As the “Unite the Right 2” rally approaches in Washington, shaping up as a spectacle of racial tension if not hatred at the least, it’s worth assessing the counter-protest – its role and effectiveness in such events.
In Washington, on Sunday some 400 white nationalists are expected in Lafayette Park for their “Unite the Right 2” rally, a follow up to last year’s deadly, tense Charlottesville rally. At the same time, about 1,500 counter protestors are expected at various downtown Washington locations, including the same park where the white nationalists will be.
Washington police and officials have been planning for the event for months, with safety strategies planned, including dozens of blocked streets and cordoned off sections of the Lafayette Square Park. Officials understand that the closer two sides get, the more chances of violence increase.
“We have seen in the past where these two groups have been in the same area at the same time, it leads to violent confrontations,” Peter Newsham, chief of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, said at a press briefing Thursday.
That’s why the counter-protest, though well-intentioned, can become part of the problem if posed as direct, up-close and personal taunts at racist demonstrators – it’s giving them exactly what they want, after all.
That’s what’s happened two times this year in Portland, and authorities there are still trying to explain police action while citizens are trying to understand it. Some counter-protestors were so upset by last weekend’s rally-gone-bad that they stormed Portland City Hall to complain about the police, injuring a guard.
And we know what happened in Charlottesville last year, where wounds remain raw after one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and far-right extremists in years gathered. Some were dressed offensively, others shouted racial slurs. Counter protestors clashed with them in response as tensions raged and cameras rolled. The nightmare ended when a white nationalist plowed into peaceful protestors.
The white nationalist protestors were so offensive they only wanted to elicit one response: Inflame counter protestors to confrontation, giving oxygen to their simmering violence.
So, Washington, consider what one expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center said as words of wisdom for counter protestors in advance of the “Unite the Right 2” rally scheduled in the city on Sunday.
“One of the things that people who are considering counter-protesting need to think about is that if they do hold an event, whether it’s in the immediate vicinity of the other rally that’s planned, frequently it’s counterproductive because it inflames the situation and it may put you at risk of danger,” Keegan Hankes, who’s researched right-wing extremism for five years for the SPLC, told The Washingtonian.
In other words, a protestor may be offensive, but yelling and screaming directly at them only provokes the situation.
“For instance, if you’re one of the white supremacists who are going to be protesting with Jason Kessler (Unite the Right 2 organizer), it will definitely escalate the situation if you are confronted by a counter-protester and there’s a yelling-and-screaming match involved,” Hankes said.
Easier said than done, of course. Most people could not have stood by in Charlottesville watching racists parade, hurling insults.
Maybe that’s why when the KKK visited my small Southern community in the 1980s most everybody stayed home. The white supremacists were upset that the University of Mississippi was disassociated with the Confederate battle flag, so they planned a march.
Other than some journalists and a few curious onlookers, a small group of KKK marched and went home. Today, the Confederate battle flag is decades removed from the university and it is not an issue whatsoever.
We didn’t give them oxygen, snuffing them out. Hate doesn’t hurt so much when you don’t see it, or hear it.
This isn’t to say that the counter-protest isn’t productive. It is valuable, without question, standing up for core principles of humanity, like equality. But how the counter-protest is done, and where can make all the difference.
Those KKK members from the 1980s revealed themselves as irrelevant when nobody showed.
This Sunday in Washington, officials are expecting that counter-protestors will outnumber protesters by three-to-one.
It’s hard to turn the other cheek or to angrily respond in another location, of course. America is deeply divided and hate incidents involving race seem to be on the rise in frequency and intensity in recent years. It’s just that despite temptation, or deliberate provocation, counter-protestors best serve their cause by keeping a safe distance.
“My go-to response for these kind of things is that it does tend to take the oxygen out of these kinds of events if you don’t directly confront them,” Hankes said.
It’s worth a try Washington. Don’t give hate the air it craves.
David Magee is a contributing editor, a former newspaper publisher, and the author of a dozen books including The Education of Mr. Mayfield.