Street marches are a public and powerful expression of one’s political and sociocultural beliefs. Like-minded people gathering together to express their collective will is an empowering experience. Does not everyone have the right to march peacefully in a democratic society? When the ultranationalist Right marches, they do so for the purpose of intimidation and exclusion, countering any notion of multiethnic or labour solidarity.
The 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – bringing together numerous racist and neo-Confederate groups – was not just a jolly jamboree of recreation. It was an expression of a resurgent white nationalist movement, intended to intimidate minority communities. The demonstrators made clear their determination to reverse the gains made by the civil rights and antiracist movements.
Charlottesville was not the only, and certainly not the last example, of an intimidatory march by a racialised group. The Ulster Orange Order, the pro-British loyalists from the Northern Ireland statelet, stage provocative Protestant ascendancy marches in the Catholic communities of northern Irish towns. Commemorating the victory of Prince William of Orange – a Protestant – over the Catholic James II, the Ulster loyalists deliberately assert the Protestant ascendancy as a bastion of British rule.
The marches of the Orange Order are hardly a simple exercise in free speech and historical memory. They are a triumphalist and sectarian expression of pro-imperial sentiment. Catholic and Irish nationalist communities face the threat of sectarian violence and disruption whenever the Orange loyalist marching season takes place.
The sectarian character of the Orange Ulster marches are no accident. Based on a putative commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne, the Orange marches reinforce British imperial rule over the Northern Ireland statelet, and buttress the Protestant ascendancy in that artificially constructed entity.
Jerusalem flag day
On May 29 every year, thousands of ultrarightist Israeli settlers and extremists march through the streets of East Jerusalem. That date is Flag day, a holiday instituted by Israeli authorities as a triumphalist celebration of the capture of the West Bank and Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Intended as a provocative and sectarian march, the settlers – usually with the connivance of the police and military – chant genocidal slogans and attack the Palestinian residents.
Chanting ‘death to Arabs’, and ‘may your village burn’, the flag march is calculated to increase tensions, wave multiple Israeli flags in a sneering expression of contemptuous triumphalism, and remind the Palestinians of their status as second class citizens in the apartheid state. This year, a new chant was heard by the Palestinians – ‘there is no Shireen’. This is a reference to the targeted assassination of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh earlier this year.
Not only have Israeli ultranationalist settlers marched through the mainly Palestinian quarters of East Jerusalem. They have also staged numerous incursions into the Al Aqsa mosque and its territory. The mosque compound is regularly targeted by Zionist settlers in an attempt to inflame sectarian and religious tensions, with the goal of demolishing one of Islam’s holiest sites.
In a similar way to Ulster loyalism, the Israeli ultrarightist settlers believe they have biblical sanction to carry out their provocative activities against the minority groups. In fact, it is no exaggeration to state that Zionism is the equivalent of a Jewish Ulster in Palestine. Both ideologies, while claiming to be emancipatory projects, actually reinforce the imperatives of empire.
The Skokie case
Professor Joseph Massad, in an article for Middle East Eye, draws a direct and necessary comparison between the actions of the ultranationalist Israeli marchers and a historic case – the Skokie affair. The American neo-Nazi party – officially called the National Socialist Party of America – sought to march in Skokie, a mostly Jewish suburb of Illinois in 1977 – a place where numerous Holocaust survivors lived. How would the authorities react to white supremacists marching through a largely Jewish community?
A protracted legal battle ensued, after the local authorities used various means to stop the march. The American neo-Nazis posed as simple and aggrieved defenders of free speech. What is wrong with white Americans expressing their pride in their race? The litigants went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The latter decided to allow the march to continue, in defence of First Amendment rights.
After a sustained and large community outcry about the proposed march, the American neo-Nazi party marched – but not in Skokie, but downtown Chicago. Numbering about 25 in all, they were overwhelmed by thousands of anti-Nazi counter demonstrators. Jewish community groups established a Holocaust museum, providing an educational device for Americans to learn about the suffering of the Jewish people.
Free speech is a right to be treasured – but it is not a blanket licence to simply say whatever is on your mind. Every public utterance – on social media as well – has consequences and impacts the public discussion. The goal is not to make everyone ‘extra careful’ or jittery about what they say. The purpose is to expose those who hide hateful or exclusionary messages behind the seemingly mild disguise of free speech. In this era of increasing ultranationalist marches, it is high time to call them out as parades of hate.