Special Report: Extremism

Hamilton Failing to Confront Rising Right-Wing Extremism

Ignoring fascists doesn't make them go away. Bland, generic press releases don't deter them. Calmly treating with them while bringing the hammer down on anti-fascists emboldens them.

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 27, 2019

A storm is brewing. Liberal democracy around the developed world is under threat from a rise in right-wing authoritarian populism, a toxic stew of cultural grievance, ethnic nationalism, scapegoating of marginalized groups, paranoid conspiracy theories, contempt for institutions, denial of science, anti-environmentalism and celebration of violence.

This new flavour of fascism is not just abstract political disagreement. The number and membership of violent fascistic organizations in Canada is rising steadily as extremist ideas are laundered into the mainstream of our political discourse. This is aided by right-wing politicians blowing racist dog whistles and inciting stochastic terrorism among disturbed, radicalized extremists.

Right-wing white-supremacist extremists have been responsible for most of the terrorist violence and murder across North America over the past decade, including a 2018 mass murder in Toronto by a self-proclaimed "incel" who rammed a van into pedestrians on Yonge Street, killing ten people and injuring another 16. Current research suggests there are close to 300 active extremist groups in Canada, up threefold in just the past four years.

List of people killed by right-wing extremists written in chalk on the City Hall forecourt
List of people killed by right-wing extremists written in chalk on the City Hall forecourt

Hamilton is no safe haven from rising fascist violence. Several local hate groups have sprung up here and are holding weekly demonstrations in front of City Hall. In the months they have been allowed to operate, their numbers have grown steadily larger and their actions bolder. Unfortunately, our political leaders have mostly ignored or downplayed the threat while the police actually seem to consider anti-fascist activists to be the bigger menace.

'Summer of Hate'

The 'Summer of Hate' began in May with a searing Vice report that a notorious Neo-Nazi had been working for the City as a senior IT analyst since 2005. His identity had apparently been protected in part by keeping his name off the corporate org chart.

The new City Manager placed the employee on leave and promised to investigate (he was finally let go in mid-August), but vulnerable communities were horrified. What kind of data did he have access to? Why was his identity kept secret? Who hired him, and for what purpose? After all, his only prior work experience before working for the City was managing Neo-Nazi websites and leading the Heritage Front.

As Pride Month approached, the City's LGBT Advisory Committee advised against raising the Pride flag, noting that Hamilton did not actually feel like a safe place. Council ignored them and raised the flag anyway.

At Pride Day in Gage Park on June 15, fascist protesters from City Hall joined a group of religious extremists to march on the festival, holding hateful signs and shouting abuse. Anti-fascists who had been monitoring their plans intercepted them with a large fabric banner to block them, and violence broke out. Documentary videos showed fascists punching, kicking, shoving and striking Pride defenders. One attacker wearing homemade armor smashed his helmet into another person's face.

The police were very slow to respond, and when Chief Eric Girt was challenged, he said the police would have responded faster had they been allowed to have a formal presence as event partners. Unsurprisingly, this further enraged the community, as it sounded like the police were punishing Pride for not letting them have a recruiting table.

Police Focus on Anti-Fascists

A week later, the police finally made an arrest. But instead of going after the attackers, they arrested Cedar Hopperton, a local trans activist who was on parole from their involvement in the 2018 Locke Street riot. Police accused Hopperton of violating parole by participating in the Pride Day altercation. It soon transpired that Hopperton wasn't even at Pride Day, but the police refused to admit their mistake. Instead, they changed their argument, claiming Hopperton had risked breaching the peace in a fiery speech a few days after Pride that suggested the community could not count on the police to protect them.

Hopperton certainly said some inflammatory things, but they were mostly taken out of context. The key message was: "I think building up the strength to act, the strength needed to be violent if necessary, is a necessary precondition for your choice to be peaceful to be meaningful. Otherwise you're just powerless." It's absurd to read this as an incitement to violence.

The arrest failed to hold the anti-Pride attackers to account, but it succeeded at shifting the narrative. Suddenly people were conflating the Pride defenders with the anarchists who had marched down Locke Street smashing windows. Newspaper columnists were writing about "boneheads on both sides" instead of placing responsibility squarely at the feet of the attackers.

In all, police arrested five people in connection with the Pride Day attack, yet four of the five were anti-fascists. Only so-called "helmet guy" was charged - and not until after he had the chance to commit more violence at a subsequent Pride event in Toronto.

Right-wing demonstrator holding signs of support for the Mayor and Police
Right-wing demonstrator holding signs of support for the Mayor and Police

Meanwhile, the weekly demonstrations at City Hall continued and the fascists grew ever more aggressive toward the anti-fascist counter-protesters, emboldened by a sense that the city leadership and police services were at least tacitly supportive of their activities. One week, a fascist spat at two children holding signs of love and acceptance. The next week, another fascist scratched and kicked at an anti-fascist organizer.

The 'Hate Bus'

On August 10, things took another dramatic turn for the worse. In the midst of a large, peaceful anti-hate demonstration, an agitator dressed in military clothes drove a school bus with Alberta plates right up onto the sidewalk. There were more people inside the bus holding signs attacking 'foreigners'.

Police calmly negotiating with the 'hate bus' driver (Image Credit: Cameron Kroetsch)
Police calmly negotiating with the 'hate bus' driver (Image Credit: Cameron Kroetsch)

Instead of arresting or even ticketing the man for endangering the demonstrators, the police spoke calmly to him for almost 45 minutes and convinced him to move the bus behind City Hall.

Yet when anti-fascist demonstrator Woody Boychuk began dancing in the crosswalk to protest the bus, eight police officers converged on him, dragged him to the ground, arrested him and locked him in a police car for more than half an hour with the windows closed - all while the fascists cheered.

Police arresting anti-fascist counter-protestor (Image Credit: Graham Crawford)
Police arresting anti-fascist counter-protestor (Image Credit: Graham Crawford)

The double standard was breathtaking, but it gets even worse. The "hate bus" driver walked back around and repeatedly assaulted a woman, who screamed for the police to intervene. Instead, they stood by impassively and told her she would have to go to the station to press charges. The assaults were livestreamed from the driver's own body camera.

Real Leadership Needed

It is difficult to understand how Hamilton Police could fail so spectacularly and repeatedly to respond in an appropriate manner to the manifest threat of right-wing extremism. To put it bluntly, it has become hard for anyone to argue with Hopperton's assertion that marginalized communities cannot trust the Police to protect them!

I understand why there might be a cultural bias against anti-authoritarians and in sympathy with authoritarians among, well, the authorities. But police resources must be deployed based on public health and safety, not politics or personal grievances. The police have a long road ahead to begin to repair the damage their actions have done to public trust.

As for our municipal leaders: notwithstanding Councillors Maureen Wilson, Nrinder Nann and Brad Clark, who have attended counter-protests for months, most of Council has downplayed the threat. It has been nice to see Mayor Fred Eisenberger and a few other MIA councillors finally start making an appearance at anti-fascist rallies, but we're past the point at which a quick photo op with a sign is enough to call the job done.

Ignoring the fascists didn't make them go away. Bland, generic press releases haven't deterred them. Calmly treating with them while bringing the hammer down on anti-fascists has emboldened them.

It's time for every community leader and all good-faith citizens to stand together and stay together in solidarity with Hamilton's most vulnerable, marginalized people and insist: NEVER AGAIN.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus and HuffPost. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted August 27, 2019 at 15:52:01

"I understand why there might be a cultural bias against anti-authoritarians and in sympathy with authoritarians among, well, the authorities. But police resources must be deployed based on public health and safety, not politics or personal grievances. The police have a long road ahead to begin to repair the damage their actions have done to public trust."

Thanks Ryan. Well said.

Our police need to shed their politics.

-Craig Burley

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