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Rights are lost when we seek to shut each other up

Supporters cheer as the South Carolina primary is

Supporters cheer as the South Carolina primary is called for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at his election night party Feb. 20, 2016 in Spartanburg, S.C. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party’s sad little white-power march at the California state Capitol in Sacramento on Sunday could have gone largely unnoticed. Only about 30 supporters showed up for the event, which had a permit and which leaders say was a protest of the violence that supporters of Donald Trump have faced.

Instead, these fascists got worldwide attention when at least 10 people were injured, several of them stabbed, in a melee started by those who would not let a few angry and misguided folks have their say unmolested. The injuries were shared by both sides, but most of the blame belongs to those aiming to disrupt the original protest.

According to news reports, more than 350 anti-fascist protesters, some of them masked, swept down on the Capitol grounds to face off against the white supremacists, overwhelming both the Traditionalist Worker Party supporters and some 100 law enforcement personnel who were on hand to prevent violence.

Since the incident, there has been a lot of back-and-forth about which side became violent first, and a lot of complaints on both sides about the failure of police to prevent altercations. Those are important concerns, but the crux of the issue is the disturbing belief among some that when people want to express ideas others find upsetting, there is both a right and an obligation to silence them.

Much the same thing happened in February at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim, California, when anti-fascist protesters tussled with the white supremacists, and at least three people were stabbed.

There were so many cops on hand in Sacramento for fear there would be violence. One anti-fascist group asked online that protesters go to “smash fascism.” Another group issued a statement saying, “Their rally must be stopped by any means necessary.”

Clashes between rival political groups are ingrained in our history, but these recent conflicts are unusually upsetting, featuring behavior that needs to be addressed and stopped.

The First Amendment exists mostly to protect the expression of unpopular ideas, often (but not always) unpopular because they are ill-informed and hateful. The proper way to oppose movements such as white nationalism is to answer their vile ideology with better ideas so they can triumph, not by silencing and attacking others.

Often, hateful messages must be answered. None of us should fall silent when anger and intolerance are preached. But those evil messages should be answered peacefully, from 100 feet away, with better, kinder, more convincing messages. To try to silence opponents — rather than allowing them to speak, but countering their arguments — is always an act of oppression. And to show up in masks while carrying weapons to silence lawful speech is inexcusable. It is also all so insecure and fearful, so distrusting of the ability of others to understand how to act and what to believe.

Why would opponents of the Traditionalist Workers Party wear masks to the protest unless they thought they might commit a crime or disgrace themselves? In doing so, they wittingly or unwittingly imitated the men of the old-time KKK, forerunners of today’s white supremacists, who chose to hide their faces while they spread their hate and violence.

We are, as a nation, better than this. With two national political conventions in July and some very heated conflicts smoldering in and around both parties, our politics seem so angry and childish that the scolding that comes to mind for violent protesters is the same one we level at out-of-control kids: “Use your words.”

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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