We’ve seen it all unfold before: the growing presence of white supremacist rhetoric online, racist flyers promoting far-right rallies and marches, Confederate flags being waved proudly in the streets, and violence and destruction that sometimes turns deadly.
Heightened racial tensions over the last few years have brought the nation to a boiling point. From the election of Donald Trump in 2016 to the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville to the Jan. 6 white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol, it can be difficult to know when or how to respond to an issue as sensitive and pervasive as white domestic terrorism. But the answer should never be to do nothing.
Elected officials may do their part to condemn far-right racist rhetoric and call for peace, but public statements of condemnation by lawmakers and “no room for racism” signs posted around cities can only do so much. How can the average person let white supremacist groups know they’re unwelcome without putting their safety and lives at risk?
When far-right groups are threatening to descend on your city, it’s normal to feel helpless. The typical response is to do one of two things: stay home and avoid the chaos, or participate in a counterprotest. But there are some lessons that can be learned from past white supremacist demonstrations about how to handle the bigotry, and activists say there are additional alternatives that can help eliminate the feeling of powerlessness.
Before they come to town
During the in-between times when you’re unaware of when white supremacists will come to your town, there are still some actions that can be taken. Spencer Sunshine, who has researched the far-right groups for 15 years, authored a guide in 2020 titled “40 Ways to Fight Nazis: Forty Community-Based Actions You Can Take to Resist White Nationalist Organizing.” The guide includes a list of legal, grassroots-based actions people can take to combat white nationalist organizing tactics and agendas, which can be extremely aggressive.
Among Spencer’s suggestions: keeping an eye on local far-right groups and sharing information you find with community organizations, discarding discriminatory fliers or memorabilia you come across, boycotting spaces that host far-right meetings or rallies, forming an emergency response team, reaching out to payment platforms like Venmo and PayPal to urge them to cut off funding to far-right groups, and attempting to introduce white nationalists to “exit programs” like the Free Radicals Project to help them leave the movement.
When making a decision to take on white supremacists, Spencer says one of the first and most important steps everyone should take is to protect themselves from backlash, especially since far-right actors have been known to doxx activists.
“The most dangerous position is to be an activist who is publicly outspoken about their opposition to the Far Right, and easily identifiable,” Spencer wrote. “If this is you, be sure to lock down your digital and real-life security, ensure that family members are not in vulnerable positions, and discuss safety plans with those close to you.”
Once you know the general area where white supremacists will be gathering, people can also reach out to local businesses around the march route and encourage them to close in solidarity. During the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, some businesses shut down in protest, saying they do not want the business of racists and refuse to profit from it.
Should you counterprotest or stay home?
Deciding whether to attend a counterprotest for a far-right rally is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, activists say. While showing up in large numbers to confront white supremacists might seem like a logical move, some argue that it could create additional chaos and potentially give white supremacists the media attention they desperately crave.
Rev. Amos Brown, a longtime civil rights activist, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, and president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, says there shouldn’t be any counterprotests at all. Instead, he says that when people hear about white supremacists descending on their city, they should take a hands-off approach and let law enforcement handle it however they choose.
“Public presence engenders negative forces,” Brown said. “Don’t get into a skunk fight with a skunk.”
As upsetting as it can be to watch chaos ensue on your television, Brown urges people to be calm and still, instead of reactive.
“People need to be prayerful and peaceful and rely on their higher power to get them through,” he said.
By staying home, Brown says people will make it clear to the far-right actors that “you’re not wanted, you’re not seen, and you’re not heard.” He says people should also take time to reflect and consider what role, if any, they’ve had in the events taking place.
“People, wherever they are, should look within and ask themselves: What have I done? Have I been engaged? Have I done enough?”
Though some people might opt out of demonstrating and take a passive resistance approach, some people will still choose to show up in large numbers and use their voice. Cloee Cooper, a research analyst with Political Research Associates who is familiar with far-right movements, encourages people who do decide to counterprotest to arrive as prepared as possible.
“Fear is a tactic that is used to advance a white nationalist and far-right agenda to keep people afraid of using their voice [and] afraid of coming into the public squares,” Cooper said.
Small groups that offer security have formed across the country that aren’t affiliated with local police. Cooper suggests that people do some local mapping to figure out what types of movement security are nearby and determine which groups are advocating for a similar cause.
“I think that if you can equip yourself with some of these tools … it can be a really powerful way to show that the far-right isn’t the only voice or political movement in town,” Cooper said. “Tactics and strategies can shift, as long as the main focus is not only continuing, but emboldening our movements for a more racially just, free, equitable society, and making that loud and clear—especially in the presence of far-right groups that come to town.”
Assess the risks
Risk assessment is crucial when it comes to deciding whether to engage in a counterprotest, because history shows that standing against white supremacist marchers can quickly turn dangerous. In 1979 during what is now referred to as the “Greensboro massacre,” five protesters were killed after being attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and members of the American Nazi Party during a “Death to the Klan” demonstration. Though there are other factors that contributed to the protesters’ deaths (police didn’t notify marchers of the planned attack and didn’t take action to stop it), the massacre and more recent events like the attacks on counterprotesters in Charlottesville in 2017 serve as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and planning for the risk of violence.
Political Research Associates released a field guide in 2020 that breaks down the types of people to expect at far-right demonstrations, how they often dress, their attitudes toward the police, who or what their targets are, and the likelihood that they’ll cause violence. Since people on the far-right are known to show up at Black Lives Matter protests and other progressive movements, the guide offers advice for what to do if you do if you come across someone from a white supremacist movement.
One of their suggestions is to do your best to document everything you can. Take photos and videos to document the demonstration, record license plates, insignia, or any other identifying details that might help track people down if they cause violence. Some activists have pointed to the organizing and vigilance of groups like the Movement for Black Lives as an example for how to mitigate some of the harm caused by fascist groups. During the racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protesters filmed and photographed people who attempted to infiltrate the protests and harm the movement.
‘White supremacists are weak and scared individuals’
For those who might be unsure of the safety risks of attending a far-right demonstration, community organizers who are knowledgeable about white supremacist movements can provide some guidance on what to do.
“Black and Brown community leaders who fight white supremacy daily know what public safety really means in their communities, and we should trust their wisdom and judgement,” said Becky Monroe, the director of the Fighting Hate and Bias program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement to Prism.
Monroe cited Black Lives Matter D.C. as an example of how community organizers can help, since they urged people to stay home during the Jan. 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol and exercise their political power in other ways.
“At the end of the day, white supremacists are weak and scared individuals, but when they have weapons and a system that will excuse their actions behind them, they are dangerous,” Monroe said in a statement. “They often want people to engage so they believe they’ll have an excuse to use their weapons. Black and Brown leaders across the country recognize this and often refuse to engage for this very reason.”
Much of how people can respond to far-right groups varies on what forces people are up against, including the group you’re with, the size of the crowd, whether there’s a heavy police presence, and whether people are armed. Cooper says people who participate in counterprotests must take all these factors into account.
“It’s important while at a demonstration to keep the focus on what you’re standing there for,” Cooper said. “This should not be a movement about martyrs … If there are risks that start to happen there that you’re not comfortable with, then you should take yourself out of the situation as quickly as possible.”
Resistance can take place in many forms, so for those opting out of counterprotesting, Cooper recommends writing a letter to the editor for your local paper. In your letter, you can advocate for policies to advance racial justice agendas, or try to shift the narratives being spewed by far-right groups. But regardless of which route you try to take to resist against far-right groups, there is one thing everyone can be certain about: White supremacist uprisings will happen again, and it’s on the rest of us to be prepared to respond safely, forcefully, and responsibly.