up to confront the oppressors face-to-face. And Kung asked that folks get engaged, in whatever form they choose, but to “please leave room for us.”
My take: This resonated with me a lot. No matter where we stand on the political spectrum of the left, or what our preferred tactic is, we have to remember, we’re all fighting against the same enemy right now. We have to make room for everyone, and have each other’s back. Yes, yes, and yes.
There were many more comments I didn’t get to capture here — most other comments were plugs for other events, and didn’t add much more to the perspective discussion, IMHO.
The most important takeaway is this: you have options. It’s up to you to reflect on what your engagement will look like and to ACT.
Dr. Amos Brown, a civil rights activist who worked alongside MLK Jr and the President of SF NAACP, reminded us in the beginning of the meeting that the greatest threat we have to battle during times like this is indifference. Hearing directly from someone who lived and fought through the oppression that resembles the hatred we see today was truly humbling and sobering.
My final thoughts and calls for action:
- Support all people who are participating in anti-white supremacy events
- Stop creating new events — there are a lot of options already. Build coalition, join forces, support one another, consolidate so we can achieve more with fewer resources
- Show appreciation for folks going to Crissy Field and risking their physical safety to fight for justice, instead of criticizing their tactic
- If you’re going to Crissy Field, please be prepared. Attend riot preparation workshops, read protest safety guides, watch online training videos, purchase appropriate gears and first aid kits. This is not a joke, and this is not a drill
- Wherever you are, be cautious and thoughtful about how you engage with the law enforcement. If you’re white or East Asian, be the buffer for black and brown folks, who are more likely to be profiled or targeted by the police — do not let our people, especially our brave young people, getting arrested!
- The fight doesn’t start or end this weekend. We need more education, teach-ins, strategizing to happen before and after, and ongoing, to build capacity to organize en mass, in unity; thank you Director Davis for this reminder from our youth
- We have to envision an alternative future and ground our movement in that vision — rather than centering our movement solely on opposing their vision
So what am I going to do?
I’m either going to be at Crissy Field or I’ll be supporting my fellow organizer friends at Harvey Milk Plaza, then marching over together to Civic Center to join the rally. Either way, I’ll be rocking my hottest protest outfit and my red lips (call me “fearless and fabulous”),
Want to join me? Subscribe to my mailing list here — I’ll be sending out an update prior to Saturday.