Whose free speech?

Cops protect ultra-right while fencing off counter protest

Jared Houston speaks at an impromptu rally at a demonstration against the fascist “three percenters,” on Dec. 1, 2018, in Seattle. PHOTO: Kathleen Merrigan / FS
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On December 1, 2018, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city police weighed the free speech and freedom of assembly rights of human rights activists and the extreme right wing against each other — and came down, again, on the side of the fascists.

Showdown at City Hall. The Washington Three Percenters, a right-wing militia, and Redoubt News, an alternative facts media, held an event on the steps of Seattle City Hall. The “Liberty or Death 2: rally against left-wing media bias” drew a small crowd, including members of the Proud Boys, the street-brawling arm of white chauvinism.

Standing up to this motley crew of extremists was an ad hoc coalition against misogyny, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. The group sponsors included ANSWER Coalition, Freedom Socialist Party, International Socialist Organization, Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Radical Women, and Seattle Democratic Socialists of America.

A diverse group of endorsers included the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304, Seattle Gay News, Seattle Equity Educators, Dyke Community Activists, Seattle Silence Breakers, Palestine Solidarity Committee, and the Puget Sound Socialist Party.

The ad-hoc coalition planned to counter-protest on the sidewalk directly across the street from City Hall and the white nationalists. As a flyer for the event noted, “We rally to protect our communities from racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist violence. The recent murders of worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue and African American shoppers at a Kentucky grocery store, along with rising hate crimes across the nation, show that now is not the time to be silent. Now is the time to confront the far right’s toxic ideology.”

That rousing call was answered by 150 human rights defenders. They showed up in downtown Seattle that cold winter morning to stand up to the far right.

Thwarted by the cops. However, these defenders did not get the chance to confront the Three Percenters and friends of Redoubt News. Instead, civil rights activists found themselves facing a massive police presence. Access to the sidewalk where the counter-demo was to occur was completely blocked off. And counter-demonstrators were forced down the street to another block.

What the uninitiated saw when driving by must have been perplexing. Two groups separated by distance, barricades and cops. One group of about 75 folks on the City Hall plaza with American flags and a handful of police idly chatting nearby.

A block away was a second group that was twice as large. They were penned in and surrounded by a row of police and metal barriers. It was all too obvious which group the city officials considered a public safety threat.

Bruce Berkbigler from Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity stated, “It’s illegal. This is public property,” while pointing to the blocked off sidewalk. “We are here to protest them! We should be visible to the Three Percenters.”

Devyn F., with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, added, “It’s obnoxious that the cops are making it look like we are threatening the fascists. And they’re letting the fascists play the victims.”

Annaliza Torres, organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party noted, “Members of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys were allowed to roam freely and made several attempts to initiate altercations with peaceful counter-protesters.”

This was not the first time city officials violated the rights of those opposed to the far-right. In June 2017 the Patriot Prayer held an anti-Muslim rally in Seattle. After it ended, Proud Boy thugs attacked the crowd. The police responded by pepper-spraying the anti-fascist protesters and detained three of them. This behavior by the cops has become a pattern — the far-right instigates violence and the left is arrested.

Stand up, fight back. The ad hoc coalition called city officials out for their behavior. On December 10 the group held a press conference at City Hall to demand that the mayor and police respect the free speech rights of those confronting white supremacist violence.

Annaliza Torres noted that “bias crimes in Seattle and the surrounding area will continue to rise if public opposition is discouraged by city officials.” She cited a recent attack by white supremacists on an African American DJ at a Lynnwood bar, and the anti-Semitic vandalism on a Jewish family’s West Seattle home.

Helen Gilbert, speaking for Radical Women, commented that the same far-right groups had harassed Planned Parenthood clinics in Kent, Seattle and Olympia. She also recalled “their aggressive presence at the 2018 Seattle Women’s March and the Pride Parade.”

A statement by the ad hoc coalition noted “The far right cannot gain a foothold if advocates for social justice — community groups, labor movement activists, political organizations, campus networks and individual residents — mobilize to confront these bullies. Mass protest action can stop the right! Since Charlottesville, mass action has regularly dwarfed the fascist turnout.”

Only time will tell if city officials will honor the free speech and assembly rights of anti-fascist protesters.

Until then, the ad hoc coalition of left organizations and social justice groups has learned from the bitter lesson of the 1930s. Fascism can rise to power if the left and working class are divided. Now is the time to unite.

If you are interested in joining the fight, contact the Freedom Socialist Party at FSPseattle@mindspring.com or 206-722-2453. It will take an ever-growing movement to turn the rising right tide.

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