How To Argue That Counter-Protesting Works, As Told By "Unite The Right 2" Opponents
The white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville last year are back for another round. The "Unite the Right" rally will reconvene in Washington D.C. on its one-year anniversary this weekend — and just as before, social justice activists are preparing a counter-protest. According to those activists, counter-protesting can help stop white nationalism's spread, and they explain to Bustle exactly why.
"Unite the Right 2" will take place in Lafayette Park across from the White House on Sunday, Aug. 12 and is expected to involve up to 400 demonstrators. They're not allowed to march or hold flaming torches this year, according to the BBC. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke will be a featured speaker.
But 38 anti-racist groups have banded together under the banner "Shut It Down DC" to counter-protest "Unite the Right 2." The coalition will rally at noon in Freedom Plaza and then march to Lafayette Park to confront the white nationalists.
In general, protests aim to consolidate a movement, demonstrate to the world that ideas have a base of support, and inspire and energize the activists involved. Counter-protesting, then, is meant to stop those goals from being achieved. As Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of One People's Project (which is part of the "Shut It Down DC" coalition), tells Bustle, "Keeping aware and proactive against [... white nationalists] has been the primary reason why many of these groups have fallen apart over the past year."
Some people argue that counter-protesting only draws attention to the original protesters and helps them gain support. Counter-protests also sometimes put activists in the line of danger — as in the case of Heather Heyer's tragic murder last year — which can make people wary of participating, but here's why the "Shut It Down DC" organizers believe that counter-protesting is an absolutely essential method of activism.
Counter-Protesting Literally And Symbolically Impedes Your Opponents' Message
Grace Aheron of Charlottesville Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) describes protests as "air time." Demonstrators take advantage of their megaphone unless they're challenged. Aheron suggests to Bustle that their message can be disrupted by drowning it out — by literally preventing them from "speaking that vitriol in public in our cities."
Counter-protesting "Unite the Right 2" shows the world that there are people who want a diverse, equitable, inclusive society instead of a white nationalist state. That's a crucial signal to send both to white nationalists (so they don't feel that their platform has wide support) and to marginalized communities (to show that their safety is a priority).
"We can only remain a tolerant society if we make sure that the alt-right is denied a safe space to protest without significant opposition," David Robin of Millennials for Revolution tells Bustle. "When militias with assault rifles are allowed to march in the streets ... fascism is rising in America."
Counter-Protesting Foils Organizations' Goal Of Testing The Waters
Gatherings like "Unite the Right 2" allow demonstrators to "test out a place or a particular moment for its willingness to host a bunch of Nazis," says Chloe Michaels of the NYC branch of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council. "Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler have roots in Charlottesville and they chose what seemed to be a random college town for their rally in order to determine how the city would serve as a place for white supremacist organizing in the future."
The point of counter-protesting, then, is to show that such organizing won't be tolerated whenever it's tested out. "We counter-protest to let them know genocidal violence is not going to fly here," Michaels tells Bustle. "In this moment or any. In D.C. or Charlottesville or anywhere."
Counter-Protesting Stops A Movement From Getting Organized
"While most of the violence committed by the far-right so far has been random, if they were to get more organized and systematic about it then that would be the greater danger," Jay from the Socialist Party of DC (who withheld his last name for safety reasons) tells Bustle. "Counter-protesting harms their ability to organize and recruit in public, which will keep them isolated and small until they can be attritioned out."
Counter-Protesting Helps Remove Opponents' Anonymity
Much of the development of the alt-right has occurred online in messaging forums like 4chan, where users can anonymously flaunt white supremacist ideas without facing personal backlash. As digital media professor Charlton McIlwain told WIRED, 4chan "embolden[s]" white nationalists and makes them feel "supported and elevated."
Jenkins agrees. "This crowd thrives on anonymity," he tells Bustle. "Counter-protesting is one of those things that takes that away from them." That's why another of Jenkins' projects is doxxing Nazis and other far-right extremists to force them to publicly take responsibility for their actions and beliefs.
Counter-Protesting Discourages The Next Protest
Richard Spencer — the white supremacist who coined the label "alt-right," according to The Chicago Tribune, and who spoke at "Unite the Right" last year — got so discouraged by the demonstrations that followed him post-Charlottesville that he canceled his college speaking tour.
In a video announcement he posted in March, Spencer explained that he planned to (at least temporarily) stop giving pre-advertised public speeches. He said that the purpose of his college tour had been "to interface with people, to have fun," but that counter-protests had prevented any "talking in an intellectual atmosphere" or the "give-and-take Q&A" that he'd imagined. "It's just going to be very hard to accomplish this when we're facing this kind of pushback from universities," he said.
"He knew that he couldn't speak without getting shouted down," Aheron tells Bustle. "I think he probably figured it was more trouble than it was worth."
The Stakes Couldn't Be Higher
"For us, counter-protesting is about safety," Jay tells Bustle. Michaels agrees, bringing up the example of how some Charlottesville protesters threatened a synagogue as well as the black residents of an affordable housing complex. "They look to create a powder keg," Michaels says, "summoning white nationalists from all over the country for the numbers and energy needed to do more to harm to people than they're usually emboldened to."
Organizers argue that counter-protesting is a crucial way to dismantle that powder keg — but not the only way. "It takes all different kinds of tactics," Aheron tells Bustle. "In Charlottesville, we're most famous perhaps for resistance to Nazis in a protest setting, but there are so many other ways in which activists here are fighting white supremacy."
Counter-protesting shouldn't be the only aspect of fighting racism, but it's an important one. Find more information about "Shut It Down DC" on its website here and find similar events taking place across the country this weekend here.