#assassinatetrump: “What’s Left?” January 2018, MRR #416

Assassinate the President!

GG Allin, crooner

It was spring, 1980. We were organizing a Students for Peace benefit at the Spirit Club. The Spirit Club was a dive bar’s dive bar in San Diego. SfP started at UCSD soon after Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

We booked the club for an evening early in the week and agreed to pay the bar’s minimum for the night. As I recall, we had four bands play and barely broke even. A competent ska/2-tone quartet named Fire opened with danceable beats and solid political lyrics. We’d heard they were affiliated with the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, more specifically its youth auxiliary, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. The RCP had a long history of—and an interest in—youth organizing, and they used the RCYB to cultivate young recruits as well as a street presence. It was early in the evening, the attendance was sparse, so we had time to chat with the band.

Except for the drummer, they were all working musicians with experience and again, except for the drummer, they all seemed a little too old to be called “youth.” Originally called Prairie Fire, they had played aggressive punk rock up until becoming a ska band. It was clear that both the name change and change in musical style were not due solely to personal tastes or wanting to be more commercial. Their political milieu had dictated it. Someone in SfP who had heard them before asked about a song, “Overthrow The Government,” they did in their punk incarnation. The band demurred, said they no longer played the song, and inferred that it was not in their repertoire because it was not politically correct per the RCP. We kept pestering them, shouting requests for the song between numbers, demanding they play it. After some hesitation, they relented and played a hardcore “Overthrow The Government.”

The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents government from passing laws that prohibit free speech, but no such prohibition applies to a private club, service organization, capitalist business, Leninist vanguard party, what have you. Clearly, the “right” to free speech can be limited or curtailed by the vanguard party you belong to, but no more so than if you work for your typical capitalist corporation in these United States. I remember telling an old school San Diego Leftie that our mutual friend—a member of the Maoist Communist Party, M-L, formerly called the October League—had been reassigned to a party cadre on the east coast. His take was that our mutual friend displayed party discipline and a commitment to both party building and mass organizing in making the move. I considered that our mutual friend was involved in a job relocation, an employee transfer between branch offices of a corporation, and was making a lateral career move.

And corporations can legally deny you your “right” to free speech with impunity. They can fire your ass for what you say on or off the job, make you sign non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality contracts, and codes of conduct in order to keep your ass employed, and regulate the content, manner, and timing of your speech while your ass is on the job. According to court judgments regarding labor laws, employees can legally discuss wages, hours, and working conditions, but not much else. Private workplaces are miniature totalitarian states, and the situation is little better for public employees working for the government. When speaking as private citizens, government workers may be protected so long as they are speaking out about a public concern, and speaking out doesn’t interfere with doing their job. Otherwise, no “right” to free speech. But what if the public employee is also an elected public official, or is a public employee by virtue of being elected to public office?

I hope Trump is assassinated.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal, politician

Maria Chappelle-Nadal was heavily criticized for her remarks on her Facebook post. The Secret Service investigated the Missouri Democratic State Senator, and demands were raised that she resign. The Democratic senator apologized but remained adamant and refused to resign, so the Republican-controlled Missouri Senate censured her. The vote was just shy of the two-thirds needed to remove the senator from office. Compare this to what happened to Michigan truck driver James Anthony Jackson when he said of Trump: “I am going to blow white brains out the fuck out his motherfucking head.” He was investigated by the Secret Service, who then arrested and charged Jackson for threatening to assassinate the president of the United States, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Congress may be prohibited from making any law abridging freedom of speech, but the government can certainly define what “freedom of speech” legally means. Credible threats are not considered freedom of speech, with federal, state, and local governments universally defining the use of threats of violence as the assault part of “assault and battery” laws. Similarly disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and breach of public order are all considered crimes, not free speech. So government does have the legal right to prohibit the content of speech if it is deemed threatening and the manner of speech if it is deemed disruptive.

Even with genuine free speech, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that local, state, and federal governments can reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of individual expression. Time, place, and manner restrictions “accommodate public convenience and promote order by regulating traffic flow, preserving property interests, conserving the environment, and protecting the administration of justice,” [West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd ed.] and therefore are not considered an abridgment of freedom of speech.

#assassinatetrump

hashtag

In a time of social media and instant global digital communication however—when alt.right idiots threaten anti-fascists with “helicopter rides” and conspiracy wingnuts threaten victims of mass shootings with mayhem, rape, and murder for being “false flag” crisis actors—all of this seems moot. In fact, the “right” to free speech is not guaranteed by god, natural law, the constitution, legislation, custom, morality, or our sense of fairness. That right, any right, is guaranteed solely by our individual and collective power to deny or enforce it. Even then, the “right” to free speech doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it, or shield you from criticism or consequences, or prevent you from being boycotted, your events cancelled, or banned from some internet community (to quote a popular XKCD comic). This has little to do with Karl Popper’s so-called “tolerance paradox.” The “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple.

So, consider the hashtag #assassinatetrump. Social media forces its users to participate in a bit of compulsory free speech through the system of hashtags to flag posts and tweets as part of a single meta-conversation. By using #assassinatetrump, people for or against the assassination of Trump, or people just making a point or a joke, are engaged in a de facto free speech fight. No doubt the FBI has ‘bots applying internet algorithms to search out the content behind any and all #assassinatetrump hashtags to determine whether or not they pose a threat. And be prepared for when the Secret Service breaks down the door of someone using the hashtag to actually threaten to assassinate Trump, violating all sorts of other rights and freedoms in the process. But the hashtag #assassinatetrump is a statement all by itself, simultaneously an assertion of free speech and a battle over it.

Use #assassinatetrump at your own risk.

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No free speech for fascists!: “What’s Left?” August 2012, MRR #351

Is it just me, or have an inordinate number of well-known people died in 2012? Perhaps I’m just being overly sensitive to my own mortality, now that I’m 60, but damn, the names are racking up. And there seems to be more than your fair share of dead musicians on that list. There was Etta James, Whitney Houston, Michael Davis, Davy Jones, Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Adam Yauch, Kindred McCune, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Doc Watson, Bob Welch, Jef Leppard. and Pete Hayes (as of 6/27/12).

I’d like to focus on a particular individual who died recently, and this one wasn’t a musician. British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon died on May 9. His was an unusual and provocative life.

Vidal Sassoon was born on January 17, 1928 in the London borough of Hammersmith of Sephardic Jewish parents. His father died when he was three, and his mother was so poor that she put Vidal in a Jewish orphanage for seven years until she remarried and could afford to raise him. He apprenticed as a hairdresser as a teen, but was too young to serve in the second World War. Instead, he joined a secret association originally of Jewish combat veterans, the 43 Group, after the war. The founding forty-three British ex-servicemen had returned from fighting in Europe, often having witnessed the consequences of the Nazi Holocaust in the form of Jewish refugees and extermination camp survivors, only to encounter British fascists running rampant in England’s streets. Oswald Mosley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists had been banned by the government in 1940, with Mosley himself interned after 1943, but fascism returned after the war in the form of Jeffrey Hamm’s British League of Ex-Servicemen and Mosley’s reformed Union Movement. Both organizations engaged in provocative public meetings highlighted by antisemitic speeches inciting race hatred, not to mention violent physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property, primarily in London.

The members of the underground 43 Group eventually numbered in the hundreds, veteran and non-veteran, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. They attacked the public meetings of these fascist groups and broke them up, actively infiltrated these organizations and their chapters, and confronted the fascist rank-and-file in running street battles. Voluntarily disbanded in 1950, the 43 Group was succeeded in 1962 by the unrelated 62 Group, which carried on the former’s anti-fascist resistance, and in particular its tactic of anti-fascist street fighting. Thus, street-level resistance to fascism in Britain has a long and quite honorable tradition.

Vidal Sassoon battled the fash in London’s streets at 17, his weapon of choice, a pair of hair styling scissors. He went on to join, first the Zionist Haganah, and then the elite Palmach at age 20 to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948. Then he founded his international hairdressing empire, based on the success of his famous wedge bob haircut in the 1960s.

Before getting to the political point I wish to make, I need to discard a lot of ephemeral political junk. First off, let me say I’m no friend of Zionism or the State of Israel, nor will I take on Sassoon’s contribution to the displacement of the Palestinian people. In his later years he would express opposition to discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but he never openly expressed criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Also, let me state that I’m not going to have much to say about the left communist critique of anti-fascism, along the lines of Gilles Dauvé and others, which maintains that liberal democracy and totalitarian fascism are merely two faces of capitalism, and that instead of fighting fascism, we need to overthrow capitalism. This line of reasoning, as the example of Dauvé amply illustrates, can have the uncomfortable consequence of providing a circuitous back door into holocaust denial. My concern here will be the role of free speech in an ostensibly liberal democracy when confronted by internal totalitarian threats.

The 43 Group provides the initial dilemma. These were British Jews, initially all veterans, who had fought against fascism in Europe, and who had witnessed first-hand Nazism’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in the Final Solution. Upon returning home, these British Jewish veterans encountered individuals and organizations espousing a fascism and antisemitism no different from what they had fought against in Europe, and which they perceived to be a threat to their country’s democratic liberties as well as to their own lives and the lives of their fellow Jews. They decided that such political beliefs and political organizing would not stand, so they organized themselves to confront, to fight, and wherever possible, to smash these politics in the form of the individuals and organizations that proclaimed those politics. In so doing, the 43 Group clearly denied those fascist individuals and organizations their right to free speech.

One side claims that, in some cases, free speech must be denied in order to preserve freedom of speech, and that to allow totalitarian fascists who would destroy democracy to democratically organize is tantamount to suicide. The other side claims that these arguments are the equivalent of fucking for chastity, and that this is an expression of Orwellian doublespeak in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. Both sides have had their adherents on the American scene. William F. Buckley, arguably the founder of modern conservatism, once argued that, in a democracy, it was proper to ban those political organizations like the Communist Party that advocated totalitarianism and that, once in power by democratic means, would overthrow the very democracy it had used to gain power in the first place. However, Buckley’s anti-communism was so strident that he came to support various far right, anti-communist regimes, including Franco’s Spain and South Africa’s apartheid government, and formulated a sickening apology for Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The American Civil Liberties Union, by contrast, is an example of a free speech absolutism that broaches no abridgment of the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The ACLU has legally defended both the Communist Party (in flying the red flag in Stromberg v California) and the Nazi Party (in their march through Skokie, Illinois in Smith v Collin). But the ACLU has also defended the principle that money is speech in American politics, and subsequently sided with the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic Citizens United ruling overturning campaign finance regulation.

If I were to advance arguments from an ultraleft perspective, I might contend that free speech does not exist apart from the moment you struggle to assert your freedom of speech, or that action also equates to speech, or that it is necessary to go beyond democracy and democratic liberties. All of this can come off as pretty abstract and intellectual, when the underlying argument to the 43 Group is anything but. What if a group of people in society is openly advocating your murder, and the murder of people like you (Jews, blacks, women, punk rockers, whoever)? What’s more, what if wherever in the world people like those who want you dead have been allowed to organize and then have gotten into power, they have been true to their word and gone about executing people like you in campaigns of mass murder? What do you do? Do you allow them their free speech? Or do you stop them from speaking freely?

American jurisprudence makes a clear distinction between freedom of speech, which is guaranteed with varying degrees of regulation, and assault, of assault and battery, which is a crime. Assault, contrary to what the name implies, is the threat of violence, whereas battery is the actual, physical violence. Speech that threatens physical violence can be considered a crime, to be criminally prosecuted. Matters get complicated, however, when no direct threat of violence is made. In Britain after the second World War, Hamm and Mosley never openly said Hitler was right and that all the Jews should be exterminated. What they said, no doubt, was that the Jews run the media, own the banks and secretly rule the country; that the Jews are inherently evil, deceitful and predatory; that the Jews killed Jesus; that the Jews are responsible for capitalism’s blood sucking excesses, or Communism’s red terror, or both; that the Jews lied about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps; that the Jews are behind an international conspiracy bent on world domination. Hamm’s thugs and Mosley’s goons took their cue from their masters’ hateful diatribes, went on rampage after rampage, attacked Jewish shops and synagogues, and assaulted Jews in London’s streets. There is no direct threat of physical violence in the speech, but the speech invariably results in physical violence. There is a code imbedded in the speech, easily denied in public, but also easily understood by its followers.

Members of the 43 Group, Vidal Sassoon included, also understood the code. They didn’t bother to wait for overt expressions threatening physical violence. They took action intended to silence the British League of Ex-Servicemen and the Union Movement. Were they justified? An august MRR columnist and free speech absolutist like Mykel Board would probably say no. I say yes.

The floor is open. What do you say?