I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to the antifa movement, my feelings towards it and what it represents, and the role of protected free speech. Truth be told, I’m still struggling with all of it. In a normal, properly functioning democracy, there is absolutely no place whatsoever for such a movement, nor should we be talking about what kind of speech is acceptable in a public forum. However, it seems to me that the United States, at this moment in time, is not a properly functioning democracy. The primary reason for this is our current President, who has no qualms whatsoever about eschewing established norms or circumventing and/or disabling our systems of checks and balances. He also constantly attacks the free press, demonizes his opponents (to the point of suggesting that violence against them might be okay), and gaslights and lies on a regular basis. Trump is wielding his power in a fashion that is wildly errant and destructive, to the point where white supremacists of varying kinds feel comfortable making demonstrations consisting of violent rhetoric, which often includes declarations welcoming the idea of race war.
I strikes me as Pollyannish to suggest that their freedom of speech still must be respected, no matter the cost. Again, in a normally functioning democracy, this would be an appropriate response. The problem is that many of these far right-wing individuals and groups aren’t just voicing their opinions; they are also coming to these gatherings heavily armed and engaging in acts that stop just short of committing violence against counter-protesters. They are aggressively acting in a manner designed to enrage and provoke in the hopes of causing the other side to start the violence. In the cases where these racists do shed first blood, they will find some way to blame the other side. HBO’s VICE News segment on the events in Charlottesville two weekends ago, featuring an embedded reporter, demonstrates this quite clearly.
They arrived heavily armed and bearing large body shields to be used as means of shoving counter-protestors out of their way. In addition to antagonizing and provoking, they were also hoping to intimidate through a strong show of force. Simply, they are operating in the margins where the courts have ruled the First Amendment rights can be curtailed and suspended; where speech is no longer just an expression of ideas. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s 1919 opinion, written in support of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling, made it clear that speech designed to cause violence or damage could be restricted. The issue then becomes a matter of determining what crosses that line and what doesn’t.
The free speech issues were compounded by the police response. Ideally, the police forces with the proper jurisdiction would be in place to make sure that such displays of openly antagonist speech do not escalate into full-blown violence. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Charlottesville. Why the police looked so utterly unprepared and inept continues to puzzle me — the white nationalists, Neo-Nazi’s, white supremecists, and various counter-protesters made it very clear in advance that they were going to be there in large numbers. This was a situation that required a large police presence, and the City of Charlottesville should’ve known in advance whether it was prepared. If not, they should have asked the Governor for National Guard assistance days before the marches took place — especially since white militia groups also announced their intention to attend in advance. I guarantee you that if a militant faction of the Black Panthers had fought in court for the proper permits for a demonstration then the City of Charlottesville would’ve been better prepared than it was for the events of August 11 & 12.*
To make matters even worse, for a brief period on Saturday morning, the police actually retreated from an area where violence was occurring and didn’t intervene. At best, this situation suggested that our government is afraid to properly assert itself in its duty to preserve the public peace. At worse, it shows it is incapable of it. Either way, we have a situation now where many on the left, who are horrified by the violent rhetoric and aims of far right-wing individuals and groups, feel as though they need to protect themselves, in much the same manner expressed by the NRA and its supporters. Hence, the antifa.
It’s this breach in the public trust that has provided the conditions for antifa in this country. It’s this kind of situation that has caused many on the left to suggest creating the kinds of limits that Holmes et al. said might be necessary. As I said at the start, I haven’t figured out exactly where I stand on all this. Ideally, I loathe the idea of settings limits (even temporary ones) on First Amendment rights, and I am equally disconcerted that an Antifa movement exists. However, our government seems unable or unwilling to maintain the peace in situations where it clearly should. Violent speech was in part responsible for a situation that got out of control, and as long as right-wing organizations continue to bring weapons and armor to demonstrations and agitate for violence, there will be those on the left who feel the need for something like antifa.
I don’t have an answer for this solution. At the moment, however, playing by the old rules doesn’t seem to be working.
*Actually, I’m more willing to believe that in such a situation the city’s response would have gone too far to the other extreme, making it far worse than what we saw.