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FREE SPEECH ZONE | Neo-Nazis in Town: Responding Locally, Creatively and Effectively
I live in Minneapolis. Here, we have the highest racial unemployment gap in the nation, excessive police violence against people of color is common, and schools are more segregated now than ever before. Everyday white supremacy is alive and thriving.
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So when I started hearing friends ask “Who's going to Duluth to protest the Nazis?”, something felt strange. In Duluth, the anti-racist Un-Fair Campaign for racial equity has generated a lot of buzz, and in addition to grumbles from some white Duluthians, a neo-Nazi white supremacist group announced its intention to rally at the Duluth Civic Center on March 3.
It's easy to get riled up about neo-Nazis, and for good reason. History shows that fascism seeps in quietly by virtue of good people doing nothing to confront it. Everyday white supremacy and structural racism, however, is more confusing and difficult to address. Whatever happens in response to the Duluth rally, we can be sure that anti-racist Duluthians—not the fascists, nor the anti-fascists, from out of town—will feel the most lasting impacts, positive or negative.
The question this article seeks to explore is this: What might be some creative, locally-based, and effective responses which avoid 1) doing nothing or 2) hastily over-reacting, stepping on local communities and giving hate a PR boost?
This article is written towards anyone, in Duluth and the Twin Cities both, who might be interested in a people-powered response to the neo-Nazis and racism more broadly, however that might look. As such, this isn't an overview of the situation, but rather some thoughts, lessons and experiences around tactics and strategy.
About myself: I'm a 25-year-old white, queer activist in Minneapolis. My personal experience comes from organizing around the 2008 Republican National Convention protests and subsequent legal defense campaigns, working as a “movement media” volunteer with Indymedia reporting on hundreds of actions, organizing to create an anti-authoritarian community space in Minneapolis, and having the privilege to work with some brilliant trainers of social movement strategy and tactics. My conversations with elder anti-racist activists and community organizers, and my upbringing near Rochester, MN also inform this article.
One case study: Austin, MN
I reported on a similar situation in 2009, when Twin Cities activists traveled to Austin, MN to confront a National Socialist Movement (neo-Nazi) rally. Having grown up nearby, I suspected folks from the big city might not be received very warmly. My hunch was mostly right, and along with many others, I felt the response didn't go nearly as well as it could have.
Countering the four-person hate rally at a WWII memorial outside City Hall were about 50 anti-racists. They included a sprinkling of Austin-area activists, including a few from the local migrant workers nonprofit Centro Campesino, most of whom stayed across the street. The rest were from the Twin Cities, mostly under the banner of two majority-white groups – Bash Back, a short-lived queer direct action group, and Anti-Racist Action, an on-again-off-again group with a long history of successfully confronting overt racists.
Most of the anti-racist activists moved onto the grounds as a mass facing the neo-Nazis, chanting and holding their banners a few yards from the “white power” flags and signs. The air was tense, with everyone wondering what would happen but nobody seeming clear on what the plan was. When a neo-Nazi attempted to read a speech through a megaphone, the crowd drowned him out with chants and lofted a few rotten vegetables his way. Soon thereafter, a neo-Nazi swatted a smartphone out of an activist's hand, smashing it on the ground. Police looked on and did nothing.
Protesters from Bash Back threw a glittery water balloon on the white supremacists. Then, police got between the groups and attacked the anti-racists, macing several people and arresting three: two from the Twin Cities and one from Austin. Half an hour later, the police suggested to the neo-Nazis that they leave to prevent any further incidents. They agreed, and the police escorted them through City Hall to make an exit.
Trained peacekeepers wearing yellow vests were also on site, but when I asked around, the vast majority of the crowd found their presence to be more annoying than helpful, because standing between the anti-racists and the neo-Nazis, they faced the anti-racist crowd as if to defend the neo-Nazis from attack, instead of the other way around.
Coverage in local media was mixed, and focused mostly on the arrests and the issue of out-of-town activists, often failing to mention racism at all. Tactics aside (which I'll address below), one thing that made a difference was the concept of “inessential weirdness”. Long-time anti-classism trainer Betsy Leondar-Wright coined that term as a young white activist organizing in a black neighborhood.
Basically, an “essential weirdness,” says Leondar-Wright, is something about a person “that couldn't be eliminated without doing a deep injustice.” For example, being openly gay might be an “essential weirdness” for an activist in rural Minnesota – it's not something we can put in the closet and still be our authentic selves. An “inessential weirdness” is the opposite. It's a personal preference not core to our being which we could easily set aside to help advance a larger goal.
To put it simply, dressing and behaving the way many Twin Cities activists did that day – clothed in grungy, tattered all black or in flamboyantly bright colors while throwing rotten vegetables – were “inessential weirdnesses.” (Unusual presentation, it's worth saying, may well be core to some people's authenticity and wellbeing, but for most people, it's not.) A simple change – dressing closer to the way most people in Austin did – might have made a big difference. The conversations in Austin once the activists returned to the Twin Cities might have been more about racism and less about “those weird-looking kids.”
Furthermore, most of these activists had made no authentic connection with anyone in southern Minnesota beforehand. That connection needed to be built first in order for an anti-racist argument to be considered genuine. Instead, the action made Centro Campesino's work combating anti-immigrant rhetoric even harder.
Spectrum of Allies
Let's imagine we could do it better. What would we stand to gain by taking action in opposition to the neo-Nazis?
A common tool used to develop social movement strategy is the spectrum of allies. Imagine a half-pie with five slices labeled, from left to right: Active Opponents, Passive Opponents, Neutral, Passive Allies, and Active Allies.
The idea is that social change happens not because your opponents become allies overnight. Instead, change happens when one or more of these groups move one pie slice closer to being active allies. How might this apply to the situation in Duluth?
Well, for one thing, active opponents such as the National Socialist Movement are unlikely to move far on the spectrum. But, they might be turned into passive opponents if they're discouraged from organizing openly. If they know that every time they show up there will be massive anti-racist activity drowning them out, they're unlikely to stay active.
Passive opponents – such as Duluthians who oppose the Un-Fair Campaign – might be pushed into the neutral category by a dramatic juxtaposition that makes them think, “Wait – am I more like these white supremacists, or like these anti-racist protesters?” If they identify more with the anti-racists, that's a victory. And the neutrals might be pushed into being passive allies by asking the same question.
As for the passive allies, this is often a make-or-break group. These are the people and groups (often including unions, working class and low-income people, friendly government officials, etc.) who agree with the cause but aren't yet engaged. And with creative actions that speak to their values and help build personal relationships, these groups could be persuaded to give money, come to a coalition meeting, or otherwise take part in anti-racist work.
All these shifts in the spectrum would be significant steps on the long road towards dismantling white supremacy.
First, With the Most
That's why to respond. But how? Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate military general and original Ku Klux Klansman, summed up his military theory as “Get there first, with the most.”
It's a classic principle of conflict, which applies to nonviolent political and social conflict, too. It's one reason the Occupy movement has been so successful – instead of going to conventions and gatherings of world leaders, like the anti-globalization movement of the 1990's and 2000's did, finally we get to pick the time and place of the action ourselves!
In the case of a small neo-Nazi rally, it's clear that with a little organizing, anti-racist forces can get there first with the most people. We should rightfully be excited about this! Perhaps this possibility of an “easy victory” is why many young white radicals I know from Minneapolis are so fired up about counter-protesting. In terms of resources, it's like the Minnesota Twins versus the Hermantown High baseball team.
However, at the rally in Austin, the neo-Nazis showed up well before their publicized start time... making the anti-racists late. It was dis-empowering, to say the least! The neo-Nazis say they'll arrive at the Civic Center in Duluth at 10am. What if anti-racist Duluthians and allies from around the region showed up at 7am with hot coffee and bagels to give away, a festive atmosphere, and games for the kids, then stayed through the afternoon with a picnic lunch, leafletting, street theatre and teach-ins?
Or, instead of going to the place chosen by the neo-Nazis, a counter-festival (an “Un-Fair Fair”?) or protest could be held at another relevant target. Right-wing politicians, corporations and institutions are emboldened to adopt racist policies by the white supremacist right fringe, and their offices would all be good targets.
Wherever “there” is, we could get there first, with the most, and have the most fun, too.
Lessons from Nonviolent Action
So what types of action might work? Many of my friends are skeptical of anything called labeled “explicitly nonviolent.” Other friends are skeptical of anything even bordering on “violent.” To respond to both, I look at a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., who said: “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.”
On the one hand, systemic violence is all around us – from government, institutionalized white supremacy, institutionalized patriarchy, corporate control, and other sources. With such violence coming at us from all angles, does it make sense to limit our response only to a set of tactics deemed “nonviolent?” But on the other hand, given those immense levels of violence, doesn't it make since that many who don't want to be threatened with more would find nonviolence appealing?
Many activists use a framework of “diversity of tactics,” choosing which tactic is best in a particular situation from all those possible. If we're out to raise awareness about a possible war in Iran, a peace vigil might be a great tactic. If we're out to stop GMO crops, property destruction in the form of pulling them from the fields or sabotaging machinery might be better tactics. If it's 1933 and we're out to stop Hitler, an assassination attempt might be the best tactic (though in 1944, Allied leaders agreed that Hitler's second in command would've been worse, making assassination a poor tactic).
In the case of a white supremacist rally in Duluth, though, I believe tactics which most everyone considers nonviolent will be best. I say this thinking about the context of Duluth – where free speech is valued, the labor movement is strong and there are many smart, outspoken voices for peace, but where there is not the widespread acceptance of the highly disruptive protest tactics commonly used in bigger cities. And I also say this thinking about what some goals for confronting the white supremacists might be:
Reactive Goal: Prevent neo-Nazis from recruiting and organizing openly and unopposed.
Proactive Goal: Build momentum for continued efforts towards racial equity.
These are goals that can be achieved with nonviolent action. Fortunately, nonviolent actionists can be some of the most creative activists there are. (See Gene Sharp's classic list, “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.”) Remembering “get there first with the most,” and what went wrong in Austin, here are just a few ideas borrowed from past actions:
- Prepare gigantic banners with anti-racist messages chosen by Duluth community members. Have people hold them, beginning early in the day, at the location neo-Nazis say they will rally. If they do rally, the large banners can block out their signs and flags visually, stopping their attempt to recruit people to the “white power” cause.
- Plan a noise demonstration. Bring PA systems and megaphones, as well as musical instruments and noisemakers in case authorities disallow amplification. Chant anti-racist messages to drown out the neo-Nazi rally vocally, with a rotating crew of chant-leaders so nobody's voice gets worn out.
- Instead of pointing these banners and chanting at the neo-Nazis, make the public the intended audience. Demoralize the neo-Nazis by overwhelming AND ignoring them. (Of course, have a few people designated to keep an eye on them, in case they threaten to get physically violent.)
- Make sure to prepare literature to distribute to passersby and people downtown during the event. The literature could have messages that fit with the Un-Fair Campaign's strategy and seek to educate around structural racism and systemic white supremacy. This outreach tool could be coupled with other ways of engaging passersby, such as a picnic or games like “throw your shoe at Hitler” (a take on the game of throwing shoes at a picture of George W. Bush, inspired by the infamous Iraqi shoe-thrower).
- Develop a funny street theatre skit about the effects of racism in Duluth that's engaging enough to distract attention from the neo-Nazis. Perform it over and over at different locations downtown; invite passersby and media to participate in the skit.
- Hold a “funeral march” for white supremacy by carrying fake caskets labeled “white supremacy,” “environmental racism,” “segregation,” “patriarchy,” “homophobia,” and so on. At an appropriate moment, open the caskets to take out colorful signs displaying the benefits of racial equity (good housing for all, good jobs for all, etc.) and have a festival with upbeat music. “Get there first with the most” in the media with press releases framing the action as creative, local, nonviolent and photogenic.
- Twin Cities activists could do all these tactics and more, or hold anti-racism teach-ins, at metro-area locations in solidarity with Duluth.
- A fantastic initiative already under way is asking donors to contribute money for every minute the white supremacists rally.
In conclusion, here's an example of a community response done well. Also in 2009, the National Socialist Movement attemped to protest an anti-racism workshop at the midtown YWCA in Minneapolis. 200 boisterous anti-racists came and rallied on the YWCA grounds, and after less than half an hour, the police convinced the neo-Nazis it would be in their best interest to leave. To make sure, the crowd followed the cops and neo-Nazis to their cars, “chasing them out of the neighborhood,” with a couple rotten tomatoes thrown in for good measure.
This counter-rally worked because it was based in the neighborhood – one of the most progressive in the city and with a people of color majority. Attendees were overwhelmingly local, and folks were used to the grungy/punk/counterculture aesthetics of some of the activists involved, who might otherwise have been branded “disruptors.” An organizing meeting the previous week mobilized 100 residents, most of whom concluded that white supremacy wasn't an issue of “free speech,” but of human rights, dignity and solidarity in their community. The different groups at the rally respected each other, and everyone felt a sense of victory afterwards.
The anti-racism workshop went on, and became more popular than ever. Activists built connections and continue to work together against structural racism.
I believe the current moment in Duluth presents a similar opportunity if on-the-ground organizers, as well as those activists from the Twin Cities with time and energy to pitch in, remember a few key points:
- Get there first with the most
- Aim to move people one spot on the “spectrum of allies”
- Make genuine connections and avoid “inessential weirdness”
- Be creative and nonviolent to reach the goals
- Put locals in the lead
With these ingredients and some passionate organizing, we can make a reason to get excited about anti-racist action in our communities for the long haul.