White Supremacists, Swastikas, Confederate Flags and Violent Responses

Now that the US has become a country where white supremacists and their opponents-now referred to by the awkward and discordant term “antifa”-confront each other in the streets and occasionally engage in brief but violent clashes, many questions are raised about free speech, violence and the appropriate response to those who espouse sympathy for murderous, traitorous and genocidal regimes.

The specific question that most frequently arises is whether or not it is appropriate to use violence in response to white supremacist demonstrators who align themselves with the defeated Confederate and Nazi regimes. The large majority of counter-demonstrators have been peaceful and have restrained from using violence, but a small minority in Berkeley, Charlottesville and elsewhere have used violence. These actions have been met with almost universal criticism from conservatives anxious to create a false equivalency between white supremacists and their opponents, from free speech advocates who believe all speech should be protected and liberals who fear that violence undermines support for their position.

There is something attractive, even righteous feeling, about condemning violence, but the situation here is not quite that simple. Much of the complexity in this rests on the symbols employed by the white supremacists and the proper response to those symbols.The two symbols that have been used by the white supremacists that have elicited the most anger from counter-demonstrators, are the Confederate flag, and the Swastika. These are both frequently described as symbols that represent hatred and intolerance. However, that is a very charitable. If one sees these symbols as simply standing for hate and intolerance, than there is no place for violent responses to them.

The real meaning of these symbols are very different. I’m Jewish. When I see a Swastika, I do not see a generic symbol of hatred or intolerance. I see somebody who is expressing a desire to kill me and my entire family. This reflects not paranoia but simply a basic understanding of 20th century history. Millions of other Jewish Americans and LGBT citizens see, or should see, a similar meaning in that symbol. Similarly when seeing a Confederate flag, African Americans, regardless of the rationalizations provided by white Americans, many of whom have not connection to the old south, do not see a symbol of hatred, or southern pride, but of a regime that fought to ensure chattel slavery for their ancestors and that was willing to destroy the US in pursuit of that goal.

It is, of course, unlikely that chattel slavery will return to the US, or that genocide against Jews and wholesale murder of LGBT people will happen in the US, but history has made it clear that there are never any guarantees about questions like these. Given that, a strong argument can be made not just that occasional violence can be excused in response to these symbols, but that violence is the only rational and morally acceptable response. That may sound extreme, but it was not that long ago that young American men were required to violently oppose Nazis, while those who refused were called traitors.

The counter to that argument is that these white supremacist demonstrators are not actual Nazis, nor are they actually calling for a return to the Confederacy, but that they are merely using those symbols as a way to underscore their radically racist views. This argument is essentially that the racist demonstrators are just bigoted but ultimately harmless, even somewhat pathetic, white guys playing dress-up. It is very likely that this is actually the case and that those who are using these symbols do not really stand for the real ideas behind them, but are simply angry and want to offend as much as possible. While that is a morally crippled view, it is one that is protected by our First Amendment.

This position is very plausible, but to condemn all violent responses to the white supremacists is to believe with absolute certainty that the racist demonstrators are not to be taken seriously. It is indeed extremely unlikely that a Nazi or Confederate regime will come to the US, but we know that acts of violence, threats to racial and religious minorities and terrorism in the name of white supremacy has been a fact of political and social life in the US since the end of reconstruction and continues into the 21st century. We also should recognize that the political climate has changed dramatically in recent months. The President has made it unambiguously clear that his heart lies not with the patriotic counter-demonstrators, but with those flaunting the symbols of regimes that have committed horrific crimes against humanity and made war on the US. In this environment, the question of the justification of violent acts against these bigots should, at the very least, be understood to be a little bit more complex.

Photo: cc/ Karla Cote