A group of vile racists in Charlottesville, VA, planned a rally for Saturday, “Unite the Right,” in part to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The protest was met predictably by a counter-protest, including by members of the “Antifa” movement, the left’s violent protest wing.
The Charlottesville newspaper, The Daily Progress, has the best description of the events of Saturday. We strongly recommend everyone read it to learn how both sides were prepared for violence. It’s still unclear how the violence broke out, although by most accounts the police were inadequate to the task of keeping the two sides separate. Given the desire for both sides for a confrontation, it was probably expecting too much of the police to keep order completely, and the city did try to change the venue to make the rally safer.
As the violence escalated, a state of emergency was declared and the rally, comprised of the KKK, Nazis, the “alt-Right,” and other racists, was canceled. Unfortunately, the violence didn’t end.
A young man from Ohio, James Fields, allegedly intentionally drove his car into the crowd of demonstrators, killing at least one person and injuring 19 others, an act of terrorism similar to terror vehicle attacks elsewhere. He is currently charged with second degree murder.
The day’s tragedies continued with the crash of a helicopter containing two state troopers who were monitoring the events on the ground. Both were killed.
The lesson some would draw from the events of Saturday is that free speech is too high a price to pay, that Nazis and other racists should not be allowed to have free speech, or for that matter anyone that the left deems unacceptable. Glenn Greenwald has an article in The Intercept defending the ACLU and its defense of the rally planners in Charlottesville after the city council tried to move the rally. As the article points out, the ACLU is no friend to the racist organizers of the rally, but they recognized (just as they famously did in Skokie, IL) that defending the right to unpopular, even racist hate speech, is defending the right to all speech. Unfortunately, that understanding, always fragile in America, is rapidy becoming lost.
And, on cue, groups like One Wisconsin Now (OWN) are already using the violence in Charlottesville to attack a bill in the Wisconsin legislature that would protect free speech on college campuses by punishing those that would disrupt the free speech of others. Of course, OWN is mischaracterizing the bill, claiming it would punish people for protesting. It does not. It only punishes those would try to prevent others from speaking.
Republican legislators should not be cowed by this tactic of a political left that wishes to preserve their ability to decide what speech can and cannot be protected, expressing that power through mob violence. As liberal writer Peter Beinart in the Atlantic points out, “Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation.”
The real lesson of Charlottesville is that racist speech should be condemned loudly and often, but confronting the racist organizations with violence is not the answer. Because, as Beinart also points out, while attempting to suppress racist speech through violence, the left is becoming racism’s greatest ally in spreading the hate. The “alt-right” will just attract more adherents convinced that their speech needs to be defended by violence, too. In the escalating political fire, the First Amendment freedoms we cherish are those that will be at risk.