Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottseville lessons for Boston

Following the events of last week in Charlottesville, Virginia and the upcoming Free Speech rally this weekend in Boston, one cannot help but try and understand better what happened in Charlottesville in the hope of preventing it occurring again in Boston.

The organizers of the Free Speech rally previously held a similar event on the Boston Common in May.  Antifa counter-protesters were nearby, but the two groups were separated by police.  That event was small with only a few hundred participating from both sides and no violence occurred.

The upcoming Saturday event will draw an unknown number of Free Speech protesters that some estimate will be a few hundred.  Counter-protester numbers are expected to be much higher - potentially in the tens of thousands.  

The City of Boston has taken many actions to prevent any violence.  The Mayor, after consulting with the Southern Poverty Law Center, asked people to stay away and avoid confrontation.  The City has experience with both protest and counter-protest groups and has met with them to detail methods to prevent violence.   Sticks, bats and other potential weapons have been banned for example. 

Despite preparations and warnings - things can go wrong.  They did in Charlottesville.

Examining and discussing some of the issues in Charlottesville, and some additional reading on the topics, may help to better understand what is happening in these protests and counter-protests.  With a greater understanding and open conversation about these issues a more peaceful path forward is possible:

White Supremacists.  Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacy groups should be rejected by the larger society.   The First Amendment to the Constitution allows them to convey their message within the law (see Supreme Court definition of incitement ), but the message should be opposed in all legal ways.   In fact, these groups have been in decline since the 1990s and have only a few thousand members.  Their membership numbers make them near irrelevant and incapable of achieving any political goal in normal processes.  Instead they focus on gaining publicity and provoking violent responses to gain followers.  As the Southern Poverty Law Center told Boston Mayor Walsh – “interacting with these groups just gives them a platform to spread their message of hate.”  To read more about these groups see

Confederate Monuments.   A robust and respectful debate about Confederate monuments is needed to come to a common understanding of what the difference is between “history” and “memory.”  This is a complicated issue that requires debate in order to form a consensus of action - and to take the issue out of the hands of those who would exploit emotions.   Anyone seriously interested in this topic should read these two links: 

Effective Counter-protests.   It seems ineffective and probably counterproductive to confront as a method of protest.   It inevitably leads to violence and only raises the profile of what are insignificant groups seeking publicity.   It may be more effective to shun in a formal manner.  For example, counter-protesters might line a white supremacist march route and turn their backs in silence.   The vigil held on the University of Virginia campus the night after the events featuring thousands of people in candle light singing seemed a powerful counter to the tiki torch march by white supremacists two nights before.

Militia Presence at Protests.   In a lot of the videos from Charlottesville there are people calling themselves "Militia" carrying assault rifles and other weapons.  The right wing Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia (cammo and flack jackets) and the left wing Redneck Revolt (black apparel and bandanas) militia were the most prominent.  The militias say they are there to provide protection. But their presence is not appropriate.  Law enforcement should be the barrier to violence in these charged situations.  Imagine if some of these groups had used their firearms! Open carry states need to look at this very closely and find a solution that is consistent with the Second Amendment and public safety.

Counter-protest violence.    Watching the raw video from Charlottesville there were clearly counter-protest groups looking for trouble.  Some are anarchists looking to exploit the situation and incite violence regardless of the name they give themselves.  They typically wear all black and bandanas.  They diminish the efforts of decent people who just want to exercise their rights and send a message rejecting the supremacists.  They fall under the umbrella of a self-organizing group called Antifa.  To allow them to continue to violently confront those they oppose is a mistake.  Read about Antifa here: The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness classifies Antifa as Anarchist Extremists

These issues are only some that should be part of a broader long-term national discussion.  In the meantime, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston makes a request of Boston's citizens that they stay away from Boston Common on Saturday.  People should abide by that request.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to consider the consequences of tomorrow's proposed gatherings in Boston.

    The future of race relations in this country are very important to me and some of the most impactful lessons I have learned about the contextual ramifications of race in America took place in the city of Boston.

    Because of my desire to unequivocally denounce racist sentiments, part of me is tempted to participate in the counter-protests that will undoubtedly unfold in Boston this weekend.

    That being said, I appreciate the Southern Poverty Law's assertion that, "“interacting with these groups just gives them a platform to spread their message of hate.”

    Yesterday an editorial was published in the Daily Gazette (which my grandfather reads most week days in the capital region of New York) It's author argued, "To expose ignorance and intolerance, let the haters speak: racist bile exposes perpetrators for what they really are."

    I find these compelling reasons to sit out this weekend's demonstrations.

    This does not, however, mean that I plan to be a passive bystander.

    In your overview of the power of contemporary white supremacist groups you write, "membership numbers make them near irrelevant and incapable of achieving any political goal in normal processes."

    Though my political consciousness does not stretch far into the past, it seems to me that normal political processes are being disregarded in unsettling ways at the moment.

    For this reason (among others) I deem it a moral imperative for every American to examine his conscience tonight.

  2. Thanks for commenting Cara. I read the column in the Daily Gazette. I think it is sound and consistent with my recommendations. Here is the link should any of my readers wish to read the piece:

    Charlottesville is not an indication of an impending return to slavery or the awakening of a neo-Nazi tide within the country that we all should fear. (Scanning news headlines or watching cable TV "news" some might think that. But that is a separate issue.)
    The Daily Gazette columnist has it right. We have a handful of racist morons in the country (see ) who are best exposed, diminished, and eliminated by the light of day and our precious First Amendment - let them speak.

    While looking for the column I also came across this one from some clergy. The change we seek will not come from confronting and fighting with neo-Nazis in counter protests. The change we seek will come from individual introspection, peaceful conversation, education, and our example in action.

  3. I greatly appreciate the moral leadership shown by the clergy in Schenectady. I hope we see more of the same in the days and weeks ahead.

  4. Always worth the read. Appreciate what you are offering, as well as the secondary references.


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