Perspectives

Tracking Extremism

Brian Levin documents both ends of the ideological spectrum and their threat to our freedom of speech

Many watched Charlottesville and other cities unfold on TV or on the Web. Often, Brian Levin has been there in person to document these events. Levin is director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at CSU San Bernardino. He has testified before Congress on hate and terrorism, and is the author or co-author of U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs, books and articles on hate crime and extremism.

The California Faculty Association member has worked for civil rights groups and was a New York City police officer. He documents rallies that  attract violent extremists. Last year, he was dubbed “The Jewish Batman” by The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, after helping save the grand dragon of the California Ku Klux Klan from an angry, armed mob in Anaheim.

In May, Levin reported that violent clashes with arrests due to political intolerance increased significantly on California college campuses and at Trump campaign rallies. To view “Hate & Extremism in California: 2016,” one of a series of special status reports on hate crimes.

Recently, we asked Levin to shed some light on the ideological conflicts and violent protests that have rocked our country.

What has happened since your report was released in May?

In nearly every major city in California and across the nation, hate crimes are up uniformly in 2017. But the state’s 931 hate crimes last year were still less than half the number in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. Relatedly, there have now been double the number of conflictual public demonstrations in California in 2017 than the year before. We have seen more white nationalist ‘mega rallies’ of more than 100 people in the past two years nationally than in the previous 20 years. According to an ABC News poll, 9 percent of Americans are finding neo-Nazi views acceptable.

Brian Levin5
Levin (center) with Assembly Member Kansen Chu (D-Fremont) to his left,supporting Chu’s call for a statewide audit on law enforcement agencies’ efforts to protect Californians from hate crimes.

Why do you think this is happening?

Our research indicates a correlation between widely reported statements by political leaders and hate crime, so it is vital that a U.S. president use the bully pulpit to unequivocally and genuinely condemn bigotry. Social media feeds from a raft of white supremacist leaders have consistently ranged from calmly happy to ecstatic over the president’s use of code words, stereotyping, equivocation, staff appointments and invocation of nationalism.

In addition, at times of political change, newly insurgent splinter movements, such as those on the hard left, have now engaged in reactive aggression to justify violence as a legitimate part of their “resistance.” (In a few instances, college professors and lecturers have publicly discussed violence as a tool for social change.)

Do we now have an ‘alt-left’?

There is no alt-left. There’s black bloc tacticians (protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items) and Antifa (far-left antifascists who are willing to engage in a show of force). In many ways, these anarchist groups are reactive, somewhat diverse and less organized as a movement.

But the inertia of the hard left is rapidly evolving, with many becoming increasingly militant and organized, causing a schism with those who desire direct-action social change without the invocation of revolutionary violence. And militants’ aggression against so-called fascists now extends beyond white supremacists to political adversaries, journalists, academics, public speakers and police. They contend that the First Amendment is an oppressive lever that harms the oppressed through its protection of “hate speech,” which they consider violent.

A combination of political instability, along with the galvanization of a more mobilized and brazen white nationalism into a sociopolitical entity, has reactively energized both sides of the ideological spectrum into an arms race which boils over from social media into the streets at demonstrations. It won’t just be confined to violence at protests.

What happens when universities allow mobs or the threat of mobs to shut down events?

Cumulatively, it sends the message that mob rule and censorship by violence prevails in the marketplace of ideas. Our collective liberty, including those of us vigorously in opposition to bigotry, is also robbed. This not only applies to the bigot’s right to engage, but to us in the exercise of our options — be it to analyze, peacefully protest, satirize or ignore. [That said,] academia has a special obligation to encourage critical thought, which requires exposure to diverse, even unsettling, views.

Is freedom of speech at stake?

Yes, and its limitations are getting worse, not only by intimidation, but benign neglect. The question is: How far as a society will we allow this? It has occurred incrementally at many universities, which tend to be populated with a diversity of people, but not a diversity of ideas, particularly when it comes to conservatives of good will. We can justifiably point the finger at Antifa and black bloc demonstrators, but universities have been complicit in leaving out not just acerbic controversial conservatives, but conservatives in general and many others of good will.

Universities should let any invited speaker who is nonviolent speak, as long they fulfill whatever viewpoint-neutral administrative rules that exist generally, although we should strive for thinkers, ideally. This applies not only to conservatives, but any others whose viewpoints are divergent from the majority. However, free expression does not protect the ability to commit acts of violence and intimidation, or to bring guns into the marketplace of ideas.

What type of students are most vulnerable to being influenced by hate groups?

Students who have experienced personal hardships and feel disenfranchised, fearful of change, disrespected by peers and ignored by educators are most at risk. My advice to teachers: Converse with them. Hear what their aspirations and fears are, then respond to ideas and concerns with facts and context, empathically, both personally and institutionally. Hate leaders exploit the unheard with both a sense of community, status and mission, albeit with reliance on a narrative of superiority, grievance and conspiracy theories.

What can educators do to prevent the alt-right or any extremists from recruiting students on campus?

I don’t think universities should prevent the expression of viewpoints, but we can also hold our own events that reveal their intellectual and ethical bankruptcy. Still, schools can enforce viewpoint-neutral rules relating to where items can be posted and events held, and enforce even-handed time, place and manner restrictions. And educators should make current events into incredible teachable moments. I tell students my classroom is a free-speech zone, and the only limits are that they can’t insult or threaten someone in the classroom.

We need to make free speech a cherished value and not something that’s merely utilitarian when it suits one’s own viewpoint. Live the First Amendment — defend the right to speak as an independent civic value, even when divergent. Encourage differing opinions with a focus on the articulation of underlying facts and experiences that buttress those views. We don’t owe everyone a bullhorn, but we do owe a commitment to dialogue. Engage students rather than shutting them down, and know that sometimes even well-meaning people can offend. Grade schools and high schools can be more restrictive regarding nonstudent visitors, but First Amendment values are important to promote there as well.


How to Respond to Hate

Here are ways educators can respond to incidents of hateful words, actions and images in school:

  1. Be present and available. Bullying can occur anywhere in the school building or on the grounds. Be present during school transitions. Tell your students they can come to you.
  2. Intervene! If you witness bullying, racist slurs or name-calling, stop the incident immediately. Separate the students. Get help from other staff if needed. Ask targeted students if they’re OK.
  3. Give clear messages. Students who bully or commit acts of hate must hear the message that their behavior is wrong and harms others. Targeted students must hear the message that caring adults will protect them.
  4. Be calm. Don’t require students to apologize or make amends right after you stop the incident. You may not know the full story. First focus on safety and keep everyone calm.
  5. Support the targeted students. Make eye contact with the targeted students, demonstrate empathy, and reassure them that what happened was not their fault.
  6. Tell students never to ignore bullying or hateful actions. Let bystanders who stood up for targeted students know that you admire their courage, and thank them. Give other bystanders examples of how to intervene appropriately the next time (get an adult, tell the person to stop, etc.).
  7. Investigate, document, follow up. After the incident, question all involved individually. If appropriate, impose immediate consequences on students who bullied; provide the necessary support, such as counseling. Work with colleagues to improve your school climate to build a culture that prevents bullying.
  8. Be a caring advocate. Make sure students are supported and have needed resources well beyond the incident. Involve other staff for guidance and emotional support.

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