Bigoted racists who could not bear a gathering of young people in Valletta under the banner declaring that ‘black lives matter’ filed a police report because two protesters gave them the finger. This, the mock shock wimps said, was a gesture of hatred addressed at ‘patriots’.

The idea here is to diffuse with a tu quoque the police’s action against one of the bigoted racists for stabbing the air with a Nazi salute.

This is a classic false equivalence that exploits near-universal ignorance of what constitutes a hate crime.

However undesirable, hatred in and of itself is not illegal. The state can no more legislate on hatred than it can legislate on love. Laws cannot ban what’s in your head, however stupid. They cannot ban what’s in your heart, however rotten. Laws cannot decide whom you love. They cannot decide whom you hate either.

The shorthand ‘hate crime’ does not mean it is a crime to hate. ‘Hate crime’ refers to actions taken against a group of people protected because they belong to that group and the actions must in themselves be inciting or provoking some form of reaction in others, typically more acts of hatred perpetrated against that protected group.

Some countries, particularly Germany, are more specific. Using Nazi symbols, denying the historicity of Nazi crimes, adopting Nazi language, apologising or excusing Nazism and so on are specifically illegal. Political parties that take up any of these lines are banned and forbidden from participating in political activity. They are deemed to be, by their own choice, outside democracy; that their existence is a threat to democracy and that therefore they should not benefit from the protection of democracy to cause it harm from within.

In the Maltese context it is doubtful that someone stabbing the air in a Nazi salute in a gathering called by a political party that stands for institutionalised racial discrimination grounded in unbridled racial hatred is acting illegally. It will be up to the courts to decide that.

But beyond the legal narrowness, we are perfectly entitled to make a judgement on the man’s intentions. Nazism’s views on the rights of people belonging to other races are not ambiguous. That gesture declared that black lives do not matter.

That man, like all the protesters mobilised and whipped up to a frenzy by Labour Party luminaries, wanted his message to be understood very clearly. He supports the mass killing of people he considers unworthy of human rights, unworthy even of living. He wanted us all to understand he thinks black people should not be rescued at sea. He thinks black people living in the country should be rounded up and deported. He thinks that the right of asylum should be denied to people he does not like by virtue of their race.

That is why he lifted his hand and stabbed the air with his outstretched arm. In that simple eloquent gesture, he wanted to take us back to the mass elimination of European Jewry, perpetrated by a European state with the massive support of its people. He expects this country to do the same to people whose skin is darker than his. Because like Nazis he thinks they’re vermin.

Now let’s look at the intention of the two people that Lovin Malta says are “being investigated” for giving the so-called Patriotti the finger.

They were in Valletta protesting government policies that allowed people to die at sea instead of being rescued; that pushed migrants back to torture, rape and death in Libya; and they were protesting against the institutionalised discrimination perpetrated in our country. They were also protesting against widespread racism, stoked by a government that benefits from it, but happily taken up by a community that appears to embrace racism as if that were a desirable value.

For daring to gather in Valletta to make the point they were making, racist bigots surrounded them to intimidate them, to shout them down, to silence them and to contrast them with their politics of hatred.

Like the Nazi salute, the middle finger is a universally-understood symbol, a gesture that is handy precisely for efficiently and eloquently communicating an unambiguous view. The protesters meant to tell the ‘patriotti’ that they held them in contempt, that they were angry at their presence, their words and their gestures; that they were angry at their bigoted and hateful politics; that they wanted them to know how displeased they were with them.

Let’s not mince words. The protesters wanted the ‘patriotti’ to know they hated them. Yes, it was a gesture of hate but it most definitely was not a hate crime. The ‘patriotti’ are anything but a vulnerable, protected group. On the contrary they step outside democratic norms to protest the fact that there are such things as vulnerable, protected groups. In showing up to disrupt a peaceful protest called by others, the so-called patriotti were the ones doing the incitement.

White supremacist neo-Nazis can play the victims to spin the police around, and the police – likely not entirely innocent of this game – might choose to play along to suffocate the protection that people who speak in defence of the most vulnerable living among us are entitled to in a democracy.

But they propagate hate and hatred is the appropriate response. There’s nothing to “investigate” here. A middle finger is a middle finger. And a middle finger is not illegal. Nor is hating Nazis. Hating Nazis is a civic duty. And so is giving them the finger at every opportunity.