Nazi organizer Richard Spencer is coming to Michigan at the beginning of March. Two days of coordinated events—the first in metro Detroit, the second at Michigan State University—have been planned for Sunday, March 4 and Monday, March 5. The announcement on the website of the alt-right front group “Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas,” which is hosting the conference on the first day, indicates that participants will then be bused to East Lansing for the event at MSU. Meanwhile, students, workers, and community members across southeast and central Michigan are organizing to protest, disrupt, and shut down these events.
The Michigan events raise a number of questions about the political strategy of the alt-right and the white supremacist movement—questions that would be helpful for anti-fascists here and elsewhere to take seriously. In the era of Trump, these movements have felt emboldened to organize and appear more publicly than in recent years. Using the rhetoric of “free speech” as a wedge, they’ve successfully coopted the support of mainstream liberal commentators, who rush to defend the rights of fascists whenever those on the left try to push back against these incursions and the violence they entail. It seems like every week some columnist in the New York Times is whining about student protesters and some university president is spouting tired clichés about “bad speech” and “more speech.” These liberals claim to reject the content of fascist speech while happily offering them the conditions necessary to produce and distribute this content. Platforms are neutral, they argue, so we do nothing wrong by providing one. Some versions of this liberal line of reasoning take the argument a step further, insisting that giving Nazis and white supremacists a platform is actually a positive social good, because it helps to expose their arguments as vile and irrational. Others argue that what people like Spencer are after is simply “publicity.” Since protesting or shutting down their events would draw public attention and even condemnation—largely from the same liberals offering unsolicited advice—they insist that the best strategy is to simply ignore them.
The problem with all of these arguments is that fascists aren’t interested in speech—they’re interested in power, in taking public space and building capacity to organize, maneuver, and intervene directly against their enemies. The left should be skeptical of any analysis of fascist organizing that centers speech. Consider the fact that the event at MSU is happening during spring break. Similarly, it was Spencer’s lawyer who proposed spring break for an event at University of Michigan. What is the rationale for holding an event when many students will be out of town? This seems to undercut claims that their goal is to recruit among the student body, or to provoke student protesters into a “disproportionate” reaction and thus win on the “public relations” front. It goes without saying that they’re not interested in engaging in a public debate with the university community.
So what then? One possibility to consider is that they’re scared—after Milo Yiannopoulos was shut down at UC Berkeley, white supremacists know to expect mass resistance and direct action on campus. By holding the event during spring break, their aim is to limit as much as possible the numbers and thus the capacity of campus-based resistance. Another possibility is that the university is less the target than the platform for the event. The goal is to concentrate dispersed white supremacist groups from across the state and region at a single point. Large numbers provides protection and the opportunity to build working relationships. It also emboldens them to appear in public, to take the streets—as they did in Charlottesville—and threaten, surveil, and assault those they identify as enemies, including Black, Latinx, Muslim, and Jewish communities as well as leftists and radicals from a variety of tendencies.
Only by paying attention to strategic considerations like these can we hope to defeat white supremacists, marginalize their liberal enablers, and build capacity to defend ourselves and our communities from fascist threats and violence.