Protesting is fine, but where does Tacoma anti-Nazi group go next?

About 3 dozen people gathered on E 72nd Street in Tacoma, Wash., Friday, June 23, 2018, to protest the flying of Nazi flags at a Tacoma tattoo establishment.
About 3 dozen people gathered on E 72nd Street in Tacoma, Wash., Friday, June 23, 2018, to protest the flying of Nazi flags at a Tacoma tattoo establishment. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Even in these divisive times there’s one thing we should all agree on: White supremacists, neo-Nazis and other bigots don’t get a free pass around here — not in Tacoma, not in our rural and suburban communities, not anywhere.

Enter Tacoma Against Nazis, or TAN, whose name is synonymous with their mission. The growing coalition aims to combat the early-warning signs of hate brewing in our community.

They have cause for concern: In early July, inflammatory posters were found glued to downtown Tacoma utility poles, urging citizens to report any suspected illegal aliens to the federal government and to “Keep America American.”

The posters were clearly intended to intimidate. One made it to the door of the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender resource center. The posters included the web address of a Texas-based group that seeks to keep America’s “pan-European identity.”

It’s a message so antithetical to our diverse corner of the country, we can’t blame people for organizing against it. Now we encourage them to go deeper into the public discourse.

As defenders of free speech, we occasionally stand up for some pretty odious stuff, and that includes the First Amendment rights of groups that identify as white nationalists. But we don’t support the content of their intolerant messaging, born of ignorance and insecurity. Neither does the majority of clear-headed Tacomans.

When TAN got word that a South Tacoma tattoo parlor was allegedly owned by a member of the Northwest Hammerskins — which the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes as a hate group — TAN members first protested near the shop.

The shop’s co-owner denies the accusation, but that hasn’t stopped people from standing out front with anti-Nazi signs on at least two occasions. (More are scheduled.) Among the demonstrators are politicians including state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Tacoma City Council members Catherine Ushka and Justin Camarata.

TAN also raised funds and leased a billboard less than a mile away. “There are Nazis living in our neighborhood” warned the message above 72nd and Pacific Avenue.

Then the billboard was vandalized. The word “Nazis” was replaced with “Illegal Aliens,” plus a logo for a white supremacist group, the same one taking credit for the anti-immigrant posters. The billboard has since been restored to its original message.

We applaud TAN’s fast and unified response, and kudos to them for educating the public about symbols appropriated by the white power movement. But this battle of the billboards makes us wonder if TAN’s well-meaning protests are giving oxygen to these hatemongers.

If local white nationalists were looking for an opportunity to play the victim card, they got one. When TAN showed up Saturday, a handful of counter-protesters stood under a sign that read “White lives matter.”

There’s no question the current national atmosphere of partisan polarization is fueling fervor on both sides.

But arguing on street corners is no substitute for substantive discussion. Partnering with local schools, churches, university speakers bureaus and organizations such as City Club of Tacoma could help promote understanding, empathy and justice in a non-confrontational setting.

TAN got the conversation started, but it needs to continue with messages that reverberate beyond chants, pithy posters and a closed Facebook group.

As philosopher and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: “When language fails, violence becomes a language.”