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.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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3 Responses to How activists should respond to the racist right: 1. nonviolent counterdemonstrations

  1. olderwoman says:

    Excellent point, David.

  2. Pingback: How activists should respond to the racist right: 3. ignore them (sheetcake) | Politics Outdoors

  3. Pingback: Justice for J6 sputters | Politics Outdoors

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