An event sponsored by the mayor’s office lurches hard to the right in a presentation by a celebrity politician whose call for tougher policing and added laws is gently contradicted by local calls for mercy and mutual understanding.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
Mike Signer, former mayor of Charlottesville, Va., highlights hardened lines in American society and the lessons learned from a protest in that city that led to the death of a demonstrator, Heather Heyer, in a car crash.
Organizer Alison Lebovitz gently counters Mr. Signer’s police-state approach, suggesting that the solution to hateful groups and extremist arguments is human contact and personal relationships that will draw people out of alienated and ideological dead-ends that lead to violent acts and crime.
Mayor Andy Berke says his idea for the committee came to him as the city grieved over the 2015 slayings of five federal military people in an attack on an installation and a recruiting office by Mohammad Abdulazeez, who perished as a Muslim martyr.
Charlottesville riot recounted
Mr. Signer is the guest of Mr. Berke’s council against hate’s first public event at the Camp House. About 150 people fill the coffee shop run by a church.
He tells of the United the Right rally in his city in August 2017, “the largest assembly of white nationalists in a generation” that was “a shock to the nation’s conscience.” The demonstrators carried weapons, wore armor, shouted slogans such as “blood and soil” lifted from national socialists in Weimar Germany, and decried blacks, Jews “and women,” Mr. Signer says.
Mr. Signer focuses on policy — things done wrong, things done right in law, policing and among institutions.
➤Town permitting rules are revised to outlaw tiki torches after “fine first amendment work with our lawyers” is done so that U.Va. grad Richard Spencer and others cannot use such torches to shield confederate monuments in a “display of terror.”
➤A state constitution provision is found to outlaw paramilitary activity without a permit. There has “never been such a breakdown in the state’s role, with armed groups parading through the streets,” he says.
➤ He hails corporate allies in his project such as Airbnb. It blocked rentals in Charlottesville the weekend of the rally. A new group, Communities Overcoming Extremism, intends on “generating alliances, increasing our collective wisdom, and creating best practices” with a leading lobby, Anti-Defamation League, among the members.
Mr. Signer divides the public “response” to extremism as having a soft and hard side. Hard side materials take up about two-thirds of his 14-minute talk, including his call for a federal domestic terrorism statute and further centralization in law enforcement.
The soft side is the nonprofit sector, classes “teaching kids what’s right and what’s wrong.” Here, too, he favors “a strong approach.”
Mr. Signer gives barely a token nod to free speech rights, rights to free assembly, right to gather to petition for redress of grievances, liberty in open spaces, freedom of movement and travel, free communications and the right of counter-demonstrators to have open confrontations with those they despise. He opposes public displays of opinion, seemingly disorderly disputes in open daylight among rival claimants on national policy.
His talk excludes the work of grace and the church and in the name of security he is would deny demonstrators any satisfaction of being heard and debating their respective worldviews in public.
The prospect of attaining peaceful goals seem much stronger in the local perspective and the psychological analysis offered by Mrs. Lebovitz.
Mr. Signer’s policing emphasis contrasts with the ideas of most people in the crowd, ones who realize that external solutions, hectoring by lobbyists and police surveillance are short-term oriented, and reforms internal to the city and its people might be more authentic and long-lived.
Mr. Signer, repeatedly pumping Mr. Berke as a national leader, demands more police powers, ever more expansive and reaching out against the rights of the people to better secure them as the “hate” threat seems to grow.
Hate is a “shape-shifting virus,” he warns. “It can change forms depending on its hosts and it can adapt to new environments with ease. And that means we need an approach that is proactive, that makes us more resilient, and is multi-faceted. Approach the problem from every angle.”
No room for ‘redemption’?
Mrs. Lebovitz’ counterpoint focuses on works of the soul and the moral quandary that people of extreme opinions face. Quoting Elie Wiesel, the hunter of aged concentration camp guards, Mrs. Lebovitz says the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Her approach is humanistic and personal, even lococentric. Mrs. Lebovitz says the group could be called a council against indifference, a council against neutrality, a council against inaction. “We’re ready to do enough to make sure that we live in an inclusive and diverse, civil, respectful, loving community,” she says.
Many people believe the city already does that, but she wants people to live outside their “silos.”
The best insight of the evening is hers: That people in the “hate” category have given up on their opposites’ being able to find redemption. “Hate is so definitive,” she says. “It doesn’t give room for redemption. It is so final an approach.” An ideologue turned hard and bitter believes other people have “no room for improvement,” she says, and do not allow for interaction, conversation and contemplation that serve to soften human beings out of rage or violent anger.
From attorneys, fuzzy talk
Mayor Berke is troubled with the amorphous enterprise of the group he launched and the lack of definitions in an evening wanting to replicate the gracious work of the church in society but without God and the workings of sovereign grace..
Under the hate rubric, Mayor Berke conflates multiple categories: hateful people such as racists; angry dissenter groups such as those listed by Southern Poverty Law Center, itself a hate group; people involved in terrorism; and military action like that of Mr. Abdulazeez against the U.S. Navy on Amnicola Highway.
He casts Mr. Abdulazeez’ bloodletting as an act of hate and fundamantally irrational and unreasoning. It was, rather, a paramilitary attack on federal military targets of the widely hated imperial American oppressor of his race and his Muslim co-religionists, and not an act of terror and not a hate crime.
But Mr. Berke, like Mr. Signer, is a practicing attorney. He creates confusion about the rights of the people and tends toward enhancing the power of government. Double-tonguedness is a stock in trade for members of the bar, generating work and fees for future lawyers.
Calling dissenters — whether neo-Nazis or neo-Confederates — hate groups enlarges the problem Mrs. Lebovitz highlights. It makes compromise more remote. Is it wise for governing agencies and high officials to put critics and dissidents into a position wherein they cannot be redeemed and brought into the mix of majority discourse? Progressive Democrats and socialist Republicans alike use demonization to enhance state power and the militarization of civilian life, prompting one attendee to think about a leading dystopian novel.
George Orwell depicts a similar project as tonight’s as “two minutes hate” in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Mr. Berke discounts private activity and the free market in much of his thinking. He is a poor friend to first amendment rights. When funeral caravans passed through city avenues in 2015 honoring Mr. Abdulazeez’s solider/sailor victims, Mr. Berke ordered police to arrest any protesters — an illegal order that a single public voice in Chattanooga protested. He criminalized dissent, which Mr. Signer is happy to do, as well, calling it terrorism.
City’s war on poor unabated
Mr. Berke, a traditional progressive Democrat, may be against hate and violence, but there is little actual love for the people he represents as chief executive.
Mr. Berke rejects a public administrative notice that directs him to obey the Tennessee transportation law at Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55 and liberate oppressed poor people and blacks from abuse of the law by his cops. As a leader in the “war on hate,” Mr. Berke lets his cops and courts grind down the poor and hapless in violation of state law. If he quit disobeying clear state and federal law regarding use of the city’s roads, he could make Chattanooga a sanctuary city that would be a national first that would win accolades (and votes) from left and right, from labor and from business, from progressives and constitutionalist libertarians.
But as an attorney, Mayor Berke rejects the rights of the people and favors, instead, judicial policy that pretends the commercial statute binds noncommercial and nontransportation users of the roads.
Mr. Berke keeps untreated an ugly cancer whose shape hasn’t shifted in 80 years, but the anger and malice of which exists in mayors, chiefs and officers saying they are “just taking orders.” City police operations on roadways outside the scope of Title 55 is heartless, illegal and racially tinged.