No Platform for Fascists: Limits of Free Speech

While hate groups hold nowhere near the strength they once possessed in the US South, recruitment into right-wing extremist groups, psudeo-fascist “European heritage” groups, and openly fascist groups like the KKK and National Socialist Movement has been on the rise for several years. Coupled with recent gains by neo-fascists in Europe, this reflects a troubling and dangerous trend.

With that in mind, we should all be concerned with what the rapid growth of fascist groups means for our society as a whole, and especially for minority groups who are most often the targets of these groups. Whose rights are more important and how do we decide? Is it the right of fascist groups to spread their message of hate and intolerance? Do oppressed minorities have a right to feel safe in a hostile society still dominated by white supremacy? And, ultimately, who grants and defends these rights?

Who Has the Right to “Free” Speech?

I won’t venture into a long theoretical analysis of how we come to have certain rights or who grants them. Suffice it to say, most of the rights we now enjoy were earned through generations of struggle against the ruling classes. We weren’t born with them. The powers-that-be didn’t benevolently bestow them upon us. They aren’t guaranteed by a centuries old piece of paper. Millions of people who came before us shed blood and sacrificed their lives fighting to achieve them.

Even today the state regularly infringes on certain rights at its whim. The right to organize unions in our workplaces was only recently granted, and can be taken away, or severely restricted, at any time by the state or the police. Those of us on the radical left are well aware that our right to assemble and our right to free speech are routinely trampled by the state. The right to freely criticize the ruling class’ constant hunger for war and disregard for workers was only achieved in any meaningful way well into the 20th century.

A sad looking group of KKK and NSM members on their way to the Georgia state capitol on 2013

A sad looking group of KKK and NSM members on their way to the Georgia state capitol on 2013

In April 2013, a group of KKK and National Socialist Movement members held a rally on the steps of the Georgia state capitol. They were visibly protected the entire time by a wall of police from several local departments. We outnumbered the racists by at least 5-to-1, and it was clear who the police were there to protect. The entire afternoon, the cops antagonized members of our group, even assaulting and arresting one of our comrades for holding a sign that read “Fuck Off Nazi Scum.” The irony of such an incident occurring while police ferociously defended the KKK and NSM’s right to “free speech” wasn’t lost on us. It’s clear that the state capriciously defends the right to free speech and assembly, with a clear bias against those on the radical Left.

As a white American male who grew up poor, but still socially privileged, I came to believe that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were sacramentally enshrined into the fabric of our nation, granted to us by our wise and all-knowing founding fathers. Even after I was politically radicalized and realized it was mostly wealthy slave owners and Indian killers who were guaranteed those rights, I held onto the sentiment that free speech was a special right. More than most, I should have known better. I grew up in a mixed-race household and had a front row seat to racism and white supremacy.

Eventually I grew beyond the naive belief that everyone has a right to say whatever they want, regardless of the consequences, but only after I endured my own share of hardships, homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction. I came to realize, through my exposure to people who were fighting for survival, that one of the worst things I could imagine someone doing to me was trample on my right to free speech was a reflection of my own comfort and social privilege. Who was time to worry about free speech battles (like the ACLU defending the KKK’s right to adopt a road in Georgia) when you’re living on the street, when you can’t pay your rent, when you’re worried the cops will murder you because of the color of your skin, when every day is a battle to find work, stay out of prison, or just survive? Sure, free speech means something, but lets not fool ourselves into believing words and images can’t injure. Racist propaganda and hate speech can cause lasting psychological distress and emotional trauma. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can sometimes hurt even more.

Many European countries have laws against hate speech. I’m not going to extol government restrictions on free speech because such laws ultimately fail to address the white supremacy and structural racism that make people comfortable expressing hateful ideas. It is ultimately our responsibility — not the state’s — to put an end to hate speech, white supremacy, and the institutional oppression of our neighbors. That being said, it’s not my place to determine how victims of hate speech should be protected from its effects. If such laws can save or materially improve the lives of people of color and other oppressed groups or advance our cause of liberating the working class, we would be foolish to oppose them. Nonetheless, based on hundreds of years of history, it’s even more foolish to imagine that the state will protect the lives and voices of oppressed groups.

Openings for Extremism and Protecting White Supremacy

Allowing racists and fascists to spread their hate, and going to the extreme of fighting to protect it, fosters a toxic atmosphere that creates uncomfortable and unsafe conditions for minority groups. In a society that already devalues their lives and their voices, this is particularly dangerous. One person’s right to feel safe, and not see images of people who look like them hanging from trees or having people who belong to privileged classes call for their removal or extermination, should absolutely trump anyone else’s right to produce and distribute such garbage. Unfortunately, people who identify themselves as leftist crusaders for civil liberties (who often belong to privileged classes themselves) are usually the first to defend hate speech rights.

While it’s clear that hate speech creates a toxic environment and places certain people in our society at grave risk, there are also secondary effects. The most obvious is the atmosphere of comfort and protection it provides to fascists to continue recruiting into their hate groups. Likewise, it makes casual racists, who might not otherwise be committed to the cause and might not even realize they’re racist, feel more at ease sharing racist jokes and propogating racial stereotypes or feeding into the attitude that they’re somehow being discriminated against (“reverse racism”) on the rare occasion that an oppressed minority is protected from their actions. Hate speech feeds and nourishes the seeds of white supremacy that live within all of us.

One of the most dangerous secondary effects of hate speech is the sway it holds over the mainstream political climate. By staking out a position on the extreme endpoint of the right-wing, hate groups create an opening that less extreme right-wing politicians can exploit. When hate groups call for the extermination of certain races or the removal of all non-white people from the country, calls by mainstream politicians to build a fence along the border and deport undocumented immigrants and their children don’t seem quite as severe. This creates a ripple effect, pulling other politicians, even progressives and liberals, further to the right. (It should be noted that socialists, communists, and anarchists on the left have a similar effect on progressive politicians, whether we intend it or not. In fact, this reaction very frequently results in the political sabotage of our democratic, grassroots efforts toward socialist solutions free from state interference).

In our time it’s clear that our society place little value on the lives of our black, Hispanic, Native American neighbors. It’s not uncommon to see an unarmed black person murdered by the police followed by a flurry of white voices defending the officer in question or, lacking that, the police as an institution. The very fact that the first instinct is not to question what caused that situation to occur in the first place or attempt to understand the very real fear of police that many people have, speaks volumes about our society and our priorities. Even when these people are called out for ignorant and racist comments, their right to spread them and create an even more toxic atmosphere is always protected and defended.

Opposing Fascism by Any Means Necessary

The danger of allowing racists and fascists to promote their cause, even when they’re small in number, is not negligible. White power bands draw hundreds of people to their concerts and gatherings of pseudo-fascist “European heritage groups” take place regularly across the country. How we combat their efforts in not always so clear cut. Calls to ignore them so as not to draw attention to their cause have proven remarkably ineffective. If we ignore them they won’t go away. In fact, they’ll very likely grow stronger with a lack of pressure. The media has shown a consistent determination to cover even the smallest actions carried out by these groups.


One of many militant anti-fascist groups in the United States

We can’t rely on the state to remove them. The state is more likely to go after those on the left than fascists. The state is designed to protect white supremacy at all costs and perpetuate the class system that systematically disadvantages certain groups and positions working people of different social group against each other. Militant action has proven effective at disrupting fascist organizing efforts, removing their presence from certain areas and discouraging working people from joining their ranks (or at least hiding where their sentiments lie out of fear).

We’ve seen the speed with which fascist movements can spread. Fascists took complete control of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Germany in a matter of years and dominated most of Europe during World War II. In recent years, neo-fascist groups have gained positions in many European parliaments, even in relatively progressive countries like France and Sweden. The United States has a long and colorful history of racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and homophobia, and intolerance. Despite dismissals from establishment leftists and moderates, its not far-fetched to imagine fascist movements taking root in the United States. In fact, pseudo-fascist language and ideas run rampant on the Internet and in right-wing groups like the Tea Party, certain elements of the Libertarian Party, and ultra-conservative factions of the Republican Party (although we do sometimes find allies on what is considered the libertarian “right”). Such spaces are ripe for infiltration by an organized group of determined neo-fascists. And while they might not seem well-organized or many in number right now, the infrastructure for rapid growth already exists. Past experience in protests and social movements teaches us that the police are far more likely to resort to violence and state suppression of communists and anarchists than against right-wing extremists. We might very well find ourselves washed under a wave of fascism with very little resistance from the privileged classes.

With that in mind, and knowing the state and the establishment have left a wide berth for fascism, we have a responsibility to militantly oppose white supremacy and fascism with whatever means are at our disposal. For some of us that might mean putting our bodies in danger and risk losing our freedom. We cannot allow them to run our streets, demonstrate in our neighborhoods, and terrorize our neighbors at will. More importantly, we must not allow them to take root in areas where they might find less resistance, or even acceptance, like suburban towns and rural areas. It is a matter of life and death, not only for oppressed minority groups, but for all of us who seek the liberation of the working class.

The police have shown not only a willingness to protect racists and fascists, but have proved they very often belong to those same groups. As an institution, the police have demonstrated that they will protect white supremacy at any cost. As such, they should not be permitted to escape the focus of our anti-fascist organizing. Oppressed groups are most often the victims of police violence and it is our duty to put an end to that. In the process we might place ourselves in harm’s way, but whatever harm we face pales in comparison to the structural violence and unrelenting danger faced by our oppressed friends and neighbors.

Destroying the sacred symbols of racists and fascists, like burning the confederate battle flag, or protesting against their cause with signs and demonstrations might make us feel good about ourselves and provide motivation for our allies, It might even cause some minor aggravation or embarrassment for fascists with a thin skin. It won’t do much to dampen their cause, though. It is our obligation, if not for our own good for the well-being and safety of our neighbors who are not protected or privileged, to defeat the racists and fascists and create an environment where they feel unsafe spreading their hate or attempting to recruit working people into their ranks. Accomplishing all that would be a wonderful beginning, but even once the fascists are eliminated, plenty of work remains.

Defeating White Supremacy

Defeating fascists and creating an environment where they must constantly watch over their shoulders in public is not enough to push forward the liberation of oppressed classes. It barely puts a dent in the armor of institutional racism. White supremacy is a cancer that infects us all, even to the point of being internalized by many of its victims (how many times have we seen black cops defend the killing of an unarmed black person?). It is our responsibility, as dedicated anti-fascists, to confront the institutional privilege that routinely places less importance on the lives, voices, and experiences of oppressed minority groups than those of white people, and especially straight white males.

Students burning a confederate battle flag in Florida

Students burning a confederate battle flag in Florida

Opposing white supremacy as an institution is still not enough. For white anti-fascists, we must look within ourselves and question our own attitudes and perceptions about race. Even committed white anti-fascists benefit from the social privilege of having white skin, whether we want it or not. We can’t help but be affected by that. Very often we don’t even realize we’ve developed or internalized these attitudes and often neglect to study how we ourselves are socially conditioned by white supremacy.

We must face racists and fascists head on, but our work will never be done until everyone is liberated. As anti-racists and anti-fascists, it’s wonderful that we’re willing to bravely battle hate groups in the streets. The people who belong to those groups, however, often find their way into them because of frustration with the same instruments of class oppression as us. They are very often poor white people who end up placing anger about their own hardships and social conditions on other exploited and oppressed groups, like black people and immigrants. It’s a con-game the ruling class has played on working people for centuries. They’re masters at directing elements of the working class against each other, rather than toward the state and capitalism.

With that in mind, and knowing that dedicated racists and fascists often turn to our side later on, we should be mindful to not isolate those who otherwise might be receptive to our cause when framed in the proper perspective. We should work to bring rural and suburban whites to our cause while militantly opposing those who select the side of fascism. We should always be careful to not isolate potential allies or make the mistake of presuming that all people in the rural South harbor openly racist attitudes. Fascists are just as likely to live in and recruit in major cities as rural areas.

Attacking Fascism and White Supremacy on Multiple Fronts

Whether we choose a militant or a peaceful approach toward anti-fascism, our best path forward is to present a united front against racists, fascists, and white supremacy and not judge others for tactics that actually challenge them. Victory will likely come only through a convergence of different channels and it could mean we have to ally with those we might not like or work with otherwise.

Placing social pressure on hate groups, limiting their recruitment efforts, and targeting major corporations, like Amazon, who profit from the sale of racist propaganda are absolutely necessary to our cause. We must never provide a platform for fascists. But those actions alone won’t eliminate hate groups and they don’t even begin to touch on the process of dismantling white supremacy in our society.

To do that, we must look to each other and within ourselves, to unlearn everything our society has taught us about race and privilege and challenge the institutions that support them at every turn. The rights we enjoy today weren’t simply given to us, nor will be the rights of those who follow us.

More on anti-fascism in the US South: