Berkeley can’t ignore the Nazis

August 23, 2017

With a weekend of counterdemonstrations against the far right coming up in Berkeley and San Francisco, Bay Area socialist Derek Wright answers local officials whose advice is to "turn your back." This article is an expanded version of a post on social media.

MANY OF my friends are forwarding Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín's statement about the proposed far-right rally on August 27, in which he says: "The best response for those seeking to safeguard our community is to stay away. Doing so prevents those on the fringe from garnering attention to their causes, which is their primary goal."


For starters, the primary goal of neo-Nazis and white nationalists is to intimidate, demobilize and eventually annihilate anyone who might oppose their attempt to impose an ethnically and religiously "pure" society on the rest of us through force and violence. Why are these groups trying to march publicly? They want to come out of the Internet and into physical space to test the waters and see what they can get away with.

If you think any of this is an exaggeration, you should watch the excellent VICE News documentary about Charlottesville on YouTube to hear from the Nazis themselves what they want to do.

In Charlottesville, they learned that they can target and physically assault anyone "non-white," along with anti-racist whites, while the police stand by and do nothing. They learned they can drive a car into a crowd of people, killing one and injuring several dozen, and have the tacit approval of the so-called "president" of the United States.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín

We cannot allow these to be the only lessons they draw.

NAZIS WANT to control the streets through fear and violence. They want to build their confidence and forces. When these groups mobilize in public, there are basically four possible outcomes:

1. They go entirely unopposed (the outcome preferred by liberals and city officials). The media will cover them anyway, so they get attention. The story they spin to their supporters is: "Look, we're winning! The opposition is too cowardly and disorganized to stop us. Let's do it again, only better. Let's attack a Black church or a synagogue next time..."

Our side ends up no more organized or confident. People remain afraid of being out in the streets. Hate crimes expand in frequency and severity. The Nazis win.

2. They are only opposed by a small group of hard-core, principled opponents of fascism who see themselves as being part of a small minority that is willing to use physical force to try to drive the Nazis from the streets--"using their own language."

This has been the basic outcome for the last year in Berkeley. While I'm absolutely in favor of self-defense, I think the character of the movement matters.

If the opposition to the far right remains a relatively small group of people who aren't focused on building and mobilizing larger forces--and who shun any critique of their actions with the approach of a "diversity of tactics"--it actually gives the advantage to the fascists.

Even if the far right goes home bruised and bloody from street battles, they still win to some extent. Again, the media covers them, only this time with sympathetic interviews about their narrative of a persecuted group trying to defend their civil rights. Liberals wring their hands about "free speech" and complain about the violence of both sides.

The fascists can appeal to much broader right-wing forces and say: "The commies and intolerant liberals are taking away our rights, and we're the only ones strong enough to do something about it. Join us!"

Our side remains small and disorganized, and it's harder to get broader forces to come out to oppose the fascists the next time they try to mobilize. The Nazis win.

3. They are met by a massive, multiracial, broad coalition, representing the overwhelming majority of society that thinks fascism belongs in the sewer of history, not in our public spaces.

The Nazis will get media attention, only this time, the media will have to show the overwhelming size of the opposition to the Nazis. Not all publicity is good publicity, in spite of what we may be told. This kind proves the fascists are a tiny and despised minority.

The racists will still try to spin the same victim narrative, but it doesn't resonate with people as much since the main imagery of the event--the Nazis being outnumbered by 20 or 40 or 100 to 1. No one can even hear their hate speech and appeals to join them. Solidarity will have trumped hate.

The Nazis go home less confident that rallying in public will be effective. They will have a harder time recruiting anyone else to join them next time.

Our side is now less afraid, more confident and better organized--since a mass mobilization requires coalition building, networking, developing organizing skills and so on. This time, we win.

4. Liberals wage a successful campaign calling on city officials, the police, university administrations and the like to deny the Nazis a permit to march or otherwise ban or outlaw the event.

Whatever happens to the fascists, our civil rights are directly curtailed, since now there's precedent for banning "extremist" forms of dissent, and the authorities are emboldened to outlaw other gatherings they deem "unfit" or "unsafe." The police state ends up with more power to decide who gets to hold public events.

Given how incredibly chummy the police are whenever Nazis show up in public--not to mention the long history of white supremacists being police officers themselves--it is no surprise when the authorities use their expanded censorship powers to target the left, which is fundamentally seen as a threat, rather than the far right, which is basically starting from the racist scapegoating at the heart of mainstream politics, and taking it to its "logical" conclusion. Black Lives Matter demonstrations are also denied permits "for safety reasons."

In short, our side loses. Meanwhile, the Nazis again play the victim card and win supporters with the same reasoning and appeal as outcome number two. The Nazis win.

IN THREE of the four scenarios above, the far right wins, though its victory will differ in degree, depending on the outcome. But the third outcome offers the chance of our side winning--and for concrete evidence, we now have last weekend's massive march and counterdemonstration in Boston that sent the fascists packing.

Outcome number three is the one we should work toward.

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