We don't buy the alt-right's new brand

Adam Marletta reports from Maine on a counterprotest that unmasked the racists.

Standing up to the alt-right in Augusta, MaineStanding up to the alt-right in Augusta, Maine

A RIGHT-wing "free speech" rally in Augusta, Maine, on September 30 was little more than a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the demonstrators' racist, white nationalist views. Fortunately, they were outnumbered by nearly 100 counterprotesters, including many from local socialist organizations, who turned out to oppose the reactionaries.

The coalition of left groups who counterprotested the right included the Portland, Maine, branch of the International Socialist Organization, the John Brown Gun Club, Socialist Party of Maine, NAACP of Bangor, Southern Maine IWW and the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), among others. The counterdemonstration took place across from the state Capitol building, where the right-wing rally was taking place.

Organizers of the alt-right demonstration, which they called a "Rally to Denounce Political Violence," seemed at first glance to represent an odd combination of Libertarians (including a few out-of-state political candidates), right wingers and even a few Occupy Wall Street activists.

But closer inspection of the rally's principal organizers reveals some familiar faces and themes from the so-called "alt-right."

For starters, there is John Rasmussen, a Portland native who also helped organize the Boston "free speech" rally in May that the Boston NPR affiliate WBUR described as a collection of "veterans, ex-police, Tea Party Republicans and young people affiliated with the self-described 'alt-right'--a conservative faction that mixes racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism."

Unfortunately, the right-wingers outnumbered counterdemonstrators back in May, which emboldened the racists to try to intimidate those who opposed them.

And anyone who thought they were harmlessly demonstrating for free speech should read the advice of a right-wing website to those who attended: "Organizers have encouraged people to bring heavyweight flag poles, weighted gloves, pepper spray. Attendees should also bring helmets, shin guards, goggles, respirators, and other body armor."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IN AUGUSTA, the rally organizers have a clear online history of demonstrating support for white nationalist and far-right views. The cartoon character Pepe the Frog, widely viewed as the alt-right's mascot, features prominently on organizers' social media pages.

Yet the organizers claimed that their rally was called "to denounce the violence that has arisen recently due to political fearmongering" and that they "advocate for peaceful discussion and the spread of ideas from all points of view." They had the gall to conclude their event summary with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The racists' focus was on the purported violence of the left--particularly anti-fascist groups like Antifa and the Black Bloc.

These reactionaries are clearly taking a page out of Donald Trump's book--condemning violence on "both sides," even though it is really only their side that is actively seeking to perpetuate violent acts and intimidation. They seek to draw a moral equivalency between the Ku Klux Klan and Antifa, suggesting both are equally responsible for promoting violence.

An organizer who goes by the name of Jarody pushed this false equivalency in an interview in the Portland Phoenix prior to the rally: "We've got groups like Antifa and the John Brown Gun Club coming to oppose us. I'd like to see the organizers of the counter-rally make sure to rein in those on their side who might show up to incite violence."

This is a baseless comparison. The efforts of anti-fascists to defend themselves and marginalized people--using direct action, if necessary--is in no way comparable to the racism and hate-mongering incited by the KKK and neo-Nazi groups.

As a joint press release issued by the left-wing coalition organizing the counterdemonstration stated, "This event, the 'Rally to Denounce Political Violence,'...is an attempt to provide shelter for alt-right ideologies under the guise of free speech."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

TELLINGLY, JARODY refused to concede to the Phoenix that the murder of 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer is a form of political violence. "Nobody knows what [was] going on in that guy's head," Jarody said, referring to James Alex Fields, who drove his car into a group of anti-fascist demonstrators, killing Heyer. "Nobody knows what his intentions were. Even though we have footage of it, that's basically the work of lawyers [sic]. I'd have to listen to what [Fields] says up on the stand."

Rasmussen, in an interview on a local right-wing radio station a few days prior to the rally, was similarly evasive about Heyer's murder.

"Everybody is attacking everybody right now," Rasmussen said when asked about the events in Charlottesville. Rasmussen then launched into a rambling, mostly incoherent tirade about how the alleged violence of the left is "going to cycle incredibly fast," and conservatives are in danger of "walking right into their trap."

The right's strategy is clear. They want to paint leftists and anti-racists as violent instigators who are intolerant of the right's freedom of speech. Think of this the alt-right's attempt to rebrand itself as the "alt-light." They want to cover up their overt appeals to white nationalism and anti-Semitism while casting themselves as victims of an extreme left.

In Augusta, though, the counterprotesters weren't having it. They understood all too well that this badly disguised "free speech" rally was the same rotten right-wing product in a different package.

About halfway through the counterdemonstration's speeches, a group of counterprotesters broke away from the rally to confront the alt-right directly, though this didn't result in any physical conflict. The left should continue its discussion about how to confront the right with the largest possible numbers to prove that they are the tiny minority that they are.

Most importantly, though, the counterdemonstration easily outnumbered the 20 or so right-wingers who showed up. This is a strong basis for organizing against the rise of the far right in the future.