When black-clad anti-fascist protesters broke through police barricades Sunday afternoon and swarmed a peaceful rally in Berkeley, California, law enforcement stood aside and let them. City police Chief Andrew Greenwood explained the decision with a rhetorical question: “Does it make sense,” he asked, “to get into a major use of force over a grassy area?”
With all due deference to police expertise, things are not that simple. Violent protesters who cross barriers and disrupt peaceful protest are deeply threatening to freedom of speech.
The “antifa” didn’t just block the speech of the handful of far-right protesters who continued on after their planned demonstration was canceled. The antifa also disrupted the 2,000-person anti-racism rally that was taking place to counter the far right. By breaching the peace, the antifa damped the free speech of the peaceful anti-racists.
Imagine that 100 neo-Nazis, instead of 100 anti-fascists, had crossed barricades in defiance of police orders. The public would have been justifiably outraged. And a police chief who argued that it was wiser to withdraw his officers rather than provoke confrontation would be under significant pressure to recant or even resign.
To be clear, my goal is not to criticize the police. Their thankless and crucial job of keeping the peace is the necessary condition for free speech. Avoiding violence should be a high priority, sometimes the highest. Contextual judgment is crucial.
The Berkeley police were on the ground and had to make a real-time judgment. I wasn’t there, and am relying on news reports and Greenwood’s words.
Rather, the Berkeley events raise the fundamental question of when police should intervene, by force if necessary, to protect peaceful speech from violent disruption.
Often, the situation is more clear-cut than it was in Berkeley, because violent protesters are trying to attack peaceful ones, with two distinct sides at odds. Under those conditions, the police are supposed to protect the peaceful speakers, not let the violent protesters shut them down.
If the police fail to protect peaceful protesters, then they’re allowing a version what is known as a “heckler’s veto”: Someone violating norms of civility is blocking the exercise of free speech by someone who is following the rules.
To the extent that the antifa were going after the handful of far-rightists on the streets in Berkeley, that’s exactly what was happening.
But because the far-right demonstration had been canceled for security reasons, the major event that was taking place was a peaceful anti-racism protest.
The antifa didn’t attack the peaceful anti-racists. But they affected their free speech rights nonetheless. They hijacked the peaceful protest by injecting violence into it.
Proof of this hijacking is that the national media that covered the story led with the antifa action and the police response, not the peaceful protest. Count that as a win for the extremists who broke the rules by defying police, not the peaceful protesters who followed the law.
The point is that while avoiding violence is a necessary goal, it is also a competing and important goal for the police to protect peaceful speech from violent threats. In the name of avoiding violence, the police must not cede public space to violent protesters—regardless of whether they are far left or far right.
That’s why it is worrisome to hear police say that it wasn’t worth fighting antifa over “a grassy area.” What was at stake wasn’t just a patch of grass, but the public space where peaceful speech was taking place. Protecting the First Amendment has to be a key police objective.
Consider that when a lone speaker is being met with large counterprotests, it’s always easier, cheaper and safer for police to remove the speaker than it is to control the counterprotesters. That’s the law of numbers.
Indeed, when Berkeley police led away a few far-right protesters for their own safety, they were just following this resource imperative.
Yet the effect of removing the isolated, vulnerable speaker faced with counterprotest is to silence the few while allowing the counterprotesters to prevail. That’s a violation of our free-speech ideals, which value everyone’s words equally, regardless of how many people are gathered to speak at a given location in a given moment.
When it comes to making moral judgments about the content of speech, there should be no false equivalence between racists and anti-racists. Racism must be condemned, and anti-racism applauded.
When it comes to the police enforcing free-speech rights, however, all speech must be treated identically. The state must be neutral with respect to the speakers’ viewpoints, and blind to their content.
The same is true for violent protest that threatens free speech. Government neutrality must be maintained so as to protect all peaceful speech equally.
The police must and should keep the peace. But they must simultaneously protect peaceful free speech—even if that requires the use of force.
Prior to having children, it never entered my mind to do anything other than enroll my children in public school. I believed that public school was the hope of the world and I had invested my career in being the best possible teacher I could be for the students entrusted into my care each year, striving to give them as individualized an educational experience as possible for one person to offer 30-plus students. However, when it came time to start thinking about what we would do for my own kids’ schooling, I found that I wanted to explore all options.
Through lots of research, experimenting and discovering, we decided to homeschool. It was a difficult decision, but one we made based on the belief that as much as my kids’ potential future teachers attempted to tailor students’ instruction to each individual’s interests and specific needs, no one knows my kids as well as I do. Who better to advocate for my kids and custom fit their education than me? It’s important parents get involved with their child’s learning and find a place that’s a good fit for your family. And if it doesn’t exist, create it.
I spent last week in Reno, Nev., attending the American Legion’s national convention, and I was again reminded of the power of mass demonstration. The Veterans Administration was finally established after veterans groups demonstrated for compensation after the First World War. These groups remained peaceful until law enforcement dispersed them.
The first order of convention business was to announce the re-affirmation of a 1923 resolution on law enforcement and tolerance. I am quoting it because it goes along with the preamble of the Legion’s constitution, which includes the words “to make right the master of might:”
“RESOLVED, By the National Executive Committee of The American Legion in regular meeting assembled in Reno, Nevada, on August 21, 2017, That The American Legion considers any individual, group of individuals, or organizations, which creates, or fosters racial, religious or class strife among our people, or which takes into their own hands the enforcement of law, determination of guilt, or infliction of punishment, to be un-American, a menace to our liberties, and destructive to our fundamental law; and, be it finally RESOLVED, That The American Legion considers such action by any individual, groups, or organizations, to be inconsistent with the ideals and purposes of The American Legion.”
The Times-News published a superb editorial about violent activists and the GOP. In fact, the harm done by demonstrations for intolerance has been amply noted. There hasn’t been a lot said, however, about the violent group infiltrating the peaceful counter demonstrations, the AltFA (alt-fascism). They proclaim that they are on the side of the angels, fighting violence with violence, but they are not. Wearing black and brandishing clubs, destroying property, if not lives, is not acceptable. It is simply terrorism. Violent intimidation is wrong no matter what the cause.
Civil disobedience is carefully choreographed. Decisions are made as to where to demonstrate and even who will volunteer to engage law enforcement and be arrested. Large marches are groups who gather, produce signs and enjoy the feeling of being with like-minded people energized by their cause. All of this is done to indicate support in opposition to the status quo and for change.
Although mass demonstration is not my cup of tea, individual demonstration is. I choose to write this column to demonstrate a set of beliefs. I choose to engage politicians in discussion in order to change their mind or understand their perspective on issues. I choose to belong to organizations which to some degree reflect my values and are active in demonstrating them. I may bore my friends and acquaintances by standing on my soapbox and voicing my opinions too often, but I am passionate about many causes.
As a veteran, I am only too aware of the cost of war. There are, of course, the human casualties, but there is also the problem of restoring a civil society. Violent demonstration destroys not only property and lives, it destroys hope. War is considered a last resort because of its wide-range destruction. Violent demonstration is nothing less than localized war without a just cause and no victor.
There is strong reason for the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment. Free thought brings us closer to the solution of problems. Demonstrations can have positive outcome. The VA and civil rights legislation are two examples. I urge you to demonstrate, in every way comfortable for you, the thoughts you have on the causes you care about. Disagreement is always permissible. Violence is not.