What to do when the alt-right comes to campus

October 5, 2017

You found out that Milo or Bannon or some other hateful slug has been invited to appear on your campus. What should you do about it? Monique Dols, author of "Free speech and fighting the right on campus," a featured article in the latest issue of the International Socialist Review, looks at the political questions that the left needs to consider.

STUDENTS AT universities across the country have been welcomed back to school this fall with the announcement of an alarming number of right-wing speakers at their schools.

From Columbia University to the University of California (UC) at Berkeley and many places in between, right wingers of all stripes, including open neo-Nazis and white supremacists, will be coming to a campus near you.

Emboldened by Donald Trump's presidency, these reactionaries are hoping to raise the profile of their vile ideas and recruit people to them. They push the politics of scapegoating and despair, while opportunistically representing themselves as hapless victims of a left-wing culture of political correctness, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

They've hypocritically claimed "free speech" as their rallying cry--even though they stand for the opposite of more freedom and democracy for the majority of people.

Many on the left have wrestled with what to do when these right-wing ideologues come to campus. The question came to a head earlier this year when two of them--Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley and Charles Murray at Middlebury College--were met with overwhelming opposition that made it impossible to speak.

Clockwise from left: A campus protest against bigotry in Minnesota; Richard Spencer; Stephen Bannon
Clockwise from left: A campus protest against bigotry in Minnesota; Richard Spencer; Stephen Bannon

The liberal answer is to ignore the right-wingers, no matter how repulsive and dangerous. This is supposed to deny the reactionaries the attention they seek.

But this fall, many more students are coming back to campus convinced of the necessity of taking the growth of the far right seriously and organizing against it--and for good reason.

This summer, we witnessed the horrors that emboldened KKK and neo-fascist elements are capable of when they rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their carnival of hate culminated in a terrorist attack on anti-fascist protesters that killed counterdemonstrator Heather Heyer.

In the critical weeks after Charlottesville, anti-fascist counter-mobilizations in Boston, the Bay Area and elsewhere far outnumbered the far right, reminding the world that we are many, and they are a pitiful few.

MANY MORE people are determined to stand up to the far-right threat. But what should they do when someone like Yiannopoulos or Murray or worse come to speak at their campus?

The first response of many students when faced with these truly frightening figures of racist hate is to call on university administrators to cancel their appearances--out of concern for the safety of oppressed people on campus, to state one obvious reason.

Such calls are understandable. But I want to argue that it is a mistake to call on campus administrations to repress speech, even in the name of defending the oppressed. What we need instead is the largest possible counter-mobilization on campuses across the country--one that can confront their vile ideas and the racist violence of the right.

Anything short of this won't stop the right from growing. On the contrary, relying on a bureaucratic shortcut can create a climate that is more conducive to the growth of the right.

One reason that we shouldn't call for bureaucratic repression against the right is because we don't want more power wielded by already powerful university administrations.

During this moment of political polarization and volatility, the leaders of universities want to pre-empt the inevitable upheavals on campuses.

Whatever the source of future eruptions--whether they are against police murder and repression, for unionization, against deportations, against sexual violence--the corporate structures at the top of universities are working to get ahead of them by creating a more restricted and repressive campus environment.

Thus, the spread of the ironically titled "free speech zones," along with rules and regulations that limit and punish campus protest, speech and association.

At every point in the struggle, we should be thinking about how we can undermine this power that university administrators have over speech, protest and organization. To call on the university to stop any speech will only increase that power.

We don't want them to have that power--in part because history and experience has shown that it will be used disproportionately against our side, not against the right.

For example, at Ohio University in Athens, administrators announced a new so-called "Freedom of Expression" policy that actually limits political expression and forbids protest from important public parts of the campus. Among other reasons cited, though, top officials claim the measure was an attempt to keep students safe in the wake of Charlottesville.

But we are not only against the university suppressing right-wing speech because that power will be used against us. We are also against the suppression of democratic rights in general--because these rights are necessary in building a movement that is strong enough to stop the far right.

WHEN WE talk about the need to mobilize large numbers of people against fascism, it isn't just because more is better. It's because mass working-class solidarity in action is the only way to defeat the far right--and because the contrary strategy of attempting to stop the right through bureaucratic methods doesn't work.

When fascists march, for example, their goal is to spread violence and intimidate the people they despise and push them into the shadows, shifting the balance of forces in their favor.

When the authorities--whether governmental or an institution like a university--do something to repress the far right, they drive popular expressions of opposition to the fascists out of the public sphere.

Think about how the police tend to protect fascists and KKK members from anti-fascist opposition, and you can see how a legal order to prevent the fascists from rallying actually shields them from the people who really oppose them--while giving them the opportunity to drum up more support by claiming to be the victim.

Similarly, when the university acts bureaucratically against right-wing individuals or organizations, it typically portrays itself as protecting students--while pairing the repression of right-wing speech with limitations on anti-fascist organizing. The justification is that administrators took care of the problem, so student activism is unnecessary.

When these anti-democratic restrictions are put in place, our side then has new problems to tackle: confronting a right-wing that cloaks itself by playing the victim of oppressive forces, and also challenging restrictions on the right to protest and assemble when they are applied to us.

Under these circumstances, it becomes even more difficult to organize the forces needed to show that the far right is a tiny, marginalized minority when we have to struggle even for the right to demonstrate freely.

In Boston, tens of thousands of anti-fascist protesters mobilized in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and the far right--those that showed up--were proven to be marginal and weak. Relying on bureaucratic suppression of the far right short-circuits that process.

Instead of being marginalized and pushed aside by our greater numbers, the right is only momentarily silenced at best.

At worst, they can come back strengthened and emboldened by their status as a group that has been "victimized" by the repressive power structure. This gives the fascists more ammunition in recruiting a base that sympathizes with their talk of being discriminated against by a "left" that wants to take away their "free speech."

HOW SHOULD we respond instead when vile right-wingers come to campus?

The faculty at UC Berkeley showed an alternative in response to the alt-reich's planned four days of hate in late September that they misleadingly called "Free Speech Week." The provocation fell apart before it was set to start, but not before UC Berkeley spent huge sums to arrange security.

Hundreds of faculty members and graduate students signed on to a letter calling for a boycott of campus for the full four days. The letter stated: "If the administration insists upon allowing the alt-right to occupy the center of our campus for four days to harass, threaten and intimidate us, as they did during Milo's visit in February, then faculty cannot teach, staff cannot work and students cannot learn."

While the letter does reference a problematic desire for the university to cancel the right's events, the overwhelming stress was for: one, cancellation of classes; two, closure of buildings and departments; and three, professors who do hold classes shouldn't penalize students who are afraid to come to campus.

The faculty's stated mission in this letter was to protect the campus and its most vulnerable populations from the right-wingers.

The campus boycott effectively called for a shutdown of UC Berkeley for the days that the ultra-right planned to invade a public university--at an enormous cost to the school. It raised the need for a public opposition and began to resurrect a desperately needed tactic in the struggle against fascism: a strike by workers and students.

Paired with an outpouring of protest by those who want to send an activist message against the alt-reich, this is exactly the kind of alternative we need to the two dominant responses to the right: either "ignore them and they will go away" or rely on bureaucratic repression to temporarily stop them.

In the coming weeks and months, our side's response to the ultra-right's campus speaking tours can play a critical role in rebuilding of an anti-fascist movement in this country. If we can mobilize large shows of opposition against the far right and avoid the trap of calling for bureaucratic repression, we will be one step closer.

Further Reading

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