In a March 8, 2013 editorial, the Los Angeles Times discussed a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about the increase in “patriot” groups. IREHR applauds the report and its discussion. But the Los Angeles Times opinion writers make the most egregious of mistakes when they write: “What can be done to reverse this tide of belligerent ignorance? Not much.”
Recognizing the First Amendment rights of racist, anti-Semites and bigots—whether they be known as militias, patriots, Tea Partiers or Ku Klux Klansmen—is not a ticket to surrendering our own First Amendment rights to speak out and peaceably assemble. Over the decades, in hundreds of communities and states, religious leaders, community-based organizations and youth and subculture groupings have used their own First Amendment rights.
In one of the most well-known instances, a Louisiana political action committee led the civic opposition to the candidacies of David Duke for United States Senator and for Governor in 1990 and 1991. As a result of the research, organizing and publicity of that committee, an overwhelming majority of black voters teamed with a significant minority of white voters to keep a confirmed national socialist ideologue out of elected office.
In the mid-1990s, a statewide human rights organization in Montana undercut and stemmed the growth of the militia movement in that state by mobilizing the moral and religious leadership in the affected communities to speak out and by generating local groups that acted as a peer-based response to the militia, letting people know that it was not acceptable community behavior to join the militias.
In the farm-belt Midwest in the 1980s, farmer advocates joined with religious leaders and civil rights activists to counter the Posse Comitatus, an organization most similar to the patriot and militia-type organizations in this decade. In the midst of the family-farm crisis of those years, coalitions and organizations emerged that both fought for policies that would benefit farmers AND stood up publicly in their local communities to oppose the bigotry of Posse-like groups.
In the 1980s Klan-belt running from Georgia and Alabama through to North Carolina, civil rights activists, communities and religious leaders and hundreds of ordinary citizens spoke their own piece when the Kluxers marched or rallied in the town. They let everyone know that they were not going back and they would stem the growth of racism.
Most recently, human rights advocates have turned public opinion away from bigotry and towards the notion of equal rights for gay men and lesbians, and all those in the LGBT community, including the right to marry. Advocates for immigrant rights are pressing on for comprehensive reform and against the patriot-like ideas expressed in their local communities and state legislatures. Trade unionists are rallying for their rights and against the cut-back driven by the Tea Party movement in states such as Wisconsin. And civil rights organizations continue to lead, as when the NAACP passed a resolution condemning the racists and white nationalists in the Tea Parties.
Still, the attitude expressed in the Los Angeles Times opinion piece has returned in too many circles. Too often we hear, “let the cops handle it,” even when there is no law enforcement issue. Even worse, it is said that “far right-wing bigotry will always be with us, so what is the use of trying to do something about it.” Or the corollary, “just wait until the pendulum swings back to decency and respect for each other.”
IREHR has often led the way to new understandings of the danger that the bigots, racists and anti-Semites pose to promise of a fully-democratic society. And some new strategies are called for in 2013 and 2014 and beyond. But the need to use our First Amendment rights remains the same. Do not abdicate your rights: stand up and be counted, and never let the bigots count on your quiet acceptance of their views. Let the so-called patriots hear your voice.
Leonard Zeskind was a contributing editor to the 1992 edition of When Hate Groups Come to Town: A Handbook of Effective Community Responses.