Now that left-wing rioters have shut down non-liberal speaking events at UC Berkeley and NYU during the past week, and recalling their shutting down a Trump rally in Chicago last March, it's necessary to understand what this phenomenon is, and what it is not.
To begin with, it is not about free speech, which is a right to convey statements to an audience, whether the statements are informational or opinion-based. Speech is about communication, and typically the media through which people communicate.
The speakers who have their events shut down can, and do, convey their beliefs and opinions through communications media, reaching larger audiences than they can with a real-life face-to-face talk. And those who disrupt these in-person talks never bother trying to subvert the communications media -- Fox News on cable TV, Rush Limbaugh's radio program, Breitbart's website, and so on.
It is not even about a broader thing called free expression, although that gets a bit closer. Expression includes things beyond statements, such as wearing clothing that identifies you as a member of Group A rather than Group B. But "expression" is, like "speech," too individualistic in focus.
Rather, the target of the rioters is the right to free assembly. Form a gauntlet outside of the meeting place, set a car on fire on the way to the meeting place, detonate a bomb inside of the meeting place -- and most people will shy away from attending such a meeting.
Note that the attendees are not a random sample of the population, but those who already largely agree and identify with the speaker. Unlike free speech, where a diverse and curious audience may be giving the statements a hearing, free assembly is meant to strengthen the existing social, cultural, and emotional bonds of a group.
It is "preaching to the choir," which makes no sense if we thought the point was free speech, open debate, convincing unpersuaded minds, etc. But if the meeting is a kind of pep rally for Team Us, then it makes perfect sense. Anyone who joins after attending is not a skeptic who has been convinced by argument, but someone who resonated with the group-high ("collective effervescence"). If they showed up curious but unaffiliated, they were already mostly persuaded and wanted to see what kind of feeling of belonging the group had to offer.
Free assembly can be twisted into an individual right -- for a particular person to congregate with his fellows in some group -- but the natural interpretation is that it is a right of an entire group to manifest itself somewhere, sometime, for some purpose. It wants to pump itself up, get the members resonating on the same wavelength, and come away from the gathering stronger and more unified.
Denying the group to gather in this way is not meant to restrict their communication about beliefs and opinions, but to weaken the group by leaving its members feeling more isolated than unified. Collective action by such an atomized "group" will not be possible, and the assembly disrupters will be able to push their own agenda as a team with ease.
Thus, the battle over speaking events belongs to the realm of coalitional conflict, and we observe all the signs of a low-level war, e.g.:
1. Physically it resembles a turf war, where a gang is claiming control over some area within public space, kicking out the public and daring them to defend it.
2. Hence the common battle cry: "Whose streets? Our streets!"
3. Disrupters dress similarly, often to the point where it looks like uniforms (a la the Black Bloc), to enhance group solidarity.
4. Disrupters display and rally around a standard (red-and-black flag, Circle-A flag, etc.), to enhance unity of origin and purpose.
5. If the other side is wearing emblematic clothing (MAGA hat) or carrying a standard (Trump sign or flag), the disrupters make it a high priority to capture these emblems and conspicuously destroy them, to weaken group morale of the other team.
6. Collective force is the name of the game, and that is not the disrupters "lowering themselves" to using force, or "hiding behind" their numbers -- that's precisely how one team takes over and defends a territory from another team or from the entire rest of the public.
In their own bizarro-world way, they think of themselves as, and are acting as though they were, a vigilante posse that is breaking up a riotous mob -- namely, Trump supporters going wild at a Trump rally, or whatever it may be. They are everything they accuse the police of being, just directed at a different target -- members of a rival political group, rather than law-breakers.
What then is the solution?
In the short term, if we do attend these events and there is no expectation of the government protecting our right to free assembly, then it would be necessary to beat the disrupters at their own game. See footnote.*
However, this stop-gap solution is not what we're after -- it would be faction vs. faction conflict, and nobody in the general public wants to see that or participate in it, even if they support our side.
What we, and the general public, would rather see is the monopoly on legitimate force being brought to bear on the assembly disrupters, whether it's the local police, National Guard of the state, or federal troops from the US Army.
Obviously those guys are already well trained in coalitional conflict, from the mindset to the behavior -- uniforms, flag, moving in formation, covering each other's back, and generally using collective force to shut the other group out of the disputed space.
And, those guys would be excited and grateful to get to use that training and specialization for a good purpose -- and how much less ambiguous is it, which side is right when one is trying to shut down free assembly for a group of normal citizens?
They would be less inclined to go overboard, being neutral enforcers of the law, whereas a mob of Trump supporters could easily go into overkill mode on their hated enemies.
Most importantly, the signal to the rest of society is that there is law and order, not just a faction of righteous citizens vs. a faction of degenerate citizens, fighting it out in the streets as though we were some anarchic third-world shithole. That gives the shut-down of the shut-downers a legitimacy that allows the rest of the public to support it, and even cheer it along.
That will be a crucial point to make when/if Trump ever has to send in federal troops, or exercise federal control over a state's National Guard (totally legal) -- that the alternative to sending in law enforcement is sending in nobody, in which case either a group's free assembly gets shamefully shut down, or the assemblers form their own counter-mob and we've got factional violence sprawling out of control in our major cities, like it's Medieval times again.
* Assemble and move as a group, if not necessarily in formation. Dress similarly, almost to the point of uniforms. Carry a standard that must be defended. Make an effort to capture their flag, swipe their face masks, and the like. Chant "Whose streets? Our streets!"
And even throw them the occasional punch, kick, shove, etc. Their goal is not to beat the attendees to a pulp, and neither is ours to kill them all on the spot (in which case both sides would simply bring guns). It is merely to demoralize them by showing that we can fuck around with them and they can't get us back as good as we're giving it to them.
You might think about being "outnumbered," but if the Trump supporters (or whoever) are a good size, that's all that's needed. Most of the physical confrontation will be face-to-face, so all their extra numbers far away from the target are wasted. Their ability to mess with us mano-a-mano is a saturating function of their group size.
So even if they had us outnumbered 10,000 to 1,000 -- a unified mob of 1,000 Trump supporters can still shove its way through a mass of 10,000 shitlibs.
There will be thousands of the enemy who will not even have a line of sight to the Trump supporters, let alone be able to get close enough to shout at them, throw something at them, or hit them. Because we will not be killing them, or they us, it's not like the extra numbers are a reserve to replenish those who are fallen.
What is that critical mass on our side where their extra numbers are useless? I don't know. Maybe it's 50, 100, 1,000, but something big.