Some progressives are calling for Oakland to rescind the permit they’ve extended to a “Prayer meeting” for a group of white nationalists on August 26.
I am not a Nazi. I explicitly and thoroughly repudiate and oppose fascism. This is important, first, because you never know these days. And second, because what I’m about to say is completely orthogonal to my support or lack thereof for white nationalism.
People in power determining what is allowed to be said, who is allowed to speak, and who is allowed to assemble is much more dangerous than a gathering of a bunch of Nazis.
Which is not at all to say Nazis aren’t dangerous. Nazis are absolutely dangerous. But if progressives think, for one small slice of a second, that empowering government officials to discriminate against certain groups in their permitting process will work out in favor of the dispossessed, I’ve got a bridge in Ferguson, MO to sell you.
Those who dream of a utopia in which only the non-fascists have free speech rights must reckon with the reality that restricting speech puts marginalized communities at the utter mercy of American bureaucrats who have proven themselves to be more than happy to violate black and queer bodies, and court systems which have proven themselves unwilling to hold them accountable.
“Until the 1940s, most police departments in America’s fastest-growing cities, even in the North, welcomed open members of the Ku Klux Klan,” writes N. D. B. Connolly. “Congress remained dominated by Southern segregationists, with Jim Crow housing driving credit and consumer markets for the entire economy.”
Connelly calls for direct action in addition to free speech, specifically “Public denunciations of white supremacy, clear anti-racist institution building, and fighting for policies that undo the money made off racism, especially with an ancient hatred now standing unhooded.”
We need both free speech and direct action.
The fight for equality under the law for black Americans started with speech, backed up and protected by black guys with guns.
Most Americans do not know the story of Dr. T. R. M. Howard.
“Lynching remained a form of public recreation well into the boom years of the Roaring Twenties,” Connelly writes. It was 1955 when Emmett Till became the third black male to be murdered in Mississippi in a three-month span.
Reverend George Lee was shot and killed at point blank range while driving for trying to vote in Belzoni. Lamar Smith cast his ballot in Brookhaven before he was shot and killed in broad daylight, before witnesses, in front of the county courthouse.
Witnesses rightly feared for their lives and did not come forward to testify. Police made no arrests in connection to either murder.
Then on August 28, 1955 three men kidnapped 14-year-old Emmett Till at gunpoint around 2 a.m. They put Till in the bed of a pickup truck and drove him to various places to pistol whip him and decide what to do next. Finally they shot him dead. Before dumping his body, the murderers showed his mutilated corpse to a black man saying, “That’s what happens to smart niggers.”
Till’s crime wasn’t voting, but whistling. A habit he picked up to alleviate his stuttering, a few white men thought it was directed at a white girl.
This was going to be a normal lynching. All witnesses rightly feared for their lives too much to come forward and testify.
Then Mamie Till Bradley insisted on an open-casket viewing of her son’s mutilated body.
Tens of thousands of people showed up to hear what Till’s body had to say about being black in America in the 1950’s. The sight of Till’s body enraged, activated, and inspired civil rights leaders at the state and national levels of the NAACP.
Wealthy physician and civil rights leader Dr. T. R. M. Howard offered protection via armed bodyguards to anyone willing to come forward to testify against Till’s murderers.
These witnesses made possible “The first great media event of the civil rights movement,” according to the New York Times.
The jury acquitted Till’s murderers, but the tide had turned. Mose Wright became the first man to ever testify against a white man in court and live, thanks to Howard. Black Americans were better armed and much less afraid.
Two months after Till’s murder, Montgomery civil rights activists held a meeting to discuss Till’s case and other recent murders of civil right activists. Rosa Parks attended this meeting, and then one month later she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus.
What we need today is not to ask government to protect us from speech we don’t like. The state absolutely cannot be trusted. In Ferguson police served and protected by pepper spraying peaceful protesters, shooting them with rubber bullets, and taking down journalists’ helicopters so the outside world couldn’t see it happening. The only journalists able to report on Ferguson without police harassment were the ones who showed up with armed guards. Today, the Justice Department is attempting to track 1.3 million people just for visiting a Trump protest website. In, “That long, glorious U.S. tradition of politicians exploiting emotions from terror attacks to start proposing new laws to curtail rights,” writes Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Cuomo wants to make “rioting,” which is what police departments always call black people peacefully protesting, a hate crime.
As Katherine Mangu-Ward put it:
If fascists are to lose their free speech rights, someone must take them. And if you believe, as many of the counter-protesters do, that the white nationalists and their brethren were emboldened by the presence of a man in the White House who sees them as part of his coalition, then why on God’s good green earth would you want to turn around and hand that very man the right to censor anyone whom he labels fascists? Because I can tell you right now, the list of folks that Trump and the restive-but-still-Republican Congress would like to silence sure won’t look like the list those sign-wavers have in mind.
To fight fascism, we need to be better armed than the fascists, both literally and intellectually. The best way to fight speech is with more speech. And the best way to protect yourself from violent whites today is the same as it was in 1955: Black guys with guns.