Rabbis Without Borders
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Don’t compare protests against Nazis with non-violent tactics in the Civil Rights Movement
About a month ago, I wrote about the rally of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. In the time since, I’ve heard and read many people saying that we should emulate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and use only non-violent counter-protest against the Nazis and white supremacists. Those who express these opinions are usually critical of antifa, the loose coalition of anti-fascist activists, who have attacked the Nazi and white supremacist demonstrators, often in defense of non-violent counter-protesters.
We should not compare or equate counter-protests against Nazis with Dr. King’s non-violent tactics in the struggle for Black civil rights. During the Civil Rights Movement, the situation was very different. African-Americans lived in fear of random violence from whites, and were under the thumb of Jim Crow laws. White people, mostly, didn’t much care. Dr. King became devoted to non-violence and civil disobedience partly out of principle and conviction, but also for practical reasons. According to historian Michael Kazin, seeing unarmed, peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham being attacked by dogs, beaten, and battered with water from fire hoses without fighting back “convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom.”
Black people were the oppressed minority. They did not have access to the power of government or to the police. (In many ways this is still true, shamefully so, and there is much work still to be done. But progress was made.) The situation in which we find ourselves today, with Nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets, attacking non-violent counter-protesters, is not comparable to Dr. King’s and the civil rights activists’ situation.
Most importantly: Nazis are not the majority in power oppressing the rest of us. How do we know? The counter-demonstration in Boston hugely outnumbered the Nazi and white supremacist demonstration there shortly after the Charlottesville rally. And, you know, we are not a Nazi country. Despite our president’s lack of real condemnation of the Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, few other elected officials followed suit.
So if the Nazis don’t hold the reins of power, and the vast majority of us already believe that being a Nazi is Not Good, why do we have to let them beat up counter-protesters to show that they’re advocating a bad ideology? Why do we have to let them threaten to burn down synagogues to show that they mean harm to others, and that this is Not Cool?
In Charlottesville, the Nazis and white supremacists broke violently through peaceful barriers created by non-violent protesters to try to stop them. The police should have intervened. They did not, for reasons that are not clear to me (besides that the majority of the Nazis and white supremacists were white men, and white men get a pass where African American men doing the same thing would be dead). In the absence of police action, many counter-protesters were grateful that antifa intervened to protect them.
There have been calls for compassion for these people who march with torches and Nazi flags, and who chant Nazi slogans. There is certainly compassion for the family of Heather Heyer, who was murdered in Charlottesville. But that compassion is cheap if we continue to say that we only have the power to protest with non-violence in the face of the violent minority here.
Non-violent protest is a way to be powerful when you are powerless, by sacrificing your body and allowing it to be hurt, and continuing to resist anyway. We who oppose Nazism and white supremacy are not powerless. Why do we want to act like we are? We are the majority, and we care. Let us use our power. Let us demand police protection against Nazis and white supremacists. This is not the Civil Rights Movement. This is the time for the majority of us who see Nazi and white supremacist ideology for what it is—evil, harmful ideology—to bring all of our power to bear to say Not Here. And with the power we have, the power of numbers, the power of privilege, the power of democracy, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our bodies to do it.
Photo by GorillaWarfare