Getting Ready for Trouble? The Role of Cities in Responding to Anti-Minority Protest

On 8 March 2022 the Strong Cities Network (SCN) held the second webinar in its monthly webinar series, which examined the role of cities in responding to anti-minority protest. The discussion took place with the COVID-19 pandemic and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, giving rise to ever-new political grievances and providing fertile ground for extremist and anti-minority sentiment that cities and their local communities are often left to contend with. With the extremism landscape changing and diverse threats evading established prevention frameworks and posing a challenge to practitioners globally, cities continue to bear the brunt of extremist- and hate- motivated violence. They are also therefore uniquely positioned to lead the response, including against anti-minority protests.

The event opened with a presentation of the findings from a recent Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST)-funded study, ‘The Dynamics Of Violence Escalation And Inhibition During 'Hot Periods' Of Anti-Minority And Far-Right Activism’, led by a team of researchers from Coventry University, the Centre for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). Local leaders and experts from the United States and Europe then reflected on their own experiences in responding to anti-minority and far-right activism as well as on how the study’s findings can spur new policy- and practice-relevant insight for practitioners and city leaders around the world grappling with these issues . Speakers highlighted how the rising threats posed by anti-minority and far-right activism, as well as associated conspiracy theories and anti-COVID-19 protest movements, are not isolated to the West but experienced  across the SCN global network.

PANELLISTS

  • Joel Busher, Professor of Political Sociology at Coventry University and co-author of The Dynamics of Violence Escalation and Inhibition During 'Hot Periods' of Anti-Minority and Far-Right Activism (United Kingdom)
  • Gareth Harris, independent researcher, facilitator, and Visting Fellow at Coventry University and co-author of The Dynamics of Violence Escalation and Inhibition During 'Hot Periods' of Anti-Minority and Far-Right Activism (United Kingdom)
  • Michael Signer, Former Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia (United States)
  • Lisabeth van der Heide, Head of Counter-Radicalisation and (Violent) Extremism, Security Division, Municipality of The Hague (The Netherlands)
  • Paul Mentz, Head of P/CVE with U-Turn, Dortmund (Germany)

Report Background: The Dynamics of Violence Escalation And Inhibition During 'Hot Periods' Of Anti-Minority And Far-Right Activism (2022)

The webinar opened with a presentation on the findings of the new CREST report. Looking into and comparing escalation dynamics during ‘hot periods’ of protest activity in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, the study identifies pathways towards violence escalation, as well as mechanisms for the inhibition of violence. It also presents two types of movements - emboldened and marginalised - the dynamics of which need to be properly understood if they are to be adequately addressed by local practitioners and authorities. Informed by the study’s findings, the authors developed a framework for local actors to use when faced with the challenge of preventing and managing anti-minority activity in their local areas.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Increased mobilisation and activism in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, panellists noted increased mobilisation in response to the pandemic-related policies and restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus in the cities they represent and/or in which they live. Speakers highlighted how many of the protests express anti-institutional and anti-establishment sentiment, allowing extremist actors to frame themselves as protectors of freedom against authoritarian governments. This poses ever-new challenges to local authorities and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) practitioners, making conversations such as this one particularly timely and important.

  1. Hybrid threats

As both right-wing and left-wing groups increasingly engage with conspiracy narratives around COVID-19, panellists highlighted how the established lines of ideological conflict have begun to blur, creating a new hybridised threat landscape to which local practitioners, who have heretofore often been focusing on a single aspect of the threat, need to adapt. It was noted how fringe movements have also developed new strategies and exploited discontent to position themselves into the political mainstream. One such tactic was identified in the Dortmund context, where neo-Nazis have begun to attach themselves with larger movements which share overlapping grievances or ideological positions. The local Alternative fur Deutschland branch and the anti-Covid circles are two such movements in Dortmund. Panellists noted how far-right groups have been successful at merging themselves into broader political movements, with a diverse set of actors coalescing around anti-government and ‘pro-freedom’ sentiment. Once in those circles, the far-right groups then legitimise the use of violence by creating a false perception of threat, posed either by the government or the political opposition.

  1. Political climate influences extremist activity

Speakers highlighted the visible correlation between periods of increased political polarisation and the intensity of extremist activity. Extremists build on sentiments of political frustration and discontent to insert their narratives into the mainstream of public debate, promising to provide clear answers, explanations and solutions to inherently complex political, economic and social developments. However, although certain global trends are clearly identifiable, speakers underscored that the particular way in which extremists frame their outlook and position themselves in relation to the mainstream differ between contexts. This means that practitioners need to remain attuned to local particularities of extremist activity. It was highlighted how those can vary significantly within countries themselves, with highly localised factors, such as the structure of local government, influencing the capacity of local actors and authorities to respond to extremist threats.

GOOD PRACTICES FOR MANAGING ANTI-MINORITY ACTIVITY IN CITIES

Lessons from Charlottesville

From his experience as mayor of Charlottesville in the lead up to and aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, Mike Signer shared key lessons for local leaders to follow when managing anti-minority activity in their cities. These include:

  1. separating the groups which could come into conflict with green space;
  2. planning for worst-case scenarios when securing against and otherwise preparing for planned mobilisation;
  3. establishing lines of communication with all parties, as well as the public, prior to demonstrations;
  4. using intelligence from relevant agencies on local risks and threats;
  5. rehearsing for the event;
  6. paying particular attention to vulnerable communities;
  7. ensuring the event is a weapon-free zone;
  8. advising police not to engage in turf battles; and
  9. providing trauma support to the local community

Dialogue, confrontation, law enforcement

The three-pronged approach involving dialogue, confrontation and law enforcement that the city of The Hague has developed in response to rising levels of hate, radicalisation and extremism was highlighted. This approach has formed the basis for a comprehensive framework to deal with those protests that end with violence as well as to establish long-lasting engagement strategies with particular social groups. Among the particular challenges that the city continues to grapple with include how to engage most with conspiracy theorists, improve information-sharing with the central government and across the municipality, and ensure city-level policies that address these threats take into account the perspectives of local and civil society actors.

Highlight differences in extremist groups and movements

One strategy for dealing with the new hybridised threat was to highlight and, more broadly, communicate the underlying differences between group members to diffuse the hybrid set of actors coalescing around a particular issue or space. Panellists emphasised how this strategy applies to anti-COVID 19 mandate circles but might also be applicable to other movements which are likely to be infiltrated by the far-right, such as the now-emerging pro-Russian movement.

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