Collage by Jason Pramas, CC-BY 2.0. "Alarm Clock 2" image by Alan Cleaver is licensed under CC BY 2.0. "File:Map of Boston and Cambridge.png" image by OpenStreetMap contributors is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Collage by Jason Pramas, CC-BY-SA 2.0. “Alarm Clock 2” image by Alan Cleaver is licensed under CC BY 2.0. “File:Map of Boston and Cambridge.png” image by OpenStreetMap contributors is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

And people ready to nonviolently counterdemonstrate at a moment’s notice

It should come as no surprise that America’s hard-right organizations view Boston as the Portland, Oregon of the East—a place to periodically pull attention-grabbing stunts that help them increase their notoriety and plump up their otherwise tiny membership numbers. Because our fair city is well known for leaning to the left politically … and, more importantly for the discussion at hand, culturally.

So when about 100 members of a racist and neo-fascist hate group showed up last weekend and walked the Freedom Trail in matching outfits (and shields), assaulting an African-American artist as they went, it wasn’t the fact of their presence that surprised me, it was the lack of organized public response to their visit. That is, where was the counterdemonstration? 

When I was a young protest kid in the ’80s, a bunch of my friends and I would have been in the racists’ faces the moment we heard they were in town. And that was before the internet was widely accessible by street activists. A couple of years ago, at the height of the second Black Lives Matter wave, a counterdemo would have appeared instantly. But not in the more dispirited political reality of this July apparently, despite ubiquitous instantaneous digital communication options.

In the aftermath of the latest hard-right manifestation, there have been calls for local government to intervene more strongly. Which in practice would mean sending in the Boston cops—more than a few of whom are known to sympathize with the ultra right—to use state-sanctioned violence to prevent the fascists from exercising their Constitutionally-protected right of freedom of speech. But that’s not the correct approach at all.

The goal for defenders of a democratic society has to be to prevent the growth and spread of anti-democratic ideas before their proponents become powerful enough to destroy democracy. And this must be done, not by government, but by the supporters of democracy ourselves. Using means that don’t violate the free-speech guarantee that anti-democratic forces don’t support, but have a right to nonetheless—if our society is serious about remaining democratic.

We already have several people and organizations who make it their business to track far-right activities in the Boston area. We just need them to set up a nonsectarian and widely advertised hard right early-warning system for Bostonians of good conscience—say, a basic website linked to social media accounts—that can provide advance notice of future visits to our metropolis by hate organizations. And encourage an appropriate response at speed. Which is my main message today. Just make that happen, ok, folks?

No need to overreact once the system is set up. Because that grows the hard right, too, by making them look badass. But if 100 racists show up in town, then turn out 200 anti-racists to nonviolently mock and deride them and generally mess up their plans until they go away. That’s plenty. Repeat as needed. After enough failed attempts at messing with Boston, the fascists will stop trying.

Perhaps people can volunteer in advance to participate in such healthy public-spirited activity. Declaring their willingness to show up to confront the fash at a moment’s notice. But however local activists choose to make this kind of alert system happen in the defense of democracy, I’m sure it will fit community needs just fine.

Naturally, such counterdemos are not ends unto themselves. The main work for people serious about democracy must remain winning, wielding, and retaining political power over the long haul. Ensuring that the hard right remains a fringe movement in perpetuity. Yet spending a couple of hours now and then showing that fringe that they will never be welcome in the Hub is also necessary.  

To my colleagues in the Greater Boston press that may be reading this, meanwhile, I will append an admonition I’ve made before—notably when DigBoston first announced our “unnaming” policy of refusing to print the names of hard-right ideologues or their organizations unless they commit crimes or in rare situations where we will do greater harm by not printing their names: Do not provide free public relations services for anti-democratic individuals or organizations. If some fascists hold some action in town, sure, cover them appropriately. Write a short blurb saying that some fascists held some action in town. Don’t say who they are. Don’t talk about their platform. Don’t link to their websites. Just say they were here. That’s plenty. That way you’ve done your duty as reporters, but stopped people that would happily shut down your news organizations the moment they take power from getting the coverage they need to grow their numbers.

In any case, the takeaway is that everyone who doesn’t want to get trapped in some ludicrous dictatorship in the near future needs to do their part to deny incipient fascist movements the light and air they need to grow. Stop them now while we still have at least a nominal democracy. Drive them from the streets of Boston and every American city. Push the Democrats leftward out of their current centrist torpor. Force the Republicans to purge hard right wingers from their ranks. Or suffer the very dire consequences of your inaction.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, editor of the Somerville Wire, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.