The recent invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia, by Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and other white supremacists, and the various response tactics by counter-protesters, have been the subject of intense examination in the days following. This conversation is difficult and necessary. Especially for those who espouse non-violence as the only moral response to hatred and injustice, serious questions have been raised and must at least be examined, if not answered.
My first thought was of the similarities between the current debate over tactics and the tensions of the Civil Rights era, exemplified by the competing views of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Both were sons of Baptist ministers, but their life paths took very different directions. King was relatively sheltered from the worst abuses of racial segregation. He had opportunity for education and became a minister himself. Malcolm’s father moved the family from Nebraska to Michigan because of threats from the KKK, but their new home was burned and his father brutally murdered by whites. During a stint in jail Malcolm was converted to Islam and became a leader in the Black Muslim faith, then later turned to traditional Sunni Islam.
Surely this great difference in life experience influenced the attitudes these two men held as adults. From King we read, “It is dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense. The line separating defensive violence and aggressive violence is very thin. The minute a program of violence is enunciated, even for self-defense, the atmosphere is filled with talk of violence, and the words falling on many ears may be interpreted as an invitation to aggression.”
Malcolm X’s view was far more militant: “Since self-preservation is the first law of nature, we assert the Afro-American’s right of self-defense. The Constitution of the USA clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans we will not give up a single right guaranteed under the Constitution…. Tactics based solely on morality can only succeed when you are dealing with basically moral people or a moral system. A man or system which opposes a man because of his color is not moral.”
Both of these views were in evidence among the counter-protesters in Charlottesville. In response to calls for assistance from Charlottesville clergy, religious leaders representing many Christian denominations and other faith groups gathered to stand in non-violent opposition to those bringing hate. They came armed with prayers and songs. Determined to remain strong in the face of taunts and threats, they engaged in intensive preparation and training. Those who agreed to be on the front lines knew that they faced the possibility of serious injury. Those who were not able to make such a commitment took up positions in areas where they could offer support and ministry as they were called.
Lisa Sharon Harper, a minister who was on the front line, has written this: “Just before walking onto the street, organizers of the Charlottesville Clergy Call walked us through the changing dynamics of the situation. There would be four times more white nationalists in Charlottesville than previously projected. One quarter of the clergy they thought would be there actually showed up. If we stepped onto the street we were risking arrest, injury or death—from the police or the white nationalists.
“We knew what we were walking into.
“We knew that we might not come back.”
Also among the counter-protesters were members of a loose network of activists who call themselves Antifa, an abbreviation for Anti-fascist. They came as both protesters and protectors, armed with pepper spray and clubs. Some wore helmets and carried homemade shields. A few carried firearms. Others brought first aid kits, bandages, and bottled water, ready to act as medics if the need arose.
(Note: There is disagreement as to whether the deliberately aggressive and destructive Black Bloc should be included as part of Antifa or regarded as a separate movement. My description does not include them.)
Though Antifa has only recently come to the attention of most Americans, historian Mark Bray, currently a lecturer at Dartmouth College, traces their origins to the anti-fascists who fought Mussolini’s and Hitler’s henchmen and resisted Franco’s takeover in Spain. In an article published in the Washington Post Bray notes, “Antifa are autonomous anti-racist groups that monitor and track the activities of local neo-Nazis…. The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.” A few days after the events in Charlottesville, Dr. Cornel West, another of the clergy who were on the front line during part of the confrontation, told his students, “We would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and anti-fascists.”
This, then, is the dilemma with which those who would follow the path of non-violence must wrestle. Is self-defense ever acceptable? What about physical, possibly violent, defense of others? On a national level, when, if ever, is the evil so great, the threat so dire, that armed resistance becomes the more moral choice?
Antifa adherents have studied history and determined that the resurgence of Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists presents an immediate threat which must be countered by whatever means are available.
The clergy who stood their ground, the hundreds who turned out for the candlelight vigil in Charlottesville the next evening, the thousands who have gathered and continue to gather for rallies and vigils and prayer services in cities across our country – all are making an unequivocal statement opposing hate in a non-violent manner.
While some will choose one path and some will choose another, we must all be vigilant, ready to say No to threats, No to hate, No to intolerance whenever the need arises.