The violence in Charlottesville, Va., as awful as it was, may turn out to be a precursor to yet more clashes. Racists and neo-Nazis, invigorated by the chaotic confrontations and national dialogue that ensued, are pledging to march in yet more cities to tout their insidious claims of white supremacy — gatherings that rightly have local officials concerned and just as rightly have drawn outrage over the spreading of such vile beliefs. But two elements bear noting here.
First, as despicable as their beliefs are, the racists and Nazis have a constitutional right to them, and to espouse them, so long as they don’t turn words into action. They can scream and froth all they want, but they cannot incite violence. And protesters have an equal right to stand tall and say, “No.” But without violence. A lot of energy has been, and will continue to be, expended in figuring out what the flashpoint was in Charlottesville, but in the end that doesn’t really matter when both sides are itching for a fight.
And no, that does not equate the protesters with the Nazis — standing for a philosophy of genocide is uniquely despicable and indefensible. But altercations such as those on display over the weekend have as little place in civil society as the racist beliefs that triggered them.
Secondly, reports from Virginia suggest the police were ill-prepared in the run up to an event that clearly had the potential to turn into a violent melee. Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended the city’s readiness as critics argued that the police failed to keep the two sides separated and didn’t have a workable plan for handling the crowd they cleared out of a park.
Attention has focused on the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, killed when a car was driven into a crowd of counter-protesters — a Nazi-sympathizer has been charged. But most of the violence consisted of street brawls. No, you can’t always stop someone who determined to drive a car into a crowd, but police can — and must — anticipate volatile confrontations that come with so much advance warning. Local authorities in places where upcoming marches are threatened need to take an object lesson from Charlottesville, game out worst-case scenarios, and have workable plans for dealing with them.
While the Nazis and racists bear sole responsibility for their irredeemable and incendiary beliefs, counter-protesters bear responsibility for their own actions. A violent response to uttered words is not a proper reaction. Isolation and reasoned counter-arguments are called for. As is creativity.
In July 1998, the Aryan Nations — one of the nation’s highest-profile hate groups then — planned a march in Couer D’Alene, Idaho, near its compound at Hayden Lake. In response, the local Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations urged people to pledge donations for every minute the march lasted.
A similar approach would be reasonable now. Organizations could solicit donation pledges to groups representing the interests the far-right hates — say, the United Negro College Fund, or the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. Send a lone representative with a stopwatch and for every minute a hate-monger like Richard Spencer speaks, more money would be raised to educate young African Americans or to defend immigrants seeking permission to live here legally.
There are other approaches. Standing up to racism does not require screaming into faces or swinging sticks. Public events supporting a pluralistic, welcoming and diverse society can be scheduled for the same time far away from the Nazi rally, leaving the spewers of hate to talk into the wind.
Direct confrontation is the least-workable path because it feeds the far-right’s need for attention. As civil rights activist and martyr Medgar Evers said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” He meant that in the context of violent responses to civil rights activists fighting segregation, but it’s a neutral concept. Racism is an endemic part of human society, and no one should be fooled into thinking it’s an idea that can be beaten out of someone’s head.
Some racists and Nazis eventually come to recognize the evil that propels their beliefs, and change. Some don’t, taking their hatred to the grave. But the battle here isn’t for the hearts and minds of the true believers and espousers of racism and intolerance.
It is to expose for those who might be seduced the self-defeating inhumanity behind hatred and intolerance. Those are lessons taught by actions as much as by words, and people — the vast majority of American society — who reject the beliefs of the Spencers among us need to ensure that their actions don’t become wind in the sails of hatred.
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