Politics

How should Canadians respond to the alt-right?

One activist suggests a cheesecake picnic, while thousands pledge to march in Toronto

Vancouver protest against far-right rally

Around 4,000 people showed up at Vancouver City Hall to protest against a far-right rally on Saturday afternoon. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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Last Friday, Dave Meslin, an activist and organizer in Toronto, launched a Facebook group called Cheesecake Against Nazis.

He would later have to clarify that his idea was not associated with Tina Fey's joke about eating cake in response to white supremacist rallies like the Aug. 12 demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., where a counter-protester was killed.

Whereas Fey joked about staying home to indulge, Meslin's suggestion was to counter any alt-right rally with a large, public cheesecake picnic.

He says he put forward the idea "almost tongue in cheek, but half seriously too."

"The cheesecake idea appeals to me, but it's just an idea I've thrown out there. If enough people want to do it, I would do it for sure," he says. "You're not staying at home, you're putting your body on the line, but you're not feeding into the anger and you're not responding to anger with anger. It's a playful militancy."

Maybe that seems silly.

But the possibility of cheesecake gets to a question that is suddenly relevant across North America in the wake of Charlottesville: What is the best way to respond to a white-supremacist rally?

The examples of Quebec City, Vancouver

In Quebec City this past weekend, counter-demonstrators wearing the black clothing associated with the Antifa movement clashed with police at a rally for La ​Meute, a far-right group that opposes higher immigration levels and official multiculturalism policies.

Afterwards, one of La Meute's founders claimed victory, while an anti-racism activist lamented the violence.

"I'm mad at such a display of violence because it was useless," said Maxime Fiset.

In Vancouver, approximately 4,000 people gathered at city hall to counter an alt-right rally, vastly outnumbering the group that turned out for the original event.

"Way to go, Vancouver," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted in response to the largely peaceful demonstration. "Diversity will always be our strength."

Protest against far-right rally draws thousands in Vancouver 1:11

Publicly mocking Nazis

Opposite the threat of violence is a notion highlighted by Moises Velasquez-Manoff in an op-ed for the New York Times last week: "How to Make Fun of Nazis."

Velasquez-Manoff highlighted the efforts of citizens in Wunsiedel, a German town where ​neo-Nazis regularly marched to honour the memory of Rudolf Hess, a leading member of Adolf Hitler's inner circle, who is buried there.

The people of Wunsiedel turned the annual march into an "involuntary walkathon," donating funds to an anti-extremist campaign for every metre the neo-Nazis walked. Decorations along the route mocked the neo-Nazis as they went.

"I think there's ways of showing anger and frustration without raising your voice, and I think it's actually really important for us to find ways to do that," Meslin says. "Because what the racist groups really feed off is that macho chanting and the grunting and I think if there's a way that we can stand up defiantly without adopting that tone, I think that's more powerful than people chanting back at them."

Meslin imagines 3,000 people gathering and overwhelming the racist rally. It has something in common with an incident in 2015 when a man mocked a Nazi march by playing a sousaphone. Video of the musical counter-demonstration has become popular again online in the wake of Charlottesville.

Different ways to win the argument

A few people responding to Meslin's idea have argued that it could seem to trivialize the problem of white supremacists and racism. 

Many people no doubt want to express anger, and justifiably so. Meslin wonders whether people might be turned off by yelling, but some people likely want to yell.

'Now is the time to at least think about what our response would be if mobs did gather with torches in Toronto.' —  Dave Meslin

When Meslin asked his Facebook friends about how to respond, a searching for answers ensued: talking to white supremacists, marching in silence, singing, ignoring them. Ultimately, the list of acceptable efforts to gather those crowds and win the argument will likely be varied. 

Nearly 6,000 people have signed on to attend a "unity rally to silence white supremacy" in Toronto on Sept. 14.

Shannon McDeez, who started the Facebook page for the rally and has suddenly become an organizer for a potentially significant event, says she likes Meslin's suggestion, but it shouldn't be considered the only approach, or even the main one. She notes that some victims of oppression might not want to respond lightheartedly.

McDeez says she wants the spotlight to be on "providing context, allowing victims to be heard, and offering productive advice for moving forward as a nation unified against white supremacy."

She also wants the rally to be peaceful and safe. And she talks about celebrating diversity.

Walied Khogali of the Coalition Against White Supremacy and Islamophobia says unconventional tactics might not change the minds of those who are worried about immigration or preserving a way of life — they might not feel their concerns are taken seriously — but could be used to bring more people out to stand against racism.

Numbers are important

He talks about challenging differing views with facts and educating the public.

But he also says it's about numbers. And that might be the lingering message of Vancouver: at the end of the day, there were many more anti-racists than members of the alt-right.

If cheesecake brings more people to the public square, it might be a useful part of the cause.

"Now is the time to at least think about what our response would be if mobs did gather with torches in Toronto," Meslin says.

"If it's a really small group, I think they should be ignored. Like, there's no reason for 1,000 people to show up to yell at five or 10 racists. Let them just fade away and be embarrassed at their scale. But I think it would be naive for us to assume that what happened in Charlottesville can't happen here."

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