Then They Came for the Nazis

Violence, Online Vigilantism and Tolerating the Bodies Behind Ideas

By Alexander Coates

Before Harvey and Irma washed the blood in the streets from the collective mind of the American public, before Las Vegas stained it anew, domestic headlines were choked with sour turns of phrase: white supremacists, white nationalists, extremists, Nazis. Major urban centers, including our own Berkeley, have become flash-points of retaliatory action and violence with college campuses and public parks the stage for rallies, counter-protests, and an arms race of menacing presence, while the social media landscape plays host to vile rhetoric, inflammatory images, and swift currents of often under-informed and incorrect accusations. And in the rush to lambaste and lacerate hate-fueled ideologies, a distinction between the tenets and the tenants of those philosophies is dangerously under-emphasized.

“Worst case scenario is ethnic cleansing; that’s always been the fear,” says Berkeley City College Professor Dr. Mark Swiencicki, who teaches a course on comparative social movements. In an interview with The BCC Voice, he spoke about the galvanizing force behind reactions to the recent visibility of alt-right rallies and demonstrations. The fear of a repetition of the worst abuses committed by white supremacists, by white nationalists, by racists, by Americans, is motivation and cause enough for many to try and cut off at the root the conservative political speech that is often a gateway to such abhorrent views.

Recent protests at the University of California, Berkeley and around the country against conservative groups and speakers have been pockmarked with violent clashes often attributed to leftist-extremist, anarchist or anti-fascist groups. Groups costumed simultaneously as mascot and scapegoat for the left. The problem with the use of physical force in these contexts, says Swiencicki, is that “the left, with this very strong need to police any ideas that it finds harmful to people, they’ve given up the moral high ground.”

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Social activism is not confined to marches in the streets. Illustration Credit: Alexander Coates

Such a tactical misstep is not limited to demonstrations in the square. Instances of doxxing and targeted social media campaigns bordering on vigilantism have leveraged national outrage against individuals, to varying effect. Recently, a restaurant worker here in Berkeley was forced to resign after images of his attendance at the Charlottesville, Va. tragedy and subsequently his personal information were broadcast on Twitter, and a University of Arkansas faculty member was deluged with threats and defamatory comments after he was wrongly identified as being present at Charlottesville.

Now, while outing white supremacists on the Internet may seem to inflict little social harm, history and context tend to complicate rather than simplify matters. In communities for whom the criminal legal system offers only small or nonexistent recourse (or in the countless instances when the criminal legal system itself is the bad actor), social media can be a powerful tool to draw attention to injustice. But injustice can be compounded by social media as well. The LGBT community has seen firsthand, and has had played out in front of millions, the callous and vindictive outing of its members and been subject to harassment that has stolen lives and for which categorization as agonizing torment does little to adequately define.

On display in these instances are our society’s attempts to keep pace as technology redefines expectations of privacy and the exercise of power in every facet of day-to-day life.

The critique is simple — a mind doesn’t change because its face gets rearranged and doctrine doesn’t recoil at injury to reputation. Racists are a problem. Racism is the problem. A racist is someone whose mind has been colonized by a system of thought which thrives on dissonance. Rather than reinforce that dissonance through injury or ostracization and by so doing legitimize the narrative of the aggrieved/excluded/forgotten white working class expounded by whites of every stripe, try to afford the vile-minded those compassions which epitomize a humanist approach.

The necessary moral entrepreneurship here begins with a sifting of the ist from the ism. The beaten bodies and stained reputations, the collateral damage left in the wake of eager and ill-considered social activisms won’t be scarecrows in the field of acceptable thought, they’ll be catalysts and modern martyrs for a racist ideology which seeks to usurp a position of victimhood and find legitimacy in a catalogue of injuries.

A few efforts to address racist attitudes in a constructive manner have stood out recently. The Reverend Ron Buford’s Racists Anonymous program in Sunnyvale, Calif., reported on in the past year by the Washington Post, Mother Jones, NBC and others has experienced a surge in interest and the Obama-funded, Trump-defunded, anti-violent-extremism group Life After Hate* has been featured on “Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal,” “NPR’s Here and Now,” and Business Insider.

These programs are not perfect. They beg critical questions about the potential medicalization of racism as well as the rhetorical question of why white supremacist groups are afforded therapy and deprogramming when other radical organizations are served interrogation and torture. But let’s not collapse or frustrate these spaces because of the groups they have been created for. Rather, let’s discover just what good might come from the precedents they set. It is possible to fight racism and save the racists. As unpalatable as that sentiment may seem, it is a necessary step to accomplish anything beyond merely sequestering our unique American shame.

*Correction: Our print edition incorrectly refers to the Life After Hate organization as “Life Against Hate.” We apologize for any confusion.

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