When violent White Supremacists show up to “protest” in your city, what will you do?

by Malkia Cyril, executive director of Center for Media Justice

As one of my favorite journalists Jelani Cobbs asserted in a recent article on the white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia: “We have entered a new phase of the Trump era. The breach that Trump has courted since he first emerged in public life has become apparent; it is more deadly and its architects more emboldened. What happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict. It’s likely a tragic preface to more of the same.”

He’s right. There is a shift underway, rooted in a long history of American white exceptionalism, nationalism and vigilante violence. It is a shift brought into sharp focus by the explicit bigotry and authoritarianism that has laid claim to the White House. To resist anti-Black violence, respond to the resurgence of white nationalist vigilante violence, and advance a vision of fairness and equity, we will need the resources to mitigate the growing risk of resistance.

No question, it can feel terrifying to directly oppose violent white nationalists when they are on the march. The threat of bodily harm isn’t the only fear. An increasingly authoritarian Department of Justice has reached out the long arm of its law to demand the IP addresses of anti-Trump protestors, as reported by The Hill. The possibility that our digital security could be breached in order to criminalize constitutionally-protected protest is yet another thing to fear.

White supremacy is on the march, and thousands of brave people are confronting it head on. But our capacity to do so is weakened when our legal and journalistic organizations measure the basic rights of free speech, free press, and free assembly against a constitutional standard that has long been unequally applied. In the context of an entrenched racial hierarchy and under the blinding glare of ahistoric constitutional absolutism, people of color simultaneously face discriminatory censorship and the systematic denial of the basic right to dissent and participate — while being assaulted by fighting words that drive episodic and systemic violence, both physical and virtual. This is as true on social media as it is in the news media. It is as true in our schools as it is in sports and entertainment.

Systemic censorship of voices of color and anti-racist voices demands that we not only speak, but that we lay claim to the infrastructure of meaning. It requires that we develop communications plans at a movement scale, that we leverage racial justice leadership to help keep the Internet open, and pressure social media and tech companies to divest from blatant white nationalism even as we tear down both cultural and structural monuments to white supremacy.

Perhaps that’s why, rather than fear driving many of us back into our homes, hope and a shared vision are driving us into the street to raise our voices against the rising tide of violent white nationalism that threatens us all. My heart swells for Charlottesville. For Durham. For Boston, where a series of so called “free speech” white nationalist rallies are being resisted. We are not crouching in anemic fear. We are joining together across the lines of race, class and faith in powerful collective action driven by Black leadership, migrant voices, trans bodies, and by a deep, profound love for human rights.

When white nationalists come to your city, what will you do? How will you respond? As Executive Director and co-founder of the Center for Media Justice, and a Black and genderqueer communications strategist, media and technology activist and long-time community organizer, I have some thoughts to share. This list is by no means exhaustive. There are amazing direct action experts who can provide guidance. PowerLabs has shared an excellent suite of resources. The digital civil rights organization Color of Change has powerful campaigns you can join. The Movement for Black Lives and The Majority have teamed up to bring you real opportunities to resist White Supremacy from Charlottesville to the White House.

For those choosing to take street action, I penned these thoughts, originally as a much shorter Facebook post, to help individuals organized for rights, dignity, and justice create a concrete plan of action when white nationalists come to your town. I hope it’s useful.

  1. Remember that white nationalism isn’t emerging, it’s been around all along. Self-defined white supremacists aren’t simply “outside agitators” (some are), they are also your emboldened neighbors. White supremacy isn’t simply an ideology of hate, it’s a practice of systemic power via racial hierarchy. It’s structural, not interpersonal — even when it manifests between individuals.

2. Choose your level of acceptable risk and don’t feel bad about that. People have had their throats slit, been run over by cars, maced, beaten and more when they have intervened with White Supremacists. Remember that vigilante White Supremacy is an extension of state violence and the police may not only refuse to help, but confound the situation. Vigilantes may bring weapons, but you will likely face higher penalties if you do the same.

3. If you are prepared and operating collectively, use strength in numbers and nonviolent civil disobedience to disrupt and confront. I say “nonviolent” not because I have an inherent unilateral opinion about violence. Violence is a tactic that depends on conditions. In this case, these White Supremacists are explicitly seeking violent confrontation — so don’t give it to them. Yet, we can still deliver non-compliance and visible opposition with strategic clarity.

4. Instead, consider your action logic. What images should the rest of the world see? Use your action design to communicate your message. Be creative, mock them, but remember that Black and Brown bodies are being placed at great risk because of this growing explicit threat — and be sure your action tone takes that into account. Consider creating safer space for vulnerable bodies to participate (elderly, children, trans, disabled, etc). Just remember that safer doesn’t mean safe.

5. Scenario plan. If you are interviewed by the press, what’s your one point? “We need to resist and uproot the system of white supremacy and replace it with real democracy,” is one point that can vary and still remain central. Consider your exit strategy, and unforseen circumstances. Take care of each other.

6. What about digital security? I reached out to Aliya Rahman at Wellstone Action, one of several partners we work with at the Center for Media Justice to deliver digital safety training to our media justice affiliate groups, to chat about how those protesting white nationalists can keep themselves and their folks safe in a digital age. Here is some of what we came up with:

The white supremacist movement depends on a mix of online and offline actions as a tactic to destabilize and harm us. That means that when they physically march through town, an online militia supports them.

In the digital realm, people on the side of justice have two overall goals. The first is to keep your personal data out of white supremacists’ hands to avoid doxxing (uncovering and broadcasting your personal information to the internet) and harassment online and theft, injury, and/or death offline. The second is to minimize the time you spend in contact with white supremacists online to reduce harm to your mind and (since it’s connected) your body. Remember that an online harassment message from a white supremacist is a digital burning cross — it is intended to terrorize you into submission, and the authorities (in this case, social media providers) will generally not protect you.

Here are a few things that will help:

  • Assume that police are in collusion with white supremacists* and don’t let your phone data get into police officers’ hands. If you participate in an action or go to observe, there is a chance you may be arrested and/or have your devices taken from you. Instead of taking your smartphone along and compromising lots of personal data, take a cheap “burner” phone with only the info you need on it, and use a camera (not a phone with a camera) to take photos or videos. Put a PIN lock (not a fingerprint-based lock) on your phone, and take a moment now to encrypt your phone’s storage if your phone supports it and you haven’t done so already.
  • Don’t engage with white supremacists on social media or discussion channels/boards. You will not move them, and you risk becoming a target for online harassment or doxxing. If you are receiving multiple violent harassment tweets per hour, it will likely take you away from meaningful work and the mental state you need to take care of yourself and others.
  • Turn off location services on your phone and social media platforms, especially if you are leaving your home to be hear actions, and don’t tag yourself in photos from actions. With an administration that has blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, assume that the information you give — even to services you trust — may end up in the hands of the DOJ. The more location data that is available about you online, the easier it is for white supremacists and/or police to use your location (time and place) data to make a case that you incited violence.
  • Switch to an encrypted text message program like Signal. This is helpful when you’re on site, but it’s also a better method than email or unsecure text for planning direct actions.
  • It’s ok to create event pages to help boost turnout, but Facebook and Google Drive/docs are not secure places to organize actions or recruitment where sensitive information needs to be shared. If you need to use a Google doc, change your sharing settings to that only “Specific people can access” and add only the email addresses of people who really need to view it.

I truly hope this helps you. Don’t forget to use this and every moment to demand divestment from the policy of racial discrimination, exploitation, and extermination that drives White Supremacy. We’re all risking to win more freedom.

Thank you for your bravery, siblings, especially our kindred in the South who fight these battles on a regular basis. Hopefully, we will learn from their risk, their sacrifice, and their leadership. I’ll see you in the streets on August 19th 2017, and every day our bodies are needed to resist the war on Black lives, and on all oppressed people. #BlackLivesMatter #Resist