Since Charlottesville, some progressives have questioned whether continuing our commitment to acting nonviolently and to affirming Freedom of Assembly even for neo-Nazis is worthwhile.
Before we look more deeply into the ethical issues involved, let me first share some unconventional imaginings of what nonviolence and free assembly could be like. (1) How might we more imaginatively and even hilariously challenge racists and neo-Nazis when they assemble? (2) And how might we create new forms of Free Assembly of our own?
(1) How might we challenge public gatherings of neo-Nazis and racists without ourselves resorting to violence and glorifying it? Let’s be clear: ”Nonviolence” is not “passive” resistance. Nonviolence can be active, assertive, colorful, even hilarious. Decades ago, when the ACLU supported the legal right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, the home of hundreds of Holocaust survivors, I suggested that any counter-demonstration draw on the tradition of the Jewish festival of Purim -- satire, parody, ridicule, caricature.
That photo comes from a recent New York Times article about a town in Germany that has responded to recent Neo-Nazi marches in that way. See
The photo, however, is not German: it shows an American action years ago of the same flavor, aimed against the Klan.
The white-supremacist movement depends on two emotions: resentment at being marginalized, and (to jump across those feelings of impotence), dramatic pretend-performances of superior power and subjugation of others.
So these might be far better chanted challenges than shouting “Nazi scum!” ---
“Our enemy is Wall Street --
Not each other!”
“Hitler was a loser goon
Brought his country down to ruin.
Trump is another loser loon
Don't let him bring America to ruin”
The first directly invites the “Other” out of marginalization into the dignity of alliance in a struggle against the HyperWealthy who oppress us all, and the second also invites a truly patriotic love of country while warning that an isolated right wing become losers, not victors.
And further -- what if each counter-protester in Charlottesville and Boston and Phoenix had promised to contribute $1 to the Resistance for every racist, every Nazi who showed up praising Trump? That would turn every neo-fascist “victory” upside down, into a simultaneous defeat.
These approaches turn real and potential conflict into a topsy-turvy invitation. Topsy-turvy always has an element of the clown, the joke, hilarity. Just below the surface of hilarity there lies a deeper wisdom.
Meanwhile, let’s reframe our own Freedom of Assembly as pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Democracy. Pilgrimages for peace and justice that treat the offices of Members of Congress or City Councilmembers as sacred places – tiny Temples -- where We The People are entitled to visit and bring Offerings, not to be forced away.
- Offerings of fair-trade chocolate bars.
- Offerings of murky water from a frack-infested stream, alongside bottles of pure water protected by the regulations that POTUS Trump is abolishing.
- Offerings of green and flowering plants endangered by the global scorching that Trump is abetting for the sake of Big Oil and Big Coal hyper-profits.
- And of course, Offerings of truthful words – clear, calm, prayerful as befits a sacred Offering.
Now let us turn to the underlying ethics. Although the new pro-counter-violence responses from progressives are understandable because they arise out of shock and fear, I think they are short-sighted and likely to be self-destructive.
First of all, affirming violence as a political tool poisons the deep assertion at the root of progressive politics and prophetic religion: the assertion that all human beings are sacred, equal not in their abilities or even in their ethics but in their worth and dignity.
Poisoning that truth is not only a spiritual or ethical failure; it invites political disaster. It is no accident that Trump was able to appeal to some large part of his political base by pointing to the fact that “antifa” (antifascist) activists could be seen on video acting violently in Charlottesville.
Thank God, the overwhelming majority of American society was able to see that the Nazi glorification and use of violence was not morally equivalent to the antifa movement. But press reports since Charlottesville indicate that many Trump supporters did think exactly that.
Detaching those supporters from their support for national neo--fascist officials like Trump himself might be a great deal easier if there were no factual basis for claims that "both sides" created violence.
There is a close connection between the practice of nonviolence and the deeper meaning of the First Amendment’s commitment to Freedom of Assembly.
The entire First Amendment (free press, free religion, free assembly) is a hymn to the nonviolent process of covenant, conversation, and decision-making. It forbids the violent use of repression by a government – – whether an un-elected King or an elected Führer.
It encourages rational debate over policy, but it never assumes the debate will be only and always "rational." Its authors lived through the Boston Tea Party. That was a symbolic, emotional, and even spiritual act of nonviolent resistance to taxation without representation – – the violent imposition of a tax upon the community without its participation in the decision-making. The authors of the First Amendment knew full well the importance of a flag, songs, and other "non-rational" elements in bringing about profound social change.
We have already seen how most of the American people have responded to seeing the Confederate battle flag and the Nazi swastika --- symbols that celebrated violence in the past -- used to glorify the use of violence in the present. Slavery, segregation, lynching, racism, anti-Semitism, fear and hatred of immigrants, of Muslims, and of all genders and sexualities other than heterosexual male, and the treatment of Mother Earth herself as a mere object for destructive exploitation – – all these are rooted in the insistence on subjugating the "other" and on using violence to do it.
Instead of abolishing Freedom of Assembly for those who espouse violence, we can make sure that the weapons of violence cannot be used to poison an assemblage.
I have taken part in many demonstrations where the permits and the police insist that even wooden sticks cannot be used to hold a protest sign, and that we must use cardboard tubes instead. This rule was a way of insisting that the nonviolence that lies at the root of Freedom of Assembly must be carried out in the assembly itself.
The police in Boston forbade the presence of guns, knives, clubs, and similar weapons in either of the two assemblages that gathered this past Saturday. They also insisted on a broad separation – – about half the length of a football field – – between the two demonstrations. Both these arrangements upheld, rather than desecrating, Freedom of Assembly.
The true lesson of Charlottesville is that the Boston Way is the way a police force in any town or city must enforce the Constitution. That approach does not surrender to the violent impulses at the root of Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism; it is by far the most effective way of exposing and weakening them.
The true lesson of Charlottesville is that the city did not act in this way – – and that every city must.
Indeed, when Boston acted this way, the White Supremacists abandoned their plans far nation-wide “Charlottesville” marches on September 9.
How do we make sure that other cities act like Boston, and what should we do where it does not happen?
I suggest that when the city government and its police fail justice and the Constitution as miserably as they did in Charlottesville, there should be consequences:
- Lawsuits in advance to require local officials to proactively uphold the Constitution.
- Lawsuits afterward for damages, brought by those who were wounded, threatened, denied their own freedom of worship in synagogues and churches that were left unprotected as Nazis and racists shouted threats.
- Political campaigns to oust from power politicians who refused to prepare for an onslaught of those whose ideologies glorify violence. "Preparing" not by forbidding their assembly but making sure their assemblage could not kill, wound, or intimidate the people whom they hate..
- Political campaigns against officials who still cannot understand that monuments revering Jefferson Davis or Robert E Lee or Stonewall Jackson are as abhorrent as would be statues honoring Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, or Hermann Goering.
Let me end by going back to the idea of Free Assembly as a sacred pilgrimage bearing sacred Offerings to the offices of those we have elected.
“What’s the charge, Officer? “
“Giving the Senator a chocolate bar and a blooming tulip!”
“Oh, is that a crime? I plead guilty!”
This is where Freedom of Assembly and nonviolent direct action meet. It is where our movements need to be.