I first read about a protest against the Minutemen at Columbia on Foolish Owl's blog. For those who don't know the Minutemen are an American group, who specialise in vile anti-immigration racism and have taken it on themselves to police the Mexico-US border.* The Young Republicans at Columbia had invited . Anti-racist/immigrant rights groups got together and organised a protest outside. Some people also went inside and disrupted the speech (either by unfurling a banner, or shouting the speaker down - I wasn't there, and only have dial-up so I can't watch the video - it's irrelevant to my argument).
I absolutely support and applaud this sort of protest (I've done this sort of protest, just for the record). But what I wanted to address directly was the idea that by disrupting the event (however they did it) interupted this man's right to free speech. The Happy Feminist was reasonably vocal in her disapproval:
But no it wouldn't change my analysis. You protest outside, you write scathing editorials, and you publicize the fact that the College Republicans are basically inviting a hate group onto campus. But as a matter of both tactics and ethics, disrupting the actual speech isn't right.and
And to be crystal clear, no, I would not agree with shouting down a pro-life speaking or anti-feminist speaker.To me the principle of freedom of speech is to stop those with power limiting the speech of those without power (particularly stopping the state limit people's freedom of speech, but I think the role of companies in limiting people's speech also comes under the same analysis). The idea that respecting freedom of speech means listening in silence while someone says something you find offensive seems ridiculous to me. All freedom of speech guarantees is the ability to speak - it doesn't mean that anyone has to listen to, or respect, what you're saying.
It's the same principle as the Jewish ACLU lawyer who defended the right of Nazis to demonstrate in Skokie. No matter how noxious and personal and awful he found what the Nazis were saying, he still defended their right to say it.
Shouting down a speaker isn't interfering with free speech; it is free speech.
What I find just plain weird, is that this argument is generally only applied to people who are speaking in formal settings. On Saturday the neo-nazis held their annual rally and there was a reasonably large counter protest which stopped them meeting where they wanted to meet, and shouted them down (more on that in a second). Very few people jump up and down and says a counter-demonstration is interupting the nazis freedom of speech. But when someone is an invited speaker - when they have backing by some institution, some power base then somehow they have more of a right to free speech than they do on a speech corner. That seems like the wrong way round to me. Those who are in positions of power, generally need less, not more protection against their rights being infringed.
So I have absolutely no ethical qualms in holding banners, chanting, or communicating in any way, while someone I disagree with is speaking. I exercise my freedom of speech by not being silent.
That doesn't mean I think that shouting at people is always the best tactic. The counter-demonstration againstthe neo-nazis is a time where I thought the tactics were wrong. There aren't very many neo-nazis in New Zealand, but they tend to be exactly sort of violent thugs you'd expect (two years back someone vandalised the graves of jewish people, and they attack people as well as graves).
To me, the point of protesting against neo-nazis is to make it really clear that white supremacy is not welcome. I see this message as not just for the nazis themselves, but also for everyone who walks by. But there's never any purpose to the anti-fascist demonstration except to piss the nazis off. I strongly susepct being protested against makes the nazis feel cool and important, so the counter-protest ends up being counterproductive.
I do think that we need to organise to ensure that fascists don't get a hold. But we don't do that by shouting at them. Political racism has appeal for working-class people who believe that they should be better off than they are. By saying "it's the jews/immigrants/Maori who are to blame for your situation" various groups (including mainstream political parties obviously) use racism to organise and gain support. The only response to those lies is to present what we see as the truth - to show that it is capitalism that is to blame for people's economic problems, and that it can be fought.
I didn't attend Saturday's anti-fascist demonstration. I'm sick of them, sick of the macho atmosphere, and sick of activists who seem to get their kicks by playing cops and robbers with fascist groups, as if it's the most important work in the world. There's a real macho culture to these sorts of demos, that makes me very uncomfortable.
I'm really glad I didn't go, as there seems to have been a distinct lack of political analysis at the counter-protest. "More hair than brains" may be an amusing chant towards skinheads - but actually our problem isn't with their hair cut, or their intellect. Likewise a whole crowd chant of 'Ugly, Ugly, Ugly' seems to miss the point.
But most disturbing to me was that some supposedly anti-fascist protesters shoutted "cocksuckers" and "faggots" to the nazis. Now I don't want to tarnish the entire demonstration with the misogynist homophobic actions of a few. I have a lot of friends who were at the demonstration, and I know that they would neither shout that, or stand silent while someone else chanted it. But I think it shows that my fears about a macho atmosphere are not unreasonable.
* Just for a short break and disturbing story. My sister once met someone who worked for the US border patrol at a party. When asked what he did he flipped out his badge (which he'd carried with him to Wellington, presumably to impress the girls) and said "I shoot Mexicans". Just a reminder that the Minutemen are only one of the violent racist groups on the Mexican-US border.