Let’s start with a review of the basics. Racists, and others with repugnant views, have a right to be repugnant and express those views in public in this country. We protect their right to free speech because if we fail to, we could very quickly endanger less repugnant views. As the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted this weekend, “The same laws used to silence bigots can be used to silence you.”
Counter-protesters, including Antifa, which has a history of violent tendencies, also have a right to protest gatherings of people with whom they disagree. Both sides are protected in this country, regardless of the content of their message. Things that aren’t legal and protected: assault, murder, vandalism, and all-out street battles between these two groups. Charlottesville wasn’t the first time they clashed, and it won’t be the last. So, how to keep one from becoming the other?
Charlottesville’s police force was criticized for letting protests devolve over a day and a half with little intervention. There will no doubt be better information about how exactly that happened after the city investigates the events that led up to the murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injury of 20 others at the hands of a white nationalist who plowed his car into a group of protesters. Let’s leave the most complex and controversial model of policing from this week aside until we have the “extensive review” ordered by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
But a similar meeting of protest and counter-protest happened in Seattle, and a gathering of protesters in Durham, North Carolina devolved into mob action that brought down a statue on public property. These two events were policed in very different ways.
Police forces are absolutely vital to protecting the outer limit of freedom for political speech while preventing a breakdown into brawling. This is a really, really hard job in an ever-changing environment sometimes animated by two sides with significant elements that desperately want to fight, and police often do it while being called a bunch of names or threatened.
In Durham, a crowd gathered around 6 p.m. Monday and grew from 50 to more than 100 over two hours. It started with protesters sharing stories of personal experiences with racism, carrying signs, and chanting “No cops, no KKK, no facist USA.” This was all well within bounds of free speech and protest, the most egregious offense being some seriously Orwellian use of the English language: “We are going to find fighting avenues to be on the right side of history,” said the march’s organizer and emcee. “We are going to love like we mean it.”
A ladder was brought out, and placed in the back of the pedestal. A protester climbed the ladder and slipped a yellow, bungie-like cord around the soldier’s head and arm. A group of people pulled the long yellow cord. Within seconds the soldier fell, the metal collapsing as the statute did a somersault against the stone pedestal.
Protestors cheered and started to kick the crumpled mass.
Here’s how law enforcement reacted:
As the crowd moved toward the statue, members of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office videotaped the rally…
The line of protesters walked back to the old courthouse. Some took photographs with the fallen statute. Sheriff’s officials continued to take video.
No arrests were made that night. What message was Durham sending? That the speech rights of this group of people extend to damaging public property in front of law enforcement with impunity? Which other laws would this group have been allowed to break? Which other groups might get such lenience?
How long before someone tests that boundary? We shouldn’t allow “righteous” protesters of Confederate monuments to lawlessly trash them with impunity because someone else who thinks they’re righteous could come along and use their righteousness as a reason to trash pretty much anything. Days later, after criticism of the department for inaction, the Durham sheriff’s office arrested one protester.
On the other hand, we have Seattle—a place, it must be stipulated, with a rich and troubled history of navigating the line between free speech and rioting, police protection and police overreach. In Seattle’s case, there was a gathering of Patriot Prayer, a pro-Trump group, and a gathering a counter-protesters and Antifa forces.
The two gatherings were planned before the violence in Charlottesville, and were held blocks apart, but police did not allow counter-protesters to march all the way to the pro-Trump gathering because they worried about “a small group within the larger march that were clearly, in my experience, clearly there for violence,” said Assistant Seattle Police Chief Steve Wilske.
“If I would have allowed that entire march to go there, there is no way I’m going to keep those people from fighting,” Wilske said. “And once that fight starts, you’re going to have, potentially have, Charlottesville. You’re going to have what happened in Portland in June. And I can’t.”
One Seattle city councilmember is questioning the decision, but Wilske was undeterred: “If I have to do that to keep people from getting hurt, then that’s my responsibility.”
At the end of the day, both groups had marched, with no property damage or injuries reported. Local press reported the “Solidarity Against Hate” marchers challenged the police line, a few threw fireworks at officers, and the police pepper-sprayed part of the crowd. Police made three arrests and confiscated several makeshift weapons.
Were both groups given pretty decent leeway to express themselves? Yes, although I understand the counter-protesters’ desire to get close to the other gathering to make their presence known. Local coverage and pictures of the pro-Trump event suggests plenty of counter-protesters made it to the park in which they were gathered, just not en masse, as an organized march.
But Seattle sent the message that law enforcement will take pretty reasonable measures to ensure that tense situations don’t explode into violent situations. That’s important to citizens attending the protest, and all those who call the city home. It’s a better message than Durham sent, where freedom of speech was protected, but the rule of law and protections against criminal action weren’t.