In defense of anti-fascism
examines the critiques of anti-fascist protesters for being violent that began appearing after the successful counterprotests against the far right last month.
AFTER BIG mobilizations against Nazi hate in Boston and the Bay Area last month, there has been a flurry of denunciations of violence.
Not far-right violence, though. Instead, the attacks are against those committed to stopping the Nazis.
As hard as it is to believe after the string of assaults committed by members of white supremacist organizations, culminating in the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, Democratic Party politicians like Nancy Pelosi are echoing Donald Trump in denouncing the "violent actions of people calling themselves Antifa."
This is not only an exaggeration of the violence of anti-fascists and an underestimation of the qualitatively more aggressive violence of the far right. It is also a false equation, because it fails to distinguish between the actions of those seeking to commit atrocities against millions of people, and those committed to stopping such atrocities from taking place.
Among anti-fascists, there are debates about how to build a movement to stop the rise of a menacing and dangerous far right--and those debates are extremely important.
But we cannot confuse this debate with the attacks on the left by political figures--themselves complicit in creating the social conditions that have given rise to right-wing extremism--who place protective police cordons around fascists and restrict the rights of those resisting them.
BEFORE THE violent "unite the right" rally in Charlottesville, politicians and the media routinely equated the "alt-right" and the "alt-left." The press acted almost as an echo chamber for the far right when it claimed that its rallies were for "free speech" and that it only showed up at protests with weapons to "defend" itself against the left.
This narrative helped the far right build wider legitimacy. Indeed, some Democrats denounced the "alt-left" long before Trump and the right used it as a smear. As Sam Kriss writes in Politico:
The invention of the alt-left allowed centrist liberals to pretend that...[t]hey were sandwiched between two sets of frothing fanatics who secretly had a lot in common with each other. It established their particular brand of liberalism, possibly encompassing a few "moderate Republicans," as the only reasonable ground, besieged by alts.
Charlottesville--and Trump's response--put a temporary stop to this enabling chatter. Millions across the country were stunned when hundreds of alt-right, pro-Confederate, Klan and neo-fascist thugs wielded torches, clubs, pistols and assault rifles, along with flags and shields emblazoned with Klan and Nazi symbols, and chanted openly anti-Semitic, Nazi slogans like "Jews will not replace us" and "Blood and soil."
A Klan leader fired his pistol into a crowd of anti-fascists, groups of white supremacists attacked and beat several counterprotesters, and another fascist used his car as a weapon to murder Heather Heyer and injure many more.
According to David Z. Morris writing in Fortune, well before the rally, "attendees were planning for violence," sharing "advice on weaponry and tactics, including repeatedly broaching the idea of driving vehicles through opposition crowds."
Trump's response was to complain that his far-right supporters in Charlottesville were being "treated unfairly," and to condemn "both sides"--as if "to somehow pretend," writes Kriss, "that the murderousness of the Nazis and the Klan is no worse than the people forced to defend themselves against it."
The national revulsion against Trump's outbursts put pressure on the president to denounce the far right--but he reverted to form the next day and complained about the behavior of the "alt-left."
FOR THE first time since the far right got wind in its sails from Trump's election, the national discussion was overwhelmingly around how the fascists must be categorically denounced. Even archconservatives felt compelled to denounce the far right. "We should call evil by its name," said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. "My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home."
The outrage against the attack in Charlottesville also produced an outpouring of protest, as thousands turned out to counter planned far-right rallies in Boston, Knoxville, Tennessee, the Bay Area and elsewhere, outnumbering the white supremacists by as many as 100 to one, as well as producing momentum in cities across the South to take down Confederate statues. In the Bay Area and elsewhere, many of the scheduled racist rallies were canceled.
These protests showed that the starting point for building momentum and defeating the far right is drawing out large numbers of people to oppose them.
It was inevitable, though, that mainstream politicians--liberal and conservative--would soon revert back to a narrative condemning the fascists and anti-fascists equally.
After thousands came out to protest the far right in Berkeley, routing a handful of white supremacists who turned up despite their rallies being canceled, a whole host of officials, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to the Mayor Jesse Arreguin of Berkeley, took the opportunity to condemn the anti-fascists. Arreguin said that the "uniformed" Antifa should be treated as a "gang," and that all protesters, violent or not, should be held "accountable."
Even some associated with the left, like Chris Hedges, took the opportunity to denounce Antifa.
Hedges wrote that these anti-fascists and the far right "mirror each other" and recommended that, rather than confronting the fascists, their opponents should take the advice of the Southern Poverty Law Center and "[h]old a unity rally or parade to draw media attention away from hate." He did, however, agree that there is "no moral equivalency between Antifa and the alt-right" and that the state is merely using the "false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists."
THE ARGUMENT that fascists and anti-fascists are the same because both use violence is a false equivalency that willfully fails to understand the nature of the far right. The terror in Charlottesville is part of a pattern of activity designed to legitimize white supremacy and to "normalize" violence, terror and intimidation.
There is a thread that connects the nooses found hanging in front of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and on the Oakland waterfront; the nine murders committed by Dylann Roof in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; the stabbing death of Richard Collins III in College Park, Maryland, at the hands of a member of "Alt Reich: Nation"; the killing of two men who intervened to stop racist harassment on a Portland train by Jeremy Joseph Christian; and James Field ramming his car into the crowd of anti-fascist demonstrators that included Heather Heyer--whose death is the first instance in recent history of a white supremacist committing murder during a political demonstration.
These incidents are part of a pattern that reveals the true nature and intent of the extreme right in the U.S. All of the killers were either members or supporters of racist, white supremacist organizations that target Blacks, non-European immigrants, women, Muslims, Jews and LGBTQ people. The aim of these organizations is the creation of an all-white United States--in the words of Richard Spencer, an "ethno-state for all Europeans."
The history of lynching and Klan terror in the South, and of Hitler's "final solution" in Germany, should remind us that these forces aim to organize a mass movement with racist, genocidal aims.
The more they are able to spread and normalize their ideas, the more they create conditions in which they are emboldened to gather in ever-larger numbers and commit ever more violent outrages.
Condemnations of violence by U.S. officials are hollow hypocrisy. The nonprofit group Airwars calculated that at least 3,100 civilians were killed in Iraq and Syria by U.S.-led air strikes from August 2014 to March 2017. In one week in August, 26 Afghan civilians were killed in U.S. and NATO air strikes.
It is the purest hypocrisy for someone like Nancy Pelosi, a staunch defender of the deployment of American military might overseas, to say that "we must never fight hate with hate," and that "peace" represents "the best of America."
Whenever any politician says that "violence is not the answer," we have to ask why the United States has the most militarized police forces in the world, known throughout the world for their brutality against Black, Brown and poor people.
In an act of coordinated national violence, Barack Obama directed city police forces across the nation to forcefully shut down the Occupy movement. Every president has engaged in overseas military action that has led to the deaths of hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands--and, in the case of the Korean and Vietnam wars, millions of people.
The ruling class has no problem with violence--so long as it's deployed in its own interests. What it doesn't like is when ordinary people take a stand against oppression and violence.
A distinction should therefore be made between the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once wrote, "A slave owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains--let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!"
AMONG THOSE who genuinely hate fascism, some have made the case against the use of any force, even in self-defense, against fascists. For example, Julian Brave NoiseCat writes in an August 31 Guardian op-ed article, "Violent tactics, even if they are only deployed sparingly and defensively, undermine the resistance."
It isn't clear how defending ourselves against the violence of the far right would undermine us. Quite the contrary, what undermines us is what fascists thrive on: the ability to intimidate and instill terror as a means of controlling public spaces.
Heather Heyer took a stand against violent racism and xenophobia, and she paid the ultimate price. If it had been possible for someone, through the use of physical force, to stop the car that killed her, would that have been justified? Absolutely.
Those who say that, in principle, all violence is equal are saying something absurd: that the Jew who resists the concentration camp is the moral equivalent of the fascist who tries to put her there.
Violence does not necessarily degrade those who use it. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass believed that when escaped slaves used force to prevent a slave-catcher from forcibly returning them to bondage, they were helping to lift slaves up from both physical and mental bondage. On the contrary, for Douglass, it was the persistent lack of resistance in the face of unremitting oppression that had the most morally degrading effect on the oppressed.
Logan Rimel, a parish administrator at University Lutheran Chapel of Berkeley, who traveled to Charlottesville to bear witness to the far-right rally, wrote that the Antifa "protected a lot of people that day":
I've seen a lot of condemnation of "violent response," lots of selective quoting Dr. King, lots of disparagement of Antifa and the so-called "alt-left," a moral equivalency from the depths of Hell if I ever saw one. You want to be nonviolent? That is good and noble. I think...I do, too. But I want you to understand what you're asking of the people who take this necessary stance against white supremacy, the people who go to look evil in the face. You're asking them to be beaten with brass knuckles, with bats, with fists. To be pounded into the ground, stomped on, and smashed. You're asking them to bleed on the pavement and the grass. Some of them are going to die. And you're asking them to do that without defending themselves.
CERTAINLY THE police won't defend us against the violence of the far right. In all the recent confrontations, they have protected and defended fascists and "alt-right" forces, creating a protective cordon around them wherever they gather under the guise of defending their "free speech" rights. Meanwhile, various restrictions on free speech and assembly are imposed on progressives and leftists who oppose them.
In Charlottesville, the police and National Guard stood by and watched as heavily armed neo-Nazis harassed, attacked and, in at least one instance, shot at anti-fascist protesters. ProPublica's A.C. Thompson, who was in Charlottesville, reported about how, in a "scene that played out over and over," police "watched silently from behind an array of metal barricades" as:
an angry mob of white supremacists formed a battle line across from a group of counter-protesters, many of them older and gray-haired, who had gathered near a church parking lot. On command from their leader, the young men charged and pummeled their ideological foes with abandon. One woman was hurled to the pavement, and the blood from her bruised head was instantly visible.
According to Alan Zimmerman, president of the Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, police failed to provide guards when the synagogue requested it. Meanwhile, writes Zimmerman, "For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple."
Zimmerman reported that, "Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, 'There's the synagogue!' followed by chants of 'Sieg Heil' and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols."
At the anti-fascist protest of 4,000 in Berkeley last month--the one that prompted Nancy Pelosi's outburst against "Antifa"--the university, city and state police arrived in full force, clad in riot gear, erected concrete barricades around the planned protest site, deployed rooftop snipers, and banned everything from backpacks to fruit.
Police recklessly drove motorcycles through the rally space and attempted to block protesters from reaching Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, the site where the far right had intended to rally. The cops did nothing, moreover, to prevent a handful of far-right provocateurs from harassing the rally from beginning to end.
In Boston, police set up two sets of barricades and a cordon of officers to protect the far right protesters and safely escorted them away from their rally site in police prisoner transports, striking anti-fascist protesters with clubs to clear a path. According to the Intercept, the organizer of the right-wing rally, John Medlar, posted on his Facebook page that the Boston Police "literally saved our lives" and that he couldn't thank them enough.
You couldn't imagine a statement like that coming from Black Lives Matter protesters, May Day marchers or workers on a picket line. The lesson here is clear: We can't rely on the state to stop the far right. They are enablers of the rightists, and any tool we hand over willingly to them, ostensibly to stop the fascists, will be used against our side.
THAT DOESN'T mean that there are not important question regarding how best to organize against the rise of the far right. The disagreement with Black Bloc tactics articulated in previous SW articles is a disagreement over the best means of fighting the fascists, not a preference for pacifism versus violence.
The key to a successful fightback, as the counterdemonstrations in the Bay Area and Boston show, begins with the largest and broadest mobilization of all the forces repulsed by fascism--which represents the vast majority of the population. These mobilizations show tangibly that we will not be intimidated and create the political climate that makes the far right think twice about bringing out their forces.
Anti-fascism is reduced to a spectator sport if left to groups of masked, armed activists who do battle with groups of (usually better-) armed fascists.
What we do not need is the method that sees larger protests, in the words of one defender of Black Bloc tactics, Arlo Stone, as "incubation opportunities for [the] Black Bloc to form and destroy property." Mass protests should be seen as part of a broader assembly of forces to confront the fascists, not as a medium allowing Black Bloc the cover and anonymity to engage in a cat-and-mouse confrontation with police.
In the context of mass mobilization, we must be prepared to confront and defeat the fascists. But the defense of our organizations, our movements and our demonstrations should be a coordinated effort--and our side should be careful to distinguish between effective defense and the use of force and provocations that end up weakening our side.
To the extent that the struggle is limited to self-appointed street fighters, it discourages mass participation, an essential condition of our success. Successful confrontations will require larger forces and higher levels of planning and organization linked closely to much more substantial mobilizations.
The experience of Boston and the Bay Area show that we should be building the largest possible united front mobilizations that bring together students, workers, unions, anti-racist organizations, women's organizations and more--to challenge the fascists, outnumber them and drive them away.
This requires us doing a number of things. First, it requires systematic propaganda that exposes the "alt-right" white nationalists for who they really are and what they really stand for. (In the meantime, they will, unfortunately, also expose themselves with their violent acts, as they did in Charlottesville.)
Second, it requires being prepared and organized to defend our side against the violence of the far right.
Third, it requires building a political alternative that links the struggles of the oppressed with struggles of ordinary workers for economic justice and unites all the forces that stand to lose from the success of the far right--which is the vast majority of working-class, young and oppressed people in the United States.
Only in this way will we be able to create the conditions in which we can effectively defeat the fascists.