How to stop neo-Nazis from mobilizing on the street: lessons from Europe

Boston takes a stand.
Boston takes a stand.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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The violent white nationalist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia last week was a turning point for the far right in the US. Neo-Nazis, the so-called “alt-right”, and white supremacists, who have until now largely organized online, spilled out onto the street in great numbers in what has become a powerful moment for white supremacists.

In response, Saturday’s march in Boston against racism was a shining example of how to prevent the far right from mobilizing publicly. A small group of far-right protestors attempting to march under the banner of the “free speech” were met with approximately 40,000 counter-protestors chanting “No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist USA!” The far-right rally was forced to disband early and its activists were escorted out by the police.

Over the past few decades, communities in Britain, Sweden, and Germany have worked together to challenge the hatred of far-right mobilizations. Boston’s march mirrors Europe’s “long and noble” tradition of publicly opposing neo-Nazis on the street, a tradition that anti-racist demonstrators can look to for inspiration when organizing.

The events at Charlottesville took place on the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Battle of Lewisham.” On that day, 500 British neo-Nazis attempted to march through Lewisham, a London borough with a sizable black population. The neo-Nazis, who were protesting against a so-called black crime wave, were humiliated. They were prevented from marching by over 4,000 counter-protestors and were led home by police.

These successful demonstrations against the far right follow a common pattern: counter-protestors build a broad coalition united against neo-fascism, understand how the far right operate, and create a united front to counter the racism.

Name fascism for what it is

The key to defeating a resurgence of fascism is to know when someone is fascist—and when they’re not, says Dave Renton, a barrister, historian, and author of several books on the topic, including Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the 1940s, and When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981.“People have a terrible tendency to use language very vaguely,” Renton says, to the point where the terms like fascists and racists are used interchangeably, as with US president Donald Trump, whom Renton believes is not a fascist, despite some arguments to the contrary. But doing so blunts the ability to effectively respond to future threats, he argues.

We need to understand what it means to be an American Nazi in 2017. Neo-Nazi groups of today and Nazis of the 1930s exhibit the same fundamental traits—staunch nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, a hatred of liberal democracy, and the glorification of political violence. But the former is largely a desperate attempt to rehabilitate the politics of the latter, often under the banner of free speech.

Separating fascism from other political discourse is key to isolating and combating it. “The danger arises when [neo-Nazi marches] become a normal part of society that is not taboo,” says Mark Bray, a Dartmouth University lecturer and author of the forthcoming book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.

That said, it can be particularly difficult to distinguish between fascists and non-fascists, as there are growing ranks of online provocateurs who claim to flirt with fascist ideology in an ironic manner. But this ambiguity dissipates as neo-Nazi groups organize onto the street. It’s easy to spot a neo-Nazi, when they shout Nazi slogans, deny the Holocaust, and carry Nazi insignia—as they did in Charlottesville.

Trump’s rhetoric at times borrows from the fascist playbook (such as creating a department to monitor crimes committed by immigrants), but he ultimately has a different focus and tactics to fascists, and his policies still exist within the realms of Republican politics. Still, while he may be a different phenomenon from Richard Spencer and the alt-right, who are fighting to revolutionize and transform the state, he’s been criticized across the world for opening the door for darker politics.

Trump’s insistence after the Charlottesville rally that there was “blame on both sides” raised alarm bells among political violence experts. Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told Vox that when extremists feel they have support from the establishment, they’re more likely to stage rallies and violent attacks.

“The fascinating and horrible thing about the moment is this dynamic where you’ve got a non-fascist leader as president who is creating conditions for actual fascists to grow,” Renton says.

Monitor far-right activities


Once identified, neo-fascists groups are closely monitored by organizations across EuropeOne example is the Swedish magazine Expo, which was set up in 1995 by teachers, journalists, and young people in response to a worrying spike in the number of people murdered by neo-Nazis.

At the time, Sweden was one of the biggest exporters of neo-Nazi propaganda in 1990s, says Jonathan Leman, a researcher at Expo. The magazine exclusively investigates the Swedish extreme right, publishing the results of their investigations four times a year.

For example, Leman described Expo‘s reporting on the far-right’s attempt to “set up a network of street activists.” Once the neo-fascist street movement reached its apogee in the mid 1990s, Expo was there to document the far-right’s attempts to move away from violent, street confrontation to electoral politics. Expo was able to expose the suit-wearing businessmen, publishers, and politicians for the violent neo-Nazi activists they once were. This exposure often resulted in these leaders losing the support from their periphery.

All out against the Nazis

Community organizing is vital to opposing the far right. Neo-Nazi groups often try to march in multicultural communities to spark discord. Counter-demonstrations that involve many members of the community, including religious and ethnic minorities, can challenge that.

The key to the success at the battle of Lewisham was mobilizing local people. Anti-fascists “spent hours and hours and hours pounding the footsteps; round the community; local council estate; tower blocks to turn out very large numbers of local people,” Renton explains. “You can get a stand-off without doing that work. But you don’t get the victories without doing that work.”

The Boston counter-demonstration saw a variety of activist group come together, including Black Lives Matter and Violence in Boston, as well as candidates running for city council. One activist told the Boston Globe: “We’ve had people reach out from the Jewish community, the Asian community. We have people coming from all over the country.”

In the same weekend as the Boston counter-protest, a lively demonstration against neo-Nazis took place in Berlin. Neo-Nazi marches have regularly taken place in Germany over the past decade—but these marches have been fiercely opposed. Last weekend, around 500 neo-Nazis attempted to march in Berlin to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess. The neo-Nazis didn’t get far—around 1,000 counter-protestors prevented them from reaching the site where Hess was imprisoned after the Nuremberg trials. Once again, the far-right rally in Berlin had to disband and the police escorted the neo-Nazis back to the station.

One young woman attending the counter-protest, who didn’t want to be named, told Quartz how important it was to “turn up and show your face” at these protests. Florian Hiermeier from the German Greens party in Bavaria, loudly waving a flag and shaking a rattle, said the best thing to do against Nazis was make some noise, laugh, and be in a “good mood.”

Massive counter-protests can even be family friendly. At the Berlin protest, one father brought his 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter “to show them the importance of being politically active; [that] we must vote and demonstrate in a democracy.” He added that many of the neo-Nazis haven’t learned that “if parents say something is okay, then the child absorbs that so if the parents are that way, then the children will be too.”

Get creative

Counter-protests can also be creative. In Wunsiedel, Germany, where Hess was once buried, local residents turned an annual neo-Nazi march into Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon” (paywall). For every meter the neo-Nazis march, local residents donate $12.50 to a far-right deradicalization program, turning the counter-protest into a faux-sporting event.

Communities shouldn’t just organize when the far right are planning to march—these broad coalitions should put together community events to challenge neo-fascist ideas. Rock Against Racism, a UK grassroots movement, was set up 1978, when neo-Nazis were regularly marching on the street and many immigrant communities lived in fear. The movement held music events that tried to unite people through rock music—punk bands like The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, and Sham 69 participated.

Countering far-right mobilization with rock was a direct challenge to the emboldened racist, skinhead movement taking hold of the punk scene. And it’s one way to try prevent racist ideologies from taking hold. “Organizing in communities that are susceptible to neo-Nazis is really important,” Bray says.

Other powerful acts of resistance includes Berlin’s “sprayer granny”—the 70-year-old German who has been removing fascist propaganda for 30 years. Despite being assaulted by neo-Nazis and threatened with fines, Irmela Mensah-Schramm has spent decades removing or spraying over fascist posters or stickers.

While the resurgence of this ideology is terrifying and disheartening, anti-racism activists can take comfort—and wisdom— in past and present movements doing their best to fight back.

Jill Petzinger contributed reporting.