Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Triumph in Boston: Thoughts on the Rally Against White Supremacy

Saturday's counter-protest (including the march and the rally that started at the Common) was an absolute, unequivocal, unqualified victory against racism and fascism. The numbers were staggering. And, it's important to note, a lot of college students, who swell the city's population during the school year and tend to be more liberal, weren't back in the city yet. The image was unambiguous: 30-40,000 counter-protests to 40-50 huddling in the bandstand despite the several hundred foot buffer the Boston police gave them in the surrounding area. (2017's relentless effort to produce metaphors of itself continued when a small group of loud-mouthed overconfident men were granted vastly more land in proportion to their population than a much larger more diverse group.) In fact, they packed up before most of us even got there. It took us two and a half hours to march about two miles from the Reggie Lewis Center to the Common and by the time we got there, the Nazis were long gone, having been escorted out for their own safety in police vehicles. It had to be humiliating and discouraging.

Perhaps even more importantly, early on the organizers tried to distance themselves from the Nazis at Charlottesville. Over and over again (because the media kept talking to them) the organizers pretended this was about “free speech” and that most of the speakers had at the very least ties to or demonstrated sympathies to white supremacy and white supremacist organizations was just, you know, a coincidence. Furthermore, unlike the “free speech” rally in Charlottesville, from the pictures I saw, the attendees in Boston didn't bring any overt symbols of white supremacy. I later learned that organizers actively discouraged attendees from bring such symbols. Furthermore, there had been statements earlier in the week that members of the KKK in Massachusetts were going to attend, but, as with the other symbols, if they did, they were too scared or too ashamed to show themselves. That, of course, is the point of these counterprotests. There is absolutely no redeeming value to white supremacy and anyone who harbors any shred of it in their souls should be too ashamed of themselves or afraid of the consequences to display it in public. And it looks like, at least to some degree it worked.  (Just going to pause here and throw in a “Fuck yeah, Boston!”)

But the biggest long-term victory came in the form of scare quotes. We are in this place right now, in large part because of how successful the radical right has been of controlling the media narrative. Whether it's the early framing of Trump's electoral college victory as rooted in “economic anxiety” or the long term myth of the liberal media, much of the responsibility for the destruction now being wrought by the Trump administration lays squarely with the media who kowtowed for decades to intimidation and manipulation on the right. But on Saturday, they began referring to the white supremacist rally as a “free speech” rally. Those scare quotes are short hand for “so-called.” For months and months (maybe years and years) white supremacists and fascists have been using the rhetorical technique of throwing the debate away from their reprehensible opinions to the nuance of free expression and, in doing so, have been able to continue to create platforms for recruitment and radicalization. But, by Saturday, the mainstream media were no longer having it. The media did not give them the benefit of the doubt. If the right wants to hold another “free speech” rally, rather than the left having to prove it is a thinly veiled white supremacy rally, the right will have to prove it's not. That is a huge victory, and as the Trump administration continues to unravel (and as Trump himself continues to unravel) inherent skepticism from the main mainstream media of right wing rallies, protests, and responses to the Mueller investigation or articles of impeachment or the 25th amendment or even specific steps by cities, states, and NGOs to counter the white supremacist policies coming out of the justice department, will go a long way in the helping the struggle.

Radical Fire
One of my first observations, as I walked from Roxbury Crossing towards the Reggie Lewis Center and while I thought back to the list of speakers at both rallies, was just how much more radical the organizers of these counter-protests were than many of the attendees. Along with antifa (more about them in another post), the place was just lousy with socialists, prison reform and abolition activists, indigenous rights activists, and Black Lives Matter activists. The speakers before the march itself were spitting fire that I doubt a lot of the attendees had heard before.

But that is, of course, how movements always start and how movements are always sustained. As much as moderates and mainstreamers like to argue for incremental change and cautious reform, almost none of those changes or those reforms would happen without the engine of radicalism organizing and fighting for so much more. The status quo only changes through immense force (whether activist, technological advance, or other) and immense force generally doesn't start with moderates. I mean, it is telling that Black Lives Matter and various Socialist organizations and not, say, the Democratic National Committee organized a protest against Nazis. But there were certainly, plenty of Democrats in the crowd.

I like to think of it as a pot of boiling water. The change that bubbles to the surface, whatever form it takes, is fueled by the radical fire on the bottom. Whether it's overtime pay, weekends, clean air, free public education, curb cuts in sidewalks, Social Security, or any other now obvious reform that makes your life better, you can thank the radicals of our past for fighting against the status quo and putting their jobs, bodies, even lives on the line for what they believed in.

Because, when you really start to drill down into what radicals on the left fight for, and what more moderate people believe is just and good for the world, the difference isn't really so great. As one of the socialist speakers put it, sure there might be differences in specific policy, there might be disagreements over nuances of theory, but when you're fighting Nazis you want to present the widest possible front. So when you start asking (or repeating) questions about socialism, Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, reparations, guaranteed minimum income or any other policy or idea that is considered “radical” I urge you to take a few minutes and research the roots and reasons for it. Is the idea of reparations today any more radical to us than the idea of the weekend was when it first proposed? Is the idea of a guaranteed minimum income really that radically different from Social Security or welfare? It is amazing how many policies you can agree on and how much change you can enact when you realize we're all starting from the idea that all human beings are valuable.

Why Boston Was Safe
When I was talking to people before the march, I told them I was 83% certain it was going to be perfectly safe. Not the strongest percentage when we're talking about physical safety, but still, pretty safe. And the reasons for my assessment were born out.

First and foremost, these men are cowards. They are perfectly happy to bang their shields and swing their sticks and shout their nonsense and attack people when they have such a numerical advantage that not a single one of them assumes any meaningful risk of harm. But, despite how vital the First Amendment is to freedom or whatever, not a single one of them was brave enough to stand within a hundred feet of the crowd of protesters and make their case. Now, I'm not saying their fear was unreasonable, but I am saying that Nazis are cowards and that, from what I saw, not a single white supremacist in Boston on Saturday displayed a fraction of the courage showed by UVA students and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. I want you to really internalize this point and think about what it means, especially when I discuss antifa later: when the left outnumbers the right in contentious and confrontational rallies, said rallies are much more likely to be safe. If the numbers are roughly even (as in Berkley and Charlottesville on the Saturday) or if there are more white supremacists (as in Charlottesville on the Friday night) there is a much greater chance of violence. That it was about 400 counter-protesters to every white supremacist meant that there was no meaningful risk of harm.

Second, every year Boston hosts at least two events that require managing tens of thousands of people: the Boston Marathon and the Fourth of July, so the city and the police force have long institutional knowledge for dealing with crowds. As boring as it might be, crowd control logistics play a big part in whether or not protests are safe. Where you put barriers, how far apart they are, how many officers you have and where you put them, are all boring, technical details that can have huge impacts on whether or not a protest is safe. You can see the value of police experience with logistics because of the stark contrast between Boston on Saturday and Phoenix on Tuesday. If I'm being very generous, I suspect the sudden use of tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades by the Phoenix police came from the goal of keeping the counter-protesters and the Trump rally attendees separate, but the police were simply not prepared. I'm sure many of them will believe that tear-gassing a crowd of ten thousand plus peaceful protesters who had been standing in the heat for hours and hours was the safest option, but, they were either totally unprepared or totally unwilling to actively manage the crowd exiting the rally. Their lack of crowd control experience created an extremely dangerous situation and we are very lucky no one was seriously hurt either directly by the police (all of those "non-lethal" weapons can be very dangerous to the elderly, the very young, and people with specific conditions like asthma or allergies to any of the ingredients in the chemical weapons) or in the chaos created when tear gas suddenly shows up and thousands of people start running. (My less generous interpretation is that the same thing happens whenever tear gas is deployed. A few things were thrown at police in body armor, helmets, and riot shields, so they overreacted.)

But, on the police side, at least as importantly was that it was made clear, at least from my interpretation, that the police were willing to arrest the white supremacists as well. It matters that the white supremacists were told they were not welcome. I know it sounds weird to say that committed to arresting people who commit crimes was important, but Charlottesville got so dangerous because the police did not intervene in situations when the white supremacists were assaulting people. We don't know what would have happened if violence had erupted, if the Boston police force would have stuck to their statement and arrested people on both sides or if they would have done what police departments usually do and just arrest the nearest black person to the incident, but the fact that they gave that impression was important.

Finally, Massachusetts has strict gun control and prohibits open-carry. I don't care what you say about the Second Amendment, carrying a fucking assault rifle in a public place in general, and to a protest specifically, is a fucking threat. It is a confrontation. It is a tactical act of intimidation. It is an assault on free speech. It is an act of violence. Furthermore, we know whose side the men playing soldier are on. As overwhelming numbers bolster Nazi confidence for violence, so does knowing they essentially have a militia armed to the fucking teeth ready to step in and “act as peacekeepers” or “protect free speech” if it looks like those who oppose white supremacy might have the upper hand. Furthermore, just at an emotional and psychological level, a bunch of dudes walking around with fucking assault rifles inherently raises the stress level, and thus greatly raises the odds that adrenaline overrides clear thinking. Which means that perhaps the easiest way for cities to prevent violence, at all significant levels, at their protests is to ban open carry at them. Because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the First Amendment (you know, what this is supposedly all about) has no meaning when the Second Amendment is given free rein.

Final Takeaway: Saturday Kicked Ass But This is Far from Over
There are a few images that will stick in my mind from Saturday's march. The “Ruck Neo-Nazis” sign from the Rugby Players Against Racism group. The live-action demonstration of intersectionality as, along with the more generic condemnations of racism and white supremacy, there were signs for Black Lives Matter, refugee rights, immigrant rights, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, and dozens of other groups and ideas threatened by white supremacy. People swing dancing in the empty street to the music from the marching band. The number of Porter Square Books customers I saw in the crowd. (Good job, team!) The strange energy when we finally got to the Common and thousands of people who had geared themselves up to drive Nazis from their fucking city found themselves with beautiful free Saturday afternoon in Boston. But the image that hit me the hardest was a middle-aged to older black woman, who had climbed up the side of a dumpster to get a better view, filming the march with her phone, saying over and over again, “Thank you. Thank you all.”

But it's important to note: white supremacy is the idea that white people have the right to do whatever the fuck they want. This fight is far from over. And though they may not use “free speech” rallies as a cover for recruitment events going forward, the most radical and most dangerous of them will certainly apply lessons from Saturday. There were reports of people taking pictures of DSA women to dox them later. I definitely saw two white men, walking perpendicular through the march filming people. Maybe they were innocently documenting a historic event, but I got a weird vibe from them, and it is just as likely they were recording the faces of the “enemy.” White supremacists see themselves in a war and they will take the lessons of this defeat and apply them to their next actions. Furthermore, because of the white supremacists in the federal government, like Jeff Sessions, our resources for fighting this specific kind of terrorism are being greatly curtailed. I am so lifted up from Saturday's march, but I am also profoundly afraid at what will happen next.

Boston is a weird place. Despite being the cradle of the abolitionist movement, it is still profoundly racist. And whether that racism reflects itself in busing policy, gentrification, school funding, or the n-word, it is still something we will struggle with. But Boston made a statement on Saturday: white supremacy is not welcome here. Maybe it wasn't the bravest statement. Maybe it wasn't the most enlightening statement. Maybe there can be further discussion about how to make these statements. But it was an absolutely necessary statement and because Boston made it, it will be easier for other cities (like Phoenix) and other places to make their own version of it.

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P.S. There were a ton of antifa at the counter-protest on Saturday and seeing them helped galvanize my thinking about antifa. Look for those thoughts later this week or next week.

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