In the war for the soul of America, the opponents of the Alt-Right probably won the battle in Charlottesville last weekend. The public rightfully saw the white supremacists as the aggressors and the murder of Heather Heyer and the wounding of 19 as being an extension of the ralliers' message of hate.
In watching videos of the protests, activists from Antifa appeared to be trying to defend the peaceful counter-protesters while the police seemed to not be very effective in controlling the violence. I saw a video of one protester being pounded to the ground and kicked mercilessly and there didn't seem to be any cops in sight.
But things could have ended up very differently. Imagine if one of the Neo-Nazis had been killed rather than Heather Heyer, by an ill-aimed blow from a baseball bat. Trump would hold a press conference to exclusively denounce the "terrorism" of far leftists, lumping the overwhelming majority of peaceful protesters within that category. The Alt-Right would be demonstrating all over the country, picking cities and towns where police departments are known to be especially sympathetic to their cause. The Horst Wessel song (named after a Brown Shirts "martyr" slain in 1930) would be resurrected by Alt-Right torchlight parade marchers. The number of Republicans breaking with Trump's rhetoric would be zero. The mainstream media, lacking any experience in spotting provocateurs, would be paralyzed. Over time, the Alt-Right would start bringing assault rifles to their marches, perhaps unloaded...at first.
Anti-fascist protesters have a right to defend themselves when the police are not nearby or are not doing their job properly or are simply swamped by the other side. However, when self-defense is employed there is always a danger of unintended consequences or of being blamed for the actions of a "lone assassin" type with a personal agenda.
In addition, protest organizers, including those primed for self-defense, must guard carefully against provocateurs. In my opinion, the source of such trickery is most likely to come from (a) far-right elements practicing a violent extension of the ruse by which Planned Parenthood was fooled by infiltrators who then doctored hidden tapes to provide ammunition for the Christian Right; (b) out-of-control local police intelligence squads using their snitches to do the dirty work; or (c) agents of Putin's FSB in this country using local recruits or working through one of the many cults and other fanatical groups that are always ripe for the picking (Putin's security services have inherited from the KGB a lengthy and unparalleled expertise at provocateurship dating back to the Czar's Okhrana). Indeed, Putin, by employing this expertise, would be providing his most powerful help yet to Donald Trump, placing our President even more tightly under Russian control.
This is all serious business, although provocateurship may be a somewhat less probable outcome than a spontaneous accident or the intervention of a disturbed individual. I suggest the following guidelines for the immediate future (these may become outdated, in many respects, if the Neo-Nazis and white supremacists become qualitatively more aggressive).
1. Local organizers should do their best to work closely with the police and accept rules for keeping both sides within their own lines separated by police. Unfortunately, in today's polarized America, the police cannot always be trusted, especially in deeply red states. Keep a detailed record of all dealings with the local authorities. Get written agreements when advisable. Note that there may be situations in which it is advisable to hold your counter-protest at a different time and location as the Alt Right one, but that in other situations it will be best to rally at the same time and same general location as the opposition.
2. Local organizers should keep a careful watch on far left groups that show up with a special and sometimes irresponsible agenda. In the past such groups have on occasion been banned from a demonstration, but then they just set up their own demo and feel free to hijack all the media attention and to initiate violence for which peaceful protesters would inevitably by blamed by the Alt-Right (which would brand ALL the protesters against white supremacy as "communists" and "terrorists" without exception). Antifa could enhance its effectiveness in the battle for America's soul by assigning experienced members to work with local activists in negotiating with problematic groups, using Antifa's prestige on the left to help work out a compromise with such groups that does as little damage as possible to the success of the counter-protest.
3. No throwing bottles at the other side, even in response to the Nazis' own bottle throwing. Demand that the police handle the problem. Perhaps individuals could carry netting and hold it over their heads when bottles begin to fly.
4. No jumping on top of cars or turning cars over or smashing windows and setting fires. This should be obvious, but failure to exercise some restraint about this will probably result in one or more public relations disasters.
5. No profanity or death threats mixed in with the chants (and no personal taunts), no matter how angry you feel. E.g., "stop" the Klan or "crush" the Klan, not "death" to the Klan. This is a battle for the soul of America more than a battle to win street fights or seem "tougher" than the other side. Remember the lesson of the Civil Rights Movement, when the "Oh Freedom" song or a public prayer was often worth more than a thousand militant chants.
6. As little visible "armor" as possible. Put the armor under your shirt. If you think a helmet is necessary for self defense, put a large hat over it.
7. Identification labels for people in a self defense unit should not include symbols that could be misinterpreted as inciting, or boasting of a desire for, mayhem; e.g., no gun or samurai sword depictions.
8. No face masks, bandanas or balaclavas. This always looks bad to the general public and it could trigger a response from the Alt-Right: you make fun of Klansmen for hiding behind hoods, but now when they are no longer behind hoods, you yourselves are donning masks!
9. No rushing the police lines. The only permissible violence should be when the opposition breaks through the police lines (or is allowed through) or breaks through at points where there is no police protection (or no adequate police protection).
10. No guns or knives or lead-weighted bats. Use pepper spray when possible.
11. MOST IMPORTANT: Skilled video camera people should carefully document the event for the counter-demonstrators. You want to be able to prove that the other side started it, that they broke through the police lines, that you had no choice but to fight back. Also that you were behaving in a dignified manner before the attack--you don't want the other side to say they "had to attack" because you were throwing bottles. Such documentation will be extremely important in the battle for America's soul. Many non-liberals and non-leftists are still neutral; you don't want them going to the other side because you failed to show a reasonable degree of restraint. If Antifa members volunteer to provide defense at a rally, they should be required to help provide the camera people who will document Antifa activities throughout the protest event.
Finally, there is the question of public perception of your goals. Most objective people would at this point think that the protestors against white supremacy in Charlottesville behaved in a reasonable manner (or at least, would give them the benefit of the doubt). But future demonstrations and counter-demonstrations may be scrutinized much more closely, by both the mainstream media and by social media. Until the election of Trump, it didn't matter very much that leftists at anti-Klan rallies bore signs like "Fight for communism" or "Revolution now" -- the Klan was just too unpopular for that to matter very much. Today, with white supremacy on the rise and even having a foothold in the White House and Congress, the stakes are too high. Participants in a rally should be politely asked to accept less provocative signs and, more firmly, to agree to rules of non-provocative deportment in other respects and to pledge not to initiate violent clashes. If large numbers of truculent leftists show up, it might be necessary to bar such outsiders from a local march in some towns or cities. I would hope that the far left has learned from last year when the unrestrained sectarianism of Jill Stein and the Green Party helped produce Trump's victory.