What are Systems of Oppression?
They can be based on Race, Gender, Class
or Other Attribute.
They need to be challenged, not ignored
Supremacist Groups and Community Responses
by Chip Berlet
1. Do something
2. No Free speech for Fascists (Racists/Homophobes, Misogynists, Free Market Geeks)?
3. Nonviolent direct confrontation
4. Take Responsibility for Your Own Actions
5. Separate rally or program?
6. Educational teaching moments
8. Time to Rethink Using the Term “Extremism”
There are a number of Human Relations groups that suggest that rallies and marches by “hate” groups be ignored. I have never understood why this is a useful concept. Rallies, marches, speaking events, literature distribution, and vandalism are all forms of outreach and recruitment. If we do nothing, our silence can be seen as consent, especially by young people and the alienated of all ages. Stand up. Do something. History judges you.
No Free speech for Fascists?
I understand the sentiment that there should be “no free speech for fascists,” and that in Europe, Canada, and other places there are laws against inciting “hate.” When an organized supremacy group schedules an event, however, I find that often the slogan “no free speech for fascists,” shifts the focus to the role of the state in protecting the “free speech for fascists,” when it is morally and politically more appropriate to focus on systems of oppression that are highlighted by supremacist groups. In some instances this leads to unnecessary or intentionally provoked confrontations with the police and other law enforcement authorities, which puts counter demonstrators at risk.
Nonviolent direct confrontation
Some people just feel a need to confront supremacist groups directly. As long as this is non-violent, it can be a powerful challenge. My wife and I moved to Chicago in 1978 and spent 10 years organizing against White Supremacy in the neighborhood around Marquette Park. Here are some thoughts based on that experience and my research into organized bigotry.
Many years ago I was at a White supremacist rally in Chicago staged in our neighborhood by a neonazi group in full uniformed regalia. I was taking photographs and after a time I saw an older man just standing in silence facing the stage. I finally walked up to him, excused myself, and asked what he was doing there. He looked at me, said he was Jewish, lived in the neighborhood, and was there to bear silent witness on behalf of those murdered during the Nazi genocide. It is difficult to imagine a satisfactory objection.
I do not think attacking the supremacist group members or rushing the stage, or battling with the police are useful tactics. In addition to being macho nonsense, this shifts attention to the violence, rather than the issue of bigotry.
Take Responsibility for Your Own Actions
When small cadre or militant groups unilaterally decide to engage in violence, through vandalism or unprovoked attacks on the supremacists or police it can create a dangerous situation that can result in serious injuries. Such infantile actions narrows the breadth of possible anti-oppression coalitions. Be aware that some people, especially those with family caretaking responsibility or medical issues, need to avoid tear gas and/or arrest. Find ways for them to participate in your demonstrations with a reduced level of risk.
Defending allied antifasciist demonstrators from police brutality is a real issue. Demonstration coordinators need to think about this in collabaration with legal observers from groups such as the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union.
A Question of Morality and History
When Chicago neonazis threatened to march in Skokie, Illinois (where a significant number of Jews including elderly survivors of the Nazi genocide resided), some counterdemonstrators planned to physically attack the neonazis if they ever marched through that town. In fact, the neonazis never marched in Skokie, but instead held a small rally in a neighboring town, in downtown Chicago, and in Marquette Park on Chicago’s southwest side.
Had the neonazis marched in Skokie, some Survivors and militant communists (separately) planned to attack the marchers using weapons to stop the event as an insult to morality and historic memory. They nonetheless arranged ways to avoid injuring spectators and other counterdemonstrators. The small handful of antifascists expected to be arrested and serve jail time.
One aging Survivor said he would rather die in prison than let a group of neonazis wearing Swastika armbands walk down the street in the town where he lived…as they would be stepping on the memory of those family members and friends the Nazi political mentors had murdered. These people were willing to take responsibility for their actions, and avoid injuries to bystanders. Ask yourself if the situation you face as an antifascist rises to this level of provocation. Otherwise your planned violence is an act of immaturity and disregard of historic precedent.
Use Humor & Ridicule
Humor and Ridicule can be powerful tools, and a brilliant example was when a group of counter demonstrators dressed
leas clown carried piles of signs to a White Power rally in Knoxville, Tennesse. This is from an Indymedia report:
“White Power!” the Nazi’s shouted,
“White Flour?” the clowns yelled back running in circles throwing flour in the air and raising separate letters which spelt “White Flour”.
“White Power!” the Nazi’s angrily shouted once more,
“White flowers?” the clowns cheers and threw white flowers in the air and danced about merrily.
Separate Rally or Program?
A rally or program away from the site of the supremacist group activity can involve a broad range of the community. I do not think it is appropriate for sponsors of such offsite events to argue that any form of direct confrontation is appropriate.
Offsite events are a good moment to reach out across boundaries of race, class, and gender. Leaders of various faith traditions and leaders of various human rights groups can bring in a variety of constituencies. Reach out to leaders in the business community and labor unions.
Educational Teaching Moments
Every supremacist group activity is a teaching opportunity. Student and community activists can respond quickly by setting up websites and list servers to help pull together a variety of responses. These should be encouraged to link to educational materials explaining how supremacist group activity is related to larger issues of the systems, structures, and institutions in the larger society.
Make sure to contact the mass media, and pay special attention to ways the alternative media can be made a partner in organizing
One clever technique is to stage a fundraising benefit for some organization or individual in a way that refutes the targets of the supremacist group. It works by soliciting pledges for a certain amount for each minute the supremacist group event lasts. The more they rant, the more money they are raising for their opponents.
Frederick Clarkson reported on just such a technique:
…there was widespread community response to the invasion of Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers to several towns in eastern MA on Sunday and Monday. The Lowell Sun has a story on the protests and counter protests in Dracut and Bedford on Monday titled: “Signs of tolerance meet signs of hate”
The Sun also reported on the successful efforts of blogger Lynne Lupien “to beat the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-gay group at its own game netted $606” for Massachusetts gay rights organizations.
“…Lupien’s new Web blog, www.leftinlowell.com, encouraged those opposing the Westboro group and its leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, to pledge whatever they pleased for each minute the Phelps group protested locally.
“So between the hour and a half they were at the Tsongas Arena Sunday and the half-hour they were in Dracut Monday, we raised the money,” said Lupien, a local activist and member of Greater Lowell for Peace and Justice. It worked out to $5.05 per each minute…”
Time to Rethink Using the Term “Extremism”
Every time the government uses the term “extremist” it helps justify political repression against political opponents.
Every time the term “extremist” is used to describe a political opponent, it marginalizes political dissent across the political spectrum.
Every time liberals and leftists use the term “extremist” it undermines the movement for progressive social change.
The term “extremist” is often used by those in the political center to demonize dissidents on the political left and right. As a label, the term extremism is elastic enough to cover everything from nonviolent nuns committing civil disobedience to neo-Nazis gunning down their enemies. More precise language and distinction is needed in a society that claims to be a democracy.
We need to rethink the use of the term “extremist.” This is especially important now given three trends:
- The use of the term “extremist” to demonize the Tea Party movement and other forms of right-wing activism. This use primarily is by political pundits and fundraisers for the Democratic Party.
- The use of the term “extremist” to marginalize progressive critics of the failures of the Obama Administration. This use primarily is by centrists who want the Democratic Part to move to the “center,” by which they mean continue moving to the political right.
- The use of the term “extremist” to demonize and harass political dissidents, especially antiwar activists, Muslims, and radical environmentalists. This use primarily is by government law enforcement and anti-terror agencies and right-wing ideologues.
Jerome L. Himmelstein, professor of sociology at Amherst College, argues the term “extremism” when used in social science is at best a characterization that “tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels,” and at worst the term “paints a false picture.”
The rhetoric of some human relations groups — “extremists of the left and right,” “religious political extremists,” “lunatic fringe,” “wing-nuts” — undermines civil liberties, civil rights, and civil discourse by demonizing dissent and veiling the complicity we all share in institutionalized forms of oppression in our society including racism, sexism, heterosexism, antisemitism, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia.
The popular use of the term “extremism” developed from a social science analytical model called “Classical Theory” or the “Pluralist School.” This set of theories lumps together political and cultural dissidents, populists of the left and right, supremacists, and terrorists into an undifferentiated irrational lunatic fringe threatening society. In the mid-1960s, racist segregationists and civil rights activists were both denounced as “extremists.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King at first bristled at being labeled an “extremist” in the 1960s by a group of clergymen upset with his activism. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King wrote that he thought for a while, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice — or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an “extremist.” First is that the term “extremist” has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the “mainstream” norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a “centrist” position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy — or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.
Analysts use the term “extremism” in a way that implies that ideas and methodologies are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology.
King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term “extremist” is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees.
We need to use terms that are more precise. We need to analyze people and groups that promote supremacy, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry. We need to stand up against people and groups that use intimidation and violence against a targeted group or individual based on their perceived identity. This language teaches people to see the dynamics of societal oppression, rather than allowing them to dismiss acts of ethnoviolence as caused by not-like-us “extremists” from “hate” groups.
It is time to rethink our use of the term “extremist.” In a few years terms such as “extremist,” “hate group,” “lunatic fringe,” “tolerance” (rather than respecting difference) and other misleading language will be seen as outdated and not constructive in much of the human relations community.