During the week leading up to the August 11 and 12 anniversary, local anti-racist groups hosted a series of events, including panels on their use of in-your-face tactics and why they believe the First Amendment should not apply to white supremacists.
Protesters up the ante
UVA religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt opened the August 7 Black Lives Matter event with a terse request: “For everyone’s safety, we’ll ask all police to leave.”
The five-person “Why We Protest” panel discussion took a decidedly brasher tone than previous community events, showcasing the confrontational tactics some Charlottesville activists have embraced.
In the packed Jefferson School African American Heritage Center auditorium, Showing Up for Racial Justice activist Grace Aheron moderated the panel, which included Congregate Charlottesville organizer Brittany “Smash” Caine-Conley, SURJ activist Anna, UVA English professor Lisa Woolfork and UVA Students United activist Ibby Han. In keeping with the SURJ ethos, Aheron forbade audience members from livestreaming the event. “If you want the information, you have to come, or take notes and tell everyone,” she said.
Panelists prefaced the discussion by giving their preferred pronouns and tracing their paths to activism. Anna and Han got their start in campus organizations, while Woolfork was driven to protest out of a desire for “her children to inherit a world better than the one I have.” For Caine-Conley, experiencing police violence during a prayer circle at Standing Rock was the tipping point.
The first question addressed a common objection to protests against white supremacy: Why don’t you just ignore them? “Apathy is not a strategy,” said Woolfork, to a roaring applause. Other panelists argued that public disruption has been an indispensable tool for thwarting the alt-right.
Some on the panel adopted a more elastic definition of protest to accommodate mental and physical handicaps. Anna, a disabled activist, said, “Feeding the homeless is an act of protest to food injustice.”
Panelists endorsed controversial tactics for combating white supremacy, such as denying public figures they associate with fascism a platform and accosting them when they go out in public, an approach that has been used against several White House officials—and Jason Kessler.
Woolfork discouraged arguing with bigots, though other panelists adjusted this stance when someone asked what to do if the bigot is a family member. Struggling through tears, an audience member recalled contentious disputes with her parents, who voted for Donald Trump.
Caine-Conley said as a queer woman with family members who do not accept her, she has found it helpful to tell them stories about her activism. “It causes cognitive dissonance…because I am involved,” she said.
Panelists reiterated the need people to participate in demonstrations, citing the successful push to ban Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler from UVA. “The arc of justice doesn’t bend naturally,” Han said, “it bends when people push on it.”
Many activists agreed that the biggest threat for the August 12 weekend didn’t come from neo-Nazis. At the #ResilientCville town hall a few weeks ago, several audience members expressed concerns about police overcompensating to make up for last year’s failures. Woolfork echoed these concerns, warning that, if this is the case, “black people will bear the brunt.”—Jonathan Haynes
Free speech victims
Showing Up for Racial Justice sponsored an August 8 lawyers’ panel on free speech and anti-racist work—and how “false notions” about the former “hinder” the latter.
UVA law professor Anne Coughlin called the idea that there’s such a thing as legally protected free speech a “myth.” She said, “We regulate speech all the time.” Free speech gets thrown around as an absolute right, while “the protections are much narrower that people believe,” she said.
Legal Aid Justice Center and National Lawyers Guild attorney Kim Rolla questioned the idea that in an unfettered marketplace of free speech, “truth will shake out.”
Said Rolla, “Right now, the First Amendment is used to punish anti-racists and protect white supremacists.”
SURJ organizer Ben Doherty, who works at the UVA Law Library, elaborated on that theme: July 8, 2017, when “police gave full protection” to the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and tear-gassed anti-racist activists; a federal judge allowing Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler to hold his violent rally last year “under the guise of free speech;” August 11, 2017, at UVA, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists carried torches through the Grounds of UVA and “formed a lynch mob” while “police were paralyzed.”
And he listed the UVA law school, which allowed Kessler to be there twice, while arresting an activist “for merely sitting in the office with him.”
Coughlin, who said she has colleagues who say student “snowflakes” are trying to silence free speech, called “completely false” the notion of a “presupposed golden age of free speech and the sharing of ideas freely” when women and African Americans were excluded from law schools.
“We have the power to change the meaning of what’s protected speech and what’s violence,” she said.
White supremacists are now characterizing themselves as victims and “a minority group that’s being silenced,” said Rolla. “To say white folks are victims is really dangerous.”
Trickier for the panelists was how to prevent hate speech from having First Amendment protections.
“I’m hesitant to give more tools to the government to restrict speech,” said Rolla.
“There’s no reason the KKK should be a legal organization in the United States,” said Doherty. “It’s a terrorist group.” He said the government outlawed the Black Panthers through FBI surveillance and infiltration.
Attorney Lloyd Snook was in the audience, and he says that infiltrating the Black Panthers was not the same as passing a law, “Two of the three panelists don’t know their First Amendment history very well.”
The decisions that came out of the Warren U.S. Supreme Court were to protect civil rights organizers, union organizers and Communists, he says. “Later on the KKK and Nazis latched on to that.”
How Kessler could get a permit for the Unite the Right rally last year was a question from the audience.
In federal court, the basis the city gave for moving the rally was the number of people anticipated for then-Emancipation Park, said Rolla.
Rolla pointed out that then-mayor Mike Signer told ProPublica on Frontline’s “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville” that the city had no knowledge there would be any violence. Rolla called that “astounding” and said, “People stood in front of City Council” with information of the violent intentions of rally-goers, and there should have been prior restraint based on the threat of violence.—Lisa Provence