Columnist Elaine Fronhofer: Condemn violence, whatever the politics

  • White nationalist demonstrators clash Aug. 12 with counterdemonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/2/2017 6:30:07 PM

Reading about both the backlash to President Donald Trump’s denigrating of athletes peacefully protesting acts of violence against black Americans, and a letter to the editor titled, “Urges nonviolent response to neo-Nazis, fascists (Sept. 25)” I thought about the connection between the two.

The letter writer’s views about effective ways to exercise one’s constitutional rights cannot be stated emphatically enough. Indeed, this is a lesson we all need to learn if we want to slow the rise in popularity of far-right groups and rebuff the agenda of their friend in the White House.

After the August “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville that left one peaceful counterprotester dead at the hands of a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, I began to hear comments that caught me off guard. people were concerned about the lawlessness of those protesting against the alt-right and Trump. These concerns were being voiced by people of all political leanings.

After researching, I found that the violent resistance by far-left groups like antifa (an anti-fascist group whose members condone violence against fascist and hate groups) was playing right into the hands of the alt-right.

The negative impact of antifa’s acts of violence goes far beyond any one protest. I urge people to read about the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s to see parallels to today’s environment. The Nazis had been a fringe party, just like today’s alt-right. And, like today’s alt-right, their strategy was to hold rallies where their most ardent opponents lived in order to provoke them. And it worked. After some violent clashes, ordinary Germans began to see the fascists as the victims of violent and dangerous leftists, weakening opposition to Hitler.

Fast forward to today and as one historian of Nazi Germany has explained, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was right out of the Nazi playbook. These right-wing groups have specifically chosen Charlottesville, Boston, Berkeley and similar sites for “free speech” rallies in order to provoke a violent response. Antifa’s reactionary violence is simply rewarding the alt-right’s tactics.

We would be well-served to remember the lessons of those in the civil rights movement who pursued change through nonviolent resistance. They would mentally prepare for their acts of resistance by first subjecting themselves to verbal and physical abuse so that they would remain passive and nonviolent when confronted.

We know today that the images of peaceful men, women, and even children, being attacked on marches, in stores, at lunch counters, among other places, helped win the public’s support, which translated into votes and legislation. That is a lesson those of us opposing the alt-right and Trump cannot forget and to which I hope that antifa adherents would accede. The forces we are opposing have allies in powerful positions in our government and friendly right-wing media empires ready to amplify any misstep against them.

The resisters to Trump and the alt-right can rely on two powerful rights guaranteed by our Constitution’s First Amendment: the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech. We also, for now, have the moral high ground. If we get arrested or face abuse while exercising those rights, that is what the nation needs to see.

But just as critically, we need to condemn violence wherever we see it — no matter the political leanings. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

Elaine Fronhofer, of Amherst, is an appellate criminal defense attorney.

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