How activists should respond to the racist right: 3. ignore them (sheetcake)

The fish that always rises to the bait doesn’t live very long or very well.

(Another entry in the series I started a month ago; you can find part 2 and part 1.)

The racist right feeds on the (justified) outrage of its opponents. It doesn’t always make sense to give it to them. Turning away, sometimes, may be the best strategic response.

Let’s call it the sheet cake strategy, in deference to Tina Fey:

In the wake of the protests and violence in Charlottesville, UVA alumna Tina Fey used six minutes of prime time to urge all sane people to steer clear of the announced nationalist rallies coming up. (Most of them didn’t end up happening anyway).

In a pointed and extremely funny (“hysterical” can be misinterpreted) monologue, castigating the racist right and its inspirations in office, Tina Fey advocated staying home while indulging in sheet cake from an ethnic bakery:

In conclusion, I really want to say, to encourage all good, sane Americans to treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads. Don’t show up. Let these morons scream into the empty air.

The point of the analogy is clear: Hollywood doesn’t make movies that don’t generate attention. Ignored, the racist right may just go away.

Now, let’s acknowledge that turning the other cheek, even in the process of mooning the opponents, is easier for those who enjoy racial or economic privilege.


Hate feeds on opposition. Thousands of vigorous opponents carrying signs and chanting derision supports the story of the world lined up against these alienated white men. But nothing?

Forty-fifty white supremacists (according to an organizer) briefly relit their Tiki torches, and met at the foot of a shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee. After some ritualized chanting, they dispersed, retreating–for the moment–to the margins of political life.

It’s like claiming victory for muttering unheard curses underneath your breath to a boss or professor. It’s got to be hard for at least some of those attending to believe they’re doing something significant.

And, I hope, the good citizens of Charlottesville, were able to sleep or read, play cards, debate health care or tax policy, or even strategies for advancing a more comprehensive approach for justice. We don’t have to let the fringes set our own agendas.

Provocateurs on the right have become adept at getting their opponents to devote Milo Yiannopoulos appears briefly in front of a crowd in Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)disproportionate and very costly attention to them.

With a few well-chosen pokes, Milo Yiannopoulos and a smattering of local allies provoked the University of California, Berkeley and (at least) hundreds of opponents to jump and twitch. Local and national media rushed to cover an announced “free speech week” that amounted to, really, little more than 15 minutes of fame. The University spent an estimated $800,000 to police an otherwise valueless event. (It’s hard for me, an employee of the University of California, not to think about that money spent on books or scholarships or courses instead.)

The trick is to identify the provocations and provocateurs that can be safely ignored.

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Politicize this tragedy


Flags at half-staff in Nevada

Gun control supporters need to respond to the awful Las Vegas shooting with the same speed and focus the police showed in response to the shooter. Before the FBI and police have finished conducting their investigations and cleaning up the debris on the strip, before any of the victims have been discharged from the hospital or buried, gun control groups must fill the airwaves and the Internet with concrete proposals to make America safe(r) again.

True American carnage, the shooting in Las Vegas makes the consequences of our easy access policy to firearms unusually clear. The vast majority of Americans don’t think about guns, much less silencers, most of the time, more concerned with economic inequality, carpool schedules, climate change, or the cost of cable tv. An engaged slice of America, including the gun industry, cares deeply, invests aggressively, and is extremely well-represented by the National Rifle Association. Most of the time, largely playing defense, this minority rules–ruthlessly and recklessly.

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.


Opponents of sensible gun control will lament the presence of evil, sending thoughts and prayers into the ether, until this moment of clear vision passes. Unlike evil, guns can be regulated and the damage people inflict with them limited. (See chart above: everyone else does.) Enemies of gun control pray that public attention to the costs of our gun policy will pass when the next hurricane hits or the president again tweets about the national anthem.

The NRA has postponed airing its newest ad campaign. Donald Trump has called for prayer and unity, while the White House and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have called for mourning, rather than action, suggesting that political debate at the moment is unseemly.

The waiting game is a good strategy for those who are winning. Fans of easy access to guns would prefer not to talk about their plans when lots of people are listening carefully.

But gun control proponents, massively outfunded and usually out-organized, must seize the moment before the smoke has all cleared.

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What hath Colin Kaepernick wrought

Donald Trump has ensured that the silent protests during the national anthem Colin Kaepernick started last year would not vanish into the ether like a career in professional sports.

Protest politics is all about generating reactions, and this president always rises to the bait. Displaying his propensity to dangle something stupid and shiny when things are going badly for him, Trump deployed his anger at black athletes with political opinions at a campaign rally in Alabama. In the context of an Iranian missile test, the ongoing development of nuclear weapons in North Korea, and the slow- motion unraveling of a Republican effort to end health coverage for millions of Americans, the anthem protests were an attractive distraction. Conservative white Republicans at the rally cheered. And Trump’s opponents rose to the bait as well.

Professional athletes engaged the Twitter war Trump started (the president’s preferred turf for battle–and not just in football. Trump disinvited the champion Golden State Warriors from a White House visit when star Stephen Curry announced that he wouldn’t attend. Curry announced that such pettiness was beneath the office of the president of the United States (score!).

Meanwhile, others adopted Kaepernick’s protest, more in support of free speech than a cry against police violence. Stevie Wonder dropped to both knees at a concert. Bruce Maxwell, a rookie catcher for the Oakland Athletics, took a knee during the anthem, supported by both his teammates and the team owner, the first baseball player to join the campaign. Meanwhile, the leaders of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) announced support of the players, who enjoyed the rights of American citizens to engage in politics. Team owners, many of whom supported Trump or the Republican Party, criticized the president and supported the athletes.

The NFL, facing mounting evidence about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated concussions, has its own interests in finding distractions and building unity. (Trump, by the way, is appalled by the concerns about brain damage, a position that invites ridicule; write your own joke about how his political prospects depend on it.) Unsurprisingly, the number of athletes kneeling during the anthem increased on NFL Sunday. Even more visibly, athletes who didn’t want to kneel stood, linking arms in solidarity with those who did, including at least one owner, Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Colin Kaerpernick, whose own story is interesting, remains an engaged philanthropist and an uemployed quarterback. Both fans and analysts think he’s still valuable enough to play professionally. He has paid a price for his commitments. The protests Kaepernick spurred however, about police violence and racial justice, spread slowly through professional sports, continued in his absence from the field, taking on additional meanings as others join. Sometimes, Kaepernick’s sharp concerns were overwhelmed by others inspired by, and copying, his protest.

It’s not clear that Trump has made it attractive enough for an owner to bring Colin Kaepernick back to the field. Trump has, however, again provoked his opponents. In the Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the U.S. national anthem before their Sunday game.process, the meaning of the anthem protests has changed, from an explicit concern with racism and police violence, to a broader concern with free speech and political debate.

And, of course, more vigorous opposition to Trump.

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Trump’s rally turnout, unlike Trump, modest

The pro-Trump “Mother of All Rallies” turned out a People gathered on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday to attend a rally in support of President Trump in what organizers are calling “The Mother of All Rallies.”few hundred demonstrators in Washington, DC, rather than the planned thousands. Sympathy rallies across the country were much smaller–or canceled altogether.

Photos showing the assembled on an almost empty mall circulated on Twitter and around the Internet, posted by Trump’s opponents.

The turnout was substantially smaller than the Jugalo March on Washington or the croPHOTO: Protesters surround a car as they march in the street response to a not guilty verdict in the trial of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in St. Louis.wds in St. Louis protesting the acquittal of another police officer who shot and killed Lamar Smith, a black man thought to be carrying drugs and (maybe) a gun, after a heated chase.

The Juggalos were out in Washington to demonstrate against the FBI’s designation as a gang.
Trump’s opponents take understandable, but mostly inappropriate delight, in the paltry turnout in support of a man who takes offense at such things and brags about the bigness of everything he touches.

But the other marches were staged by people who have grievances and a hard time finding powerful allies in government. Trump’s supporters have, they think, a president who is supported, mostly, by allies in both houses of Congress.

It’s tempting to read the small turnouts for Trump as a sign of his support eroding.  Alas, polls show a surprisingly small and disturbingly stable base of support. The intensity of that support might be diminishing, but we’ll see that in campaign donations, voting, and calls to members of Congress.

They don’t think they need to march.

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The DREAM returns

The Trump administration’s decision to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) will unleash a world of trouble, and resurrect Dreamer politics. It’s most intense and threatening for the 800,000 recipients, their families, friends, neighbors, and employers, but the drama won’t stop there.

The Dreamers, young people brought to the United States as children, are the most photogenic, sympathetic, and politically engaged people directly touched by a failed DACA reversal sparks protests outside White House, Trump Tower immigration policy. The DREAM Act would have provided them with permanent legal status and, in many versions, a path toward citizenship. It also would have peeled off the simplest political problem from the larger immigration debate. Versions of the DREAM Act have floated up through the legislature for well over a decade, dramatically failing in the lame duck Congress legislating in the wake of the Tea Party election of 2010. (We’ve discussed the Dreamers since that time, here and here and here.) Brave Dreamers and their supporters marched, lobbied, fasted, and sat in at legislators’ offices to promote their cause.

When Republicans took control of the House, a significant Nativist caucus in their midst, President Obama tried to do what he could–and, it turned out, more than he could, in offering temporary work status and protection from deportation (DACA). An inadequate solution, the policy nonetheless brought some political peace, and the larger immigration debate festered and stalled at the same time. Mostly, the language of the Dream largely disappeared from the debate.

Ending DACA brings the politics of the DREAM back. These young people and their allies A protest near Trump Tower on Fifth Avenuenow have no options beyond politics. Expect the full range of protests from the last wave to come back, only stronger. The protests, in front of the Trump Tower and the White House and across the United States, are already here.

DACA made visible nearly a million young people to their teachers, employers, and neighbors, and their support has only grown. So too has their collective will and political skill in making a case for joining the American project. Their vigorous supporters now include big business, local politicians, university administrations, and many conservative Republicans in Congress. Obama’s Executive Order left the Dreamers not only more committed, but also politically stronger, than ever before.

In what has become his characteristic leadership style, Trump has demanded that Congress fix his political problem without providing a hint of what policy he wants to see. He is clearly more interested in avoiding blame than advancing policy. Because that Nativist caucus is at least as powerful in the Republican Party, Congress will be unable to act without some bipartisan cooperation.

There are some promising signs, like the DREAM bill cosponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), but any efforts will be opposed by that Nativist slice of the Republican Party–and the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions. Immigration reformers are going to want action that addresses the other 10 million or so undocumented immigrants in limbo. And any progress made by Congress will provoke the Trump voters who are still waiting for the wall.

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How activists should respond to the racist right: 2. shut them down (antifa) (?)

Standing up to a racist fascist movement when it is still small enough to start seems to make sense. Antifa is an umbrella term uniting people who commit to doing so aggressively, as (at right) in Berkeley in April. Of course, figuring out who’s a fascist and how to stand up to them effectively is at least a little more complicated.

A strong moral stance against racism and/or fascism doesn’t immediately justify any and all tactics of resistance. Here I’m less concerned with the moral debates about the nature of evil or the ethics of violence than in the political effects of different movement tactics.

Determined to keep the Bay Area safe from offensive conservative provocation, like speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter, antifa activists have worked to attack their hosts and command the streets. Because visits to Berkeley might generate confrontation, photos, and attention, the Bay Area  has become the indispensable spot on the book tour of any conservative. I’d code Yiannopoulos and Coutler as offensive and opportunistic, and advocates of policies that would hurt many people–but they were unarmed.

Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville VirginiaThat’s not the case with the Nazis and Klansmen who have been turning up at white nationalist events. When the Unite the Right rally came to Charlottesville, providing a jamboree for the racist right, antifa activists appeared as well, determined to do more than exercise moral suasion. Carrying sticks and deploying pepper spray or mace, antifa worked to meet the threat aggressively, and to protect nonviolent marchers. Several ministers credit the antifa with saving their lives during the demonstrations (e.g.). Antifa protest gives the young and committed something to do to stand up against what’s wrong.

Let me acknowledge all this before explaining why I think that violent confrontation of the racist right is a poor strategy, and one that is likely to be counterproductive.

First, control of the streets in the United States will not be decided by the strength of the battle between committed (and mostly poorly trained) paramilitary forces. Police and (if they fail) National Guard are far better armed and trained than activist forces on the left or right. Streetfighting invites their intervention. At best, this means active repression that will always advantage those in power. But it could be much worse; cautionary tales The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and its handling of protests that followed.abound. Think, for example, of the militarized suppression of protests against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri. Putting young committed people, perhaps masked, in the sites of scared or angry police forces–or the judicial system for that matter, hardly represents a risk worth taking lightly. Moreover, armed protesters effectively invite that repression for even the unarmed and nonviolent around them.

Obviously, this makes growing a movement tougher.

Second, battle ready and aggressive protesters will always command the most public attention, no matter how large their presence at an event. Oppositional media will focus on the images most offensive and terrifying to their audiences. Mainstream media will focus on the most dramatic story. Street fighting and injury will trump other tactics every time. Ultimately, this kind of coverage exaggerates both the size of the antifa and the power of the racist right they are confronting.

Third, antiracist violence offers both journalists and political opponents easy access to a fake judgment of moral equivalence. Trump supporters saw thin masked men carrying sticks when listening to their president’s assessment of violence on “many sides.” Of course, this is distorted and dishonest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Fourth, aggressive and virtually automatic response to the radical right puts a small and mostly marginal assemblage in the driver’s seat. The enemy effectively sets the agenda for antifa, again crowding out room for an affirmative agenda.

Fifth, antifa responses give white nationalists exactly the response they seek. The racist right mobilizes around a story of a country that is no longer safe for them, promising young men the chance to fight for their country or their race. Confronting those aspiring fighters with force confirms their story and provides the intense emotional experience they want. It creates drama and produces heroes for the right. (See, for example, the story of “Based Stickman,” who became a meme and a racist folk hero by battling with the antifa in Berkeley.) Violence in the streets invites rather than deters the racist right.

Plotting effective strategy means more than making a persuasive moral case against your enemy; it means considering the likely consequences of your actions. If antifa has made a political case for its approach, I haven’t yet seen it.

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How activists should respond to the racist right: 1. nonviolent counterdemonstrations

Of course it’s heartening to see 40,000 explicitly anti-racist demonstrators turn out in Boston (August 20), dwarfing the assembly they were protesting against.

Was it the best approach to countering white nationalist mobilization advancing in response to Trump adminstration policies and rhetoric? I think it’s a hard question to answer.

The white nationalists represent a sliver of the American population, and today really can’t mobilize large numbers in the streets. Their opponents, who include most Americans, have suggested a range of responses to racist right protests, including disciplined nonviolent counterdemonstrations, ridicule, ignoring them until they go away, and violent resistance. You’d hope that serious study of movement politics in American history would provide clear answers. It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that consistent answers are hard to find. (See sociologist Pam Oliver’s smart overview of what we know so far.)

Over the next couple of days I want to look at the costs and consequences of different tactical responses to white nationalist protests.

At least on the surface, Boston offers an encouraging story.

Those at the big rally saw the “free speech” assembly,  which drew a few dozen to the Boston Common, as a cover for white nationalism, and demonstrated to show support for Image result for free speech rally bostonpluralism and tolerance. Police were out in very large numbers, and worked hard to keep the two sides apart. Despite a few scattered confrontations and 27 arrests, all reports emphasize nonviolence and discipline. The conservatives gave up and left early.

National audiences saw the anti-racists outnumber the provocative rally by more than 1,000-1. The “free speech” rally looked frail and marginal, and even its organizers sought to distance themselves from the KKK and Nazis in Charlottesville. It’s hardly an encouraging sign to their allies.

In contrast, local organizers demonstrated the depth of their support as well as their organizing strength. That should be a boost to the large numbers who share their views across the United States.


A few dozen poorly resourced and marginal provocateurs wound up organizing the day for tens of thousands of Bostonians. The counterdemonstration generated attention for the conservatives that they would have never been able to get on their own. Organizing the response to white nationalism surely consumed far more effort than anything the conservatives invested.

In Boston, with a strong activist history and many well-connected progressive groups, the turnout was overwhelming; how many other cities could generate something similar? With intensive efforts, both the demonstrators and the police were able to limit violence and most confrontations. It’s a mistake to assume that most other activist groups and most other police forces could do the same. And if others can replicate the Boston success story, it will only be with a massive effort.

And what was the message?

Boston counter-demonstrationBecause many groups were involved and because it’s citizen activism and America, many messages floated across the crowd, but the national take-home was opposition to racism and violence. Although this surely isn’t bad, affirmative messages on, say, policing or voting rights or health care, for example, were drowned out.

American politics favors the defense. Although the nationalists didn’t advance any ideas or policies, it’s not clear the far more numerous counterdemonstrators did much better.

Letting your opponents set your agenda may not be the most effective way to organize for lasting social change.

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