PD Editorial: Best response to alt-right rally is rage — on a distant stage

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More than violence, more than the ability to promote an agenda of white supremacy, the right wing groups that gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend wanted one thing: attention. And they got plenty amid a weekend filled with violence, angry rhetoric and, ultimately, bloodshed that included the death of a 32-year-old woman as a result of a car plowing into counter-demonstrators.

Making matters worse, they got validation from a president who on Tuesday seemed to forget about the condemnation of neo-Nazis and others that he recited just a day earlier and fell back on his earlier contemptible claim that “both sides” were equally to blame for the Charlottesville nightmare. It’s small wonder that former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who was on hand supporting organizers of the “alt-right” rally in Virginia, applauded the president for his remarks. Few others are.

All the same, the organizers of this, the largest collection of neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists that this nation has seen in two decades, got all they could have asked for out of last weekend — and more.

Bay Area political leaders and others should keep that in mind as they decide how to properly respond and prepare for two alt-right rallies planned in two weeks, one in Berkeley and another in San Francisco.

The National Park Service has granted a First Amendment permit to a right-wing group known as Patriot Prayer, which is planning to hold a rally on Aug. 26 at Crissy Field in San Francisco. Another rally is planned the following day at or near UC Berkeley. The as-yet unconfirmed event is slated to feature former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other lawmakers have called on the National Park Service to reconsider the permit for the San Francisco gathering. “We do not invite hate speech, or hate, to come to our city and to instigate potential violence,” said Lee during a Tuesday news conference.

But the group is not seeking an invitation. It requested and was granted a permit to exercise its First Amendment rights, something that lawmakers from a region known for valuing free expression should be wary of restricting. It’s worth remembering that when alt-right protesters sought to demonstrate at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville at the site of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was scheduled to be torn down, the American Civil Liberties Union came to their defense, for good reason.

Mayor Ed Lee says there is a difference between “free speech and hate speech with intent to cause violence.” That may be true, but establishing intent in advance is a tricky business, particularly given that a rally, organized by the same people, in Seattle on Sunday resulted in a tense stand-off with counter-protesters and a heavy police presence, but no major violence.

Some argue the best response to these gatherings is silence, not rage. Just ignore them.

We disagree. If these groups give voice to the same specious claims as the white supremacists in Virginia, people should be outraged. But rather than restricting speech, opponents would be better off beating these groups at their own game by refusing to give them the confrontations on which they depend. Instead, they should hold counter-demonstrations — far from the maddening alt-right crowd — gatherings that dwarf their rallies in terms of turnout and volume. Yes, persuading people to attend alternative demonstrations won’t be easy. But the payoff would be huge. No violence. No arrests. And far less attention for the alt-right provocateurs. It’s worth a shot.

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