Why I Helped Shut the “Alt-Right” Down

While different situations call for different tactics, sometimes the only option is denying a platform.

Mukund Rathi August 23, 2017

Left-wing activists shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, Calif., on February 1. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

This piece is part of a debate pack­age writ­ten for In These TimesSep­tem­ber issue. The print ver­sion went to press before the recent white-suprema­cist vio­lence in Char­lottesville, Va., but here the text has been slight­ly revised to account for these events.

We must remind our audience that it is the Right, not the Left, that has a long history of vigilantism against radical speakers.

For a response to Mukund, read Don’t Give Fas­cism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

For a response to Mukund and Natasha, read We’ll Beat the Fas­cists With Ideas, Not Fists,” by Nathan Robinson.

On Feb­ru­ary 1, far-right provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los had planned to speak at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. Thanks to more than 1,500 stu­dents and oth­er pro­test­ers (includ­ing myself as a stu­dent orga­niz­er), he didn’t get that opportunity.

Con­trary to reports in the main­stream media, the deci­sive fac­tor in stop­ping Yiannopou­los wasn’t the bro­ken win­dows and fires start­ed by a small Black Bloc con­tin­gent. It was the coura­geous pres­ence of ordi­nary peo­ple who were unwill­ing to allow the Berke­ley cam­pus to be used as an orga­niz­ing space for the far Right. When pro­test­ers reject­ed orders to dis­perse, police admit­ted defeat and can­celed the event.

In the after­math, the right-wing and lib­er­al pun­di­toc­ra­cy charged the pro­test­ers with vio­lat­ing Yiannopou­los’ right to speak. Thou­sands of peace­ful pro­test­ers were ignored, dis­missed as dupes of out­side agi­ta­tors,” or lumped togeth­er into the vio­lent pro­test­ers” smear. Most press didn’t both­er explor­ing why the 1,500 pro­test­ers were there, or why pro­test­ers hadn’t demand­ed the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion can­cel the event before­hand (and thus restrict the right to free speech).

At a talk two months ear­li­er Yiannopou­los had pub­licly harassed a trans­gen­der stu­dent in Mil­wau­kee, and at Berke­ley he intend­ed to launch a cam­paign against sanc­tu­ary cam­pus­es” that pro­tect undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents. He was report­ed­ly plan­ning to out these stu­dents. As Samuel Far­ber argued in Jacobin, Yiannopou­los blurs and often cross­es the line from mere racist per­sua­sion” into acts of intim­i­da­tion.” In oth­er words, he takes action beyond speech, and so action is appro­pri­ate in response.

Our side should choose tac­tics based on whether they embold­en or under­mine the mass move­ment we are try­ing to build. When a provo­ca­teur tar­gets undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents and thou­sands of peo­ple want to par­tic­i­pate in shut­ting this down, we should fight along­side them.

How­ev­er, this also means our tac­tics should change in dif­fer­ent con­texts. With racist per­suaders like Charles Mur­ray (an advo­cate of reac­tionary IQ the­o­ries) who don’t cross the line into intim­i­da­tion and vio­lence, we can use tac­tics like heck­ling and brief dis­rup­tions but should stop short of pre­vent­ing him from speak­ing. It’s impor­tant to note that shut­ting him down” would not vio­late his legal right to speak, which is specif­i­cal­ly a pro­tec­tion from the state, not from stu­dents act­ing on their own ini­tia­tive. Nev­er­the­less, we should respect the social under­stand­ing of free speech as a broad­er val­ue. To beat back the far Right, we need to build a mass move­ment, and some­times that will mean vig­or­ous­ly debat­ing a right-wing speak­er to con­vince peo­ple of our ideas.

For the same rea­sons, we should oppose attempts by a minor­i­ty of demon­stra­tors to fore­ground their own actions and side­line the major­i­ty by uni­lat­er­al­ly car­ry­ing out prop­er­ty destruc­tion. We should not fetishize dis­rup­tive or vio­lent tac­tics, and must remind our audi­ence that it is the Right, not the Left, that has a long his­to­ry of vig­i­lan­tism against rad­i­cal speak­ers. One recent exam­ple is the death threats direct­ed at Prince­ton his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor fol­low­ing her denun­ci­a­tion of Trump in a Hamp­shire Col­lege com­mence­ment address; the threats forced Tay­lor to can­cel sev­er­al speak­ing engage­ments. The recent neo-Nazi mur­der in Char­lottesville has once again demon­strat­ed that the far Right has noth­ing but con­tempt for free speech, and vio­lence against those who use it.

The his­to­ry of strug­gle for demo­c­ra­t­ic rights, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Berke­ley, shows us why we must defend free speech. Amid mass demon­stra­tions and direct actions in 1963 – 1964 to protest dis­crim­i­na­tion against Black work­ers in the Bay Area, the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion (under indus­try pres­sure) cracked down on cam­pus polit­i­cal expres­sion. The Free Speech Move­ment (FSM) erupt­ed in response. Over the course of three months, thou­sands of stu­dents protest­ed the crack­down, cul­mi­nat­ing in Decem­ber 1964 with a mas­sive sit-in and stu­dent strike that shut down the uni­ver­si­ty, cre­at­ed Berkeley’s grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers’ union and won stu­dents the right to free speech on campus.

The FSM shows us that the state and oth­er insti­tu­tions will try to silence us when we are a threat. Pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tions, for exam­ple, are active­ly sup­press­ing Pales­tin­ian human rights advo­ca­cy on col­lege cam­pus­es and else­where through event can­cel­la­tions, base­less legal com­plaints, … admin­is­tra­tive dis­ci­pli­nary actions [and] false and inflam­ma­to­ry accu­sa­tions of ter­ror­ism and anti-Semi­tism,” as sum­ma­rized by the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights. UC Berke­ley has assist­ed these efforts, most recent­ly in 2016 by sus­pend­ing a course on Pales­tine for spu­ri­ous bureau­crat­ic reasons.

At the same time, the FSM’s mil­i­tan­cy should also encour­age us to reject the lib­er­al per­spec­tive that defend­ing this right means try­ing to solve all prob­lems through civ­il dis­cus­sion. This mar­ket­place of ideas” fan­ta­sy is ped­dled not only by pun­dits like Jonathan Chait, who decries the spread of illib­er­al” tac­tics on col­lege cam­pus­es, but also by pro­gres sive heroes like Bernie Sanders, who sug­gest­ed that stu­dents are guilty of intel­lec­tu­al weak­ness” if they don’t want to engage in a polite way” with far-right provocateurs.

Some­times words are not enough. FSM leader Mario Savio argued that small group meet­ings and con­fer­ences” are suc­cess­ful and mean­ing­ful only when out­side there stands wait­ing a non­vi­o­lent stand­ing army.” At the begin­ning of the Decem­ber 1964 Berke­ley sit-in, he implored stu­dents to put your bod­ies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the uni­ver­si­ty machine” to indi­cate to the peo­ple who run it, to the peo­ple who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be pre­vent­ed from work­ing at all!”

For a response to Mukund, read Don’t Give Fas­cism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

For a response to Mukund and Natasha, read We’ll Beat the Fas­cists With Ideas, Not Fists,” by Nathan Robinson.

Mukund Rathi is a social­ist activist in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area and a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, School of Law.
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