Maria J. Stephan is the co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” and co-editor of “Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback?” She can be followed on Twitter @MariaJStephan.
On Aug. 12, the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a counterprotester and shocked the nation, white supremacists are planning to demonstrate in front of the White House. Their goal: to demonstrate for what they call “white civil rights.”
A number of national and local anti-racist groups are planning counteractions, including a teach-ins, a march from New York City to D.C. and rallies next weekend led by local organizers and religious groups. Others are advising people to stay home and ignore the rally to deny them media attention. There are warnings of violence at far-right rallies across the country and D.C. Metro was reportedly considering reserving train cars for Unite the Right participants to discourage violence next Sunday — an idea that has since been shut down.
While doing nothing risks normalizing the white nationalists’ vile agenda, physically confronting them could lead to violence and amplify their cause. The best way to resist white supremacists is to massively outnumber them in a disciplined show of nonviolent force. Physical clashes and shouting matches, even if provoked by the white supremacists, provides them with a bullhorn and a victim card to play. Instead, a mass gathering at a separate location, a clear message of unity against hate and strict nonviolent discipline are the way to go.
The rise of far-right groups in the United States is a fundamental threat to our democracy that cannot be ignored. The Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking 954 hate groups, which are increasingly turning to street action. Their members are often encouraged to carry guns to demonstrations to protect themselves against “leftist fascist groups.” Some far-right groups, such as the Rise Above Movement in California, recruit individuals, including members of skinhead gangs, who attend rallies across the country to openly brawl with counterprotesters.
This happened last year in Charlottesville when gun-toting white supremacists and anti-racist protesters, some using violent tactics, clashed in the streets and more than a dozen were injured. Heather Heyer, an anti-racist activist, was killed when a car driven by a white nationalist drove into her.
One year later, on Aug. 12, demonstrators should come together to manifest a massive rejection of the white nationalist agenda. The counterprotesters should avoid a direct physical confrontation with the neo-Nazis, however, and instead rally in a different location. Ideally, the anti-Nazi groups would gather in large groups all around the city. They could, for example, congregate on the rooftops of D.C. apartments, hotels and business establishments, and wear the same color and shout the same message at the same time. Such dispersed, low-risk tactics were used in civil resistance movements in places like Chile, Serbia and Turkey.
This would send a powerful message of solidarity without the same level of risk of violent escalation. No matter what, counterprotesters should commit to nonviolent discipline. Failure to do so typically benefits the other side.
Last year in Quebec City, the far-right, anti-immigrant group La Muete (“wolf pack”) won a PR triumph by remaining nonviolent while anti-fascist activists clashed with police. La Muete members planning a march were pinned in the basement of a parking garage while the violence raged outside. When La Muete members emerged hours later, they held a silent march and declared victory, emphasizing their peaceful methods.
It is quite possible that throwing punches or pepper-spraying neo-Nazis allows protesters to win an occasional street battle. In some instances, it may prevent violent attacks against individual protesters, particularly when they are surrounded by civilian paramilitaries armed with clubs or worse. But evidence shows that blending tactics is usually counterproductive. Scholars have found that the emergence of a violent flank tends to decrease the size and diversity of participation in otherwise unarmed movements, particularly reducing participation of women, elderly, disabled and marginalized groups. That weakens civic movements because their strength and their ability to win allies are directly correlated with their ability to maintain large, diverse participation.
In Boston last year, a few days after Charlottesville, 40,000 counterprotesters greeted a few dozen neo-Nazis attending a “free speech” rally. In response to the massive counterdemonstration, the far-right leaders canceled their speeches without any street fighting and the subsequent political costs of such activity.
Other groups have used humor to deflate hate groups’ message. At a Confederate rally in South Carolina last year, a protester mocked the KKK supporters by serenading them with tuba music during their march. In one town in Germany, the community turned annual neo-Nazi marches into “involuntary walkathons” — for every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros toward a program that helps people leave far-right extremist groups.
There are plenty of creative, life-affirming ways to resist white supremacist groups that do not entail shouting matches, street fights or doing nothing. Mobilizing a counter-rally needs to be backed by sustained organizing to seriously challenge racism and white supremacy in the United States. A mass, diverse and disciplined gathering on Aug. 12, supported by committed organizing, is the best way to resist far-right extremism, create divisions within their ranks and build power for the many fights to defend our democracy that lie ahead.