[Last summer, the National Socialist Movement, a white power group, held an anti-immigration rally in my current home of Knoxville, TN. This is an albeit dated review of that action and our counter-protest.]
Exempting an ultraleft “anarchisty” youth, I have always regarded white power counter-protests with ambivalence. I haven’t been confident that they “do” anything. Most actions that look like this are intended to raise awareness among the non-activist public about issue-x, with a longer term view to movement-building. But everyone is already opposed to overt racism. Like scientific theories, you want your actions to be fecund, to set up momentum for future actions; but this campaign is so immediate and defensive, it isn’t clear where it “goes” after its all over. You either run these guys out of town, or drown them out—and then what?
But with a Nazi group marching a stone’s throw from my home (even closer to where I work), I committed to go. I was genuinely open to some aggro shit. I was ready to go all antifa left-wing futbol hooly on some asses. This reflected both a tactical preference (more on that below) as well as, to be frank, less noble hypermasculinist motivations. I had no reason to expect there would be room for scrapping, though, and there wasn’t. (I was on probation anyway.)
The group that held the rally is the National Socialist Movement (NSM). My clandestine forays onto various white power boards give me the impression that NSM is the hate group most likely to be (a) praised in superlative terms, as well as (b) mocked and scorned, by their racist peers. They earn respect by maintaining high member rolls and “putting in a lot of work,” but the “realist” David Duke-ish contingent see a credibility threat in their cheesy faux-military maneuvers, Nazi suits, ranks and such.
The rally promised to be a fairly big deal as these things go. NSM called their Knoxville visit “The Stand in the South”—not a stand, nor one stop on a serial stand, but “The Stand.” This follows two weeks of white power events in 2007 where other groups tried to get the murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom prosecuted as a black-on-white hate crime. There is some evidence these groups see Knoxville as a relatively friendly place for their kind of work and want to turn it into some kind of regular gig. Many antis (as in, anti-racists) I talked to with were motivated to counter-protest because they got the same impression.
I attended with nine middle-TN comrades (some in the little-c friend sense, some in the big-C socialist-ally sense). I had met all but one only recently via the MTRF campaign (defending the Murfreesboro mosque plan from Islamophobic Tea Party types).
I mentioned being ambivalent. Ambivalence is a mind-state; in terms of action, I went all out. I tore an old t-shirt (red, consequently) to make a “protest rag” (this is for anonymity to cops and to racists, and to be able to walk, not run, if the gas came.) I haven’t worn one of these for years. It is arguably cheesy. But it felt good. I felt strong, and socialist as fuck.
Our group arrived in downtown Knoxville’s Market Square around 1:30. I had a vague plan to meet a local activist, Richard Butler, to whom I’d only spoken by phone. (I know him better now.) He is from the second of two ARA groups in town, which he started on the premise that the original had become too exclusive in an effort to shed the network’s “punky” image. I think he also complained that they prefer the hippy-dippy dancing stuff to any kind of direct action. (Needless to say, this Richard Butler should never be confused with the like-named founder of the Aryan Nations.) Richard B. was there but was still waiting for his people. He and lots of others were saying, with some desperation of tone, that the NSM was “already at the courthouse” (the site of their rally). This was 1.5 hours before they were scheduled to march there from the Square. I concluded they had marched early, ostensibly to avoid close contact with angry antis. (Granted, they would’ve had a police escort, but this is more porous than the barricade that would be waiting for them at the rally.) This was a mistake; they marched around 3:00, as scheduled. I was the victim of honest misinformation. (I found this out only after bombing the white power sites with charges of “chickenshit.” But fuck it.)
So we left Richard to wait for his people, arriving at the courthouse area around 2:00. The “free speech zone” was set up in a section of Gay Street right across from the courthouse. Barricades ran the length of this street and turned the corner onto a section of Gay Street (to the left of the FSZ, facing the courthouse), where the NSM would march in from to get to the courthouse lawn. (At one point, I would think to heckle NSM for being homophobes “parading” down “Gay Street.”) We were advised by an unofficial anti spokesperson that the cops guarding the entrance to the FSZ would not permit water bottles to pass. (It was a pretty hot day.) There was some speculation that the cops were trying to “dry out” both sides; luckily, a light rain would provide some relief in time. Cops were checking bags and frisking everyone going into the FSZ, so we left our bottles with the Food not Bombs people, who promised to watch all contraband until 4:00 PM. (I also had mace, which I hid in a bush.) I later heard people swear the cops permitted mace, tazers and other weapons (not guns) if you declared them, but I can’t verify that.
* * *
We spent maybe an hour in the Zone waiting for the NSM guys to turn onto Main Street. Eric Bell, part of our contingent, is a documentary filmmaker—not aligned with any political group—doing a piece on the ‘Boro mosque protest. He took this time to film our opinions on the NSM thing. Apparently, NSM were frisked a second time at the Gay-Main corner, just out of sight, which (if not other factors) made them late for the protest. (This also inspired another jeer: “Late for your own rally? I thought you sons of bitches made the trains run on time.”)
I have to mention the huge law enforcement presence. I am piss with estimating numbers but cops were simply everywhere. Surely there were a couple to few hundred to be seen from the FSZ. Some were inside the Zone, and a sniper set up in the balcony above us. A few were on the courthouse lawn with the Nazis. There were various armored vehicles, paddywagons, helicopters, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. about at any time. FBI, THP, KPD, and SWAT (or whatever we call them here) were represented. One assumes there were undercover cops too. A line of riot cops lined the street side of each Gay Street barricade, one line facing us and another facing the NSM.
As with the water ban, it is hard to see a benign rationale in this degree of force. Nor do I suspect it is a product of mismanagement, a “waste.” Whatever else it is, it is an exercise, a test of the police infrastructure. And you can bet it’ll be used on us eventually; this protest was the only time any of us activist-types could recall having been on the other side of the batons. (Funny: The city made the NSM wear all black for identification, and they have a penchant for military regalia to boot (which is often black anyhow). A couple of times, new contingents of riot cops marched into view and it was hard to tell right away that they weren’t NSM.)
* * *
Here’s an aside: Speaking of bombarding the white power sites, a little more than half the youtube footage of this event was put up by NSM or their sympathizers. Of course, I lustily taunted them in the comments about needing police escorts. Here’s a snippet:
The police were there to protect you homos from yourselves. Several of the NSM marchers are ex-military and could have easily taken all of you on.
You should tell the cops that. That would contradict every public statement they have made re. this and the previous rally. As you well know, the NSM are under discipline not to attack the antis; the police know this also and given the history of previous rallies, they have no reason to expect NSM to act out. “The Commander” is simply flexing nuts (as are you) when he says otherwise.
Also, how many NSM members are “ex-military”? More than 10% of the antis?—because that’s the proportion of ex-mil in society at large. Surely you aren’t claiming that NSM could beat 50 ex-military among the antis (10% of 500), which surely neutralizes their own “ex-mil advantage,” plus all the rest of the hundreds of antis? I assume you’re joking here.
Talking shit, or the ethics of such
Around 3:00 the NSM folks began to appear, crossing Gay Street onto the courtyard. They trickled in rather than marched or paraded or anything. This may have been, again, because they were being fed through patdowns just out of view. This entrance point was the closest we ever got to them, at least those of us bunched on the left side of the FSZ; plus, there was only ever one or two NSM walking past at any one time. This made it possible to call specific racists out, get them to focus on you in particular, and have a kind of direct personal exchange with them. Between comrade J. Westbrooks and myself, we talked more shit than a pro wrestler. Of course, this continued when the rally cranked up, but the noise level and distance between us was never as accommodating again.
The shit-talking in general brought up issues of its own (in no particular order):
(1) There is a preponderance of obese Nazis both in general and in the NSM. In fact, I’ve read a number of the NSM’s white power critics refer to them as a bunch of “fat slobs.” I yelled to a few of them that “Hitler would have thrown your fat ass in the oven, too,” or “Hitler called obesity a defect,” etc. (I don’t actually know if any of that is true; but neither do the NSMs.) One huge guy would lift up his shirt and pat his big belly at me whenever I said this, as if to revel in the feature he thought I was mocking. This was a pretty dopey response, as I wasn’t calling him fat, but inconsistent.
[For the record, I love my heavier brothers and sisters. Indeed (though this will sound worse to some) I'm known as a bit of a chubby chaser. Not that a fetish is the purest proof of "fat acceptance"; but I trust it is incompatible with a view that fat is ridiculous, ugly, etc., and therefore that I meant any such thing by that taunt.]
(2) We (comrade Wesbrooks and I at least) threw a lot of middle fingers and used a ton of profanity. I tried to bait the men into fighting, but this was probably never going to work. (But all it takes is one….) This bled into the personal attacks such as above.
There were those among the antis who opposed this more negative or “hostile” tack. Some were giving out these neon signs that said “LOVE.” On the back, it had a disclaimer that your use of the sign implied consent to use proper decorum, show respect, etc.
The “LOVE” sentiment probably means a couple of things at once. I’m sure it is partly about “loving,” rather than hating, people of color, immigrants, gays, and the rest of the NSM “enemies.” (As in, the NSM should show love rather than hate.) But it is also about us “loving” the NSM themselves rather than hating them. Some people on the microphone (there was prepared material from the organizers, and then open mic time) conveyed this feeling explicitly.
A few thoughts on this:
(a) There is a persistent feeling among anti types that resisting white power and homophobia is fundamentally about “opposing hate.” Well, I “hate” this argument. Surely the hate in and of itself can’t be the problem: It is conceivable (if unlikely) that the NSM could keep all of its noxious policies while dropping just the hate. I mean, you don’t have to hate blacks and latinos to want a nation separate from them (though I’m sure it helps.) There are already plenty of hard-right-wingers who probably don’t hate people of color (Pat Buchanan, maybe?), but this doesn’t stop their policies from harming these groups.
So would we be (more) OK with the NSM if they dropped the “hate”? Would they be any less “protest-worthy” without it? Surely not. But then “hate” is not the main issue here. (Not to mention most of us “good people” hate something, even someone. And we’re OK with that. It is all about just what or whom is being hated.)
(b) I assure you the NSM are unimpressed when a group of “race traitors and mongrels” tell them they are “loved.” This reminds me of when Christians express “love” for more hostile nonbelievers. (You see this from street preachers a lot.) In these contexts, “I love you” sounds obligatory, backhanded and opportunist. Shit, the Bible even says that in being kind to one’s enemy, “you will heap burning coals upon his head.” (“Kill ‘em with kindness” is a secular rendition.)
The point is that you can’t use your own value system to impress an antagonist whose antagonism consists in denying that very system. You’d first have to provide them with a reason to buy into the system. Antis declaring love for the NSM is as effective as quoting the Bible to atheists about the folly of atheism. It can only make us look weak and stupid.
(c) At one point, an older anti chastised us for using personal insults. I politely told the guy I would take it under advisement. (I didn’t mean it but I was trying to be polite. Comrade W. kind of “gave him the business,” though. I ain’t mad at ‘im.)
I have partly addressed this criticism above; being negative per se is simply not the problem. It is not “wrong” in moral terms. (However, it could be impractical. This is entirely a tactical matter.)
But “personal insults” are more than a matter of negativity. There are other issues. On the one hand, there is a falseness in insulting people on the basis of traits that, as all us enlightened types know, aren’t really bad—or at least, that don’t warrant being picked on, i.e., things a person can’t help, or things that picking on won’t help, and things that are moreover irrelevant to the racism we’re really against.
Along these lines, I observed that this kind of protest brings out the arguably worst in a leftist (myself included). Some of the personal stuff was probably innocuous enough: I nicknamed this skinny NSMer “Ichabod Crane” (he definitely got this) and mocked that he wouldn’t fuck back with me on the streets. There was a really dumpy Commander guy with a shittown mustache who warranted, “Time to make the donuts!” after the chef in the old Dunkin Donuts commercials. (Maybe for regional reasons, nobody seemed to get this). In general I tried to impress the NSMers with how dopey and stupid they looked and how I could kick their asses.
Some of the material was less innocuous. I actually heard a gay man call the NSM men “fags.” There were a number of limp-wristed Heil Hitler salutes thrown up as well. The obvious problem with this kind of thing is that it implicates everyone who shares those traits. In mocking legitimate targets on the basis of these “negative” traits, you insult everyone who possesses them. In the end, you are making a homophobic (etc.) statement, whatever else you might be doing on top of that.
Still, the advantages of a “negative” approach are easy to find if you look for them. Socialists are not liberals, but will often use the language of liberalism against the (liberal) state as a way of simply getting things done; it amounts to holding an opponent consistent with its (her/his) own principles. The analogy is remote, but I have some sympathy for fucking (back) with hypermasculine males on and in their own fucked up terms. I couldn’t bring myself to call anyone an overtly homophobic name, but I can imagine “softer” sentiments that call his courage or fighting abilities into question. These features don’t make a damn in the world, but they probably make a damn to him, and this could bear effects. The clearest example of this at the NSM protest was heckling them for being “bad Nazis”—out of shape, shitty formation, late for their own protest, etc. (whereas the “real” Nazis were sharp, on time, etc.) This kind of jeer is intelligible, but nobody takes it to mean one advocates being a proper Nazi. Again, the charge is one of inconsistency.
(I don’t really have any conclusions here. Just articulating the terms of the question. I’m open.)
(d) The other thing everyone did was to mock the NSM about not being able to hear anything their speakers said. We would place a hands to the ear with a screwed up face, saying “What?? I can’t hear you,” pointing in the air to request a volume increase. (I assumed it was a shitty P.A., though the white power guys assure me our side sounded like garble to them as well. One also claimed that the cops allowed our side to exceed the specified decibel level, while the NSM either played nice or was regulated.)
“Arationality” (A kind of conclusion)
This leads me to a main point. If this kind of action “does” anything, I think the drowning out is a key objective. First, I can’t imagine anyone driving 10 hours, and speaking for 2, being absolutely indifferent to whether the message-proper gets out to the public. The white power folks I read afterward seem genuinely disappointed about getting shut down. So maybe this keeps them from coming too often. For whatever reason, R.B. surmises that, when they don’t get a huge response, they come back to the same city in about six months. (They were met in force here in 2007 and didn’t return for three years.)
There is also the issue of recruitment. The NSM is fond of saying, “Where the NSM goes, the NSM grows.” I think this could be true, possibly truer now than in many years. As comrade Jase reminded me, white hate groups have grown 5-fold since Obama’s presidency. The recruitment “pool” seems to be growing apace; the NSM Commander himself said at the rally that the Tea Party Movement was “a step in the right direction.” (They were also invited to come and protest with them.) And I don’t think the actual content coming across the P.A. necessarily has that much to do with recruitment success. The mere fact that a racist group shows up, bravely taking the shit that is given to them (and it isn’t always just verbal), probably inspires and emboldens people already informally sympathetic to white supremacist ideas. They will visit the website even if they can’t get to the group then and there.
But content aside, the drowning out and the strong, passionate opposition in general, can make these groups appear ridiculous. At one point, J. got on the mic and began reciting in Hebrew. These clowns really got pissed at this! It was like Superman responding to kryptonite, almost comical. This is just a dramatic example of how an opposition can convey a sense to potential recruits that these ideas are just beyond the pale, beyond any serious consideration. And it makes them look like they take themselves way too seriously.
This is why I don’t oppose personal attacks on these people per se. There is a distinct ‘arationality’ to this whole enterprise even before we get to content. This is manifest in the above scenario; if stiff opposition conveys a sense that racist ideas are ridiculous, it is in the way that dancing cartoon elves “convey” to consumers that chewing brand-x gum will be fun. It accomplishes the right goal for all the wrong reasons—but accomplishes it no less. This reinforces the completely wrong approach to decision-making, but the cost in a given case might be worth it.
Nobody seriously thinks we can dialogue with white power groups; at least, if we can, we aren’t trying to do it at a counter-protest. On the one hand, this erodes much of the grounds for banning “personal” attacks. The form/content dichotomy is a false one here: If shouting the NSM down isn’t “personal,” it remains a whole bunch of other stuff just as unconducive to “serious” engagement. (And really, if you were shouted down at a public meeting, could you not take this “personally,” even if the content avoided “personal insults” about your appearance, etc.?) The only possible object of setting up a P.A. on the clear other side of the street is to harass and harangue them as much as possible—before you even get to content. Remaining “respectful” ceases to be an option once the shouting down begins. You can not protest, but pretending the protest gains anything by being “respectful” is just bad faith.
To repeat, this might not apply with other kinds of actions. The counter-protest of the Murfreesboro anti-mosque group is about winning the “hearts and minds” of the broader non-activist, non-left community. One approaches this with a certain decorum. Let them look like the unhinged bigots. But “everyone” already hates the Nazis. Few people are (as) put off by yelling, etc. at them. (They killed 6 million Jews, for God’s sake.)
I also think these considerations lead logically to some kind of violence. I think chucking rocks and other debris at the members, leaping the barricades en masse and rumbling with them, will run them out of town more assuredly and keep them away for a longer time. That is, all of the things the protest is designed to do (whether or not the participants are consistent in their self-appraisals of what they are doing), it will do better with physical violence. It might cause the city to deny the next white power permit also. I don’t think it will alienate the broader public, and I think the same “paling” psychological effect on potential recruits is only enhanced. The only obstacles are moral objections, e.g., pacifism, and of course fear of being arrested.
* * *
Finally, I can think of some other reasons to protest white power groups. First, there are all the “generic protest goods”: You can see how cops work, as next time, they’ll be protecting someone else from. Any protest also fosters solidarity and networking among comrades.
Second, for socialists specifically, it provides a chance to point out the connection of anti-racist ideas to socialism (conversely, racist ideas to capitalism). Racism is one of those cleavages within the working class that impedes collective action. This has been actively exploited by individual capitalists and is also “selected for” by the system in functionalist terms. There is also the fact that whites and blacks tend to earn higher wages to the extent that the wage-gap between them is smaller. And there are many such facts.
 On the other hand, hate can be positively useful. It can aid in opposition campaigns of all stripes (protest, war), provide inspiration, drive, etc.