Trolling the Left

Today’s alt-right rally in Seattle appears to be part of an organized, well-funded effort to normalize white nationalism – by baiting progressives into equivalent violence.

I spent part of my childhood in South Carolina, in the Deep South.

It’s where I first learned to despise racism, particularly the hypocritical hatreds of racists who think of themselves as “good Christians.”

More relevant to today’s events, we lived outside town, in bottomlands across the street from an open reservoir. As such, our neighborhood had snakes. Lots of them. All different kinds, ranging from benign to poisonous to don’t-go-anywhere-near-it deadly. One of the first things you do, as a kid in that environment, is to learn which ones were which. Knowing each species’ particular warning coloration tells you their likely behavior, the level of the threat, and how best to respond.

As an adult, I’ve applied that same logic to recognizing the warning colorations of the uniforms and vehicles of various law enforcement agencies. And the same analogy applies to right wing hate groups.

The white nationalists at today’s rally in Westlake Park were not the same as the Klan members in robes, or the neo-Nazis in full regalia, or the Confederate flag-loving, Yankee-hating misanthropists, all of whom gathered for this weekend’s festival of hate in Charlottesville. They were also qualitatively different from the last such rally, when a group used the City Hall plaza a few months ago for the avowed, forehead-slapping purpose of protesting Sharia law in the USA. And that, in turn, was different from the fiasco created by Milo Yiannopoulos’ January appearance at the University of Washington – in which the wife of a non-white, Trump-loving agitator who had been assaulting counter-protesters all evening wound up shooting and nearly killing one of those protesting.

But the organizers of each of these Seattle events had one important thing in common, and also in common with the human sewage that descended on Charlottesville this weekend: they understood the media and propaganda value of traveling to a progressive city to troll the liberals.

In today’s case, the event’s organizer, Joey Gibson, insists that he and his followers just want “dialogue” and “understanding.” He said this repeatedly from the stage today, as well as an interview last night with the invaluable Sakara Remmu, conducted just hours after the deaths in Charlottesville. Another reporter friend who’s followed Gibson’s career says that this is a standard part of his schtick – but that today’s gesture of opening the mic to counter-protesters, a rather brilliant move that also at least temporarily defused the crowd’s anger, was a new tactic and probably a concession to yesterday’s events in Virginia.

Gibson himself? He didn’t even stay for the end of the rally. He had a plane to catch, so he could be in Berkeley for a nearly identical rally there on Monday. And despite Gibson’s protestations, in the Remmu article, on stage today, and elsewhere, that he’s not a Nazi or fascist, the same reporter saw him at yet another rally last week in Portland taking a selfie with an openly racist local alt-right leader. The Portland event featured a format and rhetoric nearly identical to today’s Seattle rally. It, too, drew the inevitable counter-protesters. Actions are louder than words.

All three rallies (Seattle, Berkeley, Portland) have been organized by Gibson’s “Patriot Prayer” group, though that group’s name was absent from today’s rally, billed as “Freedom Rally Seattle.” And while Gibson can spout all the rhetoric he wants to about peacefulness and understanding, these words – Patriot, Prayer, Freedom – are designed to attract fans whose predispositions don’t exactly match his rhetoric – a mixed bag of right wing nut jobs who apparently think that pissing off liberals sounds like great fun. Sometimes, as at the City Hall protest earlier this year (which had a pugnacious Proud Boy security detail just after that group had had a spate of bad publicity), they come itching to brawl. Sometimes, like today, they don’t. More importantly, it’s a format designed to draw counter-protesters. That’s the real point.

Gibson appears to be making a full-time living doing nothing but organizing these hatefests in the cities he thinks – often correctly – are most likely to give him a hostile reception. The group sells plenty of MAGA gear, but merchandise alone isn’t paying for Gibson’s travel, living and organizing expenses. Someone or someones with deep pockets is almost certainly helping to underwrite his operation. Now why would they do that? It isn’t just to troll liberals.

A clue comes from Donald Trump’s response to yesterday’s events in Charlottesville, in which he condemned violence “by all sides” but never specifically name-checked racism, white nationalism, fascism, Nazism, or the alt-right as in the least way responsible. Trump’s statement was widely reviled, including by some right wing politicians and commentators, as a particularly repugnant example of both-siderism.

Remember that two of Trump’s top aides, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, are explicit white nationalists. In that contest, both-siderism has another function: to place white nationalism on the political spectrum as an opposite but equal phenomenon to, say, Bernie Sanders supporters. The point isn’t just to defend or popularize white nationalism – it’s to normalize it.

Gibson’s operation, with its intentional effort to draw angry critics, is another, more cynical way to similarly balance the scales. Inevitably, somebody on the left is going to hurt someone at one of these rallies. Ideally (maybe, from the standpoint of Gibson, and definitely, from the standpoint of his funders) someone on the left will bring a gun and use it.

At that point, you’ve got the ideal equivalence to shitshows like Charlottesville – and as a bonus, a martyr that can be a rallying point for the alt-right and its fellow travelers, whose sense of grievance and persecution is the oxygen they breathe and cultivate. Groups like Patriot Prayer are not just trolling cities like Seattle; they’re aiming higher. They want a violent response, because it’s a counterweight to the inevitable violence on their side. And with balance comes normalization. The real game is being played at a much higher level than counter-protesters jeering speakers, or some cosplay dude decked out in what he thinks is a uniform who sucker-punches a hippie, or cops pepper-spraying marchers, or ordinary pedestrians that get pepper-sprayed as well or trapped in a melee. They’re all collateral damage. From the standpoint of the organizers, none of their lives manner.

Assuming Donald Trump doesn’t launch nukes that destroy all life in the Northern Hemisphere, one of his most lasting negative impacts will have been to bring racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other manner of ugly bigotries not only back into mainstream American politics, but to normalize such views in much of the country as once again acceptable in polite company. Beyond specific public policies, white nationalists like Bannon are all about the next step in that de-evolution: making white nationalism not only accepted everywhere as a normal political and cultural view, but, in much of the country, the dominant view. Most white nationalists really aren’t that into Hitler or the Klan – but Klansmen and neo-Nazis love them, because they want their views to follow a similar trajectory, and normalizing white nationalism creates far more space for them to do so.

Today, a day after Charlottesville, someone easily could have gotten hurt, or killed; Gibson could easily have gotten his wish. Seattle police, preoccupied (as usual) with corralling the anarchist-led antifa contingent that first met a mile away, pretty much left the protesters and counter-protesters in Westlake Park itself to their own devices. There certainly wasn’t enough police presence to respond quickly if violence suddenly erupted. The same was true last weekend in Portland, but with a smaller crowd on both sides.

If the same thing had happened in Seattle today, with Charlottesville fresh in our minds, but with last Sunday’s weather, in the heat and asphyxiating wildfire smoke, emotions might have been far more raw. This also explains why today’s rally seemed to go on, and on, and on. In such circumstances, some people get bored and leave. Others just get angrier.

Nobody on either side of today’s protest came to downtown Seattle to change anybody’s mind. They came (Gibson’s conciliatory rhetoric notwithstanding) to bait each other. And if some alt-right cosplay dude gets shot? You can just see Gibson’s teary press conference: “We kept calling for dialogue and understanding, but all those liberals know how to do is hate.” And Donald Trump issues a much more explicit condemnation of radical leftist terrorism.

The game is to troll anti-racists, and to bait us into showing up, with the hope someone will lose control. We take this bait, every time, as people like Gibson know we will – we’re never going to allow such repugnant ideologies to go unchallenged. And we shouldn’t.

But it’s playing with fire. If even one person decides to mete out justice on his or her own terms, we’re doing white nationalists’ work for them in a way that will reverberate widely.

That – not the words from any stage – is the real danger here. Know your snakes.

[Author’s note: I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicated (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us. Since 1996 I have also reported, along with my colleague, Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.

If you find my web and radio reporting and analysis valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for my food, rent, and medical care – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

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