The Question of Counter-Protesting

I had an interesting discussion with someone today about the appalling white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We talked about a number of different aspects of it, but one element remained debatable, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. It’s about counter-protests.

At first, the idea was expressed that simply ignoring a rabble of angry, bigoted, white dudes will prevent them from getting what they want. They want a fight. They want a platform. So don’t give it to them.

Of course, that’s not what happened. There was a counter-protest to the rally, and the clash of the two groups was violent.

But then an opposing idea came up in the conversation: Don’t we have a responsibility to show each other that bigotry doesn’t belong in 2017 America. Even just on a micro-level, isn’t it good that the people of Charlottesville decided to say, “This isn’t what we believe in”?

I’m torn between the two options (to counter-rally or not to counter-rally). I don’t want to condone anything that would give white supremacists the coverage they seek, yet I also understand that remaining silent sends the wrong message too.

What do you think is the best way to handle a situation like this? I’m specifically talking about showing up at an appalling rally to counter-protest face-to-face (this isn’t a debate about whether or not we should speak out in opposition to bigotry–by nature, bigotry is wrong and should be condemned).

[UPDATE] If you are in favor of in-person counter-protesting, have you ever done it? Would you? In the initial response to this post on social media, a few people replied with hard-line answers saying that there’s really no question at all, that the only answer is that we must counter-protest and that silence is acceptance. So if that’s your point of view, I think it’s fair to ask you if you’ve shown up at a rally like this to counter-protest. If not, what does that say about you?

14 thoughts on “The Question of Counter-Protesting”

  1. Long talks with my wife and daughter [WashU student 🙂 ] yesterday and today about this exact topic.

    I believe that it’s very important to allow bigots a platform to speak their trash so that we will be reminded that there are still people who feel that way. Best case scenario to me would be allowing them safe passage to their demonstration, videotaping their thoughts, insuring their safe passage away, allowing a safe area for counter-protesters to gather, and then videotape their thoughts. Media would be protected while recording exactly what goes on from both camps.

    Even better to me would be if the counter-protesters could be silent while the vile of the bigots is spoken. Some sort of controlled silence by physically covering their mouths, or turning their backs, or pointing silently at a sign. Something other than screaming, confronting, etc, That way, the bigots don’t get a “push back” and they eventually fizzle out and leave without a fight.

    When I used to coach basketball, sometimes I’d have a post player stuck defensively behind his opponent who was calling for the ball. The natural tendency as a defender in that situation is to push into the back of the offensive player and try to move him. But he’s pushing back, getting low, and is very hard to move. So….. the defender needs to do the opposite of what’s intuitive and completely pull back from the contact which then makes the offensive player fall backwards and lose position while the defender jumps in front.

    So… I think we (who think bigoted crap is wrong), might be best doing the opposite of what feels right and not fight against bigots with all that’s in us, but rather give them their chance to remind us that bigotry isn’t dead, and then calmly remind ourselves, and especially our children, that our nation has come a long, long way, and that we’re not going backwards.

    • Rob: This is an excellent, measured comment. I like the idea of a silent, in-person counter-protest–that seems like it could achieve the best of both ideas I mentioned.

      • So this thread has really taken off on your Twitter account Jamey. Not surprisingly, I guess.

        To be clear about my position, I advocate the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. that center around non-violent protest. I feel certain that if I was young and African-American in the 1960’s, I would have been drawn to Malcolm X by my sheer anger. But, I think Martin Luther King Jr’s plan was better in the end.

        I think there are plenty of ways to counter the hateful words of the bigots without resorting to violence:
        -Make it a priority when you go to the polls!! Create a local and national government that makes it as difficult as possible for hate groups to grow.
        -Create open and honest lines of communication with our children that emphasize rooting out hatred and fostering safe, healthy environments were they can grow.
        -Don’t pass up the chance to identify bigotry for what it is, even if it might make for an ackward moment with a family member, co-worker, friend.

        But I don’t want to take away the bigots right to speech because I don’t want us to forgot that they are out there. And I don’t feel comfortable with a government that decides who can and can’t assemble to speak.

  2. This weekend I was reminded of a part from one of my favorite movies, which evolved into my favorite TV show of all time – American President, The West Wing.

    “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

    It saddens me to see such bigotry in our country.
    It saddens me to see a young woman killed for opposing bigotry.
    It saddens me to see so much hate & violence.
    I believe everyone should have the opportunity to stand up against those whose words make their blood boil.

    • James, if you’re a West Wing fan, I’d highly recommend the podcast called “The West Wing Weekly.” Each week they cover the next episode in the show. They’re up to the episode 17 of season 3 this week. Like you, American President and West Wing are a favorite movie/show of mine.

      One interesting side note. Originally, Charlie was going to be cast as a white young man because they were worried it’d look bad to have a young black man play the part. I think it was also true that Admiral Fitzwallace, played by John Amos, was created after criticism that the cast was too white. Which, of course, it was. He ended up having some of the most important social lines of the show. Including a quick, sharp rebuke of officers in the Roosevelt room when they were fighting against gays in the military.

    • James: Thanks for sharing! Those things sadden me as well, and I’m glad we live in a country where we have the right to stand up against those things.

  3. This is a very interesting debate. I live in Belgium, where any portest or rally has to be approved of by the mayor and has to keep to a designated time, place and/or route. If you divert from this, police can temporarily isolate people in orde to make sure things do not get out of hand in the publice space. This does not mean freedom of speech is impacted on an individual level, but that it is limited as soon as it concerns crowds in a public space; to avoid mobs and violent clashes.

    Personally, I tend to encourage counter-protest. I took part in some, but noticed they can get out of hand and have the opposite effect, so I am nuanced. a counter-protest is needed, but it can be silent, or it can be held on a date and/or place far from the other protest.

    During my student years, a nationalist student clubheld a yearly march in one of Belgium’s university towns. Publicly, this student club was somewhere between Republican and the non-racist alt-right, but at least some of them did have racist, violent and racist tendencies. After such a rally, the student bars of the traditionally more lefty students (social sciences, arts,…) were sometimes attacked and wrecked by people who did that rally.

    There was always an organized counter-protest: the general student population wanting to show there were more students eager to walk the streets for solidarity and a positive cause than for nationalism. The counter-protest always was larger than the the nationalist march. Police always made sure both protests did not meet, so during the marches, there were not many incidents. The organisers of the nationalist march even made sure most of the people in their march, were on a bus back to their student town directly after the march ended. there were clashes in student bars, but hese were limited to the nationalists, studying in that town (and they didn’t need a march to feel like looking for trouble wuithe ‘lefties’).

    However, in my final year as a student, the counter protest got infiltrated/hijacked by an anarchist group, who attacked the police and the other protest with burning sofas on wheels (it sounds grotesque, I know). This traumatized lots of the students in the counter-protest and people living nearby, making the counterprotest much less popular and harder to organize in the following years.

    Which also made me realize that any group or protest can be infiltrated by idiots and dangerous individuals. I do not agree at all with the reasons for the Charlotteville protests, but I cannot believe all alt-right or even white supremacist attendees approving of someone driving his car into a counter-protest.

    So: yes, counter-protests are necessary. If only to show not all white male americans support the views of the people marching on Charloteville’s park. I do thin kit is important to individually voice your views and disagreements on this. But I do believe a council can decide to not allow a counter-protest (on the same day or in the same neighborhood) with public order and safety in mind.

    • Maarten: Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective! It’s an interesting concept of having a counter-protest in person that doesn’t end up inches away from the rally they’re protesting (or is even on a different day).

  4. Jamey,

    Thanks for posting. This needs to be part of a broader dialogue and we sadly only discuss these issues within the context of protests/counter-protests, which often end in violence. The dramatic scenes taking place on an idyllic campus and in a small town 90 min away from me had a chilling effect. This is 2017 and we still have groups of people who believe, to their core, what they’re saying and espousing is not only true, but right. That’s utterly frightening. To Rob’s point, I absolutely agree that we need to acknowledge their right to free speech, but as I get older, I find my politics trending less to the right and more toward a libertarian sensibility in that your rights end where mine begin. In the end, if they’re just words, the free speech part, maybe we can ignore it. However, in no way do we protect free “action” in the form of physical harm, which unfortunately occurred this past weekend. I pray for that young woman’s family…she displayed a sense of commitment, faith, and bravery that I don’t know that many of us possess. As humans we’re driven by our passions, but some passions are patently wrong and again, as we’re well into the 21st C, I’m stunned that we’re still at a place such as this.


    • Joe: I agree that there’s a big difference between voicing an opinion (as much as I may disagree with that opinion) and physically harming someone. It’s for that reason that I think the rally started to cross that line when they showed up with torches. That seemed to cross the line between free speech (a disgusting example of free speech) and a physical act of aggression.

  5. I’m for sure on the side of this quote:

    There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. – Elie Wiesel

    I’ve gone to only a couple of rallies, but I think it’s better to hound politicians or larger groups with a bigger voice to ask them to stand up.

    • Regan: That’s an excellent quote. I like the idea that counter-protesting isn’t the only way to stand up to bigotry and hatred.

  6. I too have thought on this, and by seeing white supremist responses to being called out and confronted, I would say that it is necessary to counter-protest. These people live in a bubble of social interaction and information. Although the numbers are depressing, there are still far fewer fascists than they believe. I do feel that violent counter protest groups are counter-productive. If they are going to operate it needs to be behind the scenes –like anonymous taking down their websites and the Antifa members who research and infiltrate groups to expose their plans, organizational structure, etc. physically confronting people allows for the false equivalency argument that Trump stepped into.


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