AUGUSTA, MAINE- The alt-right’s pathetic efforts to re-brand itself in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, and its overwhelming defeats in Boston and Berkeley, California, last month, were on full display in Maine, this past weekend. A right-wing “free speech” rally in Augusta on September 30 was little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to disguise the demonstrators’ racist, white nationalist views.
Fortunately, nearly 100 protesters—including many from local socialist organizations—turned out to oppose them.
The coalition of left groups included the Portland, Maine branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), along with the John Brown Gun Club, The Socialist Party of Maine, the NAACP of Bangor, the Southern Maine IWW, and the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), among others. The groups gathered across from the Capitol Building, where the right-wing rally was taking place.
The organizers of the alt-right demonstration, bearing the generic name, “Rally to Denounce Political Violence,” seemed, at first glance, to represent an odd combination of libertarians, right-wingers, out-of-state political candidates (most of them running as Libertarians), and even a few Occupy Wall Street activists.
But closer inspection of the rally’s principal organizers reveals many familiar faces and themes of the so-called “alt-right.”
For starters, John Rasmussen, a Portland native and organizer of the rally, also helped assemble the original Boston “Free Speech” rally, back in May. Boston NPR-affiliate, WBUR, described the rally, at the time, as a coalition of “veterans, ex-police, Tea Party Republicans and young people affiliated with the self-described ‘alt-right’—a conservative faction that mixes racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism…”
Other rally organizers, including an individual who goes only by the name Jarody, have a clear online history of expressing or demonstrating support for white nationalist and far-right views. The cartoon character, Pepe the Frog, widely viewed as the alt-right’s mascot, features prominently on the organizers’ social media pages. One woman showed up to the Augusta rally wearing a hat featuring the character.
A social media page for the “Rally to Denounce Political Violence” described the event as a “day to denounce the violence that has arisen recently due to political fearmongering. We advocate for peaceful discussion and the spread of ideas from all points of view.”
The rally organizers even had the gall to conclude the event summary with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet as Portland ISO member, Erica Hall observed, the free-market, austerity-pushing, privatization policies libertarians advocate are, themselves, a form of violence.
“Libertarians are capitalists, and capitalism is inherently violent,” Hall said. “They make these forms of oppression make sense to people, as if they are natural. But of course, they are not.”
Indeed, ripping apart the already frayed social safety net, abolishing public programs and social services, replacing public schools with private or charter schools, and valuing private property over human lives, are all forms of political violence against poor and working-class people.
Of course, the “Rally to Denounce Political Violence” conveniently overlooked all of these forms of violence. Its focus was, instead, exclusively on the purported violence of the left—particularly anti-fascist groups like Antifa and the Black Bloc anarchists.
THE RIGHT in Maine is clearly taking a page out of Donald Trump’s book—condemning violence on “both sides,” even though it is really only their side that is actively seeking to perpetuate violent acts and intimidation. Its members seek to draw a moral equivalency between the Ku Klux Klan and Antifa, suggesting that both are equally responsible for promoting violence.
Jarody pushed this false equivalency in an interview with the Portland Phoenix’s Nick Schroeder, prior to the rally.
“We’ve got groups like Antifa and the John Brown Gun Club coming to oppose us,” said Jarody. “I’d like to see the organizers of the counter-rally make sure to rein in those on their side who might show up to incite violence.”
This is, of course, a baseless comparison.
The efforts of anti-fascists to defend themselves and marginalized people—violently, if necessary—is in no way comparable to the racism and hate-mongering incited by the KKK and neo-Nazi groups. While those of us in the ISO often disagree with Antifa and Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics, we fully reject the alt-right’s attempts to conflate the two.
As a joint press release issued by the left-wing coalitions stated, “This event, the ‘Rally to Denounce Political Violence,’ … is an attempt to provide shelter for alt-right ideologies under the guise of free speech.”
Perhaps most tellingly, Jarody refused to concede to the Phoenix’s Schroeder that the murder of 32-year-old activist, Heather Heyer, is a form of political violence.
“Nobody knows what [was] going on in that guy’s head,” Jarody told Schroeder, referring to assailant, James Alex Fields, who drove his car into a group of ISO activists, killing Heyer. “Nobody knows what his intentions were. Even though we have footage of it, that’s basically the work of lawyers [sic]. I’d have to listen to what [Fields] says up on the stand.”
Rasmussen, in an interview on a local right-wing radio station a few days prior to the rally, was similarly evasive in his description of Fields’ murder of Heyer.
“Everybody is attacking everybody right now,” Rasmussen said when asked about the events in Charlottesville, on August 12. This cop-out of a reply prompted the conservative interviewer to respond merely, “Okay,” and move on to another topic.
Rasmussen then launched into a rambling, mostly incoherent tirade about how the alleged violence of the left is “going to cycle incredibly fast,” and conservatives are in danger of “walking right into their [the left’s] trap.”
Still, the right’s newfound strategy is clear. They want to paint leftists and anti-racists as unhinged, violent instigators, deeply intolerant of the right’s freedom of speech. Consider this the alt-right’s attempt to re-brand itself as the “alt-light.” They are desperately trying to bury their overt appeals to white nationalism and anti-Semitism, while casting themselves as victims of an antagonistic extreme left that is out for blood.
But counter-protesters were not buying any of it. They understood all too well that this poorly disguised, “free speech” rally was the same vile, rotten right-wing product in a slightly different package.
Indeed, the left easily outnumbered the 20 or so right-wingers who ultimately showed up the Augusta rally. The Portland ISO raised chants and sold copies of the ISO’s monthly newspaper, Socialist Worker. Our group conveyed the strongest political orientation among a friendly, but politically mixed crowd.
A version of this essay also appeared on Socialist Worker.org.
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