What to Do When White Supremacists March in Your Town
Resilience – To shift from reactivity to a state of resourcefulness in moments of stress and crisis. (Rockwood Leadership Institute)
They are securing permits, making plans, and preparing to publicly defend the indefensible. Yes, the Nazis are coming to town. The white supremacists have removed their hoods and are coming to a neighborhood near you. Those who promote the policies of white resentment and propagate the myth of white victimhood to spread fear and justify oppression are (once again) emboldened to express their beliefs publicly. Many of us can’t sit back and watch this unfold without feeling an intense call to act. As we face this horrifying reality, what should we do?
For those of us who soundly denounce such beliefs and whose lives are endangered by these so-called “free speech” marches, our instinct may be to react. But our liberation-seeking ancestors and social movement history lessons teach us that resistance is not merely reaction, it is construction – the building of ideas, structures and relationships that are anchored in the belief in a just world.
We, the authors, have struggled with how to best respond to these white supremacist, alt-right marches in a way that is powerful and productive, yet demonstrates our rage and refusal to acquiesce. We cannot shy away from our deep belief that sustained movements for social change are most effective when built around a vision of the world as it should be. We shed light on what we must defeat only because it stands in the way of the realization of our dreams. Therefore we must have dreams to defend, a vision to work toward, and collective definitions of who we are based on how we want to live. Without our own collective vision, our enemies are able to bait us, use us, and define us.
When civil rights activists engaged in marches as a form of civil disobedience, the purpose was to 1.) bring attention to specific human rights issues, 2.) defend those who are marginalized and attacked and, 3.) create a moral imperative to change oppressive policies and systems. These activists often used the violent reactions of the worst among us to inspire a public call for social change. If we want to honor freedom fighters who used marches to stand for what is right and just, we cannot allow the white supremacists to co-opt the strategy of civil disobedience.
If we want to get to a new world, we must face the truth about what we do every day to support white supremacy and what we must do to destroy these practices. We must collaborate on the development of new systems that replace those built on racist oppression. If this is a defining moment, we must insist that we define ourselves and refuse to release that power to our enemies.
In this spirit of resilience, we offer the following recommendations as we prepare for white supremacists, Neo Nazis, and alt-right supporters to march in the Bay Area and other communities across the country:
1. In advance of the march, convince businesses along the march route to close. Insist that our communities will not profit from their presence or provide goods and services to their supporters. This is a concrete lesson we can learn from both Charlottesville and a small town in Germany.
2. Isolate The Hate: Organize rallies based on The Beloved Community at least a mile away from the march route. What if our rallies were consistently and intentionally geographically distant from the hate marches? This would reduce media interest in them, delegitimizing their efforts. They are coming to our communities, hoping that we will show up in large numbers, thereby getting them on the national news. Keeping our rallies geographically distant also protects us from being physically or psychologically injured or killed on their terms, and, as a result, will likely increase turnout, particularly of people of color. Most importantly, the distance gives us the opportunity to focus our energies on each other and on building a positive collective vision of the world we want to see instead of on those who wish to destroy us.
We already know that our presence will not change the minds of those marching. What do we have to gain by being nearby? In fact we now understand that we have a president who can and will frame us for any violence that ensues in the area. Those of us who truly and unapologetically believe in peace and justice can demonstrate this by using these moments to claim public space on our own terms. Imagine if on the same day and time as their marches, we redirected our time and energy towards gathering across town in large numbers, speaking out, distracting from their events, building the movement that will defeat them. Much like the most effective moves in jujutsu and other martial arts, this strategy would use their momentum against them.
As an example, let’s look at the plans of a people’s rally in an alternative location happening in Berkeley on August 27th, 2017. They are hosting this blocks away and on the other side of the downtown, for a peaceful rally to speak to each other about the world they want.
For smaller localities or those new to organizing, you might use this guide to organizing a rally as a resource.
We, the authors here, both attended Women’s Marches in January 2017 in Washington D.C. and Chicago. These were powerful experiences and we are both proud to have made it known that we are noncompliant with sexism and misogyny. However, neither of us left those marches having had a meaningful conversation and connection or developed any new relationships with anyone next to whom we stood. We turned out in opposition to Trump, not to build a collective vision of the world we want to live in. We cannot advance justice on any issue without a commitment to connect with one another. Therefore, rallies, regardless of where they take place, are not enough.
3. Immediately after the rallies host teach-ins and workshops about the history and legacy of white supremacy in the U.S.
While the rallies bring us together, to be visible, and to voice our truth, the real work comes with building. The work to build a new world comes not out of fear or even following our guts, but in the intentional creation of a shared vision. This is why our rallies must be followed by political education – workshops and teach-ins that acknowledge the harm that has been done, place this current moment in a historical context, and challenge us to make or renew commitments for movement work across issues and sectors. As we know from the work of Paulo Freire and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools, critical consciousness and community-based learning are bedrocks of movement-building.
The mass use of teach-ins was pioneered by the student-led resistance to the Vietnam War. Since then, the approach has been utilized by many movement-builders including ACT UP. These activists dedicated to political education taught us that we can not just speak from a microphone or bullhorn; we must speak to each other, learn from one another, build together.
Here is a great guide to hosting a teach-in.
We can use tools for courageous conversations and well-trained and experienced community members (there are many) to facilitate. Some topics for your workshops and/or teach-ins may include:
We, the authors, commit to helping our own communities in the Bay Area and Michigan navigate this moment in a way that honors our resourcefulness, creativity and aspirations for a beloved community. In the spirit of adrienne maree brown’s groundbreaking new book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changes Worlds, we are well served by cultivating our abilities to be adaptive, practice interdependence, and create new possibilities.
We invite more suggestions for resilient resistance in the comments and beyond. Our liberation cannot emerge from the actions by those who wish to destroy us, but must be predicated on our ability to visualize freedom and live into what we see.
Mia Henry is the Executive Director at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership and Sharon Djemal is the Director of the Consumer Justice Clinic at East Bay Community Law Center.